Preserving History

MAYVILLE – Regardless of where one might live in Chautauqua County, centuries of history are always nearby.

In early October, a fire in Castile, N.Y. destroyed a 130-year-old building which housed the village’s public records and historical artifacts.

Though some records were salvaged from the fire, a majority of them were completely lost, essentially erasing a portion of the village’s recorded history.

Though the building didn’t house anything which was critical to our history as a nation, on a local level, the loss was devastating. To many who are not native to Castile, the fire served as a wake-up call: disaster doesn’t discriminate between what is valuable and what is not.

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In Chautauqua, the majority of the county’s public records are kept in a sub-basement at the county building in Mayville. Michelle Henry, the county historian, oversees many of these records and does everything in her power to keep them preserved indefinitely.

“(Chautauqua County) recently celebrated its bicentennial, and in that time, we’ve never had a record destroying disaster like so many other towns and villages have,” said Henry. “The fire in Castile was especially devastating because both the village and the town’s records were housed in the same building. It’s efficient to store records in that manner, but when a disaster hits, you risk losing everything.”

The county, with help from Henry, has taken a multitude of precautions to ensure that no disaster will wipe out the county’s local records the way the Castile fire did.

According to Henry, the most important step to safeguarding local records is separating necessary records from unnecessary ones.

“We started writing grants in 1997 to help us deal with thousands and thousands of cubic feet of records that were not protected well,” said Henry. “We did not have a dedicated space for them – there were records (lying all over), so we recognized that we had no control over (the records). If someone wanted to take something, it would have been easy to do. So we started working to identify all the records we had and where they were located, and we found a large number of things that could be destroyed by the state’s retention schedule. That’s an important part of record management – recognizing when a record no longer has legal or fiscal value, then destroying it, because it allows you to keep better track of the important records.

“In 2006, we were finally able to secure space in the sub-basement in the Gerace building,” continued Henry. “We have standard baked-enamel shelving, which is what is recommended. Everything is boxed and identified, and it’s the only part of our complex that has an emergency sprinkler system. I’m very comfortable with where the records are now, and I don’t think I could say that before. There is fire, heat and humidity detectors which are always active. The floors have water detectors, so if we were to experience an influx of water, an alarm would go off. There are very few people in the complex that have access to that area, so it’s safe (from people).”

However, because most of the records which are stored in Mayville are public, they need to be accessible as well, which can be a problem if they are stored too securely. To this purpose, another important step in record keeping is digitized old records.

“For protection, it is critical for a lot of the records to be digital,” said Henry. “For things that have frequent access – if it’s a paper record, only one person can use it at a time. If a record is digital, there is no limit to how many people can access it at one time. Well over 3 million pages of court records have been digitized. I would say there are even more digital land records. … Many of the records which have not been digitized have been converted to microfilm which is stored off location, so almost all of our records have many avenues of recovery in the event of a disaster.”

And though there has never been such a disaster as the Castile fire in Mayville, a fire in Dunkirk in 2010 destroyed many important city records.

“The fire in the Dunkirk office building – I think that demonstrated how severely departments can be affected by loss of records,” said Henry. “There were files on (people’s) desks that they left there when they left work that day – lots of things that couldn’t be recovered. Luckily it wasn’t absolutely catastrophic, but it makes it easy to realize how devastating something like that would have been if it happened here in Mayville instead.”

Record keeping, however, has come a long way since the days where William Peacock kept the county’s records in a stone vault next to his house. Just for fun, Henry told the story of the farmers’ revolt of 1836.

“The Holland Land Company wasn’t making as much of a profit on the sale of the land as they wanted, and the company tried to renegotiate the terms so folks would have to start paying on their contracts,” said Henry. “The local folks tried to deal with the land company, but the company wasn’t willing to change the new policy. People thought they were going to lose their land, so they conspired to do something about it. Several farmers met in Hartfield in 1836 and planned to storm Peacock’s stone vault and burn the records, so the Holland Land Company wouldn’t have any record of what farmers owed what debt. Peacock had been alerted about the mob … and escaped to Donald McKenzie’s house. The mob had stolen the ledger books back to Hartfield and burned them, but they either didn’t destroy all the records, or they didn’t destroy the right records, so the raid was essentially futile.”

As the story goes, the Holland Land Company kept duplicate records at its headquarters in Batavia, which goes to show that even close to 200 years ago, archivists understood the importance of keeping multiple copies of records.

“As interesting as the story is, what gets forgotten is how important that raid was in bringing William Seward to Chautauqua,” said Henry. “Without that raid, maybe Peacock doesn’t leave his post, and maybe Seward doesn’t take over the land office. It’s all an incredible part of our history, and one that sometimes is forgotten.”