Doreen Aldrich lifts an unassuming red book from the top of a towering steel grey storage shelf.
The Town Clerk of Rockingham descends the rolling safety ladder past shelves lined with leather-bound book, the titles and dates stamped on their neat — and sometimes crumpled — spines.
The town vault that houses the municipal records for the Town of Rockingham and the Village of Bellows Falls compresses nearly 300 years of history into a timeline that can be measured by shelving.
On a wooden table outside the vault door, Aldrich carefully turns back the book’s cover to reveal a grid of land plots edged on the east by the Connecticut River. Within the boundaries of the largest plot, surveyor Caleb Willard wrote: “Governor Wentworth Farm, 500 acres.”
Aldrich explains that the handwritten survey plan, circa 1753, was Rockingham’s first:
“It’s amazing what we have in our vaults.”
On the surface, town clerks keep records. But the meaning of their work runs deeper.
Aldrich supposes the ink scrawled across the pages of the red-leather book is iron gall. The ink has burned through the paper here and there. Time has gnawed the original pages’ edges.
She turns the page. The book has undergone a preservation process to de-acidify the ink and paper. A protective cellophane encapsulates the 18th century pages. They feel like linen.
Eighteenth century cursive tumbles and swoops as Aldrich flips through the red-leather bound book. Darkened calligraphy boldly conveys the important information readers were suppose to not forget: Rockingham, Benning Wentworth, God, In Testimony, America.
Large script stands tall and bold in proclaiming a king’s decision:
Province of New Hampshire.......
George the Second by the grace of God of Great Brittain France and Ireland King Defender of the Faith etc.........
To all persons to whom these Presents shall come Greeting_________
Know ye that we of our Especial Grace contain Knowledge and mere motion for the due Encouragement
Of settling a new Plantation within our said Province By and with the Advice of our trusting and well beloved. Benning Wentworth, Esq., our Governor and commander in Cheif of our said Province of New Hampshire in America.
Property-transfer documents are important, says Aldrich: “They’re the only way to get a true record of one’s property.”
Rockingham, like many other Vermont towns chartered between 1749 and 1764, was part of Benning Wentworth’s land grants. Gov. Wentworth wanted to expand his territory, the Province of New Hampshire.
Setting aside the fact that some Abenaki and other First Nations peoples still called the area west of the Connecticut River home, or that some Massachusetts speculators had established settlements, or that New York had eyed the land as well, Wentworth claimed most of what is now Vermont for New Hampshire.
The price of a good smoke
In Brattleboro, Town Clerk Annette Cappy enters the town’s records vault.
“As you can see, we’re running out of space,” she says.
Cappy opens a legal-size file folder revealing a weathered brown envelope and blue-lined white paper. Two deep-blue ribbons, creased flat from years of storage, barely hold together the pile of pages.
Tight cursive in a more conservative style than Wentworth’s land grant marches across the page.
“We don’t know what happened to our original land grant,” said Cappy.
The land grant in Brattleboro’s vault is a handwritten copy dated 1869.
The copy starts the same as Rockingham’s land grant. The final page, however, bears a seal from the New Hampshire Secretary of State’s Office and the signature of Deputy Secretary of State Nathan W. Gove.
Brattleboro’s vault occupies two levels in the Municipal Center. The ground floor holds mostly land records and vital records, the official documentation of births, adoptions, marriages, divorces, and deaths.
The basement level houses Grand Lists, more land records, copies of state statutes, town directories, and register books listing Civil War recruits.
Cappy and Assistant Town Clerk Jane E. Fletcher keep a notebook listing records they’ve uncovered that strike a peculiar tone for the modern ear, such as a 1872 deed stipulating, “It is understood and agreed that said Grantee shall not sell said premises to an Irishman for the term of six years without the consent of said Grantor.”
One vital record that has captured Cappy’s attention is a cancelled marriage license from 1927.
Horton Winter Reed and Ruth Freeman requested a marriage license on Nov. 12 of that year. Cappy flips the license over, revealing that the back of the form is blank — this couple chose not to marry.
Accompanying the license is a telegram Horton Winter Reed sent from Providence, R.I., Nov. 16: “Cancel marriage license application and buy yourself a smoke.”
“So, a marriage license was once the price of a good smoke,” joked Cappy.
According to Cappy, the town, which preserves 153,222 vital records, has saved time and money because Fletcher “loves a challenge” and has created cataloging programs that allowed the department to index records.
“If you don’t find a vital record in our index, we don’t have it,” she said.
From a larger envelope, Cappy withdraws a brittle notebook with scuffed edges. The front page has worn away from the fragile spine and taken on a rusty shade, making iron ore cursive difficult to decipher.
Carefully, Cappy opens the little notebook. Here are the town’s meeting notes from 1768 to 1781.
A century later, another clerk transcribed the notes, said Cappy, turning to the page in the sturdy, leather-bound town record book.
Cappy contracts with ACS Enterprise Solutions, a subsidiary of Xerox, to digitize and maintain land records. The company acts as a third party in digitizing the records, maintaining the online database, leasing equipment, and handling copying fees.
An ACS employee recently spent two weeks photographing 900 maps in the town’s vault. More maps need digitizing, said Cappy.
The ACS property records are archived from 1962 to present, and town land maps go as far back as 1857. The digital files can be accessed from a link at the Town Clerk Land Records section of the Brattleboro municipal website.
Although title searches generally require researching back 40 years, in some cases a search must go back as far as the land records exist.
Preserving records weighs on Cappy’s mind. State statute requires some records, like Grand Lists, be held in perpetuity.
Working with ACS gives Cappy peace of mind. Between records she has sent to ACS and ones she has sent to the state archives in Middlesex, she has offsite backup of almost all of the town’s land records if disaster strikes.
Cappy pulls a Grand List from 1799 from another pile of records. Despite an attempt at preservation from before her time, the pages are crumbling.
The challenge, she said, is that preservation is expensive, and technology keeps changing.
All of the town’s land records have been preserved onto microfilm, which seems to be the most stable technology, said Cappy.
As Cappy leads a visitor to the basement section of the vault, she apologizes: “I’m a little embarrassed to show you the downstairs.”
Now she points out a third challenge: a section of crumbling wall. Of her efforts at reorganizing, she says, “I’m in limbo.” She explains that the Municipal Center’s foundation suffered a water leak in recent years.
Although the foundation was repaired and the leak was stopped on the outside, the inside wall was not repaired. There were funds for the fix in this year’s budget, but the repair work was deferred to save money.
Given the budget’s defeat in a town-wide vote last month and the corresponding budget cuts under consideration by the Selectboard, Cappy says she holds out little hope the wall will be repaired any time soon.
And preservation takes money. Cappy recently sent eight books containing death certificates from 1907 and 1908 out for preservation. The invoice arrived promptly by e-mail: $6,000.
The town does not charge a fee for researchers to access land maps online but it does charge $10 a page to print or copy land maps. Of that, $2 per page feeds a preservation fund.
Under state statute, town clerks can establish a preservation fund specifically for preserving records. Cappy said she lets the fund grow until it contains enough money to complete the next round of records preservation.
According to Cappy, the 900 maps ACS recently digitized cost $10,000.
“I’ve gotten a lot done in 25 years but there’s still a lot to do,” she said.
Cappy said she hopes people understand that public records are important: “This is their history.”
From rods and chains to aerial photos
About 10 miles from Brattleboro’s vault, the town of Marlboro possesses some fragile documentation of its own beginnings: a record of its first Benning Wentworth land rights, signed by King George II of Great Britain in April 1751.
King George II and his grandson, King George III, authorized two separate land grants for Marlboro thanks to Wentworth, who sold off land also claimed by New York.
The document depicts 64 parcels, said Marlboro Town Clerk Forrest Holzapfel.
Holzapfel wears many hats: town clerk, lister, and president of the historical society. He served as assistant town clerk for five years before taking the reins 18 months ago from Town Clerk Nora Wilson.
Speculators bought the land from Wentworth sight-unseen, Holzapfel said. They would make the arduous journey north from Connecticut or Massachusetts to find they’d bought a swamp.
Because the land was never settled, the 1751 land grant became null in September 1761 after King George III ordered a second land grant.
Survey maps, in all their detail, capture Forrest Holzapfel’s interest the most, he said. They highlight how technology and people’s relationship to the land have changed. In the 1760s, for example, surveyors marked out plots by dragging rods and chains into the wilderness.
Today, landowners receive aerial photographs incorporating plot lines, Holzapfel says.
According to Holzapfel, survey maps from the early 1900s in Marlboro’s vault were made of linen. He describes these as beautiful, then adds that many parcels were owned by timber companies.
The land is “rocky and bony,” not great for farming, he said.
Over the centuries, Marlboro’s land parcels have been divided and subdivided into approximately 750 parcels.
Listers set the value of property every year, and the state uses these values to set the property tax rate.
According to Holzapfel, taxes were once levied on land and some personal property. Listers once recorded the number of animals a family owned and, oddly, the number of clocks.
Marlboro was a backwater for a long time, he said. The population peaked at 1,400 in 1840.
According to Holzapfel, about 200 people lived in Marlboro when Marlboro College was founded in 1946. Approximately 1,000 people call the town home now.
Working from home when town government was smaller
A number of Marlboro’s older records have undergone a preservation process thanks to Nora Wilson, the previous town clerk.
Some of the documents Wilson preserved included land records damaged by fire at a town clerk’s home in 1946, said Holzapfel.
Until the 1970s, town clerks in smaller towns often worked from their homes, he said.
Town clerks spend much of their work day solving problems on their feet, he said. It’s a dynamic job.
Marlboro’s town vault holds 58 land record books, 200 survey maps, and many upon many Grand Lists — and that’s just the property-related records.
The vault is temperature-controlled to preserve the paper records.
Archiving digital records is a “new ball of wax,” he said, expressing concern that a specific technology used to digitize or archive records will still be around in 10 years.
For example, he said, people stored a lot of information on compact disc in the early 2000s, but CDs melt at 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Paper is more stable, he said: it doesn’t burn until 450 degrees.
Holzapfel describes the town clerk position as “the hub and wheel of government.”
“I know the lore of the clerks of this town,” he said.
Deeds started as handwritten documents written by the buyer and seller, said Holzapfel. For more than 200 years town clerks transcribed these documents into town record books.
To Holzapfel, these handwritten documents feel more personal than modern, computer-generated forms. He has leafed through records kept by a former clerk, E.P. Adams, who served Marlboro in the early 1900s. After Adams retired, his son took over the position.
Holzapfel admits his observations aren’t factual but he notices Adams’ handwriting growing shakier as he grew older.
And the handwritten records stand in contrast to the norms of today’s municipal realities, with the mortgage and land documents passing across Holzapfel’s desk now digitized and “boilerplate.”
It’s possible sometimes to track a person’s life in a small town by assembling a birth certificate, marriage license, land records, and death certificate.
“It’s mostly facts,” Holzapfel said of the documents under his care, in his turn. “And life is not just facts.”