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Virginia Courthouses: Wellsprings of Democracy

Editors’ note: This article originally appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of the CCRP Newsletter.

 

Elwood Street, undated. A long history of collaboration exists between the Library of Virginia and the state’s city and county circuit court clerks on the preservation of their records. In the early 1970s these preservation efforts became more formalized with the establishment of the Library’s Local Records Branch, and even more so in the early 1990s with the creation of the Circuit Court Records Preservation Program.

Over the years, several people have conducted surveys of the circuit court clerks’ offices across the state for various reasons. Some are more well-known than others, such as those performed by state archivist Morgan P. Robinson in the 1910s–1920s and by Local Records Branch director Connis Brown in the early 1970s. Less known are informal surveys conducted by Elwood Vickers Street (1890–1978), a Richmond social worker. Street was a competent writer and a regular contributor to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. In 1941 and 1942, he wrote a regular column chronicling his courthouse visits, which was published in the paper on Sundays. Entitled “Wellsprings of Democracy in Virginia,” the series covered the historical significance of the localities he surveyed, with an emphasis on the public buildings and, in particular, the courthouses and the status of their records.

Exactly what prompted Street to write these lengthy essays is unknown. The Ohio native had only been in Virginia for a couple of years when he began documenting his courthouse visits. In September 1942, after 54 courthouse surveys, he abandoned his trips, citing tire and gas rationing, as well as wartime work pressures that limited his free time for travel. Before he resigned his position in 1943, Street was the director of both the Richmond War and Community Fund and the Richmond Community Council.

We are fortunate to have his contribution to the history of the courthouses, the circuit court clerks’ offices, and the maintenance of the court records. Street routinely noted the ongoing preservation efforts at the courthouses he visited. On a visit to the Dinwiddie County clerk’s office he mentioned a 1784–1791 common law order book that had been removed and defaced by a Union solder during the Civil War. After its return to the courthouse, the volume had been “handsomely restored by the Colonel John Banister Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution of Petersburg.”[1]

Street didn’t mind commenting on the clerks themselves, as he did on his visit to the Middlesex County Courthouse, where he described the “light-haired, thin-faced, blue-eyed” county clerk C. W. Eastman, who sat behind his desk in the west end of the record-filled room, “with a constantly filled cigarette holder.” Eastman noted that the records dated from 1675, and that the older ones had been restored at the State Library and were being stored there for safekeeping. With those volumes retired, Eastman offered photostatic copies for use by the public in the records room.[2]

Albemarle County circuit court clerk Eva W. Maupin was one of Virginia’s few women county clerks.She showed Street a 1744–1748 order book that had been “beautifully restored and heavily bound in canvas at the State Library in Richmond.” The clerk boasted that they spent $500 to $600 annually to have their old record books restored. [3]

With a “high forehead, gray hair, brown eyes and goldrimmed glasses,” Henrico County circuit court clerk M. W. Puller led Street down a hall, “lined with old records books and roller shelves and steel voucher files, to the high ceilinged record room,” which took up the back of the 1896 courthouse. The clerk showed Street some 1780s record books, but noted that the pre-Revolutionary books had been removed to the State Library in 1919.[4]

In the Warwick County records room, clerk George S. Deshazor Jr. shared a photostatic copy of a 1748–1762 minute book with Street. The original book, which had been lost during the Civil War, was later found, returned, and restored by the Newport News Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Board of Supervisors of Warwick County. The original was kept in the vault in the clerk’s office and “only brought out for very special occasions.” [5]

Lancaster County clerk O. B. Chilton was a “sturdy man with heavy black hair that recedes toward the crown of his head before the onslaught of an ever-heightening forehead.” Chilton boasted that their records were complete from 1652, and that he had recently had five volumes conserved, with others at the State Library, in the process of restoration. The clerk then showed Street a 1652 court order, deed, and will book that had been “restored magnificently.”[6]

Lawrence B. Mason had been the clerk of King George County since 1917 when he met Street in August 1941. Street noted that the county’s records were complete, except for one will book that was “carried off by the Yankees during the War Between the States.” The rest of the records survived because the clerk hid them in “the old tavern which still stands across the highway.” Mason, too, was working to preserve his records by conserving and then storing them at the State Library in Richmond, for safekeeping. The clerk was providing photostatic copies to replace those that had been retired.[7]

“Blond, well-built” Northumberland County circuit court clerk Henry M. Walker stored records dating back to the county’s founding in 1648 in a fireproof vault. The originals up to 1750 had been transferred to the Virginia State Library, and access to those that had been retired was being offered in “photostatic forms.”[8]

In his final article, entitled “County Courthouses in Review,” Street noted, “Many of the ancient record books have been most ingeniously restored, by splitting the old linen pages, and interleaving and covering them either with thin silk, or with cellophane, and then binding them in new covers. This work has been done by patriotic and historical organizations, by service clubs, and by the counties themselves.”[9]

 

–Eddie Woodward, Senior Local Records Consulting Archivist


[1] Elwood Street, “History Rolls Over Dinwiddie, Richmond Times-Dispatch, May 24, 1942.

[2] Elwood Street, “Historic Middlesex County Courthouse,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, December 5, 1941.

[3] Elwood Street, “Albemarle’s Courthouse,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, November 23, 1941.

[4] Elwood Street, “Henrico County Sets Example,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, September 6, 1942.

[5] Elwood Street, “Old Warwick is Little Changed by Time,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, July 26, 1942.

[6] Elwood Street, “Old Lancaster County Looks to Future,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, April 26, 1942.

[7] Elwood Street, “The Nape of the Northern Neck,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, May 10, 1942.

[8] Elwood Street, “Old Northumberland,” April 19, 1942.

[9] Elwood Street, “County Courthouses in Review,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, September 13, 1942.

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2 Comments

  1. Martha Dillard said:
    10 April 2019 at 9:56 am

    Thank you

  2. Joanne Yeck said:
    10 April 2019 at 10:10 am

    Terrific post! Love the camera club!

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