History you can touch

County courthouse vault holds records of Alpena’s past

News Photo by Julie Riddle Handwritten charters of area organizations fill stately, leather-bound books, cracked with age but still protecting the documents that helped shape Alpena County.

ALPENA–In the bowels of the Alpena courthouse, history neatly lines the shelves of a quiet storage room. Names and dates in elegant, days-gone-by penmanship bear witness that, long ago, in this place, other lives were once lived.

The official keeper of records for the county, Alpena County Clerk Bonnie Friedrichs oversees the basement vault where paperwork from since the city was born is protected and preserved. Locked behind a thick metal door, the documents and books safeguard stories of births and deaths, marriages and divorces, beginnings and endings, and the living in between.

The newer documents reside in manila file folders on movable shelves that glide silently along a track. Older papers, dated 1947, 1925, 1870, stand vertically, tidily tri-folded, in slim metal drawers that line one wall.

In some of the drawers, court files — civil, criminal, chancery — tell of land disputes, cruelty to a child, squabbles between brothers. Other drawers cradle the names of infants, birth records of bundles of joy who have long since grown and died and passed into the past.

Some drawers unite young couples in the bonds of holy matrimony, holding the hands of Mr. and Mrs. and their witnesses as they scrawl their names on the marriage license before climbing into wagons and heading joyously back to their homes in the far corners of the not-yet-tamed county.

“Burned court records,” a drawer label reads. Scorched corners mar the court documents that escaped the full flames of the fire that leveled the first county courthouse in 1870, and the second fire that swept over the building in 1932, back in the days when a white fence embraced the property to keep cows from grazing on the courthouse lawn.

The crisp, time-colored papers, with their black edges, are carefully filed, their perpetual preservation the legal duty of the county clerk.

No document goes uncared for in the courthouse basement. Oversized, leather-and-gold-bound books clasp turn-of-the-century documents: military discharge records of flat-capped soldiers sent home with honors from the Civil War. Articles of incorporation for nonprofits, written by earnest committees penning their place in the community. Doing-business-as filings for hopeful new businesses, some of them still holding their heads up on today’s streetsides, others long ago bowing in defeat.

Several large volumes reach into Alpena’s lumbering past, their pages full of sketches of the brands used by loggers to mark their trees before sending them floating and bumping down the Thunder Bay River.

Freidrichs gingerly unfolds a marriage license affidavit, peeks into drawers of century-old birth records, runs a hand along a row of age-worn, cloth-covered books of handwritten meeting minutes and results of elections of candidates pledging change.

All the stories are in place, efficiently catalogued and cross-indexed and findable, waiting to be wanted.

Most of the time, behind the thick, closed door, the files wait quietly in the dark, holding stories that will never again be told. Once in a while, though, someone comes looking for the past. Drawers are opened, papers unfolded, books gently perused, fingertips touching the lettering written by some living, breathing person 150 years backward in history.

Today, births and marriages and court decisions are all computerized, digitally preserved in a cloud instead of a basement. Efficiency is key, and technology is king, protecting paperwork from fire and flood by keeping information safely out of reach of the passage of time.

“It’s kind of sad,” Friedrichs said, reminiscing about 40 years of researching her own family genealogy in the courthouse vaults, black-inked handwriting bearing tangible witness of lives gone by. “You can see it, you can touch it.

“What is it going to be in the future,” she pondered, “somebody gives you a thumb drive?”