At Circuit Court, clerk transforms deed book pages to webpages

Dinwiddie quietly digitizes centuries of public records

By Sarah Vogelsong, Staff Writer

DINWIDDIE – Amid stacks of dusty, handwritten volumes stretching back more than 200 years, the Dinwiddie Circuit Court Clerk’s Office on any given weekday is hard at work shedding the familiar glow of the computer screen on the shadowy pages of history.

Since 1999, and now under the leadership of Circuit Court Clerk J. Barrett Chappell Jr., the Clerk’s Office has been quietly digitizing the thousands of records it contains, opening up vast troves of local information to the public.

“I look at it as, part of my responsibility is as keeper of the record, for our generation and future generations,” said Chappell.

Today, the list of archives the Circuit Court has made available online stretches from land tax records as far back as 1782, to Board of Supervisors meeting minutes from 1870 to 1960, to lists of all of the roads in the county in the late 19th century, to chancery, or civil, suit papers.

“I’m trying to get everything preserved,” said Chappell, who estimates that about half of the records the court maintains have been saved for the future through conservation and digitization efforts.

Preservation doesn’t come cheap, but Chappell and his predecessor, Annie L. Williams, have been proactive about securing funds from not only the county but also the Library of Virginia for this purpose.

The Library of Virginia in particular has channeled $325,310 to the county since 1999 as part of its Circuit Court Records Preservation Program, a statewide initiative created by the General Assembly in 1990. Funded through monies drawn from land record fees, this program has since 1992 awarded more than $18 million in grants to circuit courts across the commonwealth to assist in their preservation of land, marriage, court and other key documents.

“Virginia’s 120 circuit court clerk’s offices are a treasure trove of state and local history and contain some of the nation’s oldest and most vital legal records,” a 2012 film produced by the Library of Virginia on the program states. “However, these records are also under constant threat from natural and manmade disasters.”

Dinwiddie has experienced that threat firsthand. In the last year of the Civil War, most of the county’s existing court records were destroyed when Union troops ransacked the courthouse, although deed and will books, marriage registers and chancery order books have survived. (Although uncorroborated, the story that has been handed down, according to Chappell, is that the clerk in charge of the Circuit Court during the Civil War squirreled away some of the volumes in his own home but was unable to finish the job in time.)

Apart from catastrophic events, however, time may be the greatest threat historic records face. In Dinwiddie, Chappell and his staff have sought to combat the inevitable degradation of records through conservation grants: of the $325,310 the county has received for preservation efforts, almost half, or $155,979, has gone toward conservation efforts.

One representative project, funded by a $22,000 Library of Virginia grant, conserved the county’s deed books from 1914 to 1919. Not only were these records “the only record of land transactions in the county for the specific time period,” the grant application submitted by the Clerk’s Office pointed out, but the condition of the books was extremely poor: “Bindings are worn, rotted, and detached. Numerous pages are loose, crumbled, torn and contain tape.”

While land records may be the most valuable historical records the Circuit Court stores, its shelves also bear more unusual collections from the past.

The WPA Historical Inventory, for example, offers a close-up look of what the county was like in the Great Depression. The Guardian Book records from 1844 to 1865 preserve the arrangements that were made to ensure that orphans within Dinwiddie were cared for.

Both of those collections have been digitized and are publicly available. But others, like the commitment records for Central State patients and the record of remains removed from cemeteries located on the land where Fort Pickett now sits, still exist only in physical form.

All of these records have their uses. Some, said Chappell, are used by businesses looking at properties and people seeking to transfer land titles. The office gets “a fair amount” of general researchers interested in history. And genealogy enthusiasts are attracted by the range of tools available to them through the Circuit Court.

As Deputy Clerk Kelly LeBlanc said, “It’s like a treasure hunt. It’s almost a mystery.”