Bringing county records into the modern age

There’s a lot of Champaign County history in the oversized record books at the Brookens Center in Urbana.  Mark Shelden, as the elected Recorder of Deeds is responsible for all of them.

Anything to do with land records, deeds, mortgages, liens, subdivision plats, and surveys are recorded in his office.    This detailed documentation reflects the importance of land ownership in our system of government.  Respecting the rights of the landowner and certainly of ownership is an important aspect of the American way of life, Shelden pointed out.  “It is one of those things we take for granted,” he said, “but when you guaranteed ownership of a piece of land and can prove who owns it, that is a foundational aspect of our republic.  It doesn’t work that way in parts of the rest of the world.  You can’t get a loan or do business if you are not sure if someone will take it away from you.”

There were 25,000 deeds recorded last year in his office, Sheldon said.  They have improved the system over the years so deeds contain a legal description, the name of the owner and a physical description.  It’s the redundancy that makes sure no deeds ever get lost in the system, he explained.  That kind of redundancy is lacking in the older records, which are stored in bound books in the deeds and records room at the Brookens Center.

Most people never set foot in the deeds room, which holds books of records going as far back as 1832, when the county was first founded.   Deeds record the transfer of ownership of a property and any liens that might exist.   All have a number and are classified and indexed in master books. 

After the 1960s, records were stored in digital formats, but before that, there are physical copies.  Researching the history of a property is the purview of the title companies, for the most part, and real estate investors.   The most common use of the deeds room is to ensure that no liens exist on a property in the distant past.  For commercial properties, title companies will research a property’s history as far back as 100 years, said Shelden.  “When you have a $10 million dollar apartment complex going up, you want assurance that all the liens are satisfied,” he said.

“We work with the title companies,” he said.  “We are part of the process.  They want to make sure that a person has full right to sell a property to someone else.”

Title companies want to get all the information they can, since if there is a mistake, they are responsible for paying off any old liens that might show up unexpectedly, explained Shelden.  Title insurance will pay for these mistakes, but they would prefer it all be in order before the property is sold.  “It’s not easy to do a title search much farther back than 40 years or so,” Shelden said.  “Title company researchers would go back further if it was easier.”

As fascinating as all those old beautifully hand-written records might be to history buffs, Shelden wants to bring them all into the modern age so they are more accessible to those who need to reference them.

Currently, the deed research process takes some ingenuity and strong arms, since in-depth searching for records before computers were in use requires consulting an index book and then finding the actual deed or other documentation in oversized bound volumes.   Many of the books are in a database, but it is the whole book (most are a few hundred pages), which takes a very long time to load on a computer screen, and then a person has to read through it to find what they need. 

Shelden plans to change all that in the next few years, hopefully before his term ends.  He wants to make title searches more accurate and faster, which will be a benefit to any property buyer.  Shelden has launched an ambitious project to digitize all the records, make create file sections rather than displaying whole books, and in time allow access through a web portal that will be searchable with multiple vectors.

He is starting with the 1960s and working backwards, he said.

He is working with one employee for the task, Christopher Jellen, who is creating Excell spreadsheets recording each document in the old books so Shelden can eventually join the microfilm and the physical copy in the database.   Jellen notes the document number and the number of pages it contains on the spreadsheet so Shelden can accurately add it to his database later.   The goal is to have a document a person would physically have to check in one of those unwieldy books now digitized and searchable.   On the day of this visit, Jellen was currently working on book 830, which holds records from August 9-17, 1966 and is 723 pages.  He can do two books a day, he said.  “There are always more documents in the summer months,” he noted.  “This book has 100 documents for one date.”

Jellen is a very careful worker, said Shelden.  It seems so.  Jellen brought in a pillow from his couch at home to place under the cover of the books while he works on them.  “The pillow holds it up so I won’t break the spine,” he explained.  “This is important work. In many cases, these are the only documents that are easily found.”  Some documents have unclear record numbers or other anomalies so it makes his job of human scrutiny necessary.  “The problem documents make it interesting,” he said.   Jellen marks the documents that are unclear and double-checks with Shelden to make sure they are indexed correctly.

Along with deeds, contracts and mortgage records there is an entire history of Champaign County in the deeds room.  The older records are transcribed in beautiful calligraphy, as was the custom when clerks used pen and ink.   Leases, easements and sales transactions all tell a story about how the county grew over the years.  There is a book that holds records about draft horse stallions that stood in Champaign County at the turn of the last century, before there were tractors that replaced the need for a horse-drawn plow.    The ghosts of Percherons, Shires and Belgians prance across the pages.   Perhaps some of the horses plowing fields around Arthur are descended from them. 

Another book recorded official farm names.  Shelden said it’s unclear why people needed to record a specific name for a farm in Champaign County, but it is recorded. There was a Shadeland Farm and a Corn Belt Farm, long gone now.  The last recorded farm name was registered with the recorder’s office in 1982.

Digital records will make things easier and more efficient for the title companies, but for those who like to remember the past, the records room is always available with the history of Champaign County ready for those who want to uncover its secrets.

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