If private property is the foundation of our nation and its economy, there may be no better place to see it at ground level than in a registry of deeds, where records of real estate transactions are kept. The offices and rooms that house the documents offer a step back in history with their collections of oversized, dusty, heavy books and their card files of grantors and grantees (legalese for sellers and buyers) to ease tracing of ownership. Here one can find thousands of transactions which, taken together represent the legal underpinnings of our society. Separately, each deed tells a story and represents one of life’s milestones. The entries speak of hope and promise, of failure and tragedy of our forebears.
Admittedly, my sample size for registries is small – just two. But, if either of the Berkshire registries I’ve visited is any indication, there is no need for a time capsule. Crossing the threshold into these offices will suffice: they are housed in old buildings themselves with high ceilings, wooden floors and “scary” downstairs bathrooms, as one staff person told me. Hundreds of volumes are stacked either in floor-to-ceiling shelves or under stand-up counters upon which the books can be heaved and opened and studied. Each of the shelves has a roller at the edge to allow for easy access and maintenance of these volumes. The older tall shelving includes a bicycle-chain like contraption so they can be raised and lowered. Out of place are the occasional computer terminal and photo-copy machine that remind visitors that this is, after all, the 21st century.
The books themselves tell a story of innovation and change, but also of permanence. Now, of course, records are kept digitally as well as in books that are half the size of the pre-1970 variety – easily a foot and a half in length, a foot wide and three inches thick, representing 600-plus pages. At one time, the deeds were photocopied for these books, and even earlier they were individually typed with carbon paper. Prior to the 1920s, the deeds were each written out by hand, stirring images of Melville’s Bartleby facing a mountain of documents to carefully and neatly transcribe all day long. Over the almost two hundred years these oversized volumes have gone through periods of metal bindings and then transferred to hard leather and cardboard bindings rendering the documents they house safe from mishandling. Most are covered in a heavy, course fabric which shows the wear of use – the stains and spills and the rips.
The legal language remains surprisingly consistent over the past 100 plus years – warrants and grants, easements and quitclaims, and privileges and appurtenances. Likewise, a description of a property transferred that was surveyed in the 1800s carries over into this century, explaining that the property begins at a certain pipe adjacent or “thence easterly on the South line of land of said Bracewell heirs, 66 feet to a stake and stones.” Sometime the measurements are precise; other times they reflect bygone ways of measuring using rods and links, and still other times they are perilously vague and general.
Still, earlier social norms are hard to hide. There is a whole slew of deeds from the 1800s all the way up to the 1950s that announce in bold calligraphy at the top of the page: “Know all Men by these Presents” which by the sensibilities of 2014 sounds jarring in itself, but even more so when both the buyer and the seller are women. That is more common than one might imagine, given the prohibitions against voting and other social participation. For married couples back into the 1800s, it seems that wives insisted that the property be in both names. When only one name was given it was not unusual that it was the wife’s. If this was to protect against creditors going after debtors’ property, women stepped forward again to insist that any stupid financial decisions taken by the men in the family would not cause irredeemable harm.
It’s hard, though, not to see each transfer of ownership as a landmark event in each of these individuals’ lives. There are real estate tycoons who owned large tracts of multiple properties and sold off individual parcels; there is a surprising amount of stability in some neighborhoods, where families owned the house for decades, and then passed it on to their children. In others, there are sales every few years. The fluctuations in the economy are reflected in the housing prices so that it was not uncommon to see home prices higher in the early 1900s than in the 1930s. The saddest are the references to foreclosures or seizures by banks and courts and even sheriffs, more often than expected. This seems to take place just a few years after the purchase, leaving the impression that their ability to make house payments was limited even as they were buying the home.
Most people in these books are local, but I have seen sellers from Washington DC and Washington state, from Illinois and Idaho and Ohio and even one from London. There are a few investors, including one J. Walter Thompson from New York City, the advertising pioneer who came from Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The names also reflect the waves of immigrants that came to this part of Massachusetts, from Quebec and Ireland, Italy and Poland, and now Latin America. The Minnies and Leocadies and Annabelles have been replaced by Laurens and Jessicas and Christophers.
Each entry has a story, enough for a novel perhaps. Take but one entry, that of one deed from the Veterans Administration, to a man, presumably young, at the end of World War II. The VA had acquired the home following a foreclosure and turned it over, most likely to a veteran, recently married since the deed includes her maiden name. Both were from North Adams, so they could have met in high school on the eve of the war and kept up a correspondence through the war years. He had to have been young when they bought the house, since he passed away in 1987, forty years in the same house with his sweetheart. She hired a lawyer to place her house in a trust, to protect her largest asset, (again speculating) in the event her medical bills exceeded her ability to pay. This is the lived experience of veterans being rewarded for their service in a previous generation or the state of medical care in this century whose rising costs threaten a lifetime’s savings. Add to this story their children, the jobs, the neighbors and the vicissitudes of life in western Massachusetts with factory closings and 4th of July parades and winter storms. Where is Norman Rockwell?
And that’s just one couple, one of what must be hundreds of thousands of names tucked away in these books. Step back in time and find a story.