This article from Sunday’s Fort Worth Star-Telegram:
Posted Sunday, Mar. 04, 2012
By Steve Campbell
FORT WORTH — Getting busted for “keeping a disorderly house” sounds harsh, but it was a seemingly common crime 135 years ago in Tarrant County.
One quick dip into a box of 1877 criminal court records from Fort Worth dredged up an assortment of aggravated assaults, a hog theft, gambling infractions and seven “disorderly house” cases.
But dirty dishes and dust bunnies weren’t the reason men and women were fined $100 to $225; they were keeping house for “the purpose of public prostitution and a common resort for prostitutes.”
Those documents are among the 8 million or so pages of sometimes unexplored historic gems that are stored in the Tarrant County Archives, a 9,000-square-foot repository of everything from Elvis Presley’s signature to a teacher’s frontier journal and school kids’ dioramas to more than 500 special collections.
In archival terms, it’s history by the linear foot, a measure of storage space for documents. Or think of it as stacking pages one atop another and building a paper pile 3,316 feet tall.
The holdings include thousands of photographs, maps, subject files, biographical dossiers and extensive records from the Tarrant County Historical Commission, archivist Dawn Youngblood said.
The early gaps in the collection illustrate the combustible nature of the historic realm that the archives aim to preserve — most of Tarrant County’s oldest records were destroyed by a courthouse fire in 1876.
Of course, there are millions of pages of public records for criminal and civil courts and the genealogical trinity of official life events: births, marriages and deaths.
But what gives the archives a sense of place is that most of the holdings were rounded up by local folks who were often single-mindedly focused on narrow topics ranging from baseball and railroad pamphlets to Montgomery Ward catalogs — the only known complete set.
“It’s a fascinating record of this place. Our job is to keep what happened in Tarrant County at home in Tarrant County,” said Youngblood, who 12 years ago shifted from digging through dirt as an archaeologist to sifting through history’s paper path.
Looking high and low
In some cases, there are few fingerprints on the document trail.
Landscape architect Greg Schadt, one of 14 volunteers, is making his way through the previously uncharted map collection. Working nearby, retired accountant Dalton Hoffman is updating subject files with today’s news, and history student Phillip Schwab is organizing court files from the 1920s.
Since September, Schadt has inventoried 1,100 maps, including the original 1851 plat map for Birdville, one of the archives’ oldest pieces.
“You never know what you are going to find. You’re unearthing history every day,” Schadt said as he uncurled a large 1939 fishing map of Lake Worth that detailed concession stands, cabins, campgrounds, shooting ranges and fish camps.
“This map captures the essence of Fort Worth, before the war, before air conditioning, when people went to the lake to escape the heat,” he said.
Also in his stack is a 1920 aerial photo of the TCU campus area showing a handful of buildings perched on a treeless plain.
The collection is salted with rescued history, turned over by families unwilling to jettison Grandma’s prized but less-than-negotiable heirlooms.
Sadly, lots of the “good stuff” still lands in the trash, Schadt said.
But sometimes Dumpster divers make big saves.
More than 500 land records were fished out of a Dumpster behind a title company about 10 years ago. Among them were 47 land grant certificates dating from 1855, including some signed by Sam Houston.
“That sort of thing happens all the time,” Youngblood says with a wave toward a fat row of 1877 American history texts on a bookshelf. “I rescued those from a Dumpster at SMU.”
Bad first impression
Some families are attuned to the significance of their ancestral papers, though.
The archives’ biggest prize is the 60-year journal of teacher and Indian fighter Jonathan Hamilton Baker, whose family donated it to the archives with the stipulation that it be kept in a safe that the family bought, Youngblood said.
(With it in the strongbox is Presley’s signed April 20, 1956, registration card for a $4 room at the Westbrook Hotel, part of a collection on the now-gone luxury hotel. Another musician’s John Hancock is also locked away: pianist Van Cliburn’s autograph on a program.)
Baker’s remarkable chronicle begins in 1858, when he left Virginia for Texas, traveling by foot, rail, wagon and riverboat. He kept up the well-written account until a few days before his death in 1918 in Granbury.
Baker worked as a teacher in Birdville and then in Palo Pinto County, where he helped organize a company for frontier defense. He also made four cattle drives to Kansas City and St. Louis and took part in ranger raids against Comanches.
Only 100 pages of his journal entries have been transcribed, but that’s enough to illuminate Baker’s take on the times.
He was unimpressed with his March 20, 1858, introduction to Texas in Jefferson, which he called a “small, ugly, filthy, stinking and lazy town.”
Baker attended a Baptist service in East Texas where he heard “very ordinary preaching” in a house “made unpleasant by dead hogs under the floor.”
Soldiers and brides
That’s the sort of personal story that gives history a heartbeat, says Dee Barker of Colleyville, who helped start the archives in 1976 after Bennett Smith, then chairman of the Tarrant County Historical Association, requested its establishment by the Commissioners Court. Only three other Texas counties — Harris, Travis and Bexar — maintain archives.
That official status is important because it protects the documents from being moved out of the county, Barker notes.
The collection began with just one file cabinet of county records copied from the state archives, said Barker, who spent 12 years as the head volunteer, rooting out collections and cataloging material once stacked up in the basement of the now-closed Civil Courts Building before moving in 2008 to the Tarrant County Plaza Building in downtown Fort Worth.
For local historian Susan Pritchett, who managed the archives for a decade, the collections provide poignant glimpses into the past.
Her favorites include a series of letters that a homesick West Texas cowboy wrote to his mother while he was stationed at Camp Bowie during World War I. He was killed shortly after he reached Europe. “I cried when I was assessing those letters,” she said.
Another intriguing one for her is a 1916 “bridal book” from a woman who detailed all facets of her “precious and proper courtship” and life as a newlywed, including room-by-room pictures from her honeymoon home in Fort Worth’s Fairmount neighborhood.
For years, genealogists and researchers were the archives’ primary users, but the Barnett Shale boom changed that, Pritchett said. Hundreds of landmen relied on its collection of title abstracts.
With the slump in gas drilling, that crowd has faded like a ghost, but Youngblood does field supernatural inquiries.
A woman called recently about land records for a 1970s-era home where her family has had repeated encounters with a female ghost in period dress.
“The house isn’t that old, and she was trying to find out about historic cemeteries in the area. She said it was a ‘friendly ghost’ she had grown up with,” Youngblood said. “I didn’t locate any cemeteries near them.”
The collection’s first true archivist, Youngblood joined the facility 14 months ago. She had worked at SMU as an archaeologist before adding a graduate degree in archival studies while serving as the university’s curator.
She’s now pushing the archives into the digital age. “The whole idea is to bring it into the 21st century. Once it’s online, people can discover it,” said Youngblood, who started assembling the online collection in January. “I’m just to the A’s and B’s; it’s going to take a while.”
History lovers Steve Myers and Wayne Ludwig have been putting a magnifying glass to old maps while trying to trace the Chisholm Trail through Texas. In Oklahoma, the cattle drive trail is followed mile by mile with markers. They hope to replicate that effort.
“The archive has been a great help. There’s a lot of information that you couldn’t find yourself,” Myers said. “Of all the archives I’ve been in, Tarrant County has one of the best selections of information.”
In keeping with the facility’s grassroots focus, Myers plans to one day contribute his cow trail research to the Cowtown collection.
Steve Campbell, 817-390-7981