It started with a deed search. I wanted to learn more about my property’s history. But fifteen minutes after I had arrived at the Hampshire County Courthouse, I was sitting in the Clerk’s office, chatting with him about history.
The clerk showed me his historical treasures: a Civil War letter rescued from Ohio and returned to West Virginia 150 years after the fact; a box of 1930s veterans interview transcripts; a set of early minute books from the 18th century.
I told him I was looking for records. “Is there anything else around here besides what is available in the records reading room?” I asked.
“Yes, there is.” He said. “Let me show you the vault.”
I followed the clerk down a set of stairs into a dingy basement. Some historians might have been turned away from the conditions. Unfurnished, dark, some janitorial supplies laying around. But I know from experience that the more inaccessible the collection, the more likely it is to be something that others have not seen. Hidden archives in hidden vaults are what historians live for.
The vault archives did not fail to impress. The room looked like a bomb shelter, and I wondered if it had been a bank vault, but according to my guide, it had always served as record storage, ever since the building was constructed in 1918.
Hundreds of heavy, bound books lined the shelves. The room was dusty, with no apparent air conditioning or ventilation. The books, for the most part, stood tall like they should, and there was no damage from water, smoke, or the hands of public visitors. This was a nearly untouched catalog of records for the oldest county in the state. Original marriage records, land deeds, justice dockets, voting registers, and the like, dated back to the late 18th century.
The clerk showed me a few of his favorite collections, and then let me be. For two hours, as I looked for land deeds for my property, then surveyed the other collections, the archive was all mine. I became Michelet, the French archivist who lived with his papers of the revolution.
The archive has few letters or guides. The information is “raw” as the clerk said. But, with enough work, this collection can be mined for some real treasures, information can be sorted into stories. I’ve found some already, and can’t wait to get back. Perhaps I will write the history of my country. When I get around to it, sometime after I renovate my barn, finish my other book, and stack firewood for next winter.