Butte County’s buried treasure
Invaluable historic documents are inaccessible and deteriorating. Is it time for a new hall of records?
If you were a researcher looking into early Butte County history, at some point you’d probably end up in an anonymous-looking warehouse off Grand Avenue in Oroville.
At first glance, it doesn’t look like a place where historical records would be kept. Most noticeable, in fact, are the voting booths stored here, and the hundreds of boxes of miscellaneous paperwork.
But it’s also the principal storehouse for historic county records, and as such a veritable candy story for historians, one filled with old, tattered ledgers and books—all handwritten documents detailing Butte County history dating back 150 years or more, to the mid-19th century.
Massive registrar-of-voters ledgers; files full of chattel mortgages and deeds; aged Oroville Mercury, Chico Enterprise and Chico Record newspapers; maps; naturalization records, and birth records are among the stored items, all of them valuable cultural resources in one of the oldest counties in California.
Indeed, official county documents extend to 1850, the year California became a state, when a much larger Butte County extended to include territory that is now part of Plumas and Tehama counties.
This is not the only place where historic records are stored. Some are kept in the abandoned county hospital building, others in the basement of the Veterans Hall in downtown Oroville, among other places. There are also some records in the Clerk-Recorder’s Office at County Center.
The last is the only place where the public can obtain access to the documents, as well as the only place where the records are stored in a climate-controlled environment. Even so, there is little space to do research besides the two touch-screen computers available for general use.
This deeply concerns Mike Magliari, a professor of history at Chico State University and the co-author of the biography John Bidwell and California: The Life and Writings of a Pioneer, 1841-1900. In a Feb. 15 letter to the county Board of Supervisors, he writes that “among the most endangered cultural resources in Butte County today are the irreplaceable historic records generated since 1850 by the county itself.”
Not only is this “huge array of documents … this treasure trove of historical data … scattered about in various locations” where it is “utterly inaccessible to the public, or even to county officials who might require access to it,” he continues, it also “remains, in most instances, improperly housed and therefore subject to constant deterioration.”
What’s needed, he says, is a modern county hall of records providing “proper professional archival storage” that preserves the records and also makes them accessible to researchers and the rest of the public.
He has a major ally in the effort to create this hall of records: County Clerk-Recorder Candace Grubbs.
Grubbs is in her 22nd year in elected office, and for the past 15 of those years she’s held onto a vision that one day the county would establish a hall of records.
“You don’t have government records under lock and key,” she said during a recent interview. “They are public records. Let’s get them out to where the public can find them.”
On Feb. 19, representatives of the Butte County Cultural Resources Coalition, which includes members of the Butte County Historical Society and the Chico Heritage Association, spoke at a Board of Supervisors study session addressing the preservation of cultural resources in regard to the first draft of the Butte County General Plan 2030. The proposed hall of records was discussed, among other culturally significant issues.
While supervisors did not specifically list a hall of records in the plan, they did vote on a policy “to preserve local historic records,” said Principal Planner Dan Breedon. That statement will set the stage if the county were to move forward with a records center proposal.
Still, the project is in its infancy, Grubbs said. She will need to implement a feasibility study and complete a full inventory of the historical material, much of which is currently unaccounted for, and then take the proposal back to the board.
Grubbs wants the county to build a green building to house the records, and of course funding is a hurdle that needs to be jumped, especially in these difficult fiscal times.
The good news is that the Clerk-Recorder’s Office has accumulated nearly $2 million in funds that are allocated specifically for digitizing records and modernizing their storage, Grubbs said. This money is collected from base recording fees, as well as copy charges paid by people researching documents.
Currently, Grubbs is researching available grants. And, as Magliari writes in his letter, “if the county simultaneously deployed these monies as matching funds, they also could be used to attract federal stimulus funds sufficient to cover any remaining construction costs.”
Grubbs said some of the first documents the Clerk-Recorder’s Office kept were mining claims and property rights, with land grants from the Mexican government “to preserve someone’s right to a piece of land,” she said, looking at a U.S. Surveyor General fold-out map of the 2,200-acre Rancho de Farwell. Nowadays, she said, this handwritten survey would be computerized.
The records also detail a lot of historical data about families who have lived in the area, she added. Even the registrar of voters detailed an individual’s occupation and age.
Every semester, Magliari takes his students on a field trip to the county office to learn how to research history, and he has also done his own work there. When he was writing the Bidwell biography, he was able to get his hands on old sharecropping agreements Bidwell had with Chinese tenants who rented orchard lands in the area.
Other researchers are also concerned about the storage conditions. Dale Wangberg, an independent researcher and president of the Butte County Historical Society, said storage facilities need to be environmentally controlled, with steady temperature and humidity levels, or mold and fungus can start to spread or can “attract insects that eat paper.”
After all, these older documents are already going to deteriorate with age, Lucy Sperlin, president of the Chico Heritage Association and director of archives at the Butte County Historical Society, said. Inks used in the past were unstable and turn pale or brown, she explained. One often needs a magnifying glass and light to read the original, and some of these documents cannot be read fully on microfilm.
“If we don’t understand our past, it’s really hard to make good decisions today,” Sperlin said. “When you know your county’s history, or have the means to access that history, it strengthens your connection. It gives people a sense of place where they belong.”