Yesterday I visited a courthouse in another county. I'll avoid mentioning the exact location because it could easily be one of many, and it is probably best to protect the officials from angry genealogists. I was seeking early probate records, and in reality, the main purpose was to check information published in a narrative family tree and obtain a citation for the information beyond "according to a record in the ___ county courthouse." It really should have been an easy lookup. I knew the name and date from the record as well as the information it allegedly contained. What should have been easy turned out to be a nightmare.
According to online information, the county clerk's office held the needed record. I began there. They told me they didn't have it, sending me to another office. That office stated their records began in the 1970s and that probate matters used to be handled by the county judge so they were probably in his office. I went to the county judge's office. They didn't house any records; however, they were the most helpful office. They took me back down to the county clerk's office where they took me to the records room. I noticed no file cabinets, so I inquired about loose records. The employee did not even know what a loose record was. "Everything we have is in this room." (Of course, the deeds and mineral rights books were in a separate room, but that's okay.) I began examining the room. I knew the courthouse suffered a fire in 1930, but the fact someone supposedly examined the record in order to write about it made me keep seeking it.
A thorough examination of the room revealed no estate records at all except for a few guardianships and administrations from the 20th century. I found a handful of 19th century records, but they were few and far between. The records remaining were an odd mix. I did create myself a guide to earliest available records so I will know what they have if I need to research in the county again. FamilySearch contained more records than the county did.
Several comments made while I was getting the "run around" made me realize few, if any, genealogists visit that courthouse. One person mentioned hearing a recent county clerk threw away some old records once. Another person in the office then commented, "That sounds like something ___ ____ would do."
I ended up calling several other researchers to ask them if they had researched in that county and if they had seen estate records. Based on the responses I received from these researchers and the state archives employees, I am confident I made a thorough effort and did not miss records on site with the possible exception of a few which were available through FamilySearch. It is possible these were discarded after they were filmed. Certainly none of the offices admitted to owning these volumes which included early will books. It would be nice to know where they might be hiding if they still exist in hard copy.
I doubt I will forget my visit to that courthouse anytime soon. I hope more genealogists will visit it so they begin to understand what we do and so they understand the importance of maintaining old records. The fire in that county was devastating. I hope record neglect does not worsen it.