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State-led destruction of town archives leaves historians and citizens devastated

Franklin County citizens expressed their frustration and anger during a town hall meeting on Monday over the decision to incinerate newly-discovered town records dating back from the 1840's.

Workers come to confiscate old town records
Courtesy of Renate Yarborough Sanders
Town records photographed before they were destroyed in Franklin County
Facebook [Heritage Society of Franklin County, NC]

When the documents were discovered in a long-sealed room under the Franklin County Courthouse by a "Clerk of Court" in North Carolina in May, the residents were delighted.

Diane Taylor Torrent of the Heritage Society of Franklin County, NC detailed the timeline of events on her must-read Facebook post. She said that "a quick investigation of the records revealed boxes from most every department of the Franklin County government."

She continued to write,

"There were items from the court as well as register of deeds, county finance, board of education, sheriff's office, county jail, elections board and many others."

Local residents worked together to gather loose papers and documents in boxes they obtained "from other departments as well as local businesses, the liquor store, retailers, anywhere we could find an empty box," Torrent said.

The Heritage Society of Franklin County, NC held a meeting in May with interested local parties, including "historians, genealogist, friends of the library, the arts council, the new Clerk of Court and County Commissioner."

She wrote,

"We were very excited and went to work immediately straightening, organizing and investigating."

Some of the items found included letters and old photos from locals who have long since passed away, including one from a "soldier serving in France during the First World War asking the court to be sure his sister and his estate was looked after while he was away." They found a "naturalization paper from the late 1890s for an immigrant from Russia escaping the tyranny of the Czar" among other fascinating historical documents.

The nightmare began after the Historical Society "contacted the NC State Archives for advice on handling old documents and the best archiving method."

A messy bureaucratic back-and-forth ensued. Despite the fact that the documents had long outlived their retention period, the state was concerned about documents having a "sensitive" nature and they "decided that they should have control over ALL of the basements contents."

Without notifying those who had poured their heart into making sure that these items were properly documented and preserved,

"county management had allowed people from the elections board, education, register of deeds and the State Archives and others to go through the basement and the office and remove items that they deemed to be under their control."

They did not leave a "log" of what they had taken.

The rest, the state said, should be destroyed immediately due to "contamination" from "mold spores."

Torrent wrote,

"We appealed to the County Commissioners, our state representatives, the Governor was even contacted. We talked endlessly to the state Archives, we contacted the state Genealogical Society, the newspapers, anyone that would listen. I requested to at least be able to view and review as each item was removed from the basement so that items of extreme interest could possibly be set aside and photographed before destruction."

The effort to save the documents, or to at least have access to them so a record could be developed, was futile.

The records were incinerated by the county in December.

At a town hall meeting on Monday night, Annette Goyette of the Heritage Foundation, her voice shaking, questioned how this was possible and demanded a public apology and assurances that such an offense would "never happen again." Goyette said, "We need an explanation."

Watch a video of perplexed and devastated residents questioning the decision to destroy the centuries-old town records.

Follow Renee Nal on Twitter @ReneeNal and Facebook.

Check out her news and political commentary on Liberty Unyielding, Gather and for news you won't find in the mainstream media. Renee is also a guest blogger for the Shire Blog.

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