Internet offers accessible county records of yesteryear
by SHIRLEY PETROSHUS
Hood County News
Wednesday, September 10, 1997
Many people have a strong yearning to know their backgrounds, to know who their families were. The genealogically obsessed often use public records to research their history.
“Ever since I can remember, my grandmother told me who my ancestors were,” said Frank Saffarrans. She was very proud of her heritage but never did any genealogy. I started looking into it about 10 years ago when I got a computer.”
Saffarrans whose family traces back to the Mayflower, was an electronics engineer at General Dynamics until he retired in 1990. For 15 years he’s divided his time between homes in the Mambrino community and Arlington. Three years ago, he joined the Hood County Genealogical Society.
“I saw what they’d done– a tremendous amount of work–first saving them from destruction, then indexing all the Hood County records that were nearly lost,” Saffarrans said.
In the early 1970s, a few local women were horrified to see old records being tossed from a third story window of the county courthouse on the square into a truck parked on the lawn below. The courthouse was being renovated. Old records–destined for the city dump–were being thrown out.
“They began remodeling the inside of the courthouse in 1970 and I was working there back then,” recalled local historian Mary Kate Durham. “I walked in one morning at 10 til 8 and they were throwing things out a third floor window on the east side of the courthouse into a dump truck. The third floor is where the overflow from many of the offices of the courthouse were stored and they decided somebody was just going to clear it out. I told them I’d lie down in front of the truck–not that I thought it would make any difference–but then I got on the phone and called some others who came to help.”
Although Durham came to the rescue of some records then, she’s quick to say she can’t take credit for saving most of the county’s old records.
“About 10 years before that we had a young assistant county attorney, John Gilmartin, who loved history,” Durham explained. “He was there at the courthouse when they began to empty out record books stored in an old coal bin under the county clerk’s office. He saw what was happening and called Randle Rash, Andy Rash’s daddy, Randle, John, Mary Lou Watkins and some others stacked the books outside the county clerk’s office–lined the walls with them.” [CLICK here for John Gilmartin’s recollections.]
After taking possession of the old record books, they stored them in their homes- -under beds, in closets, in garages and sheds.
The scattered records finally found a permanent resting place at the historic but dilapidated old railroad depot in 1983. Members of the genealogical society then began the large task of rebinding damaged record books and indexing school, marriage and poll tax records on a manual typewriter. If was a very slow process. Five years later, a donated computer made the job much easier.
They were only thinking of putting them (the records) in books or on compact disks then selling them,” Saffarrans explained. “Being familiar with computers, I saw it wouldn’t cost anything and they could make them much more accessible on the Internet. I’d never written a webpage, but when we decided to do it and looked around for someone who had, there wasn’t anyone real excited about doing it so I did. We were one of the first genealogical societies to get a web page.”
Since going on the Internet nearly two years ago, about 12,000 people have visited the web page, some from as far away as Australia, Norway, Germany, Italy, Finland, Canada and South Africa.
‘This is really a case of build it and they will come,” Saffarrans said. “We started with three or four visitors a day and were up to 12 a day after six months. The last time I checked, it was 30. That’s 30 people that log onto the main page, but if you count the number of hits on the total site, we get more than 200 a day.”
Although visitors to the web site usually look at marriage and death records, other available information includes tax records, road orders, school information, civil cases and lawsuits, church and cemetery records, mortgages, liens on personal property and much more.
‘The record of convict labor is a real popular one,” Saffarrans said. “It used to be that if you got any kind of a fine, you could work it off by working for the county. Or, you could work for an individual and the individual would pay your wages to the county. Fines ran from $1.25 or so in the 1800s.
“Another popular one is the record of marks and brands. Back then you could brand with a branding iron or cut notches in the animal’s ears. Usually they branded cattle and cut notches in swine ears. You had to register your brand or mark. My grand father was the county clerk in Stephens County. I found where he’d registered his own brand and then signed it.”
Also of interest on the web site are biographical notes about Hood County families.
“We’d like to get more people to write up biographies of their Hood County ancestors so we could index and post them,” Saffarrans said. “We’re also collecting stories on Jesse James and other folklore.”
People not interested in genealogy who find the web site while surfing the Internet often e-mail the society with notes of encouragement. “We get e-mail from people who used to live in Granbury and find themselves coming across the page.” Saffarrans said. “Even if they’re not genealogy oriented, they feel they’ve been home.”
Based on the free data available, easy access of the data and sources given, the web page was recently awarded the United Slates Internet Genealogical Society’s “Siggy Award.”
“This page has just grown like topsy,” Saffarrans proudly pointed out. “One of the things people like about it is, it’s not written by someone who knows all the graphics–it’s plain vanilla–just on there without all the bells and whistles.”