Yesterday I went into my basement family archive looking for my aunt’s wedding album (yes, the basement is temperature controlled). The album wasn’t upstairs in the house carefully stored in an archival box. . . it had to be downstairs, somewhere in the Holding Zone. That’s what I call the precarious tower of banker’s boxes and bins containing all the stuff a genealogist can’t throw away when clearing out a relative’s estate.
Our basement storage closets are full of outgrown toys, my yarn stash, seven years worth of tax records and other household leftovers. A bank of metal file cabinets holds haphazard bundles of family letters, photos, and other papers inherited along with the file cabinets. But that’s where the storage ends. The middle of the room is filled with boxes of personal items yet to be “processed” — evaluated, organized, and stored in real archival storage containers.
Someone dies and the house or apartment needs to cleaned out FAST! You open a drawer and find an assortment of rubber bands, bank receipts, and old letters. There’s no time to stop, read the letters, wonder why your destitute uncle has a receipt for a $25,000 bank deposit. So, you shove everything into a box and take it home to sort later. And five years later, you are still looking at that box.
Too many estates in too few years!
As I looked through boxes for Auntie’s album I discovered an entire box filled with financial papers, which got me thinking:
Why am I saving this stuff?
Truly, what would you do if someone mailed you the 20th century escrow papers for your grandparent’s home? It would include pages and pages of legal boilerplate and multiple copies of the same. The actual Title Deed would probably be absent.
What would a genealogist glean from all that paper:
- the fact that your grandparents were able to own their home
- address and location of property
- your grandparents full legal names and signatures, with addresses
- purchase price and terms of sale for the property
- property seller
- potential notes on property improvements, non-compliance
- possibly tax rate, insurance costs, hazard liability
If your family member bought and sold several homes or property parcels, you’ll be able to build a picture of their movements, their relative financial situation, and maybe social status as well.
Working with property records found in a relative’s home after they pass away is no different than working with property records on microfilm in the Family History Library. You still have to pull out the useful information, analyze what you find, and use the data to build a profile of your ancestor. All this takes time, which begs another question. Why do it at all? Unlike early land records, these papers are unlikely to shed light on murky kinships. And as for understanding the community: I’ll learn more about the area from local histories and maps than poring over modern escrow papers.
On the other hand, this is just the kind of information that will add color and detail to a biography or sketch. My grandparents never owned a home and moved from house to house exchanging my grandfather’s labor as a housepainter for rent. Auntie remembered living in more than two dozen different houses and apartments as a child, so it’s not surprising that she bought a home with her teacher’s salary as soon as possible.
Let It Go?
But, I’m thinking it might be time to let some of this stuff go. To the shredder. I’ll go through the box and extract dates, addresses, sale prices. I might save the cover sheet of sales, or at least scan the paper for a digital file. But I don’t need to save all the paper to save the story. Instead, I’ll use the space for an archival storage box to hold Auntie’s wedding album and diary, there’s not much boilerplate in those pages.
P.S. — This is not an easy decision. What do you think? Have you been there, done that? Regrets? Is there something I’m missing, a reason I should hang on to every scrap?
Photo: Paper Party by Jason Sussberg, Flickr CC 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/4hQAqK