Windows into the past: Volunteers help preserve centuries-old Hampshire County court documents  

  • Left, Joice Gare, Carol O’Kulsky, and Jackie Tuthill look for files at the Hampshire Probate and Family Court. A group of volunteers have been working for nearly five years to archive the records. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Barbara Fell-Johnson holds the oldest records found from 1663 at the Hampshire Probate and Family Court while a group of volunteers are archiving the records.   STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Carol O’Kulsky, Joice Gare, Jackie Tuthill and Jane Kelley archive records at the Hampshire Probate and Family Court.   STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Barbara Fell-Johnson has met with a group of volunteers every Wednesday for the past five years at the Hampshire Probate and Family Court to archive records.   STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Guardianship records for Aaron Burr found at the Hampshire Probate and Family Court while a group of volunteers were archiving the records.   STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Files being archived at Hampshire Probate and Family Court by a group of volunteers who started five years ago. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jane Kelley looks for files at the Hampshire Probate and Family Court. She and a group of volunteers have been working for the past five years to archive the records. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Files being archived at Hampshire Probate and Family Court by a group of volunteers who started five years ago. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jackie Tuthill, archives records at the Hampshire Probate and Family Court. She and a group of others started five years ago. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Barbara Fell-Johnson has met with a group of volunteers every Wednesday for the past five years at the Hampshire Probate and Family Court to archive records.   STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Barbara Fell-Johnson has met with a group of volunteers every Wednesday for the past five years to at the Hampshire Probate and Family Court to archive records.   STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jane Kelley shows Carol O’Kulsky a will from 1939 while working with a group to archive records at the Hampshire Probate and Family Court. In the background is Jackie Tuthill. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Guardianship records for Aaron Burr found at the Hampshire Probate and Family Court while a group of volunteers were archiving the records.   STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff writer
Published: 4/14/2019 4:29:01 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Through the thousands of files stored at the Hampshire Probate and Family Court, glimpses of the past can be gleaned from wills, estates and guardianship documents dating as far back as 1663. 

For nearly five years, a team of volunteers has worked steadfastly to preserve 33,827 files by taking them out of their original, manila folders and placing them in new, acid-free folders that will prolong the life of the documents. Many of these records have been digitized, and they are now available to the public online. 

“Some of the papers have just fallen apart completely,” said Barbara Fell-Johnson, a former librarian at the Hampshire Law Library who led a total of 26 volunteers over the course of the project. She expects the volunteers to complete their work in May or June, ending with the year 1940. 

Fell-Johnson noticed the degrading condition of the documents while doing genealogical research in 2013. After she raised her concern with probate court officials, the court applied for and then received a state grant to help fund the project. 

Some of the documents, she said, have held up incredibly well over the course of nearly three centuries. 

On Wednesday, five volunteers were “re-foldering” files from the year 1939, and they shared some of their discoveries along the way since they started in 2014. 

One discovery was the guardianship record for Aaron Burr, the third vice president of the United States. Burr was just 2 years old when he and his sister, Sally, became orphans in 1758. His uncle, 21-year-old Timothy Edwards, assumed guardianship of Aaron and Sally, according to a 1759 probate record stored in the Hampshire court. 

“We had no idea,” Fell-Johnson said about Burr’s guardianship record.

Fell-Johnson and her team of volunteers have taken documents from 838 metal boxes full of wills, properties, estates, marriages and divorces and extracted them from cardboard sleeves that have degraded the quality of the documents over the centuries. 

Early documents logged inventories in detail, typically including items such as forks, bed linens and cooking pots. “It gives you a sense of what they thought was important, the way they documented kitchen items,” said Register of Probate Michael Carey. 

“For someone that is studying colonial New England … these documents really give people a full picture of what life was like at that time, based on what is in their inventory, which is the contents of their estate,” said Mark Ames, head administrative assistant of the probate court. 

The oldest record on file is John Pynchon’s will from 1663 in which he gives parts of his estate in Springfield to his wife and sons. 

In a will from 1825, Levi Clapp of Easthampton divided his home in half and “gave different people different portions of the house,” according to Fell-Johnson. 

“It’s very detailed into what parts of which buildings go to different people,” Fell-Johnson said. The will details who gets the kitchen, the bedroom, the buttery (a large cellar where food was stored), chambers, and the wood house, where firewood was stored. 

Jacquelyn Tuthill, of Amherst, volunteered for nearly four years and said recently that the team has found some amusing terms in the documents. 

For example, early documents listed “diapers” in their inventories, referring to lace tablecloths as opposed to its modern definition. 

Jane Kelley, a volunteer for the project and genealogist, said she wanted to help in the effort to preserve the historical records since she is a member of Daughters of the American Revolution, or DAR, an organization made up of descendants of people who served or aided in the Revolutionary War effort.

Two other volunteers working on Wednesday, Joice Gare and Carol O’Kulsky, are also members of DAR. 

The probate records “would be folded into thirds or quarters and enclosed in a manila folder that was leeching acid into the documents,”  Fell-Johnson said. “What we did was remove the folder, flatten the documents, put them in these acid-free folders … Our main goal was to stop the deterioration and preserve the documents.” 

Once the project is completed, the documents will be stored at the Judicial Archives in East Brookfield, where they will be rarely taken back out by hand since they have been digitized. 

About a year into the re-foldering project, FamilySearch, a genealogy organization that is affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, digitized the records; it now offers free access to them at FamilySearch.org as well as at americanancestors.org

The digitized documents allow genealogists to view the documents “in your own living room,” Fell-Johnson said. “Before that, you had to come to the courthouse, and the documents are so fragile, often times you could not make a copy of them.” 

Ames said the ability to enlarge the images online makes them more legible. 

“If you’ve ever looked at the original documents, they are almost in another language,” Ames said. “The calligraphy, the handwriting is challenging to read sometimes. I find that when you are able to blow up that image and really look at a sentence and start to piece it together, it’s easier than looking at the original document.”

Register of Probate Carey commended the dedication of the volunteers in working to preserve the probate documents over the course of almost five years. 

“A lot of volunteer projects begin and end on a Saturday afternoon,” Carey said. “And without that effort, I can’t begin to tell you what the state of these papers would be like. These documents will be good for a couple more generations, and then some.” 

Luis Fieldman can be reached at lfieldman@gazettenet.com 




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