Thousands of forgotten records, documents, and photos discovered in a Franklin County court basement were incinerated in December after the State Archives intervened in a local preservation effort. The documents dated from the 1840s to the 1960s, a treasure trove for historians.

Via the Heritage Society of Franklin County:

We were very excited and went to work immediately straightening, organizing and investigating.  Immediately we found Chattel Mortgages from the 1890’s, court dockets from post civil war to prohibition, delayed birth certificate applications with original supporting documents (letters from Grandma, bible records, birth certificates, etc), county receipts on original letterhead from businesses long extinct, poll record books, original school, road and bridge bonds denoting the building of the county, law books still in their original paper wrappings, etc., etc. etc. The list goes on and on.   Our original feelings of shock that the records were there and in such bad condition led to feelings of joy that they were still there and that someone had thought to retain them for us to discover so many years later.

According to the Heritage Society of Franklin County, state officials expressed concern, four months into the preservation work, that some of the documents might contain confidential information. Heritage Society member Diane Taylor Torrent said the state misinterpreted 2013 dates on boxes donated from government departments to mean that the records inside were of a current nature.

We collected as many boxes as we could find to hold the loose papers.  Boxes were used from other departments as well as local businesses, the liquor store, retailers, anywhere we could find an empty box. Some of these boxes had writing or labels and 2013 dates from the department they came from which would later lead to misinterpretation by county officials that there were records of a “sensitive” and current nature in the basement. Had they looked inside the box they would have discovered their true contents.

Torrent said archives officials also worried about enforcing protocol for who could view the records:

Concern was that chain of command and protocol should be followed for each pair of eyes that viewed the records.  The problem existed that with the records being in such jumbled order and no way of knowing what box belonged to which department without going through it, there was no easy way for each department to view only their own records.   It should be noted at this point that every piece of paper, book and box touched by the Heritage Society had been carefully logged and organized.  Nothing had been removed and the time capsule was intact.

According to Torrent’s timeline of events, county management then allowed State Archives and other government departments to go through the documents and remove records they believed to be under their jurisdiction. Documents previously organized were reportedly left strewn across the floor, and all documents filed in the donated white boxes were taken by State Archives. No log was left of the removed records.

State Archives officials then asked the Heritage Society to stop their preservation work until an assessment could be made.

The assessment from the State Archives finally arrived in October with the rules as they applied to retention dates of each box that had been cursory inventoried.  Remember, each box still contained a variety of records even though they were labeled according to approximate dates and contents.  It was the position of the Archives that since all of the records had long since met  their retention dates and there was some mold present in the basement that the records were of no value and should be destroyed.  ALL OF THE RECORDS should be destroyed and could not be preserved by the Heritage Society because of the chance of contamination.

Of course we were upset and immediately appealed to the county management to reconsider.  I questioned as to why so many of the white file boxes were taken by the State Archives if they were dangerous and of no value.  The reply was that they were “clean”.  The same records that had been picked up off the floor and placed in the new, clean white boxes were no different from the records that still remained in the basement, they were just in a pretty box.

Torrent notes that while some of the documents had been ruined by the mold, most were still in viable condition. The county decided Dec. 6, on the state’s recommendation, to burn the records.

Read Diane Torrent’s full timeline here.

WRAL has more:

“A lot of these records that they saw were of very short-term value to the state or (were) like check stubs or confidential records that are not to be seen unauthorized,” said Sarah Koonts, director of the North Carolina Division of Archives and Records.

She said the documents had been inspected in 1964 by the state and were ordered destroyed back then.

But Torrent said she wishes the records were simply relocated so the basement could have been cleaned to address the air quality problem. Among the items lost was a copy of a bill introduced in the legislature in the 1870s that required North Carolina farmers to fence their cattle and a letter written from a soldier serving in France during World War I.

WRAL – Historians lament destruction of Franklin County records

Photos of the destroyed records, via the Heritage Society of Franklin County: