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Napa County restoring records of yesteryear
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Napa County restoring records of yesteryear

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Napa County has rescued historic road survey records dating to the mid-1800s from the road to ruin.

Survey maps and written descriptions had turned brown and blotchy over the decades. They had been taped onto mounting pages, which exposed them to acid. They had been folded and not always treated with care.

“We were getting close to losing some information,” Deputy County Surveyor Danielle Goshert said.

Take a map from 1877 that shows the original Zinfandel Lane south of St. Helena. J. H. McCord and two dozen other people that year had just successfully petitioned Napa County to add Zinfandel Lane to the county’s network of dirt roads.

The hand-drawn map by surveyor W.A. Pierce shows the road, then called Philpot Lane, as it begins at Pine Station and runs east past C.P. Week’s wine cellar, the McCord vineyard, Mrs. Calderwood’s property and the Branch gate. At one point, Pierce refers to Napa Valley as “Napa Valey.”

This official document looks like something from the horse-and-buggy days – and it is. It includes the individual stamp of Pierce’s handwriting, which, though neat, can be challenging to read at times.

“You get used to it,” Goshert said.

But the document is more than an interesting bit of history. Road and other survey records from the dawn of Napa County have information that’s needed in 2017.

Property owners trying to figure out road setbacks, title companies needing property information, county planners processing applications – all might need to turn to the county’s road survey records. The highest use is from local land surveyors working for private property owners.

“As people are doing research about their properties, often it’s interconnected with the history of the road that provides access,” County Surveyor Rick Marshall said. “These are the history of the roads that were established since Napa County became a county.”

Napa County recently decided to put its oldest, deteriorating road records on the road to recovery.

The county had the company Kofile restore 10 thick volumes’ worth of documents—more than 2,000 pages—for $19,000. That involved removing glue, cleaning pages and creating new binders with protective sleeves. The records span from the mid-1850s to the early 1940s.

Many of the documents have also been scanned into electronic format. But, Goshert said, sometimes public works officials must look to the originals for details.

Saving Napa County’s historic documents can be a daunting task.

“In terms of county priorities, day in and day out, it’s always difficult to make this the number one priority,” said history enthusiast and county Supervisor Diane Dillon. “But you just keep chipping away until you get it done.”

Then there’s the challenge of simply keeping documents out of the trash can. In government agencies as large as counties, department heads over decades might decide to throw out old papers without thinking about the possible historic value.

Dillon has seen a list of county documents that existed as of 1941. Many of them are gone, such as naturalization records and petitions from the 1800s and early 1900s.

“That heightened our awareness of making sure we don’t lose anything we currently have,” Dillon said.

That doesn’t mean keeping every piece of paper the county generates, an undertaking that would fill many a warehouse. Records these days can be stored in digital form. Some paper records have no historic value.

“We just can’t keep everything,” Dillon said. “It’s just impossible to keep everything.”

Dillon has researched the history of the county Board of Supervisors. That included looking at Board records from the first meeting in 1852 through 1884.

“These books were very much like you see the (restored) road records, they were in really great shape,” Dillon said. “I can’t speak for the entire run of them. Somebody one year could have used cheap paper or ink.”

John Tuteur as assessor, recorder-county clerk and registrar of voters is a keeper of historic county documents. That, he said, is both by function and inclination.

Those documents include records of deeds dating back to the 1850s, one of them pertaining to pioneer George Yount’s land holdings. Yount helped found Yountville, the town that bears his name. Tuteur said old documents are kept in special sleeves and an acid-free environment.

Some of Napa County’s historic records are kept outside of county government. For example, the Napa Genealogical Society keeps old voter registration records. The Bancroft Library at UC, Berkeley has Napa County assessment rolls from 1853 to 1895.

Dillon’s assessment of Napa County’s historic record preservation efforts: “ I think we’re doing a really good job these days.”

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.

Related to this story

This 1877 map by surveyor W.A. Pierce shows the road that is now Zinfandel Lane. Local land owners wanted the road, then called Philpot Lane, …

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