“Old houses, I thought, do not belong to people ever, not really, people belong to them.”
— Gladys Taber
“Where we love is home — home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts.”
— Oliver Wendell Holmes
The City of Delaware, and many early Delaware County settlements, are home to some spectacular early 19th C., Civil War era and Victorian homes and commercial structures. Take a walk down Griswold Street or Lincoln Avenue and you’ll get yourself an architectural education.
Conversations about those old homes invariably turn to the same question — “‘How old is that building?” Ask that question in Delaware County, and an awful lot of people will tell you, “Well, I don’t know for sure, but the deed says 1901.” And if you take part in that conversation long enough, you’ll hear the same excuse given over and over again — “There was a fire at the courthouse and all the records were destroyed, so they just put 1901.”
I took part in just such a discussion online recently, in a Facebook group about Delaware history. (There are several of them, but I would highly recommend Scott Wolf’s “Delaware Ohio History and Memories”.) Someone posed the question of who lived in the oldest house, and the 1901 date and supposed fire story popped up time and again in the answers.
This story has always seemed suspect to me. I’d never heard of a courthouse fire in the 19th C. (a fire did displace the Probate/Juvenile Court in September of 2010), and no other records had been lost as far I could tell. From its construction in 1868, the old Courthouse was home to all of the county’s offices and the Commissioners. I’ve personally reviewed Commissioner’s records going back to the county’s founding (with thank to Chris Shaw at the Records Center), and we have probate records going back to the 1820s. If there was a fire, why would only property records be destroyed?
So I turned to the source that would have the most information about the history of the 1868 Delaware County Courthouse, Judge Henry E. Shaw, Jr. Judge Shaw was County Prosecutor for several years and then, in 1976, he took over the Common Pleas General Division bench, where he presided until 2003. He is the authority on the history of the court system in Delaware County.
And he made one thing abundantly clear the moment I told him why I was calling: there was never a fire at the 1868 Delaware County Courthouse. At least not any major fire that destroyed records. He also quickly noted that people aren’t referring to any construction date in their deeds, but rather to the date listed in their property abstract on the Delaware County Auditor’s website.
That led me to my next two stops — Delaware County Recorder Melissa Jordan, and Delaware County Auditor George Kaitsa. Both kindly met with me to discuss this mystery, and they ultimately led to a solution to the construction date mystery.
Recorder Jordan pointed out that deed records going back to the founding of the county are complete and contain no gaps from fire damage. She noted that often when people run into missing or misdated records they default to a “there was a fire” explanation. She pointed out that people often research ownership of their property through deed transfers back to the early days of the county.
Auditor Kaitsa also noted that there were no missing or destroyed records. He made the observation that the date on the Auditor’s record is, by no means, intended to be a historical document. It’s simply a notation for the Auditor’s purposes, the primary of which is, after all, to maintain a record of who owns property and what that property is valued at so that taxes may be appropriately collected.
Although he didn’t immediately have an answer on the 1901 date, he took it upon himself to do more research and found that when the Auditor’s Office first began to computerize records, something needed to be put into the data entry field for the construction date of improvements to the property. Full deed searches were not necessary, and would waste manpower and taxpayer money, so for buildings constructed before the turn of the century, a date — often “1901” — was entered on the Auditor’s property card.
As an example, the old Stratford Methodist Church, currently being fully rehabbed as new offices by architect Dave Kerr, was built in the early 1840s. The Auditor’s property record lists another common default date, 1920. A little further south on Chapman Road, the ODNR owns the ruins of James Beiber’s 1876 mill. Because that mill is just a ruin (and yes, this time you can blame a fire), the Auditor’s record lists no improvement on the land, and no construction date.
You can certainly still research the age of a property. Deed transfer documents at the Recorders Office, old county directories held by the Delaware County Historical Society, and even a wonderful hand-drawn aerial map of the City of Delaware from 1890, are among the resources available for property researchers.