Discovering more history right in our backyard

BOOK NOTES by Joan Ruddiman

   Last week we looked at history close at hand in the village of Walnford. This week, more history in our own backyard can be found at the Monmouth County Library in Manalapan where the Monmouth County Archives are housed.
   Archivist Gary Saretzky begins his orientation of the Monmouth County Archives with a heartfelt expression of appreciation to County Clerk Jane Clayton who "rescued" the archives from leaky storage sheds, nesting squirrels and other manner of slow destruction.
   In the 1980s, Clayton encouraged the Monmouth County Library system to provide archival space in the planned Symmes Drive facility. In 1994, The Archives were ready for the public. Now, after a major renovation and expansion, The Archives is even more accessible for those who want to find a relative, know who owned their house in the past, or to do research for a book. Questions large and small are answered in the storehouse of Monmouth County records.
   A quick tour of the lower level of the Monmouth County Library reveals just how much information is available. One would expect tax records, the Freeholder minutes, and Justice of the Peace records to be saved. However, Monmouth County is really old. At one time, a county clerk recorded all slave births and noted manumissions. If born after 1804, female slaves were freed at age 21 and male slaves were freed at age 25. When a slave was freed, the manumission was recorded. Monmouth County published these records in "Black Births Book of Monmouth County, New Jersey, 1804-1848" and "Manumissions Book of Monmouth County, New Jersey, 1791-1844."
   A tour of The Archives reinforces the power of bureaucracy. Doctors, for example, had to register. Their records are in The Archives. But so did bottlers. Their numbers decreased dramatically during Prohibition years.
   Court records from the early 1700s include the Court of Common Pleas, which are civil court cases, to the criminal cases of the Quarter Session. "Executions" are here. Though there were some hangings in Monmouth over the years, these executions are orders from a judge to a sheriff to sell property to pay off a debt. Insolvent debtors were put in jail until they agreed to have the court sell their possessions. Also in The Archives are the inventories taken for the court — lists of household items and all the poor debtor’s goods. Saretzky says these lists serve us well today as a "history of material culture."
   Most of the Archives are accessible to the public on microfilm. Moreover, these reams of records are indexed. Most of the Quarter Session books and loose papers are indexed from 1720 to 1885. The database sorts by defendant, victim, type of crime and town.
   Many people use the Archives for genealogical searches. Naturalization records are here, some with pictures. Deeds on microfilm are indexed by the buyer’s and seller’s names. Marriage licenses, building permits, and graves of 33,000 veterans buried in Monmouth County are some of the 75 record series indexed by name, town, architect, etc. Indexes give references to the original document. What a gold mine for researchers!
   The Archives also houses specialized books such as Ed Raser’s work on cemeteries in Monmouth County that includes family cemeteries. The list goes on and on.
   If this all sounds like an overwhelming wealth of information, don’t panic. Like wonderful archivists everywhere, Saretzky and his staff are there to help. He says "Come in, take a seat and we will serve you." A wise suggestion is to call ahead with the questions or topic for research so the staff can have materials pulled and ready when you arrive. Having some advance notice also allows the staff to indicate to patrons when they are overbooked to save everyone time and stress.
   The Archives don’t just house "old stuff." Every week, new materials come in for filing, cataloging and preservation. "We have 1,020 videotapes from Monmouth Cablevision," Saretzky said, offering as an example of how The Archives collects current history, which, he notes, "is our history in the future." The Archives has 13,000 news stories on tape that are indexed. They are being duplicated with the help of a grant from the New Jersey Historical Commission. Though it sounds tedious to mine this trove of modern day life, Saretzky wisely points out that "in a hundred years, this material will be of terrific interest."
   Right here in Monmouth County, at our free public library, all this information — history, family stories, answers to legal puzzles — is indexed, catalogued and ready to be used. Historians are well aware of the value of The Archives. However, this is a resource that is easily accessible and should be used by students, teachers, armchair genealogists and history buffs.
   Thank Jane Clayton, thank archivist Gary Saretzky and thank the Monmouth County Library for having the vision and wisdom to create the County of Monmouth Archives.

   Joan Ruddiman is a teacher and friend of the Allentown Public Library.