Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Recorder of Deeds

     Chicago was born of deeds. Not deeds of heroism, necessarily, but deeds of land. Envious of the success New York State had with its Erie Canal, the founders of Chicago seized land from the Indians, divided it into plats then sold them off to raise money to dig a canal connecting the Chicago and Des Plaines rivers. Speculators bought the land, hoping to get rich, and did.
Karen Yarbrough, Recorder of Deeds
      Someone had to keep track of all those deeds. Thus the office of recorder of deeds is two years older than Chicago itself, the first taking office in 1831, and the 32nd person (and third woman) to hold that post, Karen Yarbrough, is having a celebration to mark her office's rich history, Wednesday at 10:30 a.m. The public is welcome to attend, as she dedicates a timeline her staff has researched and installed in the lobby, on the ground floor of the County Building, 118 N. Clark St.
     "I'm excited!" enthused Yarbrough, who is nothing if not enthusiastic. "Did I say I was excited? Do I seem excited?"
     Yes and yes.
     Why a timeline?
     "Why not?"she said. "Why not!" 
      The idea was spurred by the photos that the Cook County board has of its past presidents. 
     "When you go upstairs, they have pictures of all the county board presidents," said Yarbrough. "They don't really have anything there but their pictures. Just a bunch of old white men. Nothing wrong with old white men, we got 'em here. But we thought: 'Why don't we do this? I was going to put pictures up."
      The deputy recorder, John Mirkovic, challenged her to do better.
     "He said, 'What about some pictures that are germane to the county?" said Yarbrough. "What about some facts?" 

  So the timeline features famous pieces of property, like Frank Lloyd Wright's home in Oak Park and the Merchandise Mart, plus photos of various recorders such as Salomea Jaronowski, the first female recorder of deeds, appointed to the office in 1928, and Carol Moseley Braun, the future senator, and Sidney "The Fighting Viking" Olsen, who filled the post for nearly a quarter century, from 1960 to 1984. There was also various tidbits about the office, plus historical events such as, I was pleased to note, the merging of the Sun and the Times in 1948.
    The timeline was two years in the making, an attractive blue tableau emblazoned "THE HISTORY OF THE COOK COUNTY RECORDER OF DEEDS."
     Not that it was done purely for the public.
     "And what about the people who work here?" Yarbrough asked, of her 161 employees. "Do they really understand the importance of our office? Do they really understand  that there's a need for a recorder's office? These people all have a part to play here."
Left to right: Minnie Conner,, Marion Powell, Alma Dixon and Dorothy Warren
   As if to illustrate that, Yarbrough hustled off and returned a moment later, shepherding four veteran workers representing, collectively, 153 years of employment at the recorder's office.
   They indeed seemed to understand the importance of the office.  "I love it," said one.
   The history of the recorder's office is naturally too intricate to fully delineate here. The Chicago Fire was a landmark event; despite efforts to save 40 years' worth of deeds -- some where buried on the shore, some loaded onto a barge—records were lost. It seems, in all the confusion, no one could remember where the records were buried.
    "So in 1872, the Illinois General Assembly passed the Burnt Records Act which said that the records that he title companies had were valid," said Brian Cross, in charge of Veteran's Service and Property Fraud, who created the office's warm and welcoming Veteran's reception room, was instrumental in preparing the display.
   At the time, entries were made by hand, in elegant Palmer method cursive. 
   "When you look at this writing, it's just so beautiful," said Yarbrough.
      But technology intruded, and surprisingly early. A newspaper story from 1916 headlined "CAMERA TO OUST GIRLS IN OFFICE OF RECORDER" saying that cameras were being used to photograph deeds and mortgages, gradually replacing the 169 "girls" whose job it was to copy them by hand.
    The other existential crisis, Cross said, was the Great Chicago Flood of 1992.
   "This building has three sub-basements," he said. "We had a team of our employees, basically formed a line, with the help of volunteer firemen, to get all the tract books up to this level."  
   Now everything is digitized.
  "If something happened we'd be up and running wherever," said Cross. 
   "No carbon paper," said Yarbrough, and I said that was a good thing—otherwise she might have Toni Preckwinkle charging in to eliminate it.
     To give you an idea of just how thoroughly the history of office has been plunged, their materials include a citation tracing the idea of deeds back to the Bible. In Jeremiah 32,  verses 14 and 15, God orders the people to keep careful track of their real estate dealings:
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Take these documents, both the sealed and unsealed copies of the deed of purchase, and put them in a clay jar so they will last a long time. For this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Houses, fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land.
     And so they have been.

1872 records incorporating a "Chicago Base Ball Association" 



  1. I find it fascinating that in the photo of the 1872 "Base Ball Association" document you posted here, that the script "s" that looks like an "f" survived into the late 19th Century. I had thought it died out at the end of the 18th Century.

  2. Enjoyed your revised Rauner report published in today's Sun-Times, particularly the "gimlet-eyed hater wetting himself with fear."


    PS I was at the Recorder's Office yesterday around 1 o'clock and noticed the decorations. Would have been nice had you been there at the same time.

    1. Hmm, as previously mentioned- let us not generalize that all anti Syrians are gun toters.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. No one generalized that. One person specified his particular neighbors; no generalization at all. Then there are those who generalize about all people from Syria, but I guess that's OK. After all, a relative once knew one of them.

    4. Sigh, do you really think it's based on a relative knowing one? how smug

    5. Only for the person who said yesterday, "A relative went to a top notch school-had an Arab for a roommate-very inconsiderate and no reasoning with them, just one example." If this was not you, feel free to disregard.

  3. Very Interesting. Looks like they are doing great service here.

  4. That penmanship is amazing. On a side note, always great to visit those Wright homes in Oak Park.

    1. My mother wrote like that, as did many people of her generation. I was taught, I believe, by the Palmer Method, which aspired to an elegantly flowing script, but never got the hang of it. My correspondents, although they are unaware of it, are lucky that I learned to type at an early age.

      Of course, now everybody does.

      Tom Evans

    2. I wonder if the sample is actually the Spencer method. I thought Palmer was plainer than that, but I'm no calligrapher.

  5. The four women pictured average 38.25 years of service at the County and haven't stole off with their pensions yet. Good for them!

  6. Probably is "good for them" in many ways, but why the choice of "stole off" for retirement. Do you think they don't deserve their pensions, whatever they may be? I too am not an admirer of those clever enough to get a pension from one, two, even three government jobs and to continue working, but I ascribe part of that dislike to envy. After all, I'm not sending my social security check back just because I'm able to make other money from a job.


    1. And of course county workers are not eligible for Social Security.

    2. I do think they deserve their pensions and the idiom was perhaps hastily chosen. Anyone that enjoys and finds their work fulfilling should by all means continue to forge ahead. Retirement isn't for everyone. After all, the devil makes work for idle hands. I'm with you on the double or triple dippers though.

  7. Wasn't Sidney Olsen the guy who got in trouble for blandly telling a reporter that bribing clerks in the Recorder of Deeds' office to do their jobs was "like giving your barber a tip"?

  8. Thanks for posting a picture of old black women.


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