I attended the meeting of the Leesport Historical Society on Monday evening. I didn't know anyone but was drawn there by a notice in the newspaper which announced that the speaker would be Fred Sheeler, Berks County Recorder of Deeds. I thought maybe I could pick up some tips on finding things in Berks County deeds. The topic was very interesting and I did glean a few tips.
Mr. Sheeler took over as Recorder of Deeds about four years ago. Due to the slump in the housing market, the department is not as busy as it once was. To provide enough work for the staff and to preserve the old county documents, Mr. Sheeler is working on digitizing everything and making it accessible online. All of the deeds from 1752 to the present are now available. They are working on the indexes and are back to 1957. They also have scanned a lot of other documents such as chattel mortgages, manumission papers, and military discharges.
The earliest military discharge found in Berks County records is dated 1778. Manumission papers are legal documents freeing slaves both before and after the Civil War. A lot of chattel mortgages took place in the Depression era. These were often small loans made to farmers. Their animals and farm equipment (chattel) are listed as security for the loan. Those lists can be very interesting. Every horse is listed along with gender, weight, and name. A survey of all the horse names in chattel mortgages shows that the top horse name was Dick and Bill came in second. The favorite name for a mare was Maude.
Having these county records online is a great benefit. The old books will not deteriorate from handling and anyone anywhere in the world can see the documents from their own computer at home. It saves me time and money. I don't need to drive to the courthouse or pay to park. And the online indexes are much easier to use than those in the books at the courthouse. I hope Lancaster County follows their lead. Lancaster County deeds are online but not the indexes. It impossible to find a deed without the number and the only place to find a number is in the index.
I hope Berks County also makes marriage licenses available online too. At this point the indexes are online but not images of the documents. But that is a different department and a different staff. The Recorder of Deeds is doing a great job in his department. We can only hope the other departments follow his lead.