Originally published Aug. 27, 2012.
Elisha Frazier's quest to establish a drainage ditch in his corner of Huntington County is spelled out in a handwritten document dated Oct. 17, 1881.
The words are written in a firm hand, the loops and curlicues of the old-fashioned penmanship densely covering several pages. The narrative is uninterrupted by scribbled-out words or blank spaces, yet entire phrases are undecipherable by the modern eye.
"They're not the easiest things to read," says Huntington County Surveyor Jay Poe, in whose care the document rests.
Frazier's petition to the Circuit Court is the first entry in Book 1 of Huntington County ditch records, a series of documents assembled in book form that is unbroken through today. The ditch books are accompanied by two other series of books, one preserving ditch maintenance records and the other holding surveys of Huntington County property.
While it's rare that anyone opens the ditch books these days, the books of surveys - dating back to 1850 - is frequently in demand. Not a week goes by without someone coming in to the surveyor's office in the courthouse to look through the books for specific records.
And they're still looking through books.
Not microfilm, not computer files, not any kind of digitized record.
Words on paper.
The books are kind of a dinosaur lumbering through the age of technology, and Poe says he'd love to be able to transfer the written documents to a computer. But the cost is just too high, he says, and the ditch records and surveys are years behind court records - which the state has ordered to be made available online - on the priority list for digitizing.
Until the surveyor's records move higher on the priority list, they'll continue to be available to the public as old-fashioned words on paper.
And the surveyor's office will continue to maintain the records the old-fashioned way.
"We're doing it the same way they did it in 1885," he says. "The same size of book, the same type of book."
Today's records, still stored between covers of books about a foot wide and a foot and a half tall, are typewritten instead of being recorded with pen and ink.
The records are inserted between the covers with posts instead of being held together by a binding.
The older books, particularly the index book, have had to be rebound a number of times through the years.
"The index gets used every single time," Poe says. "You can't find anything without looking into the index book first."
Anyone looking for a record in any of the books must first go through the index to find the location of that particular record, he explains.
"Typically, we do a couple of books a year," Poe says
Eight or nine of the books are now due for rebinding, a task that will be performed by a family-owned mobile bindery based in Tipton.
"They're coming unglued, just from use," Poe says. "As they come loose, we're losing things. Most of these have information right out to the edge.
"When they get old and cracked, the glue goes very quickly."
The survey books contain original surveys and updates, but by no means do they contain surveys of every property in Huntington County.
"Not even close to every survey," Poe says.
If a new survey is materially different from the survey on file, it must be recorded, Poe says, a task that's often done in the county recorder's office. The recorder, though, normally shares a copy of the new survey with the surveyor's office.
Drainage records, however, are all contained in the surveyor's books - direct descendants of that first document recorded in 1881.
Frazier's request to establish a drain - which includes the names of all the property owners along the proposed drain - may have been the first in Huntington County.
"I don't know of county regulated drains preceding 1885," Poe says.
Poe, a 22-year veteran of the surveyor's office, says he's not aware of a Frazier Drain in existence in Huntington County.
The request may not have been approved, he says, or the drain may have a different name.
It would take a thorough search of the books to find out.
Complete caption: Huntington County Surveyor Jay Poe displays two record books maintained by his office. On the right is an 1850 book, its pages filled with hand-drawn survey maps and handwritten entries. The book on the left contains current entries, still being recorded on paper 162 years later.