Just under 100 volumes of Bucks County’s deed books that date back to the 1600s have returned home.
In Bucks County Recorder of Deeds Robin Robinson’s office in the Administration Building in Doylestown Borough, the books were on display recently and awaiting storage in a climate controlled, secure area where important county documents are kept.
Robinson, a Democrat who took office in 2018, and First Deputy Recorder of Deeds Gail Humphrey showed off the returned books, pointing out key records that featured property owned as William Penn and the Pemberton family that built Bolton Mansion in Levittown.
“We have William Penn’s name, we have artists, freed slaves, and all kinds of people,” Robinson said. “This is everyone who purchased or has been given property. These books have all those records.”
While going through the deed books, Robinson and her staff located records of slaves who were set free, explained Recorder of Deeds staffer Lynn Barrett.
One specific entry from April 14, 1790 shows Northampton resident James D. Lancie purchasing a slave named Peter for the price of 50 pounds from Richard Leedom. After purchasing the slave, D. Lancie set the slave free. Due to the fact slaves were considered property, their sales and transfers backed up with paperwork recorded by the Recorder of Deeds.
The office recently estimated the modern price D. Lancie paid for Peter and determined it was about $6,300.
“That was the price – that was all – for a person,” Robinson said.
The elected official said her aim is to find the living relatives of D. Lancie and Peter, who took the last name D. Lancie. She wants to share the record with them.
Humphrey, Robinson’s second in command, said the office in the late 1800s and early 1900s hand copied some of the oldest books as part of an effort to preserve records. Some of the original copies of the oldest books are lost to time, but their contents remain in the pages of the copied books.
Aside from a state requirement she save the records, Robinson said there is also moral obligation to preserve the books and the information kept within them.
When Robinson found the roughly 700 books at a county warehouse in Warrington, many of them, including some of the oldest, were falling apart, providing a comfortable home for bugs, had pages that were damaged by moisture, and scaring from the acid of iron gall ink of the period.
Over the decades, the books, which account from 1684 to the 1980s when records went digital, had been sliced out of their binding so they could be scanned on microfilm and microfiche. However, Recorder of Deeds staff sometimes have to grab the physical books when searching for records due to problems with the microfilm and microfiche.
Last summer, the first batch of crumbling deed books made their way from Bucks County to Kofile Technologies’ special lab in Essex, Vermont for restoration. The aging pages, some linen ones made of leftover military uniforms from the 1800s, were cleaned of tape, patches, and mold before being placed in a protective sheeting.
The books were among the worst shape the Vermont restoration company has seen, Joe Degnan of Kofile Technologie said last summer.
Robinson said the books are expected to last 500 more years.
In addition, a new storage space at the Administration Building will provide much better conditions than the warehouse where the books used to be kept.
The overall cost for the project to restore the books is about $2 million. The first batches cost of $250,000 and is being paid for through a $3 record improvement fee charged during transactions at the office, donations, and preservation grants that are being pursued.
So far, private donations – ranging from a few dollars to thousands – have come in for the project with larger donations leading to books with markers of who paid to have it saved. Rotary clubs, historical groups, and municipalities have chipped in money for the effort.
Last week, Robinson brought one of the books before the Falls Township Board of Supervisors to thank them for their $5,000 donation to the Adopt-A-Book fundraising drive. The book dedicated to Falls Township includes records of properties in the township.
Robinson said she is talking with local museums on working together to display the books. She is also planning a book tour to drum up funds and share the history held inside the pages of the book.
The deed books will be at the Margaret R. Grundy Memorial Library, 680 Radcliffe Street in Bristol Borough from April through May; at the Bucks County Visitor Center at 3207 Street Road in Bensalem from May 12 through June 15; and at the Mercer Museum at 84 South Pine Street in Doylestown Borough on June 27.
“This is a part of history that we are preserving for future generations,” Robinson said. “We don’t know everything that is in here. People can come in the office and look at these books, look for relatives, at history.”
“These books belong to the people of Bucks County and the people of the United States,” she said. “Maybe we’ll spark some child’s interest in history.”