How County Came to Start the Business
(Article in Press, March 25, 1905)


Records Were All Destroyed on January 23, 1860

Supervisors Purchased Forty-Two Books
Which L. S. Scranton Had Kept Personally

Did you ever hear the story of how Kent county came to be in the abstract business? It involves another story about the payment by the county of $5,000 for forty-two books and still another about one of the greatest mix-ups in land titles which has ever been known in Michiganís history. Those old books, which cost $119 each, are now of little value, except as curiosities. They repose in a peculiar old case which is tucked away in the rear of the vault of the register of deedís office. Real estate men and abstractors speak of these old books, with more or less veneration, as the "Scranton Abstracts".

On January 24, 1860, the Scranton abstracts were the only authority in Kent County upon question of real estate titles. All other documents, with the exception of four or five books of mortgages and deeds, had been burned in the disastrous and memorable fire of the day before. So significant was this fire in local history that Norman F. Tucker, a local real estate man, has for years kept a memorandum at hand with this significant date written upon it. "January 23, 1860," while in each early record book of the register of deeds office there is drawn a red line. They call it "the fire line". Everything recorded after this line refers to transactions of later date than the fire. Everything recorded before is of earlier date than the fire, and depends for its accuracy upon the old Scranton abstracts.

When the fire came, the Scranton abstracts were stored in the same building with the county records. The building was situated about on the line of the Arcade, between Pearl and Lyon streets. The abstracts were kept a little better than the other records. They had been placed in a fireproof safe, and were found after the fire as food as ever. L. S. Scranton, who was register of deeds at this time, had made these abstracts for his own use. It is now supposed that he intended eventually to go into the abstraction business.

Property owners were in a pretty kettle of fish after the destruction of all the public records, and urgent steps were taken at once to insure the safety of land titles. Agitation finally resulted in the calling of a special session of the board of supervisors, the formation of a legislative bill to quiet titles, the appointment of a special salaried commission to take testimony, the attempt to purchase the Scranton abstracts, and further attempt to perfect new records by referring to old records kept at Kalamazoo.

The special session of the supervisors was held in the old Luce Hall. For many days the county fathers wrestled with the question which grew out of the fire. They struggled long before they could settle upon a site for the new county offices, which were finally built at the corner of Lyon and Kent streets. When they began to negotiate for the Scranton abstracts, the supervisors must have had all the breath knocked out of them, for Mr. Scranton, absolute master of the situation, told a committee from the board that he would sell for $7,500. Scarcely had the supervisors regained their breath, before Mr. Scranton came along with a communication which showed that he was not at all anxious.

He said that he wasnít sure, after all, that he wanted to sell his books, and so would withdraw his offer. If he decided to sell, so he told the board, he would give the county the first chance. All of this interesting bargaining is recorded in a musty volume of proceedings of the board of supervisors from which a Press reporter gleaned it. Finally the supervisors agreed to pay $5,000, and the deal went through. The poor county fathers, though they knew that their political futures depended upon an economical administration had to pay. So far as they were concerned, Mr. Scranton was a monopolist spelled with a capital "M". And person who look back nowadays think that the supervisors made a pretty good bargain, after all.

Having secured the only abstract records in the county, it just naturally followed that Kent county had to keep up abstract records for the benefit of all property owners. To make certain that no independent register of deeds would refuse to keep up these records, a local act was passed by the legislature giving specific directions.

Now, forty-five years after the fire, Kent county real estate has not entirely recovered from its effect, although there remain few difficulties of any consequence. Occasionally one hears it said that the Scranton abstracts arenít all that they might be. For instance, a real estate man says that once in a while the Scranton abstracts will say "see record". Such a reference doesnít help much when there is no record to see.

Transcriber: Evelyn Sawyer
Created: 28 December 2003