Hamilton County's oldest deed books date back 200 years to the late 1790s or early 1800s and are kept in a humidity-controlled archival facility in Red Bank, where the temperature stays at about 70 degrees Fahrenheit to help prevent mold or mildew.
The handwritten pages are delicate and describe, often in a meandering way, the earliest property transactions in Hamilton County's history.
They denote landmarks like trees, creeks and Native American settlements and can be a resource to historians or genealogists hoping to learn more about the region or their ancestors.
The documents are preserved on microfilm in the Register of Deeds office, but to properly enshrine them for a digital era, Hamilton County is hiring an outside company, U.S. Imaging Inc., to scan 1,400 of the county's oldest deed books so they are accessible online at register.hamiltontn.gov. Once complete, all 13,000 books will be available online.
The project will cost $705,000 and is covered through federal funding the county has received through the American Rescue Plan Act, passed last year by Democrats in Congress. County commissioners approved the contract Wednesday.
"Some of them are over 200 years old," Hamilton County Register of Deeds Marc Gravitt told the Times Free Press in an interview on Friday. "At some point they may disintegrate or if we have any kind of natural disaster — heaven forbid — at the storage facility then these documents will be scanned and they will be on our database."
Currently, the county has deed books dating back to the mid-1960s available online, and although deed books one through 1,400 are on microfilm, the film itself tends to be faded and difficult to read.
Additionally, Gravitt said parts are no longer being manufactured for the county's microfilm printers, and employees have had to resort to scavenging from older machines.
Gravitt said U.S. Imaging Inc. will use proprietary software to enhance the legibility of waning type. Some of the books also contain white words written on black pages, which have a particular tendency to fade into the background. The company will reverse the polarity on those pages, Gravitt said, so that they show up as black words on white pages.
The process will go fairly quickly. Carrie Millard, chief deputy in the register of deeds office, said an employee has been scanning documents in-house, but that's been a time-consuming task that has been juggled alongside other duties. It's taken almost 20 years to scan a little more than 400 deed books.
Gravitt said U.S. Imaging Inc. expects to digitize all 1,400 books in about 68 weeks.
"This is the most economical way to do it," Gravitt said.
Suzette Raney, an archivist at the Chattanooga Public Library, told the Times Free Press by phone Friday that the library also has deed books on microfilm, which range from 1799 to 1901.
Although the pandemic has changed many people's habits, she estimated that at least one person still comes into the library each month looking for deeds.
Many visitors who use those resources are trying to locate the family home of an ancestor or find out whether a long-departed family member owned property, Raney said. That can be valuable information for someone trying to unearth the roots of their family tree.
"Putting people in a place and time helps in determining what you're going to find on your ancestors," Raney said.