Nestled on small hall in the basement of the old courthouse, there lies a tiny room that many in the county have never seen.
Inside this vault are records from 1871, when the Rockdale officially became a county, until the mid-1960s, and thanks to Rockdale County Probate Judge Lillis Brown, that part of the county’s history is now being well preserved.
“The estate records, by law, cannot be destroyed. I have a duty under my oath to make them accessible,” said Brown.
It’s the records’ accessibility that Brown set out to preserve back in 1993 when she stumbled on this treasure of county history.
“If ever something went missing in the county, everyone said it was in the vault in the basement of the old courthouse,” said Brown.
So when Brown was searching for Probate Court records, the vault is where she headed. But when she opened the door, she found more than just court papers — much more.
“There were boxes of records from just about every office in the county. They were pushed in and shoved in which every way they could fit,” said Brown. "You could only get about half a foot in and slide to the left or slide to the right. That was it.”
Undaunted by the sight of boxes too numerous to count, Brown rolled up her sleeves and got to work looking for the probate records. She enlisted the help of a person who needed to complete community service through the courts, and the two spent a week making their way through the mountains of boxes.
"We worked on one box at a time, one piece of paper at time,” Brown said. “And we began to stack. And we stacked and we stacked.”
By the time they got to the end of the week, Brown said all that was left was a stack of boxes too high for her to reach in one corner, and piles of paper everywhere — one for each department in the county — but still no sign of the records from the Probate Court for which she had been looking.
“I knew my records had to be in those boxes. So I kicked the boxes to make sure there weren’t any mice in them, and it seemed as if the (top) box just opened up, and there on top was the oath of the first ordinary (probate judge) from November 1870,” said Brown.
Excited by the find, Brown had to decide what to do next.
With the help of the Rockdale County Genealogical Society, she set out to catalog the records.
“They would come over every Saturday to sort through the records. Some [the records] of them were really old and they were held together by wooden toothpicks or metal pins,” Brown said. These pins were woven through the pages like stick pins and nothing was in folders.
Brown said the workers would sort a little and read a little, and after about four to five months, the records were organized in folders and cataloged on a computer.
The files included wills, estate records, guardianships, and original minute books from the county commission. Many are now stored neatly in the vault, along with newspapers from the time.
“When you read the newspapers, you see the concerns of the people in the county back then are the same as they are today. Do we have enough water? Are our roads smooth enough? Do we have enough money?” Brown said.
Brown said she loves reading the newspaper and interesting stories include the wagon and horse traffic in town in the late 1800s, and an 1899 visit from out-of-towners that resulted in a shortage of water to water the horses.
“They had big society pages back then and you can read who had a birthday, who got married and who had visitors,” said Brown. “It’s funny because it will say, “such and such’s sister came from Atlanta and stayed three days. That was news back then.”
In addition to the four to five months it took to sort through the records, in 1999, Eric Zuno worked another three months — from September, 1999, to January, 2000 — to get the vault cleaned up and back in shape as a part of his Eagle Scout project.
“He tore down the shelving and put it back together and as he worked, he would read. The work was done was from 1999 to 2000 and it was interesting to see him reading what was happening back in 1899,” Brown said.
Brown, who is describes herself as a history buff, said it is important to preserve these records for future generations.
“You can’t appreciate where you are or understand where you are going if you don’t know where you have been in history,” said Brown. “And we have a rich one, good and bad.”