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County records have new level of protection
Clerk of court
An Effingham County real estate record from 1786 was written by hand in ink. Four books of records like this were recently preserved at a cost of $30,000. - photo by Mark Lastinger/staff
Jason Bragg
Jason Bragg

SPRINGFIELD — Jason Bragg fully appreciates the trust that voters placed in him during the 2020 general election.

Bragg’s many responsibility as clerk of court is safekeeping Effingham County’s records, some of which are nearly three centuries old. His duties also include instructing parties about the timing of court appearances, documenting receipts of legal documents, helping other court officers, collecting fees, swearing in juries and much more.

“I think preservation of documents is a big one,” Bragg said.

The current budget for Bragg’s office is evidence that he takes caring for records seriously.

“I asked for $50,000 to start the preservation process for all our real estate documents. They’ve never been preserved. They’ve never been imaged,” he said during a June interview at the Effingham County Courthouse.

“Originally, there were four books from the mid to late 1700s through the mid 1800s,” Bragg continued. “They (received protective treatment) one time many years ago by the state archive unit, which pretty much laminated each sheet. Now each sheet has a laminate on it — or a wax coating — to try to preserve it.

“As you know, times change, technology changes, and they found that the wax coating was doing more harm than it was good.”

Bragg said it was clear after he took office that valuable records were disintegrating. 

“I started there because it was obvious that was going to be the most expensive part of this whole (restoration) project,” he said. “This whole project is going to cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $400,000 total but — if we take a bite off of it every year — we are not putting a damper on anyone’s budget, increasing taxes or anything like that. This is important because it’s history.

“There are tons and tons of history in this county and to be able to go out there (into the records room), and hold a book and look at pages from the 1700s is rewarding.”

Putting a new covering on the pages of the first four books, which are kept in a temperature-controlled room, cost $30,000. The work has a 50-year warranty.

“And the records are scanned and imaged,” Bragg said, “so if someone knew what they were looking for, they could pull up a book online, type in what they are looking for and (the computer) will search that. Eventually, everything in that room will be online and be searchable.”

Deeds are currently keyed in from Jan. 1, 1964, until now.

While looking at one of the refurbished books, Bragg laughed in relief that filing real estate records no longer require excellent penmanship.

“I am not a (calligrapher),” he joked.

Bragg mentioned the importance of having records kept via computer.

“God forbid we have the same thing that Bryan County had — a tornado comes through, wipes out the courthouse and we lose everything,” he said. “We might not have the hard documuments anymore (after a disaster) but with this (restoration) project they are all scanned. The documents might be gone at some point but the information won’t be. I can’t prevent natural disasters like fire or anything but I can sure do my best to preserve what we have and image what we have so that we are not going to lose records that we’d never, ever find.”

Bragg said it takes about a year from the time images are taken for the information to be made available via computer searches.

“We have a 50-year search available right now,” he said. “Everything in this office is at least 50 years back, which is the minimum of what they want us to be.”

Most bound volumes of records of Effingham County records are accessible to the public. Pages of the most delicate ones, however, have to be turned by Bragg or one of the employees in his office.

The military discharge book in the clerk’s office isn’t available to the public. It includes discharge papers (DD214s) of Effingham County’s veterans.

“There are lots of reasons to have them handy,” Bragg said. “Lots of employers require workers to turn in their DD214s once they are out of the military. Instead of people having to call the Veterans Administration, if they will bring us the original, we will file it (for them) and hand it back. That way we will always have a copy that they can get.

“If it’s filed with our office, a copy is as good as the original. It will have a seal on it and serve as an original copy. That’s the perk of having it with us — being able to get a copy in minutes instead of having to wait days, weeks or months to get it from the VA.”

The clerk’s office is on the first floor of the courthouse.

“By code, our office has to be open daily 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday,” Bragg said. “If I close the office, I have to give a notice in (the Herald) and I can only close for half a day. If it’s more, I have to have a court order to do so.

“Essentially, the record room is open during normal business hours every day of the week.”