What To Do With a 547-Page Probate File

Frederick Scheiber Probate File MilwaukeeSee that? That there is seven inches of genealogical awesomeness.

I’ve been trying to get my hands on this probate file for years. I knew it was big, because Frederick Scheiber was a lawyer, and lawyers leave behind big files. I knew it would take hours to get through it. With little kids at home, it’s hard to get down to the courthouse for a block of time that big.

A few months ago, my husband took some time off and stayed home with the kids so I could finally tackle this file. I put on my outside-the-house clothes, drove downtown, paid for parking, and went to the probate office.

Guess what? They couldn’t find it. The person who knew how to find old files was out to lunch. I waited an hour and a half, then finally gave up, because I had to be someplace else. I was not happy. I gave up on working on it onsite, and asked them to make me a copy, even though it was a dollar a page. The clerk said someone would call me for my credit card number.

The person who knows how to find old files apparently came back from lunch eventually, because she emailed me. Her email said, “Are you sure you want a copy of this whole file? It’s at least 200 pages, and it’s a dollar a page.”

She was wrong. It turned out to be 547 pages. I went back downtown a couple of weeks ago, and they handed me that 7-inch stack you see above. SEVEN INCHES OF PROBATE. In the Land of Genealogy, I’m pretty sure that’s like winning the lottery…and I would need to win the lottery to pay for a dollar a page on a file like that.

My original plan was to mark the pages I wanted copied, but when I actually saw it, I realized that wasn’t going to work. For one thing, the papers are all folded in thirds individually, so marking them was impractical if I wanted to keep them in their original order and keep from damaging them. Also, I only had three hours, and I didn’t think I could get through reading each page to determine whether I needed a copy of it or not. I really wanted the whole thing, so I could take it home and digest it on my own time.

Then I remembered I had my camera in my purse, from my trip to the zoo with the kids the day before. I asked if I could take pictures of each page. They looked at me like I was nuts, but said, “Well, uh, sure, I guess so.”

So, in the three hours I had, I frantically took pictures. My camera is just a little point-and-shoot model; I think I paid $100 or so for it. It’s not fancy. I used the close-up setting (the one with a picture of a flower…your camera probably has this too). I couldn’t tell whether the pictures were going to come out or not from the tiny little screen, but I figured it was worth a shot.

It was. The results are not as good as a nice neat flatbed scan, but they’re good enough to read. Every single page is readable. The biggest challenge was the fact that the pages had been folded for 98 years, so they didn’t lie flat. I did the best I could, but the next time I do something like this, I’ll bring little beanbags or something to hold them flat. Instead, I tried to use my left hand to hold them flat while taking the photo with my right hand. This didn’t work that well, because my arms aren’t that long, and also because I now have to look at pictures of the chipped nail polish I was wearing that day for the rest of my genealogical life.

But I got all 547 pages. My battery ran out on page 450 or so, so I had to come back the next morning to finish, but I got it done. It was a whole lot faster than scanning or photocopying would have been; you can take photos pretty quickly when you get into a rhythm. Now I get to digest the entire file, which is awesome, because in a file that size, the definition of “genealogically valuable” can be broad. For example (click to enlarge):

Here’s a bill for acknowledgement cards that was one of many submitted to the estate for payment. This one, though, is from Alsted-Kasten Company, a Milwaukee jeweler. Charles J. Kasten, one of the owners, was the son-in-law of the deceased.

I love this. It’s a receipt for beer. Fred died on 10 June of kidney failure, but he was still taking delivery of his usual case of beer every month, right up until three days before he died. Welcome to Milwaukee German genealogical research…where even the probate files have beer in them.

So this is my tip for this week: If you’re on a research trip or otherwise pressed for time, and you’re faced with a larger-than-expected file, try using your camera. It’s fast, it’s cheap…and it might be good enough.

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