What To Do With a 547-Page Probate File

What To Do With a 547-Page Probate File

by Kerry Scott on 28 August 2011

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See 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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{ 45 comments… read them below or add one }

Missy August 28, 2011 at 2:44 pm

Kerry, I always use my camera nowadays and rarely make photocopies anymore! You can often get a better image than you would with the photocopier and it saves money, like you said. It works well for microfilm readers too — those printers are often the pits!


Kerry Scott August 29, 2011 at 8:38 am

That’s good to know, because there’s another file there that I also need to tackle, and that one’s on microfilm (and the machine is a dinosaur that almost never prints without a fight). I wondered if this technique would work for that.


Carm August 29, 2011 at 9:06 am

Hi Kerry,
I spent several years photographing Stato Civile records (for the entire comune) at my local Family History Center… right off the microfilm reader. The trick is to set your camera to shoot at the highest resolution and do not use flash. The research room was always dark so I brought a little telescoping tripod with me to keep the camera steady … worked like a charm.


Banai Lynn Feldstein August 29, 2011 at 9:12 am

Photographing microfilm from the reader does indeed work. Before we got the new machines at the FHL, I could often get more readable photographs than scans/copies. It’s much more rare now, but sometimes when the film is really bad quality, you can see things in photos that the scanner just can’t do well.


Cheryl Cayemberg August 28, 2011 at 2:46 pm

547 pages! I would have had a heart-attack! Waukesha, WI. I gotta love it!


Regina August 28, 2011 at 2:55 pm

Well done Kerry! Looking forward to hearing about all the discoveries that await you in that huge file!!


Susan Tiner August 28, 2011 at 3:02 pm

Kerry, that is so awesome you got the whole file photographed and those images are so clear and readable! Don’t forget to upload those photos so they’re getting backed up nightly.

How did you know that the probate file existed in the first place?


Kerry Scott August 29, 2011 at 8:41 am

I had seen it once before, years ago, when I was relatively new to research. I was on jury duty, and this was back in the days where you had to actually go to the courthouse and wait all day to be assigned to a case (and also before smartphones and laptops made waiting around more tolerable). On the last day, on a whim, I asked them if they’d let me go upstairs to the probate office to look at a file, and they agreed. I got to spend about an hour with it, frantically taking notes on the back of some scrap paper the jury duty people had given me.

Before that, if I remember right, I found it by looking through the index to Milwaukee County probate cases (which is in a huge card catalog next to the entrance to the probate office, although more recent cases are indexed via computer).


Susan Tiner August 29, 2011 at 9:40 am

So you just had a hunch that the estate was settled by probate because he was a lawyer, and that’s why you checked the index?


Kerry Scott August 29, 2011 at 10:17 am

I checked the index for everyone I was working on who lived/died in Milwaukee…but generally speaking, the odds are good with a lawyer and/or a person with a considerable estate that there will be a probate record. This guy was both, so I wasn’t surprised to find one. I’ve found probate files for people with far less to distribute though…and I’ve also had cases where the person had money, but no probate. It just depends on the case.

It’s always worth a look, though. You never know what you’ll find.


Heather Wilkinson Rojo August 28, 2011 at 3:09 pm

This reminds me of my trip to the Hawaii Archives. Only a genealogist would go to Hawaii and spend their days in the libraries and archives (they aren’t open at night, so beach or archive? which one wins out?). I thought I’d find a few family letters. They told me there were 20 folders of letters. Great, I thought, I can copy 20 letters. Well, the first folder had over 100 letters. We used our camera and 2 entire memory cards (over 3 Gigs) of photos before the archive closed. I didn’t go back for the rest the next day because I figured this was enough to transcribe for the next few years before we could afford another return trip to Hawaii. I’m still working on these scanned images and it’s been 14 months since our trip!


Kerry Scott August 29, 2011 at 8:42 am

If I’m through all of this in 14 months, I’ll be surprised.


Amy August 28, 2011 at 3:42 pm

I never leave home without my camera. Also, I’m jealous of your 7-inch probate file.


Geniaus August 28, 2011 at 4:29 pm

I always have a digital camera or Android tablet in my handbag.
One never knows when one will come across a document, person or place relevant to the family history will pop up.

Like you I have lots of pictures that feature my left thumb.


Julie August 28, 2011 at 4:44 pm

I saw “547-Page Probate File” and automatically began to drool. Off to wipe the slobber from my keyboard now.


Randy Seaver August 28, 2011 at 5:39 pm

Very well played!


Greta Koehl August 28, 2011 at 6:47 pm

I also have one of those plain little cameras with the flower thingy setting. I played around with it one day to make sure that I knew how to photograph documents properly. These days whenever I travel anywhere where anything genealogical might happen, I take the camera, a wand scanner, and the Flip-Pal. You never know. Hope your wrist is OK (that is a lot of clicking).


Kerry Scott August 29, 2011 at 8:43 am

My wrist is fine, but my back was so bad that I could hardly walk afterward. The table was just low enough that I had to hunch over the whole time. It took two days to recover. I need to start working out so I can be in shape for probate work.


Dana August 28, 2011 at 7:10 pm

What a challenge you had! And a good solution! I’ve been doing that same thing with taking photos since I got my iPhone, in fact – I just did a trip to the FHL in SLC where I was using microfilm readers and if I wanted to print it, I had to take them over to the special printer computer to do so. I found it faster, especially in those last few minutes before the library closed, to simply take photos of the image with my phone that I could analyze later. I didn’t do the whole file that way, but it saved me waiting in line for the printer!


Kerry Scott August 29, 2011 at 8:44 am

You know, I have an iPhone, but I used my regular camera for this because it seemed more likely that the pictures would turn out. I need to practice at home with the iPhone so I can do it on the road if I need to.


Dana August 29, 2011 at 5:55 pm

My camera is kinda cheap, so I find it’s more sensitive to ‘shake’ than my iphone is. There may be fewer MP on my iphone, but at it’s steady enough, at least!


Margaret E August 28, 2011 at 7:26 pm

I used the “flower” (macro) setting on my camera to photograph a small fruit knife that was passed down through the family. It’s probably 185 years old. By zooming in with the macro setting I was able to get close shots of the silversmith marks which can help date it. And I was able to get some gorgeous shots of the carvings in the mother of pearl! And you can zoom into your document images to get a closer look at print or handwriting. FUN!


Kerry Scott August 29, 2011 at 8:44 am

Oooo, that’s a good idea. I might try that later this week with some of the silverware I have.


Brenda August 28, 2011 at 7:42 pm

Good post, good advice! And here I thought you’d be all tuckered out from the excitement of your past week’s posts (and comments :-)
A DOLLAR A PAGE?! The nerve of the duffadars!


Kerry Scott August 29, 2011 at 8:45 am

I absolutely WAS tuckered out.


Debra Newton-Carter August 28, 2011 at 7:48 pm

Kerry: I found your site through following the Armchair Genealogist. I am impressed! I had a much worse experience when photographing documents. I have a camera in about the same class as yours, however, I was unaware of the requirements needed to take clear, readable photos of documents. We went to the Horry County, SC Courthouse where I photocopied land deeds from the 1800s…and also a series of books on early Virginia statutes (1700s) on ILL from the VA State Library (they were too large to photocopy)…thinking that when I viewed them on IrfanView I would be able to see them clearly. Unfortunately, they were all blurry. I will have to reorder the ILLs and order copies of the docs from the Courthouse eventually…
But your find is AMAZING! I thought my 157 page Civil War Pension File was a lot…this is absolutely monsterous…but in a great way!
Thanks for sharing!


Jake LaCaze August 28, 2011 at 7:51 pm

Oh man, probates can be nightmares, but I’m lucky never to have found a file this large. Since I read probates in order to see what happened with real estate or minerals, I can only imagine how complicated this would have made my job; if the guy was a lawyer, I’m sure he tied some things up in a trust, with some colorful legalese.

I recently bought a magic wand scanner to help with getting copies of documents, but I would have needed quite a few batteries in order to scan this whole thing.


Tom Mroz August 29, 2011 at 7:40 am

I love getting digital images of documents. That allows me to include them in my genealogical database, attached to facts and/or people. It keeps the documentation organized and always available for review. My biggest problem is getting permission to take the images. I’ve reviewed many vital records at the Milwaukee County courhouse, and taking photos is stictly prohibited. I don’t know if that’s a universal rule pertaining to vital records, or maybe it varies by location.


Kerry Scott August 29, 2011 at 8:47 am

I haven’t tried this in the vital records office yet. Hopefully the staff there won’t talk to the probate people, who were fine with it.

That’s good to know, though, because I’ll plan accordingly.


Brad Patrick August 29, 2011 at 8:35 am

Winning the genea-lottery is fantastic – enjoy every bit of it! I’m interested to hear (as others have noted) what the “meat” of the controversy is – why did his case swell to three volumes? Odds are it isn’t as a result of a contested paternity with a famous silent film star, but you can dream, right?


Kerry Scott August 29, 2011 at 8:49 am

No, no paternity issues with this guy…he was a good egg. A big part of it was that the estate was large, and there were trusts set up with annual reports for years and years for several of the descendants. There were also a couple of descendants whose husbands were…less than fabulous, shall we say, and so there are records related to the wives’ efforts to obtain special payouts to support themselves and their children. Lots of good genealogical info here!


Laura Prescott August 29, 2011 at 9:14 am

I discovered scores of Civil War letters written by a client’s ancestor at Duke University. He sent me down there to get copies since the library would take forever to get through the backlog of other requests. They wouldn’t let me scan, but they would let me photocopy (go figure), and they also let me attach my camera to a contraption called a copy stand so I could make digital photos of each page (without flash, of course). Wasn’t perfect because a camera’s lense is curved, but my client was happy.


Heather Wilkinson Rojo August 29, 2011 at 9:29 am

For more about using a copy stand, and for really preparing to photograph at an archive, see Dear Myrtle’s post http://blog.dearmyrtle.com/2011/04/myrts-day-at-archives.html Of course, she posted this several weeks AFTER I was at NARA, and AFTER I was in Hawaii, but next time I’ll be prepared! Thanks, Myrt!


Michelle Goodrum September 1, 2011 at 2:46 pm

That is an amazing story. You’ve just given me the movitation to keep up the workout routine. Being in good shape can come in handy in the most surprising ways!

I use my camera now more than photocopiers because it’s so fast and cheap. Works great with microfilm too. Then for the documents I want to transcribe I can open up the jpg file in Transcript and to the transcriptions. I love Transcript because I can zoom in on portions of the page if they are hard to read.

For those not familiar with Transcript, go to http://www.jacobboerema.nl/en/Freeware.htm


Susie Reynolds September 2, 2011 at 12:40 pm

Lucky you on that 7 inch probate file! I often use my iPhone to take pictures, and that works great. Beware though; I got seriously chewed out at the history commission in my state for taking pictures of a file there. It was weeks before I went back because I was so embarrassed. I should have asked first, but I didn’t. I realize now they have to make money somehow to pay the man sitting at the desk surfing the internet. :) But, to make matters worse, my nine year old son was with me and heard the man lecture me, and he was so worried that we were stealing from them by not paying for the copies. I told my son right in front of the man that we had made a mistake, that we were really sorry that we didn’t know the rules, (it was only my second time there and honestly, they weren’t really helpful in showing me the ropes) and we were going to make it right by paying for the pictures, so I paid him the same price for each picture as a copy would have been. My son, and the man were then satisfied but it did worry my son as he mentioned the incident several times after that. Anyway, if anyone can learn from mistake, I hope this helps. Just make sure you ask first!


Margaret E September 2, 2011 at 4:58 pm

Obviously, the state history commission needs to start being more clear about its rules, especially since most folks take pictures of everything with their cell phones these days. So why not documents! But, also be glad your state history place is open. In Georgia, the state archives have cut back hours to be open to the public only on Friday and Saturday. And yes they do need to pay a guy to “surf the internet” (although I hope he was doing actual work, research, trying to find an online resource, trying to keep up with archive news, or something productive). I think you handled the situation wonderfully, and your son will probably remember the lesson, which was, if you make a mistake (albeit inadvertently), make it right. And you showed him the value of historical records. As a librarian, I so often see the opposite, e.g., people who think they shouldn’t have to pay for lost or destroyed books, shouldn’t have to pay for a copy, shouldn’t have to pay for printing their resumes, etc. (Those books are “free” right?) I love that your son is going with you to the archives!!!


Connie Moretti September 5, 2011 at 10:23 am

You might try sewing weights to hold down pages. They come in packages of 6 usually, and have felt on the bottom so they won’t damage pages.


Kerry Scott September 5, 2011 at 11:03 am

That’s a great idea!


Laurie HL September 5, 2011 at 1:59 pm

Great post and wonderful follow-ups. Really loved the info on copying (by photographing) documents. I still kick myself for not asking to do that when I was back in Ohio at the Morrow County Genealogical Society. ::sigh:: I had my digital camera AND my laptop with me. Still beating my head against my desk for that kind of oversight. Well, that was 2 years ago & my first (and so far only) genealogical trip. Next time I’ll be MUCH better prepared!


Travis LeMaster September 9, 2011 at 8:37 am

I’m now suffering from probate envy.


Brandy September 26, 2011 at 7:47 am

There has to be lots of great information just waiting for you. I found one probate that was only 15 pages and connected and confirmed 64 relatives!


Jeff September 28, 2011 at 12:27 pm

Just make sure you don’t go to the real estate office and try to take a picture of a deed record…I didn’t have cash on me at the deed office that was closing in downtown Pittsburgh in like 15 minutes, and I asked if I could just take a picture of it – which about three people starting saying “Nooooooooo, Noooo, Nooo” almost in a perfect round. Then one of them said “You would get arrested for that. Never take a picture of a deed…”



Kerry Scott September 28, 2011 at 1:05 pm

You could get ARRESTED for that? Oh my goodness.

I am trying to imagine what sort of badass prison tattoo would be appropriate for someone who got thrown in the pokey for taking pictures of deeds.


Jeff September 28, 2011 at 1:15 pm

It would probably just be a tattoo that reads something like “I deed the deed…deed you?”


Lisa September 29, 2011 at 12:37 pm

I try to bring my camera everywhere, but find that a lot of court houses will not let you in with a camera, cell phone or laptop. Be sure to call an check first so you don’t have to make a trip back to the car before entering.


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