Thursday, February 14, 2013

Exciting Times at the Recorder's Office with Chattel Mortgages

For various reasons, I've been down by the County offices at lunchtime lately, and decided this would be a great time to poke around in the Santa Clara County Clerk/Recorder records. In California, the county recorder stores critical legal records: births, deaths, deeds, mortgages, subdivision maps, and the like, going all the way back to the 1850's. I'd always been a bit curious about land ownership, so I thought it might be fun to poke around on properties, both our current house as well as some of the canneries and packing houses I've been following.

I'll give the results of some of that research another day, but for now I'll highlight one tidbit of information I found, and I'll tell a little about what's good and bad about searching legal records.

Higgins-Hyde Lends Some Money

Now, land records alone aren't very interesting for the model railroader. They're not necessarily good for tracking down industries in a particular area, for land is often leased to businesses. The personal records - births, marriages, and deaths - can be found easier through or other genealogy sites without the trip downtown, and the legal records usually have much less color than, say, census records.

But that doesn't mean there aren't gems to discover. While tracking down the ownership of the "Abinante and Nola" packing house at 740 West San Carlos St., I got stuck trying to find the owner of the property before around 1950. After some failed searches, I decided to check in the 1930's records for mention of the occupant at the time, the infamous Higgins-Hyde Packing Co. I didn't find any deeds on my search, but I did turn up a couple agreements between Higgins-Hyde and local orchardists called "chattel mortgages".

A chattel mortgage is an agreement to borrow money on "movable personal property". In these cases, Higgins-Hyde lent money at the start of the year to orchardists to help them with the year's crop and also provided a minimum price for the crop. The orchardists mortgaged the crops of prunes on some or all of their land and perhaps some of their equipment, and in return got the cash immediately. The orchardists promised to properly care for, harvest, and prepare the crop for market, and use the proceeds of the sale to pay back Higgins-Hyde. If the sale price of the fruit was greater than the borrowed amount, the orchardists kept it. Higgins-Hyde kept the right to go and grab the fruit if the orchardists failed to maintain the orchard or protect the crop, and would also grab any additional collateral if the orchardists didn't cough up the prunes.

Here's one of Higgins-Hyde's agreements with Fred and June Lester, well-known Willow Glen residents, from mid-August 1932. (Just to be precise, this mortgage was filed 8/17/1932, recorder's book 620, pg 294). This agreement, adding another $400 to an existing $4100 debt due in November of 2012, was signed just before Higgins-Hyde was savaged in the press for trying to undercut the Prune Pool.

And the agreement gives us a few hints about some of the Lester's orchard lands. The Lesters were best known for farmland south of downtown San Jose. Like a lot of orchardists, it appears they also owned and leased land in other parts of the Valley to expand their business or diversify their crop. This agreement covers two of these orchards not on the family ranch: a quarter quarter section of land (40 acres) at Bascom and Hamilton Avenues (now the site of a Whole Foods and large strip mall), and another 60 acres on White Road near Penitencia Creek in the Berryessa District of San Jose.

The Lesters also pledged a car (Studebaker) and tractor (50 h.p. Best Tractor. That Best tractor would be a nice detail for one of my orchards, for Best was a Bay Area company that produced continuous tread tractors that wouldn't compress the Santa Clara Valley's soft orchard soil. Best later meddled with Holt to form Caterpillar.

Note to self: buy more Studebaker models. Campbell sounds like it was more a Studebaker town than a Ford town.

The Lesters must've been a bit desperate for money after the low prices of the previous seasons; the agreement shows they borrowed $1500 in December 1931, then $2000 in March 1932, then $635 in April, and the final $400 in July, all payable in November.

There were at least three other similar mortgages filed the same year - the Leos on Latimer Ave. in Campbell, the Avilas off Monterey Road, and Gwins in San Martin. There also might have been separate contracts to sell the fruit at a fixed price to the company, but those wouldn't have gotten officially filed because they were simple contracts and not pledging ownership of specific assets.

One last note on the chattel mortgage: note that the Vice President of Higgins-Hyde at the time was Jack Roberts, probably the J.S. Roberts that occupied the site after Higgins-Hyde. Looks like Higgins-Hyde didn't skulk off into the night, but instead changed their name and kept packing after the Infamous Prune Pool Caper.

Searching at the Recorder's Office

I've only done a few searches at the Recorder's office, but here's some advice based on that experience.
  • Searching legal records is painful; they're not available online, so you need to be in the Recorder's office to see any of the actual deeds and mortgages. Indexes are awkward. Do as much research as you can about potential landowners and sale dates (to a likely year or month) before going to the Recorders office. Census records, city directories, and personal interviews can help you narrow searches before you start.
  • Deed searches require using an index book to find the "book" and "page" of a recorded instrument, then going to that "book" to see the actual record. For post-1980 records, the index is a computerized database, so it's easy to search for a particular owner. For the 1970's, you leaf through microfilmed computer-printed indices (luckily sorted alphabetically).

    Before that, the indexes are no longer alphabetical. Instead, you find the index book for a year or set of years. Each book is grouped by the first couple letters of last name and sorted by date. For Higgins-Hyde, you'd find the "H-J index book" as a set of images to browse. You'd then look through that book to find the section containing records involving people with the last name starting with "Hi-Hu" prefixes, then you'd read through that section in date order looking for any index entries referring to Higgins-Hyde. You'd then have a book and page for the actual document, and so you'd go to a separate database to actually see the deed. Finding the Higgins-Hyde documents in the 1932-1939 index required some back-and-forth to find the Hi-Hu section, then required scanning all fifty or hundred pages in the "Hi-Hu" section looking for mention of Higgins-Hyde.

    At least in the 1960's, the date-sorted by name prefix indexes are typed. Before then, you're getting into handwritten indices. The 1930's indexes can be clear or hard-to-read depending on the handwriting of the recorder. Luckily, the actual documents are typewritten so the legalese is easy to read. As you go earlier, you'll start finding cases where the legal documents are handwritten, and you'll find reading legal descriptions of properties to be a chore. Let's hope the folks who have been computerizing the census records might turn their handwriting skills to mortgages.

  • Viewing documents can be very, very awkward. In some counties (such as Alameda County), all the non-modern records and indexes are on microfilm, requiring some work each time you need to change media. In Santa Clara county, the indexes and actual records are all on computer, but the user interfaces for viewing the documents can be clunky and often only allow a single window at a time.
  • Common names or similar corporation names can make searching ten times worse. Trying to search for records involving a prolific real estate investor, a title company, or subdivision builder could result in a couple entries a day or hundreds over a year. The indexes often contain the "grantor" and "grantee", so you might get hints about which records might be interesting, but you'd then need to dash to the actual records to decide if the one you're looking for.

    I learned to do my searches on the least-common name in a grantor-grantee pair. To find more on the Lester's interactions with Higgins-Hyde, it might be easier to look through the "Le" section of the grantee index for Lester rather than the "Hi" section for Higgins-Hyde.

  • Legal records are a big business, so prices are set for the legal and real estate folks searching records. Unofficial copies can be $10/document (plus a per-page charge) in Santa Clara County. Using a smart phone to capture screen images might be an easier way to save a bunch of interesting records.
  • Tracing ownership can be tedious. Generally, tracing the ownership of a particular piece of land means finding when the current owner bought the land, then searching backwards through the years to find when the previous owner bought, and repeating. If you know that Joe bought the land in 1980 from Jim, you'd have to then search backwards from 1980 looking for all records on Jim to find his purchase. Knowing that Jim bought some time around 1960 avoids a lot of tedious searching. You might even be able to search from two directions, going forward from a first owner rather than back from a last owner.
It's worth mentioning I also used the visits to the Recorder's office for non-model-railroad purposes. I managed to track down all the owners of our otherwise commonplace house all the way back to its construction. It turns out every owner has had some connection to high-tech: first a former Hughes engineer at IBM, then a Lockheed aeronautical engineer, a GE nuclear engineer, Sun/IBM family, and our Apple/IBM/Google family. That almost explains the unsafe electrical splices we found buried in the roof when we re-roofed in 2000.

There's other interesting facts in the Recorder's dusty files - a strangely cheap purchase of a warehouse from the SP by Abinante and Nola, notice of the sale of the George Hyde cannery on the courthouse steps in 1932, and a full accounting of the assets of the Ainsley Cannery during a corporate reorganization. Those can all wait till another day.

[Photo: Recorder's Office, San Diego County, 1962. From San Diego History.

1 comment:

  1. BTW, the original books where all the deeds, chattel mortgages, and other details were recorded are now at the Santa Clara County Archives. Their collection includes not only the books that are available on microfilm, but the chattel mortgage and deed of trusts books before 1923 that aren't available from the Clerk / Recorder's office.