The original property deed for my little piece of Wellesley heaven was written out by hand in the mid-1800s in loopy cursive handwriting. It’s a thing of beauty. One letter flows into the next, all slightly slanted toward the right, with lots of flourishes and curlicues. It was hard for me to decipher the 150+ year-old legal document, and I grew up at a time when the Palmer method of handwriting was the gold standard of penmanship. Chicken scratch was always more my style, despite an early education spent laboring away at rows of lower case n’s with two humps, lower case m’s with three humps, and capital Q’s that looked like fancy 2’s. Some of you know what I’m talking about.
I recently got the chance to see the piece of living history that is my deed on a computer screen at Wellesley Town Hall. As part of the Norfolk County Registry of Deeds Community Outreach Program, William P. O’Donnell, Register of Deeds for Norfolk County, and Alicia A. Gardner, Director of Support Services of the Norfolk County Registry of Deeds, came to pay a call to the good people of our fine town. Their goal: to spread awareness about how the Registry works today. It’s been a wild ride over the past 200 years for the historic record-keeping government agency. The Norfolk County of Deeds was started in 1793 and is one of the oldest registries in the country. Since its inception, the registry has moved from scribes scratching away with quills dipped in ink pots to office staff who, armed with just a few key terms and a laptop, can bring up deeds and land records in record time.
In the Selectmen’s Meeting Room at Wellesley Town Hall, Gardner asked me a few questions to get going. I wanted to see the scanned computer image of the original deed of my home. No problem, she said, but some properties are easier to look up than others. For example, just typing in an address doesn’t guarantee a quick search. Land records in the 1700s and 1800s did not require addresses to appear on deed documents. That didn’t become part of the process until 1969. My home was built over 100 years before that, so my original deed is listed by title number. That’s not exactly a list of digits I can rattle off as easily as my Social Security number. No matter, it was easy enough for Gardner to pull up the records based on name and address, both of which appear on the updated deed from when our home most recently changed ownership.
The records reflected that our property had turned over remarkably few times, given its age. When we moved in, neighbors had told me the previous family had lived in the area so long — “forever” was the term, I believe — that a nearby street was named after them. I was also told the massive peony beds were “over 100 years old”, and that I should be able to find an historic home plaque in a drawer somewhere. Maybe the kitchen. I found the street the neighbors mentioned, and the plaque was, in fact, in a kitchen drawer. The peonies, like proper ladies, didn’t reveal their age, but I’ve tended them with the care to which they’re entitled given their rumored long years.
Who owned it first?
But what about the history of my property before my property became part of the land records, I wanted to know. Who owned the land before 1793, that storied year of when land records began? How did a house end up on the land in the 1800s? Answers to these questions are going to take more than just a few key strokes, I found out. So although I didn’t come away with all the information related to my property, I was pointed in the right direction to continue my research.
Gardner also printed out an official copy of my deed, certified with an official stamp. “This document is as legal as the original deed you received back when you closed on your property,” she assured me. The price was free, just for showing up at the Registry’s office hours. Had I instead visited the Registry’s Customer Service Center at 649 High Street in Dedham (across the street from the Norfolk County Superior Court), the cost would have been a whopping $1. Don’t ever let any outside company “search” your deed for you and provide you with an official copy for a mere $75 (or more). Although not illegal for companies to do this, it’s a total waste of your money, and feels a little scam-like.
If you can’t make it to the Registry, you can send a request by mail to:
Norfolk County Registry of Deeds
Copy of Document Request
649 High Street
Dedham, MA 02026.
The cost by mail is $2.00 for the first page, $1.00 for each additional page.
The digital age
Moving records into the digital age is without a doubt what O’Donnell is most proud of over his 17 years as Register of Deeds. In 2015, the Registry started working with Xerox Services to take over 250,000 hand-written deeds from 1793 to 1900, scan them, and transcribe them. The transcription process was taken on to ensure that historical records will be legible to future generations, and the information on them will be read correctly. “We’ve gone from handwritten records to document imaging so that all land records can be accessible to residents,” O’Donnell said.
The Norwood resident serves as an elected official. In the 2018 general election he ran unopposed. Out of 312,152 votes cast, O’Donnell got 229,410 of them, or 98.9% of the vote. He’s been Register of Deeds since 2002, and has gotten the thumbs up from voters four times, unopposed each election cycle except for 2004. He is a graduate of Boston College Law School, Georgetown University, and Xaverian Brothers High School. O’Donnell was admitted to the Massachusetts Bar Association in 1985.
Services the Norfolk County Registry of Deeds performs:
- Provides copies of Deed or other land documents
- Files a Homestead Declaration
- Records recent Mortgage Discharges
- Provides information on foreclosure assistance, home buying and more
October 23rd seminar — find out how to find out all there is to know about your property:
The Norfolk County Registry of Deeds will hold a Computer Seminar on Wednesday, October 23, 4:30pm – 5:30pm . It will be an informational seminar of computer assisted land records research and will be held at the Registry. The program will include a brief presentation, written reference materials, and hands-on exercises.
To register, go to the Customer Service Center at 649 High Street, Dedham, or contact Alicia Gardner at 781-461-6104 or [email protected]
Registry phone is 781-461-6101
Registry email is [email protected]
Registry building hours are Monday – Friday, 8am – 5pm
Recording hours are 9am – 4pm