January 16, 2012

A city’s history — in its own words…


City official Jonathan Douglass reviews bound copies of the city record books dating back as early as 1854.

The life of the city of Lawrence, Kansas in carefully told, down to the most minute detail, in its daily record book. According to this report in the Lawrence Journal, it’s an actual book:

On Aug. 12, 1863, shade was a priority in Lawrence.

As the U.S. Civil War raged, evidently so did the heat. It caused Lawrence City Council members to take up their pens and craft City Ordinance No. 114, declaring that city residents were hereby allowed to build a fence five feet beyond any shade tree to provide it protection.

How do we know this? Simple. Lawrence’s official storybook tells us. Inside a locked storage room on the third floor of City Hall there’s a whole corner full of the books. Most of them are a good 18 inches tall and heavy. Inside many of them — the oldest ones — are line after line of handwritten ink.

They’re city ordinances. To make a law in Lawrence, you first have to pass an ordinance. And there is one thing about an ordinance that was true in the Horse and Buggy Age of the 1850s and the Electronic Age of the 21st century. An ordinance, according to state law, has to have a home in a book — a real, honest-to-goodness paper creation.

A database won’t do.

“They still all go into an actual book,” said Jonathan Douglass, Lawrence’s city clerk.

That’s a lot of books, and paper. Douglass is exploring the possibility of scanning them all. Though some documents, like building plans, ordinances, meeting minutes, resolutions and some personnel records, may never be thrown away. Those that can be destroyed, must stay around a few years at least.

In an attempt to beat back the voluminous growth, Douglass spent one day a week, from July to the end of December just sorting through the piles and files. He ended up sending 1,289 cubic feet of documents — about 880 boxes — to a private company where they’ll be stored for 17.5 cents per cubic foot per month. And he shredded 9,283 pounds of documents.

Impressive house cleaning, but not as fascinating as learning that in 1863 Lawrence, Kansas speeding was an issue. So much so, that the town passed a law making it illegal to drive any horse or horse-drawn vehicle “faster than a walk” on any bridge in the city.

And then there are the telling silences, according to the Journal:

The last ordinance entered into the book on Aug. 12, 1863…. Ordinance No. 115 clarified that the city marshal indeed had the power to arrest anyone for violating a city law. Perhaps residents had an inkling of what was to come.

Just nine days later, on Aug. 21, 1863, the greatest tragedy in the city’s history struck. William Quantrill and his band of raiders burned the city and killed more than 150 residents.

For the next eight months, Lawrence’s official story book fell silent. Not one official law passed in Lawrence during those dark days. Sometimes what’s not written says a lot, too.

Then, on April 30, 1864, some city clerk grabbed his pen and wrote again. The topic of the new law: regulating the sale of intoxicating liquor.


Valerie Merians is the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.