On the bottom floor of the Nodaway County Administration Center sits a large room full of old letters, collections of wills and dozens of large books full of court records going back to the county’s formation in 1845. To most people, this place would be something more elaborate than someone’s basement, but not quite a museum. To Field Archivist Becky Carlson, it’s work.
Carlson grew up in Worth County, Missouri. After graduating high school, Carlson went to Northwest earning her secretarial degree in 1980. Carlson later married and started farming in Dekalb County, just east of St. Joseph, Missouri. Later on, Carlson returned to school to help put food on the table, this time at Missouri Western State University, where she majored in history and minored in political science, and it was there that her career as an archivist began in 1991.
Carlson trained at the National Archives in Washington D.C. for two weeks in conjunction with the Academy of Certified Archivists.
“I was offered an internship when I was a senior. I worked with the local records program, which is a division of Missouri's State Archives,” Carlson said. “It's part of the secretary of Missouri secretary of state's office, which that internship developed into a part-time job, a local records analyst, and it developed into the position of local records field archivist.”
There is no such thing as an average day of work for Carlson. She works across 14 counties in northwest Missouri, helping any tax-based entity identify, organize and preserve their permanent records, as well as help them dispose of records that are no longer permanent or no longer have intrinsic value.
Carlson recently finished an imaging project with the Atchison County Courthouse and is currently working on projects all across northwest Missouri towns, such as Maryville, St. Joseph, Bethany, Savannah and Oregon.
“We work with city halls, schools, special boards, any tax based entity, and help them with their records,” Carlson said. “That's how this program was devised, because all the city halls and courthouses were getting full and overflowing with records, so the local records program was developed to help local entities figure out what they've got and keep what needs to be kept in, get rid of what can be gotten rid of, and create space and preserve history for the future.”
Carlson has had a front-row seat to the history of northwest Missouri, going over records and primary sources of events, such as the 1838 Missouri Mormon War and the only civil case filed against Jesse and Frank James. The case was filed after the James brothers stole a horse to flee an attempted robbery and murder in Gallatin. Carlson has also found documents of Missourian residents applying to regain their citizenship and denounce the Confederacy after the Civil War.
The records have also included a history of Missouri’s governors. Carlson has come across files of cases of illegal gambling from Gov. Silas Woodson, who served from 1873 to 1875, and Gov. Albert Morehouse, who served from 1887 through 1889 and was originally from Nodaway County.
She’s viewed records of a failed assassination attempt on the governor in 1861 outside of St. Joseph. Bushwhackers blew up a railroad bridge over the Platte River under the pretense that wartime Union-appointed Gov. Hamilton Gamble would be aboard. Gamble wasn’t on the train and many died in the crash.
“There’s a lot more that’s happened during the Civil War period in northwest Missouri that hasn’t really been written about,” Carlson said. “Because the main concentration of a lot of historians have been in a little Dixie region along the Missouri River.”
Some parts of history have even caught up to Carlson herself. Carlson recalled an incident at the DeKalb County Courthouse in the 1990s. A box of six or eight grenades was found on the courthouse roof, and the bomb squad was called in from Jefferson City, a three-hour drive away. It was soon discovered that the grenades were around 50 years old, so Carlson continued to work with the box of undetonated explosives in the building.
“Well, it's been on top of the courthouse for 50 years, and it hasn't exploded. So surely it's not going to explode in the next hour before the bomb squad gets here out of Jeff City. So I continued working,” Carlson said.
When the bomb squad arrived, the grenades were taken off the premises and detonated in a nearby empty field. They figured that the box of grenades was put on top of the courthouse for civil defense during World War II and was forgotten about for decades.
Carlson has also worked with Northwest students enrolled in a public history course where students help with imaging circuit case files from Nodaway County from its formation in 1845 to 1899. Out of the 185 stacks of folders with records in the Nodaway County Administration Building, they have gone through 42 and are going through documents from 1872, converting the paper documents to digital files.
“I've enjoyed working with students,” Carlson said. “I had 11 students that helped with the project, and I've got a couple that are coming this semester. One of the students that worked with me last semester is now employed at the Missouri State Archives, which is great.”
To do this, the papers have to be unfolded, cleaned and flattened — sometimes the flattening process requires the papers be humidified. They’re placed in chronological order, prepared for imaging and identified by the actions and outcomes the paper signifies. They are then numbered, labeled, and entered into a database and transported to Jefferson City for imaging, where they are put online for researchers. For over 30 years and across 14 Missouri counties, Carlson has gone through countless documents and files, helping entities decide what to keep and to preserve the ones worth keeping for future generations.
“I get to serve the public,” Carlson said. “It’s just a great opportunity.”