The summer of 1977 saw a change of professions from Village Kitchen Bakery manager to microfilm operator and records negotiator for Salt Lake City based Utah Genealogical Society (now FamiySearch) and training to microfilm in the Midwest--specifically Iowa, Illinois and Michigan. I left my pregnant wife, Diane, who was expecting our third child in the care of her twin sister in Provo, Utah and moved to DeKalb, Illinois. Arrangements had been made to rent a home from a couple who were planning to go to Egypt to teach (at least the husband was). They were not yet ready to move when I arrived in late summer. However, I was asked to go to Alleghan County, Michigan and microfilm there. I lived in Kalamazoo, Michigan with the local bishop of the LDS church and his family during this time on a temporary basis. While I was in Michigan, I received word that my third child and second son, Paul Golden Adams, was born on October 25, 1977.
Microfilming in Register of Deeds Office, Alleghan County, Michigan-October 1977
My wife and children joined me in Illinois around Thanksgiving and from my home base in DeKalb, I filmed in Whiteside County, IL and then Cook County (Chicago) at one of the warehouses of the circuit clerk's office.
Near Easter in 1978, Diane and the children went back to Provo for a visit, and I continued to film at the Lake Street warehouse by driving to Geneva, IL and driving to Chicago on Monday morning--returning back to DeKalb on Friday evening. While they were in Utah, the events that I now describe occurred.
For background, the warehouse was near the Eisenhower Expressway among various other warehouses. The first floor of the warehouse was a clock company and the circuit clerk housed records on the second and third floors. I was filming in an abandoned restroom. Through the wall was the administrator's office consisting of a large metal military desk and a naugahide sofa. It was on this sofa that I slept when I was not filming. On this second floor, I had a hotplate where I could heat up food, and often I would go about half a block to an Italian cafe for some of my meals. Behind the area where I had the hotplate, the exterior wall was all glass sections and a fire escape was attached to this end of the building. Because I was being paid 1/2 cent per image "shot", I usually filmed from 5am to aobut 11 pm or whenever I was too tired to continue.
The warehouse closed at about 4 pm, and when the administrator and workers left, I would lock the door going downstairs from the inside by pushing a bolt into the door jam. The door would be padlocked on the outside until the next morning when the workers showed up for the next day's work. So this "farm boy" from Utah felt quite safe although it was eery with all the creaking and crackling sounds at night.
Microfilm set-up in an abandoned restroom at Cook County Circuit Court warehouse, Lake Street, Chicago, IL April 1978
During this particular week in April, as I was filming, my camera started to have problems and I was not able to get it to work. This was on a Wednesday, as I recall. Try as I might, I could not keep it working. I called Salt Lake City and they "walked" me through various tests and I could get it to work for a short time, and it would go "down" again. I called several times during the day, and finally got it to work. But on Thursday morning, the camera would work for a short time, and then wouldn't work again. I was informed by Salt Lake that they had just received another camera and had checked it through and that they would send it counter to counter from Salt Lake airport to O'Hare airport in Chicago and I could go get it. The flight would take about three hours and I thought that I could probably get to the airport with the "faulty" camera to send it back and receive the replacement and get back to the warehouse before they padlocked me in so I could continue to film through the rest of the week.
Traffic was terrible from downtown Chicago to O'Hare and when I got there, the replacement camera was waiting for me. I sent the "faulty" camera back to Salt Lake City and decided that traffic was too heavy to be able to return to the Lake Street warehouse in time. So I drove to DeKalb and decided that I would return Friday morning early. On my way in to Chicago, I turned on the car radio and heard the news that the Cook County Circuit Clerks Lake Street warehouse had burned Thursday night, and I had no idea what to expect when I arrived there. I was afraid that the microfilms I had been producing would be damaged because I only sent full cartons of unprocessed film back to the Granite Mountain vault and I had not been able to complete a carton.
When I arrived at the warehouse, the smell of smoke was strong! There was water marks along side the stairwell to the second floor. When I saw the disastrous mess of water-soaked files, I was particularly concerned that the naturalization records (some 167 large archive books) would be ruined. I was in the process of their filming as they had just been moved from another warehouse to where I was located and I had lined them up on the floor in one of the aisles in the order they were to be filmed. For the photo story, click HERE.
When I went to my station to check on the microfilms, I found that the typewriter that I was using had all they keys jammed together. Water damage from the overhead sprinklers had soaked the entire area of the second floor where the records were. However, none of the overhead sprinklers in my area of filming had turned on. On the other side of the wall, however, they had drenched the administrator's office. The only thing that was left of the sofa where I normally slept was reduced to a few springs on the floor!
That wasn't what bothered me, though. The administrator called me aside and went to his monstrous desk. As he opened the middle drawer, he said that something had been left on his desk. It was a large butcher knife--the biggest, ugliest knife I had ever seen! He explained that the fire was obviously arson and the person who had set the fire had apparently hid until the door had been padlocked, and the arsonist was also ready to "take care of me". But my camera had quit and it was necessary for me to leave the building and couldn't make it back before they closed up for the day! My life had been spared!
The fire had been set, first on the third floor in several locations through the use of a shopping cart filled with loose records that were set on fire. The sprinklers on the third floor had apparently stopped the fire from spreading very far and doing structural damage. The arsonist then used the delivery elevator to then go to the second floor where the naturalization records and many loose chancery records on open shelves were stored. Using the shopping cart, he set several fires on the second floor, the results of which I mentioned earlier.
When I checked the naturalization books, each of the 167 volumes, I found that they were intact but that the water had penetrated through the margins on the three sides of the books that were not bound, and then stopped! The records had been miraculously preserved! When I told my wife what had happened, we decided that since a new supervisor had been hired by Utah Genealogical Society to oversee the microfilming projects in the United States (from the Chicago area) and that we would be going to a salary of $850 per month, I knew that we would not be able to stay on such a small salary compared to living expenses coupled with this experience we decided that it would be best to return to Utah. So by the first or May, we were headed out west to return to Provo where we had rented our home to some BYU students while we were in the Midwest.
Oh--by the way--when the "faulty" camera arrived in Salt Lake City, it was checked out thoroughly and there was nothing wrong with it! They were able to send it to another microfilm operator who used it without any problems! The Lord had not only saved my life, but the naturalization records had been preserved. My replacement had to take a letter opener page by page to separate them on the three unbound sides in order for them to be microfilmed. Thus ended my career as a microfilm camera operator--just eight months when we had prepared for eight years! The story was that the day prior to the arson, one of the "employees" of the circuit clerk had been laid off and he had a history of arson, having previously set fire to a girl friend's apartment. But they the Chicago authorities were apparently not going to pursue it.
WOW! What a save! All through I was wondering if anyone found the arsonist and you saved it right to the end. Great pictures. I can't wait to see the album. What an awesome thing to be doing.
Wow is right! How wonderful the records were spared - not to mention you, of course! I was very disappointed last year to find, after writing the National Archives, that my father's WWII records had been burned (along with thousands of other vets' records) and it made me realize how important archiving really is. We all owe a huge debt to the LDS for all the work you have (collectively) done in this area. Your photos were fascinating.