Hurricane Katrina ripped open the roof off Hancock County’s historic courthouse and broke windows but most records inside the thick walls survived, thanks to some hurried preparations and a good bit of luck.
But Circuit Clerk Karen Ladner Ruhr isn’t counting on luck to protect the old documents in her office, especially the marriage licenses that date to the mid-1800s.
Ruhr was chief deputy clerk when Katrina hit in 2005. “We were very fortunate all the windows and the records were covered,” she said. “The first thing we did when we came back was to make sure the marriage licenses were okay and we put them in a safe place to make sure they wouldn’t get hurt.”
Ruhr was elected circuit clerk three years later, the same year Hurricane Gustav struck the Gulf Coast. Hancock County was operating out of an encampment of trailers while the Bay St. Louis courthouse, built in 1911, was undergoing post-Katrina restoration.
Ruhr didn’t want to leave the marriage licenses stored in a warehouse, so before evacuating with her family, she loaded up 20 large binders containing the oldest documents and hauled them to Alabama in the trunk of her Chevy Impala.
“My husband, Roy, said, ‘Karen, you can’t take county stuff.’ I said, ‘Yes, we can. We’re taking it to protect it.’”
Now, even when there’s not a storm approaching, Ruhr worries about the fate of all of the county’s aging records, stored wherever there’s space, including the old jail adjacent to the courthouse.
Ruhr knows that other Mississippi counties have lost records to fires or they have been misplaced and forgotten about. “Some of the clerks are amazed at what we have,” she said. “We’re very fortunate.”
Circuit court records are computerized, but her office still prints a copy and scans it. “When I came in office we started scanning everything, even criminal records. That’s our rule. Having gone through Katrina, we took a hard look and said, ‘We can’t keep doing it this way.”
As protective as Ruhr is of the records she believes it’s important for them to be available to everyone to see and not just keep them in storage.
“I think people should see them and I think schools should bring kids here.
To me, it’s not just a person’s genealogy, it is our county’s and our families’ history,” she said.
Anyone is welcome to sit down in the break room and get lost in the history. Some restrictions still apply for older documents – no copies or flash photography – but otherwise, she said, “If you want to see your Grandpa’s signature, we’re going to show it to you.”
The large binders containing the marriage licenses are stacked neatly in the break room by date, starting in 1800. “I’m in book E8,” said Ruhr of her own license.
Ruhr’s sentimentality toward the aging pieces of paper is understandable considering that she practically grew up in the courthouse and comes from one of the county’s oldest families.
She started working at the clerk’s office at 16 and returned each summer through high school and William Carey College. She was preparing for student teaching when a full-time job opened.
Ruhr recalled that on her first day, her uncle, Tax Assessor Claiborne Ladner, told her, ‘You better pay attention because one day you’re going to want your name on that door.’ ”
She couldn’t foresee a political office in her future and even today says her brother Jimmie Ladner, Hancock County’s tax assessor, is the real politician in the family. She does appreciate the fact that her office is the same one her uncle occupied.
Ruhr said she’s “not planning on going anywhere soon,” but she hopes that whoever follows her in office will “understand why this is here and won’t put it in a dumpster.”
She said, “We are really cramped for space but as long as we’ve got the old jail, we’re going to keep on keeping it.”