District Clerk Charles Bacarisse started this work just after he took office eleven years ago, when he learned that more than 170 years of the county's official documents were rotting in a warehouse. Many date to the 1830s. With donations from the Houston Bar Foundation and the public, Bacarisse has restored thousands of documents and records, and he's put them in a reading room that's open to the public. Judge Mark Davidson of the 11th District Court -- the county's oldest court -- says the records in this room can change the history books.
"No biographer of Sam Houston or Mirabeau Lamar, no biographer, and there have been hundreds of biographies, have ever disclosed that the first two presidents of the Republic of Texas sued each other. Those records are available in that room."
Texas Historical Commission Chairman John Nau says Texas counties are rightfully proud of their restored 19th century courthouses, but historic records in the courthouses are also important and Harris County is leading the way in preserving them.
"While we have saved and renovated and reopened 39 courthouses, Harris County is the only one that has also attacked the issue of its documents. For the buildings are the brick and mortar, but these documents are the history of the people."
Houston attorney and former Secretary of State James Baker -- whose own family has played prominent roles in Texas history -- says preserving and studying old records helps us learn from the mistakes of the past.
"I think historian David McCullough had it right when he said "a people that forgets its past can function no better than an individual with amnesia." And of course that's why it is really important that we preserve these records, because through them we can gain insight into events and individuals and things that happened that shaped our collective past."
The District Clerk's Historic Document Reading Room is on the second floor of the new Civil Courts Building on Caroline. There's more information about the restoration effort on the website KUHF dot org. Jim Bell, Houston Public Radio News.