LOUDON, Tenn. (WATE) – Retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. John Cardwell doesn’t claim to have predicted the raging fire at the Loudon County Courthouse Tuesday night, but through his military background, coupled with his love for history, his eye caught a potential for: Either fire, flooding or vulnerability in Loudon County public record.
Tuesday night, all three became reality.
Cardwell explained he approached the County Mayor Bradshaw January 2018, requesting a change be made in county record keeping. He came to Bradshaw following a tour of the courthouse basement, where he said he discovered many county records, some more than 100 years old, were being stored in “poor condition.”
Following the meeting, he said Mayor Bradshaw formed a committee to look into the issue. Cardwell, after speaking with county employees and touring record storage areas, compiled a report and made recommendations for the county commission in February 2018.
His primary suggestion, he said, was to form a public record commission. He said that is required by law. Their mission would be to oversee record upkeep, management, and determining which records should be kept and where.
His report also outlines a need to minimize a risk of records catching fire, being damaged by water, rodents and more. It also suggests investing in an archive building.
He did acknowledge many of the county’s public records are microfilmed, he estimates from 1870-1987. While he didn’t completely finish his inventory of records, he said he did find a gap from the microfilmed records and the more recent ones, which are often stored digitally.
The report noted the mission wasn’t to place blame, but rather provide illumination.
He said those tasked with record-keeping lack both funding and space to store them efficiently.
The concerned lifelong resident of Loudon takes pride in that through his time searching for solutions, he was able to save professional registry documents, where doctors, nurses and other licensed professionals in the county are listed, from the courthouse fire.
Other documents, he said, were labeled and ready to be stored, but there was never a commission to see it through.
“As sad and tragic as this is, I want it to be a wake-up call to the citizens of Loudon. This isn’t the only place we have records – four other locations, of those four, three of them do not have fire suppression, so we’re sitting on another possibility of losing more records,” he added.
Mayor Bradshaw said Thursday there is no fire damage to documents on the first floor, but there is some water damage.
Fortunately, he explained, many of the court documents were kept secure in cabinets. He seems more optimistic about the shape of the public files on the first floor than he does about the 147-year-old building.
While he hasn’t been down into the basement yet, he said in a news conference Wednesday water was “waist-deep” when he checked Wednesday morning.
County officials await a structural engineer, who is scheduled to arrive Monday morning, to determine
the future of the historic Loudon County landmark.
Thursday, employees representing different arms of the county government pitched in to salvage the essentials on the first floor to prepare for their temporary court location up the road.
“To me, it looks pretty grim, to say the least. There’s one wall inside the building, where it actually, the heat got so hot, it blew the wall out. These walls are all two-layer brick, so right now, it’s really messy and I’m maybe not as optimistic as I was in the beginning,” Bradshaw said.
Bradshaw acknowledged Cradwell’s concerns.
“I think moving forward, this is a lesson we can all learn from. So hopefully moving forward, we can address those concerns the General had and we won’t make the same mistake twice that way,” Bradshaw said.
He didn’t criticize the county commission’s decision not to move forward with M.G. Cardwell’s proposal last year. Adding, “We are a very fiscally sound local government. There was some money involved. It was decided not to spend it on that cause. Again, if we knew this was going to happen, I don’t think there would have been any hesitation.”
The good news in the report is – most public documents, at least recent ones, are stored in one of four other facilities. Records in the courthouse were primarily issued by the Clerk and Master of the Chancery Court and the Sessions and Criminal Court Clerk.
While many documents in the basement ranged from old court cases to deeds to school records, we haven’t confirmed whether they’re duplicates or originals.
Come next week, more will be assessed and old knowledge could become part of a new wave of information moving forward from the fire.