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Restored Civil War-era documents provide glimpse into Missouri history

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 27, 2009 - Historical Missouri court cases remind Mariano Favazza, St. Louis circuit clerk, of his years at St. Louis University law school. So, when he and Robin Carnahan, Missouri's secretary of state, announced the public release of 11,211 more Civil War-era case files today, he elaborated on what the law means to him.

"The law is what makes this country tick," Favazza said. "It's what makes things happen."

In 1999, Favazza partnered with the secretary of state to create what is now the Missouri State Archives-St. Louis. The archives get access to the circuit court records through Favazza's office, which also houses the archives.

The newly released court cases span 1866 to 1868. Archivists have already processed cases from 1861-1863 and are still working on 1864-1865 cases.

"This is a treasure trove of information," Carnahan said. "We see ... a history of the Civil War in Missouri. My goal has been to increase the access of information."

Making the 230,000 pages of these cases public didn't happen for free. The National Endowment for the Humanities gave $330,000 to pay for archivists and their supplies from October 2006 through August 2008.

Favazza said spending money on such projects "gives you insight on how to do things differently."

The conservators and archivists who restored these documents don't do everyday office work. First, conservators examine the papers' general condition.

"Some of these things were filthy," said Lisa Fox, senior conservator in the secretary of state's office, about the latest court cases. Coal residue from heating stoves blanketed some papers.

Other complications arose, such as documents that were never unfolded, glue that ruined text and pages being stuck together. After fixing visual defects, the papers get cleaned.

"We put 'em in a bath," Fox said.

She said it's unusual to submerge the papers in water because the ideal environment for conserving paper is dry and cool. Then, papers are flattened and -- if needed -- mended. They got a starch coating before they're put in Mylar folders.

Different court cases were on display. On each table sat the files of a particular court case, white gloves and a special metal letter-handler. One court case was labeled "Whiskey Trademark." The Star whiskey brand claimed that the Derby and Day whiskey company stole Star's logo. Star then filed an injunction against Derby and Day.

Amy Clark, an archivist from 2006 to 2008, was responsible for summarizing the legal proceedings for the archives. Clark said archivists ignore the verdict since appeals may exist, but may not be recorded.

The cases will be put on the Missouri Digital Heritage website, but that won't be finished until 2011 since each page needs to be scanned.

"People around the world will be looking at these," Favazza said.

Christian Losciale is an intern at the St. Louis Beacon.

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