Feeling the watchful eyes of all those who protect, I pay a visit to the County Recorder’s office in downtown Santa Rosa.
I’m accompanied by our real estate agent and I want one favor from him. I want to trace back the chain of title on this house we’re buying. Eventually I want to go back to 1848 and the end of the Spanish land grants, but for now I’m just looking for one particular event.
Our prospective house is old. Although it recently went through an extensive remodel, you can still see the outlines of what was once a craftsman bungalow from the 1920’s. But the current owners found in the walls a rolled up newspaper dating from 1893.
I suspect that our house was the original farmstead on what would have been a 40 acre homestead parcel.
You see, I’m the patron saint of all things lost. If you’re inhabiting a house, you’re taking on not just the house of today, but all the past lives of that house and the future ones as well. Everywhere we walk we’re surrounded by ghosts and what are we if we don’t choose to recognize and honor them?
By definition, life is a process of perpetual disintegration. Or rather, it’s persistence in the face of disintegration. Life wants to live. And in order for it to live, we must put ourselves forward as a countervailing force. Life is summoned in the face of death.
In this case, there was once a boy who lived in a sleepy seaside down in Southern California. The boy lost his parents and he watched the canyons and coastal chaparral be chewed up by a tide of development. He dreamt that one day he’d live in a place where he would be safe from loss and protected from those things that diminished life.
And once in Sonoma County there was a farm. The land supported orchards of cherries and nut trees and eventually Gravenstein apples. Over time it was divided up into ever smaller parcels, but by some miracle the orchards were never taken out and the land stayed under cultivation. And all the while an old green farmhouse and it’s inhabitants set themselves on that land and oversaw whatever life went on there.
But it only takes one change of ownership and that will cease to be.
In the County Recorder’s office, I scan the yellowed maps on the wall. You can see the outlines of what were once the Blucher Rancho and the adjacent rancheria. Our parcel now exists on the border separating the two land grants. In hand I have an existing parcel map for our area, showing the house we’re looking at and two smaller adjacent parcels. One is owned by an old woman with the last name Horstmeyer. The other by an elderly lady with the last name Edmunds. Still under orchard, in all these years the land has never been visited by either of the ladies.
Before delving any deeper, I already sense the story.
The county recorder pulls up the chain of title on the computer. She can only go back to the mid-1960’s. But just from that we can see the current owners bought it 10 years ago from a fellow named Robinson. And Robinson bought it from a fellow named Percy LaDuke in 1964. to learn more, we need to go to the map ledgers.
We flip through a large book containing fragile maps until we come to one particular change of title in 1964. We see an original parcel comprised of our house and the two other plots of land. And in lavender pencil, two neat hand-drawn incisions divide the one parcel into three.
I turn to the real estate agent. The two old ladies – they were Percy LaDuke’s daughters, I tell him. When he sold the house, he deeded two portions of the land to them and their descendants. He loved the land. He had to sell the farm, but he didn’t want to lose it. He felt that there was value in land and that the land should go to his daughters.
We now turn to the microfiche. It only takes a bit of searching to find images of the change of title. And there it is. Percy LaDuke selling the farmhouse and in two separate documents he subdivides the property and conveys title to Mrs. Horstmeyer and Mrs. Edmunds.
I can hardly contain myself now.
The woman were already married. That means they were at least in their twenties.
The real estate agent is shaking his head now.
That means the two women were born in the late 40’s. It’s all so clear now. If they were born in the late 40’s, they were early boomers. They were born just after the war. If Percy were selling the house in the 60’s once his daughters were married and gone, that means he would have been young enough to serve. He’d fought overseas and once the war was over, he was discharged, he bought the farmhouse and he and his wife had settled down to raise their family. They’d all grown up here. Once his family was gone, the farm was sold off and divided.
To trace back the chain of title any further, we need to do it manually and the Recorder points us to shelves of dozens and dozens of volumes organized alphabetically and by year.
How do we find the previous transaction, I ask.
You have to go through each year, she tells me.
But there’s little need for that.
I walk directly to 1948-49, pull one book off the shelf and flip to the L’s. We turn a few pages and there we have it. Two contiguous, handwritten entries in black ink. The first registering Percy LaDuke’s discharge from the Navy in Oakland, California. He had fought in the Pacific theater. The second entry recorded his purchase of the farm.