Abstract company keeps history of land in sharp focus

The records stretch back to 'the time we stole it from the Indians to the present time.'

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Ben Case walks through rows of files in the basement at Pioneer Title Company.

WALLA WALLA — Pieces of the past are all around us.

Newspapers often refer to themselves as the first draft of history, a sampling of the most important news of the day, every day, day in, day out.

But of course newspapers don’t have the market cornered. Another draft of history, a living document no less, can be found in the bowels of a local title company.

This draft is the history of ownership of local lands: "everything from the time we stole it from the Indians to the present time," says Pioneer Title Company President Ben Case.

Case is one of a vanishingly small number of owners of the former Dean-McLean Abstract Company, which got its start under yet another name, Fidelity Abstract & Security Company, in 1889.

Duke Dean, son of cofounder Stanley Dean, ran the company for decades, working from high school until shortly before his death in 1982 at age 93. Dean, whose shoes live on a bookcase at the Main Street firm, created a plat map of the county by hand, and his maps form the basis for Pioneer Title’s work.

Besides Dean’s shoes, a few other items hint at the company’s long history. A historical large-format camera, old fireproof safes containing the original maps rendered on woven, linen-like stock, and the downstairs library of files that until recently were the whole of the company’s filing system. Case and former owner Mike May said computers came into use at Pioneer Title within only the past 20 years.

Some of the work remains analog: heading over to the courthouse each day to catch up on paperwork on every property transaction in the county, whether Pioneer Title is involved or not. That legwork is needed to ensure the company can have a quick turnaround, usually two or three days, on title searches, Case said.

It also means the company — like the other local title insurers — has a nearly total picture of land ownership in the county from the Civil War era to today.

That history now is ensconced in computer files, but Pioneer Title retains the vast collection of files, from old "abstracts of title," which were not insurance but more like a book of all that was known about a property’s ownership, to today’s documentation, which is used by the company — and new property owners — to secure insurance in case a dispute arises.

"Title insurance is a really strange business," May said. "You don’t even advertise to the people who ultimately buy your product."

Instead, May and Case said, title companies distinguish themselves by building strong relationships with real estate professionals and by providing solid — and speedy — customer service.

"It’s straightforward paperwork, but it’s important for everybody when they buy or sell property," Case said.

The unassuming but huge collection of papers in the basement of 5 E. Main St. mostly lives in file folders, but parts of the collection are held in a filing cabinet reminiscent of an apothecary’s cubbyholes, with double-jawed drawers holding venerable handwritten records and another cabinet protecting aged, large-format glass negatives from a long-lost age.

"The complete history of the county is here at the company," Case said. "The stewardship of these records has been carried out for 120 years."

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