Searching Through History:

Brownell Abstract By Joleene DesRosiers
"Absolutely Business" - August 2009

One of the greatest land transactions in New York State history involves the transfer of nearly four million acres of Mother Earth. It happened in 1791 when a merchant known as Alexander Macomb purchased the vast acreage from New York State. Historic accounts say Macomb became wealthy during the American Revolution as a merchant in the fur trade. He took his cash and bought the land for roughly eight cents an acre.

The tract included much of Northern New York along the St. Lawrence River and eastern Lake Ontario, including the Thousand Islands. The great lands were divided into ten large townships. From this purchase derived the deeds for all the parcels included in Lewis, Jefferson, St. Lawrence and Franklin Counties, as well as portions of Herkimer and Oswego Counties.

Today, many parcel descriptions contained in deeds throughout the North Country still refer to 'Macomb's Purchase'. The man that would know all this and more is Michael Yonkovig, president of Brownell Abstract Corporation in Watertown. He’s a bit of a historian and even more of a perfectionist. His job? Providing you with the most accurate and up to date land title regarding your property.

“Anytime a piece of property changes hands or a person mortgages their property, that information has to be updated on the existing title,” Yonkovig said. “Nowadays you just can’t go by somebody saying, ‘I own that piece of property.’ You have to be able to prove it. So a search of the public record at the clerk’s office can establish that.” That’s where the adventures of an abstractor begins, at the clerk’s office. Amid the sometimes ancient and giant books of deeds, they can find out if there are liens on a property or if someone else has an interest in the land in question. They can determine who owned the property in 1842 and update that information to the present time.

“Sometimes we find problems with a title,” Yonkovig said. “A mistake that was made in a deed a hundred years ago might turn up. Or we might find that somebody that owned the property passed away and had five heirs, but, for some reason, only four deeded out. There might be no record of why that fifth person didn’t deed out and that can cause a problem. It's our job to search the public records and compile our findings in an abbreviated form known as an abstract of title."

The Birth Of The Abstractor

Like most processes, title searching has evolved with time. Yonkovig says the earliest forms were simple and unsophisticated. In the early 1800s, everybody knew their neighbors. So when a question arose as to who owned a particular parcel, a rather basic method of title assurance generally sufficed. The purchaser would simply visit the county clerk's office and ask if the title seemed to be in order. The clerk would usually agree that it was...and then the purchaser would be on his way.

But as land values began to increase, so did title complications. Buyers quickly learned the properties they wanted were sometimes burdened with title hazards. And they learned this by searching public records themselves.

Thus, the birth of the abstractor. It wasn't long before the layman-turned-abstractor became an important part of the buying and selling process. Abstractors began to research various parcels in question, updating titles with the proper information and relaying that information to its customers. Often they would team up with an attorney during the process, but as time went on, abstractors began to take on a life of their own. Today they are independent operators available to anyone at anytime.

So what is a title, exactly? Often referred to as an abstract, a title is the piece of paper attached to your property. This piece of paper, or certificate, describes the various types of records or information the abstractor has reviewed regarding your property's history. It will show any liens, judgments, inheritances, restrictions or easements. And what is an easement, anyway? "If you had a National Grid utility line across your property, that would be an easement," explained Yonkovig. "At some point in time, rights to a portion of the property were given to National Grid. They have the right to come on to your property to maintain their poles. They may have to clear the brush underneath them, replace the poles if necessary, or trim the trees along side them." He continued, "There could also be what is known as a 'right of way' across your property. That means that people may have rights to cross another’s property. And all of that information should be and needs to be spelled out on the title." So the abstractor, more or less, is the messenger making buyers aware of such issues. And because of this, Yonkovig needs to stay on top of his game. That means research, accuracy and attention to detail are mandatory at Brownell Abstract. It's earned Yonkovig a good reputation, and rightly so. He's not opposed to going the extra mile for anyone. "I remember one time a gentleman came to us about the property he owned. He said it had been in the family since 1800 and was handed down to him. But he didn’t have any deeds,” Yonkovig recalled. “So he gave me some family names that went back about three generations. I started a search, but couldn’t find any deeds with those names. So I went to a Jefferson County history book, found the genealogy for one of the surnames and lo and behold! I looked in the clerk’s office under that name, from 1805, and found a deed that fit the property perfectly! Apparently, from 1805 to present time, there was never another deed given. It passed completely each time by will. This gentleman didn’t even know who his earliest ancestors were, so that abstract became a lesson in history of the property, as well as a family history for the person!” No doubt, searching a title can be a tedious and an often time-consuming process, but for Yonkovig, it’s when he can crack a family tree that makes it all the more gratifying.

A New Generation

Michael Yonkovig has been working with land history for years. After he graduated from the SUNY-ESF Ranger School program in Wanakena, New York, he started working for the Jefferson County Tax Mapping Department. That was in 1973; the same year New York State mandated every county to have tax maps. For more than ten years, he worked for the county as a mapmaker. He switched gears in 1985 when he was hired as an abstractor by Brownell Abstract Corporation, named after its founder Ozzie Brownell. Six years later Yonkovig became the owner and president of the company.

Today, the name remains. Within the walls of the historic building at 135 Park Place in Watertown, ten employees work diligently to maintain the proud reputation earned through hard work and dedication. We have employees that have worked in our office for over twenty years and some of our employees are recent college graduates, one of whom has worked every summer throughout his college years until his graduation date. Yonkovig says it takes a unique individual to become an abstractor. “An abstractor,” he said, “needs to be a history buff who is curious, patient, and willing to pay attention to detail and, in this age of technology, has to be quick with a computer as well.”

For Yonkovig, it's a fairly new concept to be able to access deed information from a computer—and not because he was outdated, but because the process was. “When it comes to title searching, we’ve gone from the Stone Age to the Tech Age,” said Yonkovig. "The county clerk’s office, over the last ten years, has computerized all the records. Before that, we had to reference very large and, often very old, deed books. It had been done that same way from 1800 to roughly the year 2000. Now we can search Jefferson, Lewis and Saint Lawrence County records on-line. I think in the future we will see other clerk’s offices opening their records to abstractors from outside their areas. Eventually, I think we’ll be able to search any place in New York State.”

That’s good news for Brownell Abstract. Brownell Abstract has recently networked its computer work stations at its main headquarters with a public records network provided by the Jefferson County Clerk. Brownell’s searchers can now search the public records using a network of laptops. This enables them to more efficiently gather the information needed to prepare an abstract of title.

Whether it's a dusty old deed book or a streamlined new laptop, Brownell Abstract Corporation just keeps on doing what they’ve always done—searching through history!

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