Searching Through History:
Brownell Abstract By Joleene DesRosiers
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 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.
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.