Van Buren County, Tennessee Offices Destroyed by Fire, Birth, Marriage, Death, and Many Other Records Lost

It is a sad day for genealogists as another burnt courthouse is added to the list of records lost. Van Buren County, Tennessee, officials are scrambling after a huge fire destroyed the county administrative building in Spencer on Wednesday night. Historical records from the 1840s and later were destroyed, including Civil War artifacts, pictures from the Civil War, birth certificates, death certificates, and thousands of historical records. The local historical society also was housed in the building and lost everything as well.

“It’s a total loss,” said Van Buren County 911 director David Chandler. “We were able to salvage a couple old books and a few other items from the trustee’s office, but that was about it.” The fire was believed to have started in the historical society and then spread throughout the building.

One bit of good news: Mayor Wilson told news reporters county records are backed up on hard drives in different locations across the county in the event of situations just like this. That’s good news for keeping the county’s business affairs operational but I was unable to find any mention if older, historical records are backed up in a similar manner. Hopefully, the older records also are backed up as well.

Firefighters from six counties battled the blaze for nearly 15 hours but were unable to save the building. Firefighters were unable to put water on the building because their equipment froze over as temperatures hovered around zero degrees. The firefighters couldn’t spray water, and their ladders wouldn’t move up or down.

I looked in the news reports for any indication to learn if any of the historical records had previously been digitized and stored off-site. However, the news reports make no mention of any older records being preserved digitally.

You can watch a video of the fire on YouTube at

Several news reports about the fire are also available by starting at

My thanks to newsletter reader Cindy King for telling me the sad news.

11 Comments catalog lists deeds, probate and some historical vital records, along with other records for VanBuren County. At least it’s something.

Liked by 1 person

Does anyone keep track of these fires so people know the documents they might be looking for were lost?


Tennessee State Library and Archives has microfilms of records from virtually every county in TN, well up into modern times. They also had a drive to film loose probate and chancery records and lawsuit files some years ago. Many counties in TN were covered in this project. Van Buren county officials can purchase copies of these films from the archives if they really want to replace their records. Of course they would have to purchase readers to use them, or else have the films converted to digital form and purchase computers to give people access, but it is possible to get around much of the record loss in this county.


The majority of the county’s records (1840 to abt 1988-1990) have been microfilmed, and they are available at the Tennessee State Library & Archives, Nashville, TN. Other vital records such as births and deaths will be available from TN’s Dept. of Health which issues those certificates.

The original records can not be replaced, but this is a good example of why county/city governments should have microfilmed or digital images of their records stored off-site.


Periodically I hear about a county which has refused access to film their records or allowed access to only part of their records. They should thank their lucky stars for the LDS willingness to microfilm all of their records at no cost to themselves.


This seems to point out that we should not have an historical society in the same place as a town or county records building. Separating them would keep the chance of loosing both at the same time to the minimum.


I don’t see why they did not have a sprinkler system or something similar installed in the building. Its not a historical structure. If they had such a system then maybe everything could have been saved.


Last October, I visited the Hawkins County Archives in Rogersville, TN. It’s housed in a small brick building on the public works grounds. While they have online indexes, most of the records were still in paper file folders stored on shelf after shelf of bankers boxes. It too, could go up in minute. I’m sure this is the case for many rural counties across the country. Unfortunately, most of their pre-civil war birth and marriage records were burned by the Union Army when the town was occupied during the war.


    I visited Hawkins County several years ago. Lovely people but lack of records surprised me. I was able to contact some descendants of the family I was looking for.


Please, societies, take heed and preserve the records you have worked on over the years. Indexes, transcriptions, accumulated family records and all other types of local records you may have worked on to preserve and make available to others – backup and keep in more than one place.


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