Safely preserved but not available to the public, original McLennan County marriage records are tucked away in a county building.

But digital copies of the historical documents, which could help connect the dots for people working to put together their family trees, will soon be searchable in an online database.

McLennan County Clerk Andy Harwell and his staff have undertaken a project to digitally scan and preserve county marriage records from 1850 to 1996. After six weeks of work, the documents have been digitized, but that’s just a start, Harwell said. The county hired Edoc Technologies for about $36,000 to perform the digitization work, and Harwell’s staff is starting to index the more than 170,000 marriage records by groom’s name, bride’s name and date.

“You’ll be able to sit at home and research in McLennan County back to 1850,” he said.

The public can already access marriage records, and property records, on the county’s website from 1995 forward. Searching the documents is free, but anyone who wants a copy has to pay a $1, which is a fee set by statute, Harwell said.

The McLennan County clerk’s office was one of the first in the state to digitize records, he said. When he was elected to office in 1994, the county did not have backups for any of its records.

“So if we would have had a fire or tornado or something or a flood, we would have lost everything,” Harwell said. “The first project we did, we microfilmed everything, indexed the documents and everything. That’s all stored off-site for disaster recovery.”

The marriage records project is being paid for by filing fees that go to the county’s records management fund, not by tax dollars, Harwell said.

“Every time a document is recorded in our land records, there’s a $10 fee that’s charged,” he said. “I’m a custodian for the records. That’s for us to be able to take care and do this type of work to protect the history.”

After digitizing other documents, it has been a long wait for the records fund to build up enough to cover the marriage records project, Harwell said.

The county clerk’s office indexes 200 to 300 documents every day in the course of its regular daily work, so it may take up to a year to finish indexing the historical marriage licenses between other work, he said.

Harwell said he expects the system to be widely used once the marriage records are fully uploaded.

“The people, the genealogists, that come through, they know how to get around in our records pretty well,” he said.

County Treasurer Bill Helton stopped by Harwell’s office for a change to browse through the 167-year-old marriage records. Helton said he was hoping for a glimpse of someone he knew, since his family has lived in McLennan County for several decades.

“I’ve heard stories all my life. Some of them are pretty interesting,” Helton said.

The county clerk’s office has six public computer stations available to peruse different types of county records. Paper marriage records are also bound and organized by year throughout the clerk’s office.

Cassie L. Smith has covered county government for the Tribune-Herald since June 2014. She previously worked as a reporter for the Beaumont Enterprise and The Eagle in Bryan-College Station. Smith graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington.