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Title News - January/ February, 2007

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January/ February, 2006 - Volume 86 Number 1

Cover Story
Historical Highlights of ALTA® -- the First 50 Years

by Benjamin J. Henley

This article was originally printed in the November 1956 Title News as part of the proceedings of ALTA®’s 50th Annual Convention that year in Miami Beach, FL. It is interesting to note that some of the issues they dealt with back then are still around today.

As a segment of history, 50 years is a short period of time. However, the impact upon the society of men of the events that have transpired during the half century, which encompasses the existence of the American Title Association, has been greater than that of the developments in any previous period in the whole recorded history. This is emphasized to all of us by recalling the many firsts that, during our lifetimes, have appeared as novel experiments and that now are indispensable to our comfort and almost necessary to our existence. Many of us can remember when there was no general use of the electric light and the telephone and when there were no automobiles and no phonographs. Most of us have seen the radio, television, and air transport make their appearance, and all of us are appalled by the implications of what is presently known of the phenomenon of the fission and fusion of the atom.

During a period when such great changes have occurred, you could justifiably assume that the problems of the title business, which induced the formation of the American Title Association 50 years ago and the methods of transacting the business in which its members were and are engaged, would have likewise shown great change. If that should be your conclusion, you need only read the proceedings of the first two conventions of the Association to accomplish complete disillusionment. Except that title insurance, struggling upward over the years, has reached a status of recognition in this country almost equal to that of the redoubtable abstract, the character of the business and the problems with which it is involved are much the same as they were fifty years ago.

The Association is Organized
The inspiration for the formation of the Association came from the Wisconsin Association of Title Men, and as proof of the adage that any organization is the shadow of one man, the proceedings clearly outline the silhouette of Mr. Walter W. Skinner of the Chippewa County Abstract Company of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, as the dynamo who brought the American Association of Title Men (AATM) to life. The organization meeting of the Association, which was devoted entirely to the procedure of organization, met at the Palmer House in Chicago on August 8, 1907. In the proceedings of that meeting the purpose of the meeting is stated as follows:
“Believing that there was urgent need of an organization of the abstracters and title men of the United States for the purpose of unifying the abstract profession; for the organization of associations of abstracters and title men in states where none exist; for the establishing of a magazine devoted to the interests of the abstract profession and the conveyance of real estate; for the just defense against the attacks made upon the abstracter profession; for enlightening the public upon the subject of abstracts of title and upon the laws relating to conveyancing of real estate and for securing uniformity in the abstracts furnished the public, the Wisconsin Association of Title Men issued and circulated a letter as generally as addresses of abstracters and title men could be obtained asking the advisability of undertaking an organization of that character.”

It is interesting to note the absence in this statement of any reference to title insurance.

Considering the local character of the title business as it the existed, it is surprising that there were present at the meeting 59 representatives from the abstract business of 13 states. Most of these men resided in, and were connected with, offices in the middle west. Only one state from the far west, Washington, was represented. With the exception of Florida, none of the Atlantic coast states was counted present.

The proceedings of the first convention are unique in that they consist largely of letters to the president of the Association responding to his request to those who attended to write a paragraph or more on the subject of the new association under the caption “Possibilities I Did Not See.”

The Second Convention
The second convention of the Association convened as Des Moines, Iowa, on August 19, 1908. The report of attendance showed a reduction in the number of individuals present, but there was an increase in the number of states from which they came. There were registered at the convention 41 delegates from 17 states. Geographically the representation was much the same as in 1907.

What might be called the first directory of the Association was published in the proceedings of 1908, as a list of members. This directory listed 181 individual members and 14 state association members. The membership comprised about an equal number of individuals and corporations. Few of the corporate names indicated that their owners offered title guaranties or title insurance as one of their products. Most of the individual members were from states, which had state association membership.

With some slight changes, I believe that I could read to you most of the addresses that were delivered at that convention as discussions of current problems and current events, and you would find them to report accurately most of our problems of today.

In his report to the convention, President Skinner referred to “the indefiniteness and inaccuracies of the real estate and abstracters’ directory” and urged that the state associations ought to undertake to get up state directories of responsible and reliable abstracters and furnish such directories to the national association. He also stated that he had come across so many queer things in conveyancing that he believed the Association ought to work along the lines of uniformity in conveyancing and should take up the matter of appointment of notaries and surveyors. In the matter of conveyancing he preceded Charley Swezey by some 45 years. He was also concerned because “any man who is 21 and can write his name can be appointed as notary, and it makes an abstracter actually cry to see some of the mistakes that come in for record.” He thought that both notaries public and surveyors should be appointed by the state for life. He said that in his state “anybody that can get elected can survey and if he can make the people think he is wise they will elect him and what does he do. He will make some of the worst descriptions of metes and bound that you ever saw.”

Mr. Lee Gates of Los Angeles urged that the public should be educated concerning the title business because there is a very prevalent idea abroad that the profits in the title business are exorbitant. This he moderately resented because he said that “in southern California up to ten years ago (prior to 1908) there was scarcely a successful title company in all of the country.” It might be noted here that particular aspect of the title business in southern California has experienced almost as great a revolution as has been wrought in the laws of physics by the atomic bomb.

A description by Mr. Gates of methods of conducting the title business in California, with little change, would describe the business as it is conducted there today, with the exception that in southern California title insurance has replaced the certificate of title, which he described as the principal type of title evidence issued. Even as to the escrow system, the business then was conducted much as it is today.

Mr. Lambert of Indiana told the convention that the Indiana Association was “organized to put up the best opposition possible against the Torrens System. Several states already have this law and others are considering this mode of title registration. New York will be the next to give it a test February 1, 1909. It is every abstracter’s duty to make ready and that very soon to meet this contest as it is surely coming in some states.” Several other speakers referred to the Torrens System as one of the problem children of the business. Mr. Gates expressed the opinion that it could never be made effective in America under our present form of constitution and concluded that the advocacy of the system and the agitation for it was merely an evidence of popular unrest and the desire of people to obtain a better method than then existed of ascertaining the condition of their title. He thought that southern California had little to fear from the Torrens System or county-owned abstract system.

Directory trouble early plagued the association officers. President Skinner at the second convention said that he found the previous year’s “work was hampered considerably by the indefiniteness and inaccuracies of the real estate and abstracters’ directories.” These deficiencies could not, however, then be charged to headquarters of the Association.

Mr. George Vaughan of Little Rock, Arkansas, in a paper entitled “The Use of Printer’s Ink in the Abstract Business” was the first of a great line of advocates of advertising for the title business. He advocated many of the same media that we use today and particularly he mentioned newspaper advertising, blotters, and direct mail.

Mr. A.R. Watkins of Fargo, North Dakota, reported that a law had been passed in his state making it obligatory upon any person who had prepared an abstract to have in his possession a plant, a correct abstract of the county records, and also to give bond.

State Associations vs. National
There was much discussion about the organization of state associations. While I found nothing to indicate which of the states first had a state association, it is clear that several of them preceded the American Association of Title Men. The Iowa association was organized in 1903; the Washington and Wisconsin associations were formed in 1904. Several of the states were organized between the first and second conventions of the Association. Mr. Skinner noted that organization of title associations in the West was hampered because “the railroad facilities are such that they cannot meet without great inconvenience and expense.”

It is apparent that some state associations were not wholly convinced that a national association was desirable. Mr. Skinner indicated embarrassment because, as he said, “my own state has discouraged efforts toward perfecting the organization of this association and thought it better not to join the Association at the present.” For this reason, he felt that he was probably not qualified to be president of the Association. Not withstanding his concern, he was made the first president as well as the second on the theory that, as an individual he was a qualified member of the Association.

At the second convention, Mr. W. R. Taylor of Kalamazoo, Michigan, made application for membership in the national association on behalf of the Michigan Association. He stated, however that the application must be considered as informal because the Michigan Association was not then in funds for the reason that “our treasurer recently removed to California and took his records with him and the money.” He therefore had no record of the members of the Michigan Association and no money with which to pay their dues.

Financial Struggles
In recent years, convention reports from our finance committee chairmen and association treasurers have been gems of wisdom and entertainment, but it was not always so. I can record, as a matter of personal knowledge, that this organization of title men, which is now the American Title Association, has experienced financial difficulties. Those difficulties, however, were nothing compared to the ones which confronted the organizers. In the plan of organization adopted at the organization meeting, it was provided that the dues for individual members should be $2 per annum and that each state association should pay $1 per year to the national association for each of its members. On these munificent dues, it was obvious that the national association should not pay the expenses of delegates to conventions, so it was provided that each state association could, at its option, send delegates to the national association and pay their expenses. I am not sure that the latter authority was ever exercised by any state association.

The organization plan also stated that when the Association found itself in funds, it was to reimburse Mr. Skinner for his expenses in organizing the first meeting. At the second convention, in 1908, the treasurer reported that he held in his possession a bill of Mr. Skinner’s for $137, which must be paid, and that the Association had in its treasury from $115 to $125 before the receipt of additional dues. He confidently predicted that with the additional dues the Association “would have in sight somewhere from $130 to $140 and that this would render the Association solvent and in a position to pay Mr. Skinner’s bill.”

Under the name “American Association of Title Men,” the Association grew and almost prospered until the 17th annual convention in 1923. I say, almost prospered, because the report of the secretary to the 1923 convention commented upon the progress of the Association and said, “This is the first year we have not been burdened by a deficit. We do not have a deficit but a small amount of money.”

A reading of the proceedings of the following years indicates, however, that the prosperity commented upon was somewhat chimerical, for while under the new name of “American Title Association,” adopted by constitutional amendment at the 1924 convention, the income gradually increased but so did the outgo, and until the present dues structure was adopted in 1945, the struggle for substance was bitter. For many of those years the Association was financed principally by a so-called “sustaining fund,” which was obtained by an appeal at each convention from the current outstanding orator of the Association to members to donate funds to pay the hired help and to meet other expenses. It was a question of merely “passing the hat.”

Sections Are Formed
While the organization meeting was made up mostly of abstracters, and the abstract business was dominate in most parts of the country, the organizers foresaw the rise of title insurance and the desirability of providing for some representation of that business in the Association. So the original bylaws adopted in 1908 provided that departmental sections of the association might at any time be organized to meet annually in connection with the meetings of the association for the special duty and consideration of such matters as pertain particularly to the work of either abstracters or title examiners or of insurers of title. They stated also that other sections might be organized at any time if such organization is approved in writing by the Executive Committee of the Association.

The authority to form such sections was not availed of until the sixth convention held in 1913. At that meeting a group of title insurers organized the title insurance section under the name of the Title Insurance and Guaranty Section and adopted by-laws for its functioning.

At the convention of 1914, the Executive Committee appointed a committee to establish the Title Examiner’s Section, and while the 1913 proceedings do not disclose the procedure for the formation of such a section, the proceeding of the 1915 convention, held at San Francisco in honor of the Panama Pacific Exposition, list the officers of the Title Examiners’ Section. At the 1914 convention, the organization of the Title Examiner’s Section was completed and the proceedings of that year report the activities of both Title Insurance and Title Examiner’s Sections. The abstracters were still in the driver’s seat in the Association and required no section. Except for the minor influence of the title insurers and title examiners, they were dominant.

Believe it or not, it was not until 1924 that the abstracters concluded they should have a special section. Until that time, the American Association of Title Men, and under its new name, the American Title Association was the child of the abstracters, and might I add that they nurtured it well and presented to the industry a lusty progeny. So, in the proceedings of the 1925 convention, we find published for the first time the bylaws of the three sections for the Association, the Abstracters, the Title Insurance and the Title Examiners.

Ten years elapsed after the formation of the Abstracter’s Section before the last of the four sections, which ultimately came into being, was formed by amendment of the Association Constitution at the 1934 convention. At the convention of 1932, at the insistence of members of the Association who were then doing a national or regional business, the National Underwriter’s Section was organized for that group. At the same time the name of the Title Examiner’s Section was changed to “Legal Section.” For the next 17 years the activities of the Association were directed through the four sections, i.e., the Title Insurance Section, the Abstracter’s Section, the Legal Section, and the National Title Underwriter’s Section.

At the 1951 convention, the chairman of the National Underwriter’s Section reported to the convention that his group had concluded that the Section was not beneficial to the title insurance industry and, with their approval, the Board of Governors had at its previous meeting provided for the merger of the section with the Title Insurance Section. At that convention meeting, the Constitution of the Association was amended so as to terminate both the National Underwriter’s and the Legal Sections, and to continue only the other two: the Abstracter’s and the Title Insurance Sections. At that time, it was clear to all, that the spread of title insurance, throughout the country, had made most problems with which the Legal and National Title Underwriter’s Sections dealt common to all sectors of the title business. So, since 1952, we have struggled along with two sections, which provide a forum for each of the two major divisions of our industry.

A Magazine is Born
Tom Scott, when he was president, inaugurated the first regular bulletin, or magazine feature, used by the Association, and later, as executive secretary, he continued its publication.

In 1920 and early 1921, a monthly letter was issued. These letters finally emerged into a printed monthly bulletin more or less in its present form, which made its first appearance in the fall of 1921, under the title of “Title News.” While the format of Title News has changed from time to time, it still has many of the characteristics it carried in its early issues.

The proceedings of the 1926 convention were made part of Title News, but were printed in a separate booklet in the same form as previous proceedings had been printed over the years. For the first time, in 1927, the proceedings were printed as a regular issue of Title News, and they have been so printed continuously since that time.

From 1924 to 1949, Title News was printed in the form of a magazine with pages of 8 ½ x 11 inches, setting those copies of the proceedings and the magazine apart from the earlier and later publications of the Association which were ordinary booksize. Commencing with 1950, it was decided that the book was too large, and the publication reverted to the ordinary booksize of the earlier years. I do not doubt that these changes were of great importance, but it is just a little bit difficult to see why.

Executive Secretary Hired
At the 13th convention in 1919, the annual address of President Carroll from Iowa contained a discussion of the organization of the Association, in which he stated that the Association could no longer continue on the then basis of organization without certain stagnation. He recommended that “a permanent secretariat should be established and an executive secretary placed in charge of this office.”

This recommendation was approved, and Tom Scott of Texas, who was the 11th president of the Association in 1917-18, consented in 1920 to act as the first executive secretary of the Association until the convention of that year.

Following the 1920 convention, Mr. Frank P. Doherty of California was designated executive secretary and became the first paid staff officer of the Association. Frank then was and now is a practicing attorney in Los Angeles and devoted only a portion of his time to the Association. I cannot refrain from here paying a tribute to the service of Frank Doherty to the title industry. For many years he was secretary of the California Land Title Association and contributed greatly to its early development. At the 1922 convention, Frank, in his report as executive secretary, noted that “it is customary, in singing the swan song, to get somewhat sentimental.” Thus he terminated his service as executive secretary.

To succeed Frank, Dick Hall of Kansas was selected and assumed the duties of the office, following the 1922 convention. Having been a part of the Hall Abstract Company of Hutchinson, Kansas, and having long participated in the activities of the Association, Dick was admirably qualified for the position. He continued as executive secretary until he resigned with the adjournment of the 1932 convention. His contribution to the success of the Association during his nine years of service was immeasurable.

Then came Jim Sheridan from Detroit in 1933. Jim, like Dick Hall, left an active career in the title business to assume the duties of executive secretary. The transition from vice president of Union Title and Guaranty Company of Detroit was easy and successful, but before Jim was comfortably lodged in the chair of executive secretary, we were confronted with the depression problems resulting from the deluge of business created by the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation and the accelerated loan program of the Federal Land Banks, as well as the impact upon our business of the National Reconstruction Act with its many restrictions on operations. We were hardly out of the woods on these activities before the pressure of land acquisition for military purposes caused by the second world war was upon us.

Many questions arose in the conduct of business for the federal government in the enormous volumes that these operations involved. They were handled by Jim for the industry with expedition and precision. He spent much time in Washington during those trying years, and largely through his efforts the title industry discharged its obligations to the common welfare with credit. In this, as in his other duties, his has been a job magnificently done.

Thus, you will note, that 36 years, far more than half the life of the Association, has seen its top executive job occupied by four men. Two of them served us for 34 years. They made the job of president of the Association look easy to 34 successive presidents. At times it was far from being an easy task. The duration of their allegiance to us is proof that each served us well. Those of us who have been privileged to have them guide us in the administration of the affairs of the Association and to aid us in the solution of the problems of our industry, however, need no such proof. I express to them, for all of us, our deep appreciation of their service to us all.

Because of their number it would be futile to attempt to name the many persons who have been instrumental, over the years, in building this structure which has contributed so greatly to the growth and stability of our industry. However, we must take note that there is present today one of those who met at the Palmer House in Chicago 50 years ago, to aid in the birth of the Association. It is an honor and a pleasure to present to you Mr. Hugh H. Shepard, president-attorney of the Shepard Abstract company, of Mason City, Iowa, with which he was identified in 1907. Mr. Varick C. Crosley, President of Crosley and Boeye, Inc., of Webster City, Iowa, is our other living founder, but ill health prevents his presence with us at this time. At the time of the organization of the American Association of Title Men, Mr. Crosley was a president of the Iowa Title Association. The names of both frequently appear in the proceedings of the Association, in the years which followed its organization. They were active participants in its birth and adolescence. It is appropriate that we extend our homage to them and through them, to express our appreciation of the work of the great pioneers who had the vision to recognize the future of the title business in this country and established a medium through which it could voice its organized views and aid in the great growth of the industry which followed.

If you missed a decade during the year, you can find all of the history on ALTA®’s Web site under the special 100th Anniversary Section


Benjamin J. Henley was president of the California Pacific Title Insurance Company in San Francisco, at the time this presentation was made at ALTA®’s 50th Annual Convention in 1956. Henley was president of ALTA® in 1935..



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