A Brief History of the Minnesota Land Title Association

The "history" of the MLTA is best told by recounting the efforts and energy of its members who have associated with one another and volunteered their time in order to ensure the prosperity and integrity of their businesses, starting with abstracters in the early 1900s. Today, a century later, its members and associate members continue to affiliate with each other as well as with others in government and the private sector in order to ensure that the processes of real estate evidencing, insuring and conveying in Minnesota (and beyond) are maintained at the highest possible level.

The Association gratefully acknowledges the previous works of William H. Pryor of Duluth and Leon H. Schefers, then from Moorhead, whose article on the beginnings of the MLTA has long been published in the Association's Directory and on its website. Mr. Pryor wrote an interesting letter in 1960 to Mr. A. L. Winczewski of Winona, describing his recollection of the MLTA's early years, which was referred to by Mr. Schefers and re-printed in the Summer 2003 MLTA Newsletter. The following review of those early years is borrowed liberally from their accounts, as well as the Association's records, which fortunately have been well maintained over the past several decades and provide a wealth of information. Unfortunately, not all of the records from earlier years have been located. To the extent possible, this article is based on contemporaneous writings such as meeting minutes and the Association's newsletters, although personal recollections are also recounted. Omissions are unavoidable or unintentional and every effort was made not to express the views or policies of any other person or organization. Readers are invited to clarify statements, correct mistakes or to supply information for future inclusion. As will be seen by accounts from those resources, some things remain the same, some things change, and others come full circle.

[Note: place names and years in parentheses following individuals' names denote their area of residence/business and the year they were MLTA President]

 

The First Fifty Years

 

The 1910s

The beginning of the MLTA had its roots in the interests of abstracters from around the state to form an association to ensure the survival of their businesses after the introduction of the "Torrens" system of land registration in Minnesota in 1901 and to "standardize" the compilation and preparation of abstracts. After 1858 when Minnesota became a state, abstracts of title became the prevalent means of evidencing titles in Minnesota and until 1901 each county's Register of Deeds office (changed to the office of County Recorder in 1976) was the sole statutory repository for Minnesota land records. Apparently, members of the real estate Bar thought at the time that the Torrens system would eventually eliminate the usefulness of abstracts of title. As we now know, both systems require "abstracts" of sorts, and the proliferation of federal laws and liens, and the requirement that judgments, taxes and assessments be certified to, has resulted in the need for expanded searches and certifications, regardless of the type of system. By 1911, when the first Association Constitution was written, numerous private abstract companies were also operating in the state. Private abstracters were the beneficiaries of a Minnesota Supreme Court decision in 1887 holding that they are entitled to the right of access to and examination of the Registers' records for the purpose of making or completing privately owned "tract indexes," subject to reasonable rules.

According to Mr. Pryor, initial planning meetings were held as early as late 1909 and the first organizational meeting (the date is not given) was attended by himself, Mr. Woodhull of the Merrill Abstract Company of Minneapolis, Mr. W. S. Jenkins of the Real Estate Title Insurance Company of Minneapolis, whose companies merged to become Title Insurance Company of Minnesota (now Old Republic National Title Insurance Company), Mr. L. R. Moyer of Montevideo, Mr. H. C. Soucheray of St. Paul, Mr. R. B. Daniel of Marshall, Mr. H. Andree of Long Prairie, Mr. Joe Mushel of Foley, C. C. Strander of Crookston, Mr. Joseph Winczewski of Winona, L. G. Roesner of Winona and possibly A. G. Trommald of Brainerd. He recollected that Mr. Moyer was chosen as the first President and that Mr. Woodhull was the first Secretary-Treasurer.

It may seem laborious to some to read about people from nearly a century ago, but many members will recall their contributions and memories of time spent with them. But then, who are more interested in researching names and ownership than "title people"? In addition, any reader will appreciate the fact that active membership in the MLTA and its predecessors has spanned three generations in several families: the Winczewkis, starting with Joseph Winczewski in Winona (A. L. Winczewski, Sr.'s uncle), who was present at the initial meeting; the Holts and Russells in Rochester, starting with Greg Russell's (Rochester, 1994 - 1995) grandfather, D.H. Holt, who started the business in 1902; the Welshons in Hastings, starting with Amos A. Welshons (Paul Welshons's father), who together with C.E. Tuttle represented the Dakota County Register of Deeds office at the 1930 annual meeting; the Simonets in Stillwater, starting with Edward W. Simonet, Sr. (Stillwater, 1951); and the Engers in Austin, starting with Purl M. Enger in the early 1940s. Purl's father, and Charles W. ("Chuck") Enger's (Austin, 1986) grandfather, Martin Enger, was an abstracter in Norman County in the early 1930s, although there is no record or recollection of his being active in the Association. Today there are also many second generation members throughout Minnesota. The very first generation members were county recorders or private abstracters, many of whose successors later became title insurance agents.

Mr. Pryor's letter also contains informative accounts of the individuals who were pioneering abstracters who formed the earliest private abstract companies in Minnesota, including Winona County Abstract Company, which was formed by his father in 1890 and sold to a group represented by Joe Winczewski and Louis Roessner in 1907, and M.H. Alworth of Duluth who started making abstracts there in 1881. Readers are referred to Mr. Pryor's letter for more details about those early years. Mr. Pryor served as President of the Association in 1943, after ten years' service as Secretary- Treasurer, as well as President of what is now the American Land Title Association from 1921 - 1922. The other Minnesota residents to hold that national association office were E. B. Southworth from 1942 - 1943, then Executive Vice President of Title Insurance Company of Minnesota ("Minnesota Title"); C.J. ("Mac") McConville (Minneapolis, 1962), from 1977 - 78, then President of Minnesota Title; and Richard A. Cecchettini from 1991 - 1992, then President and CEO of Old Republic National Title Insurance Company. ALTA's representative at the 2003 MLTA Annual Convention, Rande K. Yeager, President and CEO of Old Republic National Title Insurance Company and a frequent attendee at MLTA functions, is in line at ALTA to become the fifth Minnesota resident to hold that office. A complete list of the known MLTA Presidents and Honorary Members can be found in the Association's Directory or on its website.

Interestingly, the Secretary of State has no record of any predecessor corporations or organizations. Association records fortunately include a copy of the original Constitution and Bylaws of the Minnesota Abstracters' Association, which held its first annual meeting on December 14, 1911. The annual membership fee was six dollars, payable in advance, and included membership in the American Association of Title Men. An annual meeting was called for and special meetings were authorized as called by an Executive Committee. Mr. Pryor's recollection is that an abstracter's convention was first held in 1910, however, there is no other record to support that. MLTA's list of Past Presidents lists George C. Merrill of Minneapolis as President from 1908 to 1911.

 

The 1920s

Minutes of the Annual Meeting of the Minnesota Abstracters (sic) Association held at the St. Paul Hotel on February 5 and 6, 1923 and called to order by President H.C. (Henry) Soucheray (St. Paul, 1922 - 1923), President of St. Paul Abstract Company, reflect an interesting slate of business and a name change to Minnesota Association of Title Men. The agenda included discussions of national uniform conveyancing issues, the "seriousness" of federal liens filings in federal district courts, state legislative issues, title plant valuation, improving the monthly bulletin, appointing a committee to compile a digest of court decisions, and dividing the state into districts for the purpose of soliciting new members. The registers of deeds met in committee as well as jointly with the Association, however, records indicate that each group had separate associations. The American Association of Title Men was represented by its Secretary, Richard B. Hall of Hutchinson, Kansas, who gave a "helpful and inspiring" address on advertising. He also discussed title certificates and escrow work as "good side lines" for abstracters.

Discussion was held concerning securing an early decision in a "test" case before the Ramsey County District Court relative to taxation of title plants and whether or not an abstracter's records are comparable to non-taxable, copyrightable authors' manuscripts. A motion was approved to authorize the President to make arrangements to support an appeal of the court's decision to the state Supreme Court, if necessary. These are clearly references to State v. St. Paul Abstract Co., in which the state Supreme Court held in 1924 that a set of abstract books and related paraphernalia is personal property for the purpose of taxation. In dicta, the court said that such books are not like an author's manuscript or a copyright.

By the time of the March 4, 1923 Annual Meeting at the St. Paul Athletic Club, the Association's name had been changed to Minnesota Title Association. Mr. Hall, this time representing the American Title Association, gave a talk on "Abstracters' Problems." He spoke about such things as unfair competition and not cutting rates and strongly recommended against the making of "pencil abstracts" or allowing uncertified abstracts to be used. The Treasurer's report showed cash on hand of $53.67.

In 1929, the American Title Association adopted its first standardized title insurance policy - a loan policy.

 

The 1930s

Villa Collyers McDowell, of Olivia, was elected the first woman President of the Association at the January 20 - 21, 1932 Annual Meeting held at the Nicollet Hotel in Minneapolis. It is uncertain when terms commenced, as Association records list her as President in 1933. She was the Renville County Recorder at the time (as her father had been and her grandson later was) and Association records indicate that she was very actively involved in the Association for many years. An energetic and self-educated woman, she fulfilled all of those early duties during the height of the Depression while raising a family of four after her divorce in the 1920s. She was the only woman President until 1976, when Beulah Hendricks, of Walker, was elected to lead the Association. Several women have since been elected President, and Beulah was recognized for her many contributions to the Association at the 2002 Annual Convention at Grand Rapids when she was awarded an honorary membership.

Minutes of the 1932 Annual Meeting state that the first Regional Meeting was held the previous August 6th at Olivia and that the attendees "enjoyed a dandy meeting and adjourned about 3 P.M. for a round of golf." In the following days, the President and/or Secretary also attended Regional Meetings in St. James, Waseca, Thief River Falls, Detroit Lakes, and Buffalo. Also, the "Summer Outing" at Detroit Lakes was described as a well attended event, although the date was not given. At that event, work was undertaken on an Abstracters Bill and the attendees and their spouses enjoyed numerous social events such as golf, theatre and dancing.

 

The 1940s

The Minnesota Title Post, Vol. 1, No. 1, dated September 7 1942, edited by Frances Hallan, reported on the convention at Ruttger's Birchmont Lodge on August 15 - 17. A suggestion was made that the next meeting be held in the Twin Cities on account of the transportation problem, presumably a reference to war-time rationing. Al Kimball won first prize in the golf tournament, a $3 defense stamp (there was no mention of a traveling trophy). Also discussed was a bill before Congress which would authorize condemnation without adequate notice to the owner and that the national association had previously advised members of the bill's details and urged each to take the matter up with their Senators and Congressmen. The Title Post published their names for that purpose and encouraged members to contact them.

Paul Welshons (Hastings, 1971) recollects that after World War II the county registers of deeds, auditors, treasurers and clerks of court held annual joint "conventions" in February of each year, and that title insurance company representatives met with the county representatives at the end of those conventions and had very short "conventions" of their own. The notice announcing the April 23 - 25, 1959 Convention at the Nicollet Hotel in Minneapolis stated that the convention would be the first to be held separately from those of the county officials.

 

The 1950s

The 1953 Convention was held at the Lowry Hotel in St. Paul on January 22. A revision of the "outmoded" Articles and Bylaws was on the agenda. At that time the newsletter was called the Bulletin. At the time sectional or regional meetings were recognized as being desirable, but they were not implemented. The business of title insurance proliferated after World War II, and many abstract companies became title agencies during and after the 1950s, as title insurance underwriters expanded the scope of their operations from local and regional to national. By 1957 the Bulletin was published as both the Minnesota Title News and the M.T.A. News.

In 1957, Governor Freeman signed into law Minnesota's first abstracter's license law and appointed five persons to the first Board of Examiners. Harry L. Newby, Sr. (Cloquet, 1952, 1956 - 1958) made a motion in 1950 to propose such a law, and he actively worked on the effort until it passed. The Association also hired a lobbyist in 1957 to assist in the effort, as there was considerable opposition to it. Mr. Newby was recognized for his many accomplishments in 1981 when he was awarded an honorary membership. He was at times the Carlton County Register of Deeds and owner of Carlton County Abstract Company. The abstracter licensing law was amended in 1975, and K. B. ("Ben") Skurdal (Anoka, 1970) and J. F. ("Joe") Machacek (Minneapolis, 1974) were acknowledged by the Association for their efforts in seeing that the changes became reality. The changes primarily concerned oversight issues such as registration with the then Insurance (now Commerce) Department, liability insurance, and increasing the Department's powers.

 

The Past Fifty Years

 

The 1960s

1960, the year in which Mr. Pryor wrote his letter, represents a sea change in the Association. During 1960 and 1961, several members contributed to significant changes to the Association's structure, culminating with a new Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws drafted in 1962 (dated September 15) by a committee comprised of Ed Simonet, Jr., (Stillwater, 1966), A.L. Winczewski, Sr. of Winona and Paul Welshons. The new Articles created a Minnesota non-profit corporation and were filed with the Secretary of State on October 5. In 1961, at Winona, the name "Minnesota Land Title Association" had been officially adopted. Much of the impetus for the changes appeared to be in conjunction with the Association's hosting of the October, 1961 American Title Association Annual Convention at the Leamington Hotel in Minneapolis, the only time the national association has held its convention in Minnesota. The ATA adopted the name American Land Title Association in 1962.

Among other things, the 1962 Articles and Bylaws provided for the creation of six regions and regional meetings so that neighbors in geographic areas could meet and discuss common issues and ideas, formalized the committee appointment process, adopted a code of ethics, and established liaisons with such groups as the state Highway Department, the state Bar Association and the law schools. It is evident from records and correspondence that the principals behind the changes were Mac McConville, who was at that time in charge of Minnesota Title's national division, and Tony Winczewski, Sr., the owner of Winona County Abstract Company. In a letter, Mac gives Tony credit for being the "glue" that held the Association together, as he served as Secretary for "God knows for how long" (actually from 1957 - 1983). Tony also produced the Association Newsletter until that task was assumed by Paul Welshons and L.L. ("Speed") Thyen (Hastings, 1977).

Evidently, serving as Secretary-Treasurer of the Association is a coveted position, as fewer than a dozen people have so served prior to the 2003 Annual Convention. They are: W.F. Rosenwald from1907 (?) to 1912; Mr. Woodhull in at least 1911 (according to Mr. Pryor's letter); W.H. Pryor (Duluth, 1943) from1912 to 1922; E.D. Boyce (1922 - 1931); Villa Collyer McDowell (Olivia, 1933) in 1932; Blaine B. Barker (Cambridge, 1932) from 1932 - unknown because several years' minutes have not been found; E.M. Sathre (Bemidji, 1942) unknown to 1949; Walter S. Engman (Duluth, 1965) from 1949 to 1957; A.L. Winczewski, Sr. from 1957 to 1983; Tony Winczewski, Jr. (Bloomington, 2001) from 1983 to 1998; Rudy E. Wahlsten (Edina, 1988) from1998 to 2003; and Richard Welshons (Hastings, 2002) from 2003 to "God knows for how long".

Other ideas considered at the time included formalizing the requirement that abstracters had to be licensed in order to be members, the revision of the uniform abstract certificate (the one in use was at least 25 years old), a call for a regularly scheduled abstracting school and (perhaps most importantly) a call for consideration of holding an "ice-breaker" before each convention. (It isn't certain whose idea that was; perhaps some member reading this will fill us in). Since then, the Association has published and maintained an abstracting standards manual and held regular abstracting schools for members and other interested individuals.

Education became a primary focus in the Association, and the Education Committee became one of the principal active forces in the Association. For years, the Association has sponsored education seminars for its members and others, primarily focusing on abstracting, title examination and current issues. For many years, the committee has held a regularly scheduled, well attended full day education seminar each spring featuring local and nationally prominent speakers as well as frequent workshops at other times on other subjects of interest to members, with an emphasis on affordability for members.

 

The 1970s

Nothing characterizes the 1970s as much as passage of the federal Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act ("RESPA") in 1974. That comprehensive act was intended to prevent abusive practices such as kickbacks and unearned fees and provide information to consumers before closing by way of disclosures and other advance information. In the late 1960s in Minnesota, members were expressing concern about reports of rebates being paid to lenders and whether or not such payments were in violation of a 1967 state law. In 1981, at the Annual Convention at Grand Rapids, ALTA representative D. P. Kennedy reported that changes to RESPA were under consideration which would prohibit "controlled business." RESPA was amended in 1983 and 1992 to allow various types of affiliated (or "controlled") business arrangements. The act as amended has had a profound effect on the members of this Association, a recital of which is beyond the scope of this article.

The 1970s saw a re-emergence of issues concerning abstracters' access to county records. In 1973 a clerk of district court challenged an abstracter's access to its records for the purpose of certifying judgments in abstracts of title, despite a December 8, 1967 Attorney General's Opinion that clearly indicated to the contrary. The issue arose in another county concerning access to the judgment records of the clerk of court, as well as the tax records in the auditor's and treasurer's offices. Apparently those issues were resolved, and Ben Skurdal, in particular, was instrumental in representing the interests of the Association's members. In 1993, a similar issue arose over a county's charging for similar access, however, the issue was resolved after the Association's corporate counsel intervened with a letter to the county attorney.

In 1979, a new committee called TIATIA (Title Insurers and Title Insurance Agents) was authorized and held its first meeting on October 4, reflecting the growing influence of the title insurance industry on the Association. Its first Chair was John P. ("Jack") Lewis of Chicago Title Insurance Company. An industry attorney attended the first meetings as "anti-trust" counsel. One of the committee's first areas of focus was a recommendation to both of the Twin Cities' real estate brokers and agents' boards to provide an option in their purchase agreements for an owner's policy of title insurance in lieu of an abstract of title, a suggestion that was turned down in 1981. The committee was also very active in reviewing legislation. By 1987 discussions were being held whether or not to continue the committee and it was terminated in 1995, recognizing a goal of ensuring that voting members are equal in all respects as well as an attempt to retain members and attract new ones. Since then, Board and general business meetings have generally been held quarterly on the same day and all members are welcome and encouraged to attend. Since 1991, starting with Brooks Poley, the Association has employed an outside attorney as corporation and anti-trust counsel to be present at board meetings and business meetings as needs dictated.

 

The 1980s

The Legislative Committee has been one of the most active committees. Records show that the Association has been active in legislative matters since the earliest years, however, in recent years the committee has been particularly active. Members have testified for or against legislation virtually every year, have been consulted regularly by legislative committees and state departments as to the effect of proposed legislation on the industry, and the committee has sponsored and drafted legislation. The Association has retained a lobbyist annually to assist it in legislative matters since at least 1988, when John Knapp, then the lobbyist for the Mortgage Bankers Association, was retained to represent the Association as well. In 1988 the legislature authorized "residential closing agents" to perform closing services for a fee, partly in response to "unauthorized practice of law" litigation in Minnesota, and MLTA was an active participant in the legislative process. The committee is also often charged with the responsibility of meeting with state officials and departments, such as the Commerce, Revenue and Health Departments, as the need or opportunity arises. The committee has often engaged outside counsel to write and file "amicus" briefs on behalf of the Association in appellate litigation that affects the interests of the industry, and has joined other trade or professional groups in sponsoring joint briefs when the opportunity has arisen.

In 1988, a resolution changed the name of an informal group known as "POPS" (Past Old Presidents) to "Past Old Presidents and Secretaries". POPS was an improvement on the acronym "PAP" (Past Association Presidents) that was in use in the 1970s. The group meets for breakfast at each convention to reminisce, discuss nominees for Association positions and to discuss the affairs of the organization and the industry. New members are inducted into POPS with "appropriate dignity" (in Tony Winczewski, Sr.'s words) and are entrusted with the care and safekeeping of the POPS "mascot" for the following year. (Curious members are invited to serve their time on the Board)

Along those convention lines, it was Mac McConville in 1978 who introduced the idea of Mr. or Ms. "X" to Minnesota, having encountered it at the Kansas Land Title Association convention. A prize is awarded to the person who is the (e.g. fiftieth) person to shake the hand of an unknown, pre-selected Mr. or Ms. "X" hand at the Annual Convention.

 

The 1990s to 2003

In 1992, the Legislative Committee was encouraged by then Commerce Commissioner Bert McKasy to draft a model title insurance act, in response to NAIC initiatives. The committee spent a great deal of time on a draft act, however, the effort lost its momentum until 2003, when the department has again taken the issue up with the Association.

In 1994, Minnesota became one of the first states to authorize title insurers and their agents to sign and record certificates of releases of mortgages that they had paid off, an idea that has since been adopted successfully by other states. 1994 also kept the Legislative Committee busy, as the still current issues regarding priority of medical assistance liens and the first mortgage "impairment" product (Norwest's TOP program) surfaced. In 1998, MLTA was instrumental in "good funds" legislation being enacted into law in Minnesota.

On March 23, 1994, the Association held a day-long long range planning meeting at Interlachen Country Club, the purpose of which was to re-examine all facets and functions of the Association and how it was meeting and responding to its members' needs. Although no formal changes resulted from the meeting, it clearly served as the impetus for the many changes adopted in following years to increase membership, improve education, change the dues structure, and to review and change the Association's governing documents to meet those goals.

The Association's Articles were amended in 1967, 1974, 1979, 1981, and 1985, primarily to improve governance, impose membership (i.e. licensing) requirements, and to appoint the Vice President as President-Elect. An amended and restated Articles and Bylaws were adopted in 1999. The amended Articles granted broad powers to the Board of Directors to determine membership and voting criteria, formalized the office of President-Elect, and the amended Bylaws changed the dues structure and authorized the Board to establish terms of a Political Action Committee at its pleasure, among other things.

In 1996 a Technology Committee was formed as a new era and millennium dawned. Bill Hagen of Chicago Title Insurance Company was its first Chair. As early as the early 1990s discussions were being held regarding the advent of e-recordings, and Dakota County successfully recorded the first known electronic instrument (a mortgage satisfaction) in Minnesota on May 27, 2003. The recording effort was accomplished by MLTA member US Recordings, and the county and the Electronic Real Estate Recording Task Force (in which many participants are MLTA members) were instrumental in ensuring the pilot project's success. If you are reading this article on-line, you are seeing the fine results of the committee's efforts to create an Association website. In addition, the County Recorder Liaison and Membership Committees have been very instrumental in working to ensure that related industries and the county and state governments work together to accomplish these and other important goals, now and in the future.

Respectfully submitted to the members of the MLTA at its Annual Convention at Breezy Point, Minnesota, August 15, 2003, by:

Jack R. Zachow
(Minneapolis, 1999)