Be an Old House Detective and Find the History of Your Home

Like many old house people, my husband and I are drawn to old homes because of their rich history. We are curious to know who built the home and why, and what kind of families may have lived in the home over the years. We wonder if the house is original or how it’s been altered, or even the history of the area itself. When preparing our own historic home for a nomination to the National Register of Historic Places, it was this very type of information that had to be researched.

Researching the history of a home can be time consuming, but fun and rewarding. All it takes is a notebook, some pencils, and a pocketful of quarters to be a do-it-yourself Old House Detective.

Where do we start?

When searching for a home’s history, the best place to always start is with the previous owners or longtime neighbors. These people may have information about the house or recall changes to the home. Long time neighbors are often familiar with the area’s history as well. They can point out where old landmarks once stood, and neighborhood improvements which give insight into the area’s early history. They may even have old family photographs showing your home in the distance.

After collecting this neighborhood history, the next step is a visit to the Recorder’s Office at City Hall.

The Recorder’s Office houses the deeds of record to all properties in the community. Deeds are usually listed by the legal description, which reads as a lot & block in a particular subdivision or as sections, townships and range for rural residences.

Deeds usually show the progression of ownership of a home, as it passed from one owner to the other. It will also show any legal notices against the property. Look for transfers of title or quit claim deeds, mortgages and bank liens, or even construction liens. Road improvement and sidewalk liens will also show up on the deeds of record as well. With diligent detective skills, you should be able to go clear back to the time of the original land grant signed by a president of the United States. Ulysses S. Grant signed the land grant that eventually became our property.

While at City Hall, check the records of survey on the land, tax assessments, appraisals, building permits, and inspections. These will help determine if any work has been done on the property or if the original site was once part of a larger piece of property. Some cities even have aerial surveys of older neighborhoods or an old fire map. We found a 1905 fire map and a 1934 aerial map of our block which was invaluable in our research. Copies of these documents can be purchased at a nominal cost. Is the home in a water or irrigation district? Search for the records of water right to find the location of old ditches or an abandoned well.

While searching any records, pay particular attention to the address and the street names. Older house can go through several address changes, or switch from a lot and block description to one that reflects part of a section and township. In the west, it was very common for small towns to be absorbed by larger ones. Keep an eye on those name changes, they will be needed to search the area’s history.

Record names, dates, sales prices, liens, addresses, and any other pertinent information in your notebook and continue the search at the library.

The library search

Most towns have a public library; larger communities may also have a genealogy library, or a state or regional library and archives.

All libraries should have a Polk’s reverse telephone directory. These directories index residential and business telephone numbers by the address, instead of the name. Polk directories go back as far as the mid 1890s and provide a surprising amount of information. The directory will list the head of household, the owner’s occupation and sometimes if he was conducting a business from the house as well.

The public library will also have microfiche newspaper records which should go back to the early days of the area. These records are usually indexed by name. Take the time to cross search the names of the home’s early residents. You may turn up announcements of social gatherings, visiting dignitaries, or other information which will help bring dimension to your home’s early history. From these records, we discovered that our home once served as an early mayoral residence, and an informal public meeting house for several local civic clubs.

At the genealogy library, search census records for more information about the people who once lived in the home. Census records were kept as far back as 1790 in some states, though in the west, there isn’t much before 1870. Census records list jobs, names, ages, addresses, and relationships of the people living in a single residence. If you don’t have a Genealogy library, the local library can order microfilm with census information.

Searching the area history

Next on the list is to search the history of the area. These sorts of records may be kept in the local library, the county library, or a regional Historical Library & Archives; your librarian should be able to direct you to where these resources can be found.

Area histories are a valuable resource in recreating the history of your neighborhood. They might describe old logging ponds, irrigation ditches, former churches and businesses, trolley lines, and other types of helpful information. Don’t limit yourself just to the name of your neighborhood, try researching the names of your home’s previous occupants. Regional history books are filled with photographs of early settlers and their residences; they may even have a photograph of your home!

If you have a county or state archives nearby, spend a morning searching through old photographs of your neighborhood. There might not be a photograph that is specifically of your home, but there could be one of the block or of a nearby commercial building. With any luck, your house may show up in the background of some of those photographs. Visit the Oral History department while at the Library & Archives. This agency stores tens of thousands of taped interviews; they may even have an interview of one of the home’s former residents or an old neighbor.

Track down descendants

The best photographs of your home are probably in a photo album somewhere. Descendants of the builder or early residents usually have albums filled with informal portraits taken around the house and yard. These photo albums and family records can provide incredible documentation of your home’s early history. All if takes is to find one descendant; they in turn can usually provide you with the name of the relative who is in possession of the family scrapbook. It was from a great granddaughter of an early resident that we were able to deduce the original floor plan of our home.

Now what?

Assembling your home’s history is the easiest part of the project.

Some people organize a home’s history in straight chronological order, not unlike a genealogy chart. I prefer a loose leaf notebook with divider tabs with a section for each family who lived in the home before us. As more history, photographs, or newspaper clippings are located, this new information can be easily added to the notebook and placed in the proper section.

Being an Old House Detective can be time consuming. However, you will gain incredible insight into the history of both your home, the area, and the people who once lived there. Is there a local Historic Preservation group in your town? Exchange information by offering to share your findings. They in turn, may have even more helpful information that can be added to your collection. If you are comfortable having tourists strolling by your home, offer to place the home on a Historic Preservation Committee sponsored walking or driving tour.

For more information about historic preservation, visit the website of the National Trust at www.nationaltrust.org. The National Trust is a wonderful educational and advocacy resource, with links to organizations in your area that support historical preservation.

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