For one of my historic preservation classes in college, I researched the ruminants of a paper mill in Ypsilanti, MI. While digging through the library and local archives, I learned a ton about the building. However, the greater reward was learning more about the history of the community I lived in.
It was fascinating to learn how the history of the community and its people intertwined with the buildings. If you own a historic home, putting together the story of it can take you on a fun journey. It’s kind of like piecing together a family tree, and parts of the process are the same. Who knows what you’ll uncover?
Let’s get right into how you get started and where you can find information about your historic home.
Keep yourself organized
Make sure you have plenty of paper and folders to keep the information you find organized. You might want to put copies of past deeds together and keep photos separate. Maybe you want to organize your information by decade. It really doesn’t matter, and it’s totally up to you, but figuring out a system right off the bat will help you stay organized throughout your journey.
Another trick I learned was to write short notes, like names and dates, on the outside of all my folders telling what’s inside. This way I could quickly locate snippets of information or know what’s inside each folder rather than constantly riffling through papers. It was a huge time saver.
Get your camera
Some archives or libraries won’t allow you to make photocopies of documents. If that’s the case, then make sure to have your camera on hand. I know you’re saying, “I have my camera on my phone.” That’s cool, but bring a back-up point and shoot one, too.
Some cameras will have a document or a museum setting designed to make your photos extra clear. However, these settings have slower shutter speeds; if you don’t have steady hands, try using a tripod for the camera so your photos aren’t blurry. Don’t forget extra batteries. You don’t want your camera to die in the middle of doing research.
Take a closer look at your home
Looking at your home can help you figure out the approximate era it was built. Things like how the house is wired or how the plumbing is set up can help you figure this out. Even small details, like the types of nails or paint used, can help you determine when the house was built.
Visit your county records office
County offices keep records of home and land deeds. These documents show you the past owners of your home, how much land comes with the property, and the date of purchase or sale. Older deeds may even include information about who inherits the property upon the death of the owner and whether any additional provisions come with the land. Once you know the past owners of your home, you can take the names to your town historian(s) to learn more.
Visit your local historical society or archive
Your local archive or library contains tons of information about your community. With the names gathered from the deeds, you can have your local historian or librarian help you track down information about them. They can help you find death records or census data to learn more about the former owners.
Your library or archive may also have maps that can help piece together your home’s story. Plat maps show land ownership, so over time you can track the division of property. I was surprised by some of the changes I saw on plat maps for Ypsilanti, MI. For example, I noticed the north end of campus occupies an area where a cemetery was more than 100 years ago. Creepy.
Sanborn maps helped insurance writers assess risks of insuring particular structures in urban areas. They show what materials were used to construct buildings and whether it was a business or home. These maps are neat to look at because you can see how communities evolved. You might find out that your home was a business years ago. Furthermore, you can see if additions or modifications were made to your home over time.
Most local archives or libraries will have bird’s eye view maps. I love because they’re two dimensional image maps of towns. Bird’s-eye view maps can help you visualize what your community looked like before photography. Depending on how old your home is and where it’s located, it might even appear on one of these maps!
Organize your findings
Once you gather the pieces of your home’s history, organize the information. Depending on how much information you have and what your research yields, you may want to organize your findings around a particular event or person. Maybe nothing stands out and creating a simple time line works best.
What if I just built my home?
If you built a new home, why not start keeping the history of it now? A hundred years from now, some of the history you leave behind might be an important key to understanding our society. You just never know what will be significant down the road, which is why I love history so much.
Who knows what the history of your home will yield? Maybe a prominent figure lived there. Maybe your home used to be a local business. Maybe your home was the first in your community to have indoor plumbing or electricity.
Have you done research on your home? What did you find out? Share with other Zing readers!