House History How-To

“I’d like to know the history of my house.”  It’s a statement we hear often at the Morrison County Historical Society (MCHS), although this wasn’t always the case.  When I first started at the Historical Society twelve years ago, hardly anyone was asking for house history.  Television shows about historic homes and a massive shift in society’s interest in historic preservation are contributing factors in this change.  Unfortunately, we are starting at square one when it comes to the history of most houses in Morrison County.  Even though the interest is here now, people in the past didn’t think about documenting the history of their homes, which means that many historical societies (including MCHS) don’t have much in the way of photos or other archival materials to assist home owners in this endeavor.  Not to fear, however.  While we may not have much, that doesn’t mean that nothing exists, nor does it mean that because this history wasn’t collected in the past, we can’t start collecting it now.  Let’s start with . . . .

Square One

When it comes to house history, there are two parts to contend with:

1.    The history of the people who’ve lived in and/or owned the house
2.    The history of the structure

By remembering this, it will be easier to keep your research organized.  Of course, these histories will overlap, as they necessarily should, but in conducting your investigation, you’ll be searching for different types of sources for building history versus the history of people.

Before beginning your research, there’s a critical piece of information you’ll need – your street address or property description.  If you are living in a city, your street address will probably suffice for most of your research, although there is a longer property description that goes with your address.  It will look something like this:  Lot 7, Block 15, Morrill’s Addition.  If you own a large piece of property that encompasses more than one lot or block, be sure to use the description of the property on which the house sits.

If you live in the country, your property description will be different from a city property description.  It will follow the Township-Range-Section formula of the Rectangular Survey System.  If you don’t own an entire Section in a particular Township and Range, the description will be narrowed further by the addition of a directional marker (N, S, E, W, NE, SE, NW, SW) and the portion of the section you own (¼, ½).  A full country property description will look something like this:  T133N-R29W-S24 (NW ¼).

What You Know

As in genealogy, when you begin working on the history of your house, it’s good to start with what you know.  When did you and your family move into the house?  List everyone who lives in the household.  Who did you buy the house from?  Who owned it before you?  How much did you pay for the house?  What changes have you made to the house or property?  When were those changes made and by whom?  Don’t forget the yard and out buildings, or changes in the unseen things, like installing a new circuit breaker or plumbing.  You may also want to jot down recollections of special events in the house, but don’t feel that you must write a full narrative of everything all at once.  Information can be added as memory allows during the course of your research.  Even a sentence or two can be valuable to a future homeowner or researcher.

Gather any existing photos you may have of your house.  House photos are a rare commodity at the Morrison County Historical Society, especially interior shots.  Several of the photos in MCHS collections actually show houses as the backdrop for group portraits of families.  Houses are not necessarily featured as the primary subject.  Likely, this is what you’ll find within your photo collection.  If you don’t have any photos featuring solely your house, now’s the time to make your house the star attraction.  Take pictures of your house from several angles, both in close-up and from a wider angle.  Make sure to get at least one shot of every side of the house.  If you are feeling particularly ambitious, take photos of the interior of the house as well.  Don’t worry about whether your housekeeping is up to the standards of a magazine photo spread.  Photos of a lived-in house contain a wealth of historic information – and historic is how your current house photos will eventually be described.  (If you take digital photos, be sure to get prints of them.)

Investigating the Abstract

In searching for the history of the previous owners of your house, the best place to start is with the abstract.  If you own the house you are researching, the abstract is the bound set of documents you received after you purchased the house.  The abstract should be kept in a safe place because it costs a tidy sum to replace it if it is lost or destroyed.  The abstract shows all of the owners of your property, plus any legal proceedings that have taken place in regards to your property from the beginning of its recorded history.  Because it shows the history of the property, but not the structures on the property, you won’t necessarily be able to figure out when the house was built or remodeled from the document.

Rather than carry the abstract around while doing research, make notes from the document, including the names you find, the types of legal transactions (i.e. mortgage, lien, etc.), and dates.  If, in perusing your abstract, details about the history of your house – like the construction date or name of the family who originally built it – come to mind, make note of them, too, because it’s time to strike out into the wide world in order to find out more about your home, sweet home.  Be sure to take your notes with you!

Outside Research

There are several community resources you can check to find information on the history of your house.  You don’t have to check these resources in any particular order, so start where you like and be prepared to revisit a resource if needed.

One resource is right underfoot and, while not “official,” may prove to be priceless – your neighbors.  Long-term residents of your neighborhood can be especially useful in providing you with information about your house and its past owners, but don’t discount short-term residents.  Being new to a neighborhood might make short-term residents more observant about details that long-term residents overlook.  Either way, what you discover during conversations with your neighbors about your house may make you thankful for their stereotypical nosiness.

There are several government resources that you can use to tease out information about your house.  These include the county recorder’s office, the county assessor, the county planning and zoning office, and the planning and zoning departments of cities.  As this article is being written with a focus on Morrison County, Minnesota, the description of these resources is specific to this county, but should give you a general idea of what you’ll find in other Minnesota counties.

Along with vital records (birth, death, marriage), the Morrison County Recorder’s Office has land records.  These records track land ownership, not the history of structures, but you may be able to deduce dates for construction based upon when mortgages were taken out.  The records will tell you who owned your property and how much the purchase price was, but won’t give you any information on renters.  In order to effectively search the property records at the Recorder’s Office, be sure to bring the property description.  This will allow staff to assist you in locating the information you are seeking. Plan to spend plenty of time at the Recorder’s Office.  You’ll need it to become accustomed to looking through the gigantic property records books.

While you’re visiting the courthouse, you can stop at the Morrison County Assessor’s Office.  The Assessor is in charge of evaluating property values in order to figure out the property tax you have to pay each year.  There are six appraisers who do this work in the county.  The Assessor’s Office may be able to provide you with the year of construction for your house.  The date might not be completely accurate, but it should be close and you can compare it to your abstract and the other data you collect in order to verify it.  The Assessor’s Office keeps a recent photo of most homes on file, but no past photos.  Records are kept on the assessments and current ones should be readily accessible.  Past ones, however, are kept in an old vault in the courthouse – a vault with bats – so there is no easy access to them.

The Morrison County Planning and Zoning Office, also located in the courthouse, is in charge of issuing permits for construction and remodeling that occurs outside of city limits.  It also issues permits for septic systems.  Permit records are on file at the office from about 1980 to the present time, although there may be a few that are older.  It doesn’t hurt to ask.

If you’re looking for construction permits for structures within city limits, it’s time to turn to the city hall of the appropriate municipality.  Little Falls City Hall has permit records for the past thirty years, but the files are not complete.  At the Pierz City Hall, these records are kept for the past ten years, with files arranged by address.  In addition, building permits went before the City Council, so a record of them can be found in the City Council minutes, which run back to the 1800s.  Swanville’s building permits also show up in City Council minutes.  The city’s permit files start somewhere between 1930 and 1950.  The city of Royalton has about twenty years worth of permit files and, get this, ten years worth of blueprints.  When requesting permit files or past minutes from City Hall, you might want to call ahead and see if someone will have time to pull the records for you.

Horn Tooting

Your house research junket wouldn’t be complete without a visit to your area historical society.  While staff of the Morrison County Historical Society can’t hand over a full dossier on your house (we wish!), we do have several resources you can check.  Our Family Files can help you find out more about the names you’ve collected from your abstract and the Recorder’s Office.  Sometimes house information is mentioned within these files and the family history books in our collections.  Further resources include city and county directories and plat books.  Even though we don’t have much in the way of house photographs, it’s always a good idea to ask for the house photo box and take a look.  Or, staff can check our photo files to see if there are pictures of any of the home owners available.

For those who have houses in Little Falls, a company by the name of Gemini Research conducted a survey of city homes at the behest of the city in the 1990s.  The results of that survey are on file at MCHS.  In addition, we have tax assessment books for the city of Little Falls that are dated from the late 1960s to the early 1970s.

If you’re reaching back to the early days of Morrison County, we have the county tax rolls from 1860 to 1875 for Bellevue Township, Little Falls Township and town, Green Prairie Township, Belle Prairie Township, and Two Rivers Township.  There are also a few early tax rolls for the townships of Culdrum, Swan River, Buckman, Granite, and Pierz.

As for house dossiers (i.e. files on particular houses), MCHS has only a handful of these in its archives.  The best house dossier we have is one for the oldest house still standing in Little Falls.  The house, built by Zachariah Jodon in 1858, is located at 213 Northeast Second Street.  The dossier was assembled by Barb Abrahamson, one of the owners of the house.  It includes two photo albums – one of photos of her renovation of the house, the other of samples of wallpaper and a piece of glass she removed during renovation.  Barb was interested in getting the house on the National Register of Historic Places and pulled this information together as part of the application process. MCHS was the beneficiary of Barb’s work when she decided to move to Maine.  If you happen to own this house, you’re in luck from a research standpoint.

House as Artifact

Hopefully your research into the owners of your house was fruitful and also led to information about the structure.  In regards to the latter, there’s one major resource you have left to investigate – the house itself.  Because it was constructed by human beings, the house is an artifact and a careful examination of it will reveal clues about its past.

With a notepad and writing implement in hand, walk around the outside of your house and write down its features.  What kind of siding does it have?  What sort of roofing material?  How many windows?  Where are they located?  Has anything (windows, doors, siding) been replaced?  Are there obvious additions on what appears to be the original structure?  What is the shape of the roof?  If there is trim, is it ornate or plain?  What color is the paint?  Are there special features (unusual windows, a porch, a tower, columns etc.)?  Does it have a chimney?

Compare your house to the others in the area.  Does it mimic the style of those around it, or use the same construction materials?  Does it stand out?  How?  Is your house’s size comparable to the rest in the neighborhood?  Where is it placed on the property?

Collecting the details of your house’s features will assist you in identifying what era it is from and whether it matches a distinct architectural style, or is an amalgam of styles.  If you are unfamiliar with architectural styles, your local library will be able to supply you with books on architecture for comparison purposes.  Details on how your house fits into your neighborhood should help you figure out whether it was built earlier or later, or perhaps show you that your house is part of a larger development.  Maybe your house followed a local building trend, like the yellow brick houses that can be found all over Morrison County.  Little Falls was home to three brickyards at one time and this ubiquitous yellow brick came from those brickyards.

Once you’ve examined the outside of the house, head inside and do the same.  Be sure to poke around in those areas you’ve given over to the spiders.  How many floors are there in the house?  How many rooms on each floor?  Make note of their uses.  What are the walls made of?  Plaster and lath, sheetrock, paneling?  Is there a spot in the house where the walls don’t match those in the rest of the house?  That’s a clue that remodeling has taken place. What kind of wall treatments were used?  Wall paper, paint, a particular painting technique?  What kind of flooring is used?  Look for differences in flooring between rooms and whether any of it appears to be newer.  (Remember vintage 1970s’ shag carpeting and avocado green or harvest yellow everything?)

Check out the electrical box.  Does it contain fuses or circuit breakers?  How many outlets are in each room?  Is the plumbing copper or has PVC pipe been used?  What kind of heating system is in the house?  Is there evidence that it has been changed over time?

While these questions seem inane (who cares how many outlets are in a room?), there are codes that must be followed for electrical, plumbing, and heating systems and those codes are periodically updated.  If you have only a couple of outlets per room and you still have a fuse box, you’ve got an old electrical system and further research can help you narrow the date on it.

Continue on in this fashion, making observations about the house and noting any questions your observations raise.  These questions form the basis of further research.  You can try to answer them by revisiting the aforementioned resources or by going online to check larger trends.  While you may not be able to pin down everything you’d like to know about the history of your house, the act of collecting it will give you much more than you started with.

When you’ve finished your research, consider making two additional copies of what you’ve assembled (including photos).  Keep the original for your records; leave a copy in the house for future owners; and donate a copy to your local historical society.  Then we’ll be able to move off of square one in regards to house histories.

By Mary Warner
Copyright 2008, Morrison County Historical Society

Tip: If you plan to renovate, take photos before you start, some during the renovation, and some when you are finished, in order to document your progress.

3 Comments

  1. Pingback: My House History » Archive » How to Research House History Article

  2. If memory serves me correctly, sometime in the 70’s the University of Cincinnati owned the home and restored if for Warren Bennis the new President of U.C. at the time. The President that succeeded him di not want to live there so the University sold it at a very cheap price to John and Elaine Hall. I think it might also have been owned by a VP from Procter named Moore. Can you fill in the gaps between those owners and the current sellers. Thanks Tom Osterman

    • Hi, Tom – After reading your comment through a few times, I’m having trouble figuring out what home you are referring to. Could you give me more information, like the home’s address (including city and state)? Thanks.

      Mary Warner
      Museum Manager

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