Researching the History of Your House

by Fern Eddy Schultz, La Porte County Historian

     With the increasing interest in locating information regarding the date when a house was erected and its history, there are more and more questions being asked as to how and where to go to find this information. Primarily, this will be a discussion regarding house history search, but other building searches may follow the same patterns to reach the ultimate goal. 
     First, we must remember that there is a difference between verifying the date when a building was built as opposed to the dates of property ownership. For example, a Samuel Devlin could have owned a parcel of property from 1869 to 1885, but that does not mean that the building on that particular property was built when the land was originally purchased or even during the time when the property was owned by Devlin. Also, a house may be referred to as the “Larabee House,” yet, it may not have been built by someone by the name of Larabee but that family may be the one remembered as having resided there.
     In many instances, it may be considered sheer luck if you are able to prove without a reasonable doubt a date of construction of some house or building.
     Some of the records to be searched and research tactics to use are discussed in the following paragraphs.

 

City and County Directories
     Some of these date back to early years of a county or city. However, the earlier editions do not contain a section with a breakdown by streets within the town or city and the names of the residents at the addresses. If you are adamant in your search, you can go through the alphabetized listing of names of earlier directories seeking out the resident of the address you are researching. This is, however, a very time-consuming job and even after locating a resident at the address of your search, if directories are not available for the preceding years, you will not have conclusive evidence.
     And, then again, working datewise backwards through editions available to you, may be made more difficult in that someone other than the name you are searching resided at that address previously. This means you will need to search the alphabetized surname listing again (perhaps time and time again) and it still would result in not definitely pinpointing the information you desire. This may, however, give you a time frame as to when the building was erected, i.e., between the years of 1904 and 1908.
     Again, remember, the fact you find someone residing at an address does not necessarily means it is the house of your interest. Other factors can only conclusively prove this!
     Another thing to remember when searching using street names is that the names of some streets were changed over a period of time. For examples: La Porte had four Main Streets (North, South, East, and West). Later these became, respectively, State Street, Lincoln Way, Michigan Avenue, and Indiana Avenue. On June 25, 1877, South Main was changed to Main Street and North Main to State Street. By an Ordinance passed July 4, 1873, East Main became Michigan Avenue and West Main became Indiana Avenue. Even later, Main Street became Lincoln Way. Maple Street was originally Prairie, and South Avenue was originally Cherry Street.
     In Michigan City, Tenth Street was originally Boston Street and Eleventh Street was Baltimore Street. Also, Fifth Street was known as Market Street.
     The numbering of houses differed in earlier days from the system used today. For example, the 200 block of today would have been, in some cases, numbered 20, 21, 22, etc. These differences must all be taken into account when researching and trying to verify dates and locations of houses and other buildings.
     Another consideration is the moving of a house from one location to another. This was not a common practice but it was more common than one might expect and it did occur. An entry in the La Porte Argus, Thursday, 20 August 1891, page 5, column 6, notes one such move, “The Evangelical Lutheran School building on Main Street has been moved to a lot in Patton’s Grove, where it will be converted into a dwelling house. The school will be carried on in the basement of the new church.” The house moving practice continues today.

 

Census Enumerations
     There has been a federal census taken every ten years starting in 1790. The first one which includes La Porte County is the 1840 census. This particular census would not be of any value for the purpose of dating buildings. This census only enumerates the head of the household and breaks down individuals residing within the household by age groups. This census is important, however, to prove that certain individuals resided in the county at that time. We have to presume they resided in some semblance of a house but this census does not document a residence or dwelling.
     The first census to give much assistance in this area would be the 1880 census. It contains a column at the left margin headed “street and house” for entering this information regarding urban residents. This, of course, would not be helpful for a search regarding a rural residence.
     Since the census was an every ten-year project, this would put that time span between locating entries of information. The 1890 census was almost totally destroyed making very few schedules available so there would a period of 20 years between the 1880 and the next census which is available, the 1900 census. This length of time between records makes the usage of these records to advantage less appealing except as a base from which to work if an entry is found.
    
Soundex
     The Soundex is the index to the 1900 census enumerations, and it contains street and house number information. This system is also used in the 1880 census but the only households included are those with a child aged 10 or under, thus making this index helpful but unless some other all-name index has been compiled for your area of search, it will be necessary to research the schedules themselves. A note of warning regarding indexes (or indices); they are only as good as the person compiling them. By that, it is meant that these contain, in many cases, numerous mis-entries and omissions. It is suggested, when at all possible, that the schedules themselves be used. 
     This system is a phonetic coding system and you must work out the code of the surname you are searching. Each code consists of a letter and three numbers such a S320. The letter is always the first letter of the surname. The numbers are assigned according to the Soundex Coding Guide.
     This name is coded based on the way the surname sounds rather than the way it is spelled. Surnames that sound the same but are spelled differently, like SMITH and SMYTH, have the same code and are filed together. This system was developed so you can find a surname even though it has been recorded under a variant spelling.
     First, you must work out the code of the surname you wish to search. Having correctly coded the surname, the next step is to locate the microfilm for the appropriate Soundex index. These are available at all of the branches of the National Archives (the closest one to La Porte County being in Chicago, Great Lakes Region Branch, 7358 South Pulaski Road), at the Allen County (IN) Public Library in Ft. Wayne, and most branches of the Family History Library of the LDS of Salt Lake City, UT (one is located at 3050 Edison Road, South Bend). Many county libraries will have in their collection at least the ones pertinent to their county. Staff at the institution where you do your research will assist you in locating the film, and, in some cases, even the coding of the surnames. 
     When you work with the Soundex index, you will find the information has been microfilmed from cards. Each of these cards contains the basic information extracted from the schedules. For complete entries, you will want to search the schedules, but the Soundex will give you all of the information that would be available for the purpose intended here.

 

Newspapers
     Quite often, there will be items in newspapers regarding a new construction. If it is a house as opposed to a factory, it may be found in the column headed “Personals” and contain such information as “John Jones and his wife Sarah just moved into their newly constructed home at 2112 Charleston Street.” Newspapers may be found on microfilm at libraries and originals are generally maintained in museums, archives, and newspaper files of the publisher. Researching these can be a very long, drawn-out job. Even if an approximate year is known, it means reading through the editions for that year (or at least until you happen to find an entry) with a very good chance that no mention will be made of the information you are seeking. Online, Newspapers.com (www.newspapers.com), a paid site, has many newspapers dating back to the 1700s.

Building Permits
     As early as 1891, an entry was found in the Michigan City News (IN) of a column entitled “Building Permits.” One should check with the town/city office and the county office responsible for issuing such permits in the area in which your search is being done. Determine the earliest date there was a law requiring issuance of building permits and also where they might be located. It is very likely that earlier ones are not available. Following up every possibility, however, is a necessity. These records could be very helpful if they can be located.

 

Assessor’s Office
     Sometimes, the Assessor’s Office in the county of your search will have a date of construction in their records. Here again, be careful, particularly if this is an older building. This information has, for the most part, been given to that office (in the case of a house) by a person residing in that house at the time of the assessment, who may or may not have had documentation. Often, there is no knowledge as to where the date entered on this record was acquired.
     I speak from first-hand experience regarding this. I contacted the Assessor’s Office in the county of my search just out of curiosity to see what, if any, date was recorded for the construction of my house. Since I had a definite date in my records, having gotten it from the daughter of the gentleman who built the house, it was interesting to note the record showed my house to be eleven years older than it actually is. When I inquired as to the source of their information, they reported they had no idea. Another building which is still standing on my property was built when I was a little girl, and it was recorded as having been built the same year as the house. So, beware and be wary!

Tax Records
     If tax records are available for the period of time in which you believe the building of your search was erected, it is possible to get a further clue by comparing assessed taxation. When a considerable increase is noted, it may be assumed that an improvement, perhaps a house, was built that year. Remember, this is just a clue!    

Abstract of Title
     The abstract of title is the history of a parcel of property and will not, in a definitive way, contain information pertaining to the construction of buildings thereon. These documents are no longer required in the transfer of property from one individual to another so with it goes a considerable amount of historical information which had been consolidated into one document. If you have an interest in the history of the property and an abstract is not available, you can construct one by doing the same research that had been done to prepare one in the past. You can trace all of the steps (each transaction) recorded regarding the property of interest and information that would have been incorporated into an abstract. This procedure, however, does require a considerable amount of time. You may not feel this is necessary for your purposes and will not pursue this endeavor.

 

Mortgage Records
     Mortgage records may divulge some evidence worth following up. If a mortgage was recorded against a property, and an abstract for the property is available to you, this will give you a date for followup as all recorded mortgages are included in this document. You should search for mortgages regardless.
     Many people did not have the financial wherewithal to build a structure without help which resulted in a mortgage. These records are available for researching in the Recorder’s Office. A mortgage, will seldom, if at all, define the purpose for which the monies involved in the mortgage were/are to be used. The fact that there was a mortgage instituted would indicate, however, that there was a need for money at a particular time, perhaps for the construction of a house or other building. Most early mortgages were entered into to secure land.

 

Deeds
    I have heard some people say they found information regarding the construction of their house by researching deeds. Deeds are land transactions and do not contain information other than the legal description of the land involved. If you want to know who owned the property where a house was built, then deeds will disclose this information, but do not look to deeds for house information.

 

Mechanic’s Lien
     A Mechanic’s Lien, like any other lien, is the right by the holder to retain interest in another’s property until a debt is paid. These documents will always specify the purpose for which they are negotiated. If, for example, a purchase was made from a lumber company of materials to erect a home, a Mechanic’s Lien might have been placed on that home by the dealer. In this case, some of the information contained in the lien could include the location and a description of the structure. These liens are to be found in the Recorder’s Office. They should not be overlooked as they can prove very helpful.

 

Construction Materials
     By knowing when certain construction materials came into existence, you would know at least the earliest date your structure could have been built. Learning about building techniques along with construction materials can offer good clues.

 

Types of Architecture
     Types of architecture can sometimes be deceiving. It would be erroneous to think that because a structure is of some specific type of architecture, it had to have been built in a certain year. As settlers moved westward, they took with them all kinds of ideas and these can be seen in the homes they constructed. Sometimes a type of architecture was only used to a certain extent during a certain period or location and this can be a helpful hint in dating a building. Some buildings will have many diverse types of architecture incorporated in them. Don’t let this be misleading.
     Many houses consist of the original building with a number of additions having been made. By using your knowledge of construction materials and the types of architecture, alterations, and additions, buildings can be identified.

Plat Maps and Atlases
     Plat maps and atlases frequently will note the location of a particular building. Plats of cities, towns, villages, etc., will give you a date from which to work. Recorded plats may be found in the Recorder’s Office; atlases may be found in libraries, museums, and other archival facilities. As you get into researching more recent constructions, and if these are in subdivisions, these areas are platted and recorded and this will offer a good starting date for the researcher. With the advent of subdivisions, the researcher will find many more records available to assist in the search.
     You must take into consideration a number of factors before positively stating that because a building is indicated on a plat it is the one you are trying to date. Remember, quite a few earlier settlers built a “temporary” house or a “first” house and later built another as their family grew or if they decided to remain in an area. Also, there were many fires in early days. You will note as you read early newspapers that fires regularly destroyed homes and other buildings. This, then, resulted in the construction of a replacement.
     Some maps can now be found online at websites such as Historical Map Works (www.historicmapworks.com).

 

Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps
    Sanborn Fire Insurance maps are one among a number of such maps but are perhaps the most well-known and available. These are detailed maps of towns and cities showing complete buildings and home locations within “downtown” areas plus street names, building addresses, types of construction, and frequently the kind of business located in each commercial structure.
     They were updated by the insurance cartographer for use by the local fire departments. One microfilm reel of these is available for researching at the La Porte County (IN) Public Library. This reel contains maps of the city of La Porte for April 1886, February 1890, July 1895, June 1901, March 1907, October 1912, November 1919, and February 1928.
     It also contains maps of La Crosse (IN) for March 1915 and February 1931. Available at a number of locations in La Porte County is a copy of the Sanborn map of Michigan City for the year 1884. This may be researched in such locations as the Michigan City (IN) Public Library, Lighthouse Museum in Michigan City (IN), and the La Porte County (IN) Historical Society Museum.
     There is an extensive collection of these maps of various towns/cities in the U.S. housed in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Also, Indiana University Geography and Mao Library at Bloomington, Indiana, has an almost complete collection of these maps since 1883.

 

County Histories
     County histories, will, in some cases, give clues. Many of these references contain sections of biographical sketches. Sometimes, these will note when and where the person about whom the sketch is written built their house and resided. Again, many of these early homes disappeared for one reason or another so the house that is presently on the property may or may not be the original homes noted in this writeup or the one about which you are seeking information.

Personal Diaries
     Personal diaries often included items of interest that occurred in the community and the writer would probably have noted such an important date as the day he or she moved into his or her new home. These might even indicate information about a home of a neighbor or friend.

Old Letters
     Old letters may also include this type of information. Families moving west often wrote to family members left behind telling them all about what was happening to them including their new “quarters.”

Birth and Death Records
     Birth and death records would frequently indicate the location the “event’ took place which would prove the existence of the structure at that time. Obituaries would also serve to give a location of the death thus also establishing the presence at that time. Many birth and death records can now be found online on websites such as Ancestry (www.ancestry.com).

 

Wills and Probate (Estate) Records
     Wills and probate records may also contain information regarding the disposition of a house upon the death of an individual. This would prove the existence of that house at that time.

Photographs
     Photographs can be a vital source. Be sure to look at the background of photographs. A structure you are researching just might be there and a properly identified photograph might give you a clue to a date you are trying to find. The La Porte County Historical Society archives has a large collection of photographs including people, businesses, houses, and street scenes.

Utilities
     Contact the utility company. Records or maps may be available showing when gas lines were laid in the area or when electric lines were put up. This would then indicate house construction in that area around that period of time.

City Inspector’s Reports, etc.
     Some of the other sources of information might be the City Inspector’s Annual Report which shows buildings built in that year; and topographic maps which are now published by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) for the entire nation and are extremely important because they show individual buildings on rural properties. These are also updated periodically thus giving somewhat of a continuity to searching.
     A number of homes were not built from “scratch.” After Rural Free Delivery came into existence in 1893 and Parcel Post in 1913, much was ordered through the mail (stoves, plumbing, and even houses). The most well-known “mail order houses” were the Sears homes and the Aladdin homes. Some of these were purchased by La Porte County residents. The location of only a few of these in the county, however, is known today. “Pre-fabricated homes” became quite popular during the 1940s and many were constructed in La Porte County. At Kingsford Heights alone, about 3,000 of these were contracted for by the government to house employees of the Kingsbury Ordnance Plant (KOP), an ammunition-producing facility during World War II. National Homes of Lafayette and Libby, Owens, Ford Glass Company of Toledo had contracts for 1,000 while other builders received contracts for the remaining.
     An area on the south side of La Porte was also the site of the construction of “demountable homes.” This area was between 13th and 15th Streets and was named Maple Terrace. These houses were also for the housing of employees of the KOP and were built by the James I. Barbes Company of Logansport.

 

Repositories
     Repositories where information may be stored that you will need to search are county and local libraries, courthouses, historical societies, museums, Chamber of Commerce records, city office archives, building contractors, and Realtors. Former owners and member of families who resided in a home may also have the knowledge you need.
     Many internet resources are now available to aid research efforts. Web sites that can assist in research include, but are certainly not limited to, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com), Find A Grave (www.findagrave.com), Rootsweb (home.rootsweb.ancestry.com), Newspapers (www.newspapers.com), and National Archives (www.archives.gov). Also, more and more museums and historical societies are making their collections and archives available online. The website Beacon (beacon.schneidercorp.com) provides real estate records for some, but not all, states including Indiana. Information includes the property owner, purchase date, acreage, property taxes, and the previous owner. Searches can be conducted by property owner name, or property address.

     Generally speaking, it will be easier to date a structure erected in a town or city than one that was built in the county. In any case, it is not an easy task to document information. You must be a detective of sorts and follow through on all leads.
     Searching the history of a building is tantamount to researching your family tree. You must follow up each clue in order to be successful. If any follow-up is neglected, you may fail to attain the proper documentation and reach your goal.
     As you begin your research, it is necessary you maintain a semblance of order. If you keep the information and clues you discover in chronological order, each new clue or documented information can then be inserted in its proper location. Entering the information on index cards (at least 4" x 6") makes the record keeping and insertion of new materials easier.
     Be sure to make copies of all pertinent information and record the source date, and location of the document/information which backs up your data.
     After you have completed your history, place at least one copy in a repository of your choice. This may be the county library, county museum, or other where it will be maintained for future generations.
     Certainly there are other sources not mentioned here and by all means do not bypass any possibilities available to you. The ones included here are the primary ones and the ones which will probably make your search a successful endeavor.

Fern Eddy Schultz
La Porte County Historian

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