Old-house sleuthing turns up historical nuggets

When the Ted Sutherlands decided to research the history of their Victorian frame house in the northern Chicago suburb of Wilmette, they found the house had been built in the late 1860s for a pioneer community leader named Squire Dingee.

To their surprise, they also learned that Dingee founded the suburb's first and only pickle factory.

Dingee's newborn pickle operation grew over the years to become the Bond Pickle Company of Oconto, Wis., maker of the Ma Brown brand.

Dating your older home can unearth some fascinating factual nuggets. As you trace the roots of the house, the findings seem to breathe a human personality into the physical structure. The project presents a real challenge, however, and requires patient research, productive interviewing techniques, and a generous dash of inference and just plain guesswork.

Patience and persistence are the watch- words for success.

The older the house, the more changes it spans in the city or community, as well as the immediate neighborhood.

Sources of information about the house include documentary evidence, official land records, stories by previous owners (but be wary of faults of memory), architectural clues, data in historical archives, and recollections by old neighbors.

Your sleuthing will usually include combinations of most of these.

A logical place to start the search is your local historical society. Files sometimes include folders for the older homes, with a partial or complete list of the owners. If you're fortunate, there might be old photographs of the house or letters written by an early owner with information and dates.

When our family began to research our 1872 Victorian, we found a folder in the local historical society files with a small but very sharp photograph dated 1896. The photograph, when enlarged to 8x10 inches, showed the board sidewald, dirt street, wooden fence and hitching post, a yard hammock, the barn, and the east side of neighbor's house.

We were also fortunate to spend a Sunday afternoon soon after we bought the house with the last survivor of the family which bought the house in 1897. A delightful women with total recall, she told us she had come from Chicago with her parents, grandparents, and two little sisters in 1896, first to rent the house and then to buy it.

She showed us her collection of house memorabilia. We learned that her family had rented the house for $25 a month and agreed to buy it a year later if the owner would install an indoor bathroom and replace the stoves with a central heating system.

If your historical society has no records of your particular house, check the local land records.

Go to the village or town hall if you live in the suburbs, or to your city's title and trust records as well as to the office of the recorder of deeds. Most cities maintain bound records of land registration for city and suburbs. Clerks , approached pleasantly, can be very helpful and save hours of your time as they explain the terms and symbols and how to use the bound books.

Architectural details are a firsthand research method for approximate dating of your house. Here, some background reading is very helpful in interpreting clues, unless you're an architect or builder. Publications such as The Old-House Journal, a monthly of national scope (199 Berkeley Place, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11217), are invaluable sources for the layman.

Particularly in the pre-1900 houses, architectural details are plentiful. They proclaim the home's general style and include interior details such as moldings, wooden door-frame carvings, bell-capped gaslight pipes, fire- places, nails, hardware (often replaced), sink and tub fixtures, exposed basement timbers and construction, and bay windows.

A word of caution: Nineteenth- and early 20th-century carpenters and builders often mixed house styles and sometimes used older materials from razed buildings. Successive owners sometimes remodeled their homes, removing ceiling moldings, chair rails, sliding doors, and nonload-bearing walls so as to enlarge their parlors and studies.

Also, your old house may have been moved from its original location by horse power before the arrival of motor trucks. One evidence of such a move is a pre- 1900 house on a concrete-block foundation, a construction technique developed after the brick foundation which was original to the house.

Old telephone directories in the historical society files are another excellent source of information.

Early directories located residents as "second from the corner on north side of street" before the house-numbering system came into use. Two-digit phone numbers date to the late 1800s. Occupations of residents were often included in the directory listings, adding another bit of information.

Finding your old home's roots can't be completed in a few days. You may pick up a fact or story many years after you've done the basic geneology.

After the detective work is done and your facts are reasonably complete, consider typing the information you've massed, adding old photographs, and having it professionally framed as a permanent historical document.

Be sure to include yourself and your family as the mos t recent owners!

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