House Histories: Making Those Walls ‘Talk’

Some people are interested in family history, but have you ever considered looking for the history of your home? Just like family history, house history requires digging into records, talking to people (either in the present neighborhood or others who had lived there) and looking for photographs.

If you own the home, the first thing to do is locate your title search. This document traces the property back to the first purchase or for 50 years as they do now. Its purpose is to check that the seller has a clear title to the property. As the searcher traces the title back, any legal problem in the past is checked to be sure it was resolved. For instance, was the mortgage, held by the owners in 1933, paid. The title search will give the names of the owners through the years. Make note of all the names, since in your research, you can look for more information about each and about the neighborhood when they lived there.

Reading the deeds for the property as it changed hands can give clues as to when the first structure (house) was built. Something else that can indicate when improvements happened, including building a house, is the assessment rolls for that municipality. In Chautauqua County, if the municipality does not have them, they can be found at the county level in Mayville. Some historical societies have copies of assessment rolls.

Maps with landowner information can also indicate if a house was in that location at the time the map was made. For Chautauqua County, there is a wall map published in 1854. Landowners are indicated along with a small square to indicate a house. There is a similar map done in 1856 for the Village of Jamestown as it existed at that time. There are two atlases for Chautauqua County that contain the same type of information. One was published in 1867 and the other one was published in 1881. There is also a similar atlas of the city of Jamestown published in 1888. In 1916 another map of Chautauqua County was published which gave the same type of information. Because of the great concentration of residences in the more populated areas such as the cities and the villages, these are not included.

For the more populated areas, city directories can give information about who lived in the neighborhood at different times. Unfortunately most rural areas are not included in the city directories. During the past decade or so, our city directory has become a county wide directory. Jamestown city directories, most of which include Celoron, Falconer and Lakewood, have been published since 1875, but not every year.

Talking to neighbors can give you stories and maybe even photographs showing the house. It might not be a photograph of just the house — instead, it could be of a family posing in front of the house. If so, look at the background to see that portion of the house. Often new owners are curious about what the house looked like in the past. This is where knowing who else lived in the neighborhood at an earlier time could lead to additional stories and photographs.

If one remodels a portion of the house, look for clues in the building materials. Part of my house has plank walls and cut nails from the 1800s. Porches and additions are probably the more common changes to the exterior of a house but changes inside, hidden by new walls, can add to the history of the house.

One reminder when doing this is to be aware of any address changes over the years. At the Fenton History Center there is a list, circa 1940, that includes 208 street name changes. This does not include some from the very early history, such as Busti Street being present day Forest Avenue.

And to answer a friend’s question about early deeds stating that his house was on Union Avenue but now the address is Superior Street, the city directories gave the simple answer. The 1899-1900 city directory for Jamestown is the first to list the street directory. There was a Union Avenue and a Superior Street at that time. Between the 1928 and the 1930 city directories, Union Avenue became Superior Street. To read the descriptions of the location of the streets before 1930, Union Avenue ran from 338 Forest Avenue east to Prospect and Superior Street ran from 338 Forest Avenue west to Sampson. That does not explain when and why the two streets became one name. A search of the local newspapers or the city council minutes may answer those questions.

These are a few suggestions to get one started on discovering the history of your house. Have fun and your house may have a more interesting history than your family!