One Spring day, I was planting a new bed of hostas in my yard.
In digging, I found the sad porcelain remains of a small 1900s-era doll.
Her hair, arms and legs were missing, along with any clothing.
What little one sat in my backyard 100 years earlier? Was she called in to wash for dinner, leaving her doll behind? Or did a naughty pet hide it?
Older homes are full of hints, markings, artifacts and answers, if we care to look for them.
To learn more about the lives and the times that created your home, consider following the steps I’ve used to research the histories of my Pendleton homes.
1. Do not accept the conventional answer that your house was built in 1898. This is a placeholder assigned by Madison County Government. While broadly used, it is inaccurate and misleading. Ignore it.
2. Find Sanborn maps for your community online or in a library collection. These fire insurance maps include hand drawn building footprints and street grids. Locate your residence — or its absence — to pinpoint when it was built. If it was not on the 1914 map but is on the 1928, you have narrowed the dates of its construction and now have excellent information for the next step.
3. Search for your address on census records. Start as far back as you can, based on information you found on the Sanborn maps. Census records can tell you who lived in your home, as well as valuable information about their work, education, family structure and more.
4. Cross reference the names you found in the census records with news stories from a source such as newspapers.com or the microfilm collection at your library. This is where your home’s stories really come to life.
5. If you have found a dead end and have time to devote to additional research, make friends with the elected officials and staff of your county government center. The county recorder, clerk and auditor all hold records from our town’s early days and can aid you in your search, especially when you think the paper trail has ended.
6. Combine all the information you’ve collected with the physical record your house has left behind. If a news story describes a fire, and you’ve seen damaged timbers, you now know more of the story.
7. Share your stories. This is how we capture the history of our neighborhoods, our families and draw deeper neighborhood connections. Compare notes with any members of Historic Fall Creek, Pendleton Settlement or the Pendleton Historical Museum. These are our local history keepers and can help connect your home’s history to the broader community story.
To live well in an older home is to embrace those who built and dwelled within it before you.
Get to know the names of the children who once played in your home.
Learn of the weddings that were conducted in your parlor.
Add your own stories to the continuing history of who made our town what it is and what it will become.