As most people know, I am a relentless research buff. I love to get caught up in the story of things, so it was no surprise that this old farmhouse had me curious from the first time I saw it. When I find antiques, the first thing I usually do is research it, so I can share its story and value it even more, and this place is by far my biggest antique purchase to date. I should have expected that with such a great find, it would also give me the biggest research challenge I have ever encountered! When I started, I naively thought that researching a structure would be easier than researching a family. I do a ton of family history work, and follow ancestors around using documents, photos, and stories as they traverse through time. A structure, I figured, should be less of a hunt. Boy, was I wrong.
As it turns out, researching a structure has less to do with its construction date (which is also, by the way, difficult to pin down), and more to do with everything moving around and through it. Deeds go missing, land is transferred and divided without paperwork, and just as soon as I think I have an owner or inhabitant, I find out I am in a house down the street. By contrast, I have come across several townsfolk who seemed trivial at the time, but ended up being extremely relevant. I still have quite a bit to do, but I wanted to share some of the difficulties in researching my property that I was not expecting, and how researching property is vastly different from the research I’m used to.
Paperwork Goes Missing
This, in all actuality, is not uncommon when researching people; however, with ancestors, you can typically pick them back up at some point and fill in the gaps by telling the story. When decades go by though, on a property, it is dangerous to just assume what transpired during that period. In my deed search, I was able to go back to about 1950 before I hit the bottom, which is not all that far. I used Gloucester County’s online deed books to trace purchased back to the 60s, and from there was able to read through the actual deeds to determine past ownership. If you are lucky, your deed will actually give a bit of history. For example, after the land description, the deeds in my county will say something to the effect of, “Being the same lands conveyed to XXXXX by XXXXX in 1959”. The deed prior to the one you are looking at should have previous information as well. The problem arises when this “recent” history comes to a stop. In my case, recent history ended with the sale of my property from Freeman and Anna Loveland to the more recent owners in 1950. In a small town like Harrisonville, I learned quickly that the transfer of property was typically among family, or was done without much paperwork. Land was transferred commonly through wills (which I will get to), or sold at public sale with little documentation. Only in recent history are well drafted deeds on the books. My sale, for example, was online within days of closing!
Mixed Uses are Misleading
Because my property has also operated as the town’s General Store since the beginning of my research (dating back to 1846 so far), census records can be very misleading. The census was typically recorded during the day, and the census records on those homes that also operated for commercial use contained a lot of folks outside of the family. Did the clerk live in the building? What about the owner? Did the owner of the store rent from the homeowner? Did the homeowner even occupy the property? In my case, after researching the folks on the census for my house, the answer was yes, no, and perhaps…? Often I am finding individuals appearing on multiple census records, sometimes in multiple enumeration districts. In one case, a man, Stacy Hazelton, who inherited the store/home from his father-in-law in 1883, continued to operate the farm during the day, while his wife and mother lived in the next town in another home he owned. He appears on both records, since they were taken on different days. What does this mean in terms of ownership and inhabitants, and what does this really tell me about the home itself? At the same time, the merchant/shop keeper living in a small family home down the street could very well be the person I am most interested in. But what shop does he keep?
One route I am trying to take advantage of is the oral history of this particular store also operating as the town’s post office, until recent history (about 1950). The town has an extensive list of postmasters, but did they all live in the home? Did the keep shop there? Or did they simply manage the mail? There were also a few general stores in the small town, so it is also unclear which store these folks could have managed. The post office was typically housed within a store itself, but it is hard to tell exactly which store would have housed it at any given time.
Photos are Deceiving
If you saw the photos of the interior of the home, you probably saw the “scary attic” where the original roof is visible from the inside. The house has clearly changed over time, in drastic ways. Aluminum siding replaced old clapboard, additions changed the home’s original Greek Revival silhouette, trees have been planted and removed, and even roads have been commissioned in the past 150 years. Remember when looking at old photos and sketches, that the home you are searching for may not look like the home you see today!
My consultant, inspector, and contractor all agree that the home was once smaller, and additions were added over time. The original home would have consisted only of the front room, shop area, and bathroom on the first floor, and bedrooms on the second floor and attic. The mudroom, kitchen, dining room, and porch were all additions, as well as the front porch. The side door, facing the side yard, was probably the front door of the house, giving it a traditional Greek Revival shape, which would have been standard in the 1840s.
Photos are Scarce
When researching as far back as 100 years, or even 50 for that matter, it is important to remember that technology was not as prevalent. Were the farmers and shopkeepers who inhabited my home wealthy enough to own a camera? Artistic enough to sketch a photo? Chances are, probably not…because I haven’t been able to locate a single photo before 1950. I have been lucky to find many photos of the inhabitants of the town, which would make me thrilled if I were conducting my genealogical research. This is just the point, though. If someone were to take a photo, they would spend the film on the people, not necessarily the surroundings. I find myself constantly squinting at the background of photos at roofs and halves of porches of homes, wondering if they are mine, or one of the other 10 Greek Revival/Victorians on the street.
Research Plans Change
At this point, I have scoured ancestry.com for everything I can, and I am planning to do some more work at the local historical societies to see what I can find. At this point, I have my list of potential homeowners and shop keepers, and if nothing else, I know a ton about the town’s history. This will give me an educated idea of what questions to ask, and what to look out for. I started developing a timeline of hard evidence, as well as filling in the gaps with hypotheses. Like I do with family, telling the story in narrative based on the facts I have helps. In the end, I am learning about the lifestyle of the folks who created my town, and whether they lived in my house or not, they are all an important piece of its history.