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Does Your House Have a Past?

Lynn Houghton, WMU regional history collections curator, with many of the historic maps and books one can access for information on a house.
Resources for researching the history of your house

One of the most common questions local history reference librarians get is: What is the history of my house?

Typically they will answer with a question: What do you already know?

The pervasiveness of the Internet has led people into thinking that all they need on the history of their house is readily available. and Google are helps, but they are just a starting point, says Lynn Houghton, regional history collections curator at WMU.

“Sources were produced for a reason,” she says. “At the time, people and businesses collected information for their own purposes, not for historic reasons. There is a lot on the Internet, but not everything. That’s why we store files and files of records in the archives.”

Among the local resources you can tap into are:

WMU Archives and Regional History Collections

Located at the Charles C. and Lynn L. Zhang Legacy Collections Center on Oakland Drive, the collection holds university, local and regional government records, including:

• Polk City Directories, which start in the 1860s, list a person’s address, phone number, occupation and place of employment as well as various businesses that existed at the time.
• Chad maps (named after the company that produced them) show housing developments and plats in the area, beginning in the 1830s.
• Sanborn Maps were produced for fire departments and insurance companies. Sanborn Maps of downtown Kalamazoo date from 1887-1932 and are digitally accessible. The maps can indicate the type of building and its materials.
• Bird’s-eye view maps are artistically sketched maps that were precursors to aerial maps. Although they are an artist’s rendition of the city, they are useful in finding individual houses on a block and to see what the city looked like in a particular period.
• Real estate listing cards detailing homes for sale were produced from the last half of the 19th century until the early 1970s and include photographs and details such as the number of rooms and prices the house sold for over the years.

Kalamazoo Public Library

A wealth of reference materials can be found at the library, including:

• Census data collected by the U.S. government. In addition to population census information, the library has the Agricultural Census, which starts in 1850 and lists a farmer’s name, the crops growing on the farm, the number and type of animals the farm had, and the quantity of products produced.

“The 1880s were especially interesting times, and you see how people lived,” says Beth Timmerman, local history reference librarian at the Kalamazoo Public Library. “Lots of people were coming to Kalamazoo from the East, and there were also a lot of immigrants. Personal information was collected through the government census, and now, after 72 years (dictated by privacy laws), it is available to the public.”

• Kalamazoo city deeds, from 1831-1903 are available on microfilm.
• Vital statistics such as the county’s birth and death records are on microfilm at the library, along with marriage records that date back to the 1830s.
• Newspaper obituaries are a useful source for piecing together relationships that can be of help in identifying owners of houses. The Kalamazoo Telegraph covers the years 1845-1916 while the Kalamazoo Gazette starts in 1837.
• Historical documents for the city of Kalamazoo and Kalamazoo County are listed under H977.418 and include many records and photos that are digitized, posted and downloadable on
• Genealogical records of many people who once lived in Kalamazoo are at the library as well, including The Meader Collection (920.M481), put together by Robert Meader, a minister who started a collection of brief biographies and photographs of World War II veterans of Kalamazoo. He later included other people in town.
• The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) collection of information of families whose sons and daughters served in both world wars (H940.53).
• Historical photos of Kalamazoo, notably The Mamie Austin Collection, which came from a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project of the 1930s and the Wallace White Collection which documents Kalamazoo buildings in the late 1800s.

Other Resources

• City clerks’ offices have building permits that indicate changes in reconstruction and renovation. These offices also keep track of deeds and vital records. Deeds can include information on buyers, sellers, wills, property descriptions and probate records and, sometimes, inventories of household items.
• Tombstone inscriptions can be helpful since death records were not kept by the state government until 1867. Resources available for each of the county’s nearly 80 cemeteries can be found at
• Tax records at city or county assessors’ offices can provide information about a house and its owners, including when a property was purchased and sold.
• Oral histories from neighbors may give clues about a house’s exterior and interior features and the people who lived there. Contacting those who lived in the neighborhood as children can be helpful.
• Special institutional collections provide valuable information as well. For example, Farmers Mutual Insurance Co. records are especially good for rural areas and are available through the Kalamazoo Valley Genealogical Society.

In addition, other institutions collect information on the city’s history and work with the library to assist patrons in researching their houses. For example, knowing about the interior of a house is always a challenge. Although the Kalamazoo Valley Museum collects period artifacts and textiles and has more than 20,000 photos that can provide an idea of what interiors looked like during a particular time period.

“We are so lucky that people did care about saving these things so that we can have them today,” says Timmerman.

Olga Bonfiglio

There was no better writer to take on our story about the economic redevelopment of the Northside than Olga. She has taught urban development at Kalamazoo College for several years and was the host of Public Voice, a Community Access Center show interviewing local urban redevelopment leaders. She has previously written for the Huffington Post, U.S. Catholic, Planning (the trade journal for urban planners) and the Kalamazoo Gazette.

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