or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Reference Question of the Week ¦ 9/15/13

   September 21st, 2013

On This Site in 1897 Nothing Happened signI hear this reference question maybe two or three times a year, and it's one that I equally enjoy and despise. Despise because I tend to have a very low success rate with them, but enjoy because I know that if I weren't a librarian, I'd be calling my library to ask the exact same question.

Through the online contact form of the library's ChelmsfordHistory.org website this week came this question:

I'm trying to figure out who originally built my grandmothers house. [It was] built in 1946. I would like to get a name and or pictures of the original structure and the original owner.

This is probably a common question anywhere that has old houses, and lots of people want to know the history of their home. And for some houses, a lot of that work has been done. Our local Historical Commission has made available online a tremendous amount of information from their survey of old homes, but rarely does the patron asking live in one of these. And in this case, finding a photo of the original home - and the owner! - seemed like a particularly tall order.

I don't think I've ever been asked who the builder of a home was, and it seemed like the only possible record of that might have been on the original building permit issued by the Town. I called the Building Inspectors office in Town Hall and spoke to the Building Commissioner, explaining what I was looking for. Although he was helpful, unfortunately the records he has only go back to the 1960s, and he didn't know if older Town records of building permits even still existed.

In the end, he suggested I look for the original deed through the county's Registrar of Deeds. He said that often the first record of sale is from the builder to the first owner - which I didn't know but makes sense. I've only ever used their land records website for current who-owns-this-property type questions, and again struck out because their online records only go back to 1976.

So at this point, I emailed the patron back explaining what I had (not) found so far. I gave her the contact information for the Registrar of Deeds though, because her contacting them directly - or, more likely, her going there in person - might be able to produce the records back to 1946. With that, hopefully, she'll get the names of the builder and original occupant.

As for photos though... since her home wasn't an old one in an historic neighborhood, I think the only source for photos may be family photos of previous residents. I don't know if the patron is motivated enough to track down the family of the original owner, but it might produce some photographs. Also, if the builder is still in business, they may have photos or plans for the original house too. I don't know how much her house has changed since it was built, but if the the builder built multiple homes in the area, there may be some that used the same plans and are still in their original condition, which may give an idea of what her house originally looked like.

I apologized for not being much help, because I felt like I was really grasping at straws at the end. Hopefully she'll have luck with the Registrar of Deeds - and hopefullyier, I'll find a new and helpful "history of my house" resource before the next question like this comes in.

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