Fall Creek resident Joe Schill joined the first class of Tompkins County Heritage Ambassadors in 2017. Prior to the training in Tompkins County history, Joe volunteered with The History Center’s HistoryForge project, delving into census records to map Ithaca’s residents in the early decades of the 1900s. As a Heritage Ambassador, Joe helped lead the HistoryForge Day 2017: Connecting the Generations tour. Joe’s interest in local history stems in part from his fascination with the details he uncovered when researching the history of his own home. In the interview below, Joe shares some tips about how to tackle house history research and, through it, connect to past residents and the heritage of our built environment.
What would you advise someone who is contemplating researching the history of his or her home?
Learning about your house can be fun and informative. Using a variety of resources, one can discover when a house was built, if the original structure was the same size as the current one (or if an addition had been put on), who previously lived in the house, and when other houses in the area were built.
What's the best way to get started doing a house history?
First you should look at your abstract of title. This may tell you who the original owner was and when it was bought and sold. If you live in Tompkins County, you can go to the Tompkins County Department of Assessment and County Clerk’s Office for further research. The following resources are invaluable in doing house research: Sanborn Insurance Maps, city directories, tax records, deeds of sale. There are other resources you might use as well, depending upon what you discover. A great web page worth checking out is the Cayuga Heights History Project's "How to Research Your House History." It has a step-by-step process to doing house research.
What did you discover about your home that surprised you?
My own research into the history of my home, located at 705 North Cayuga Street, turned up some interesting information about previous owners. Given that the house was built circa 1897, I was quite surprised to learn that only two families had owned the house prior to our family. The first owners, William and Delia Eaton, owned the home until 1956. The second owners, Raymond and Genevieve Haringa, owned it from 1956 until we bought it in 2012. I found it incredible to think this 115-year-old house was only owned by two families prior to us, especially in a town like Ithaca where homes are routinely bought and sold because of its nature as a college town.
What sort of information were you able to learn about the previous owners?
I already knew the previous owners, whom we had met when we purchased the house. Raymond Haringa was a medical doctor (an allergist) who worked for Cornell most of his career. No big surprise there, but then I discovered that the original owner, William Eaton, grew up in Ithaca, graduated from Ithaca High School in 1879, then attended Cornell University from 1879-1883 (Class of 1883). Currently, my wife Leslie works full time at Cornell and I work there part time while I complete an MLIS program at University at Buffalo (online). I found the Cornell theme to be quite interesting and a testament to the long-term economic impact the university has had on Ithaca.
How did you get such detailed information about the original owners of your house?
Much of the early clues were found in Ithaca city directories, which were eventually replaced by telephone books in the second half of the twentieth century. City directories include not just the names of people and where they lived, but also (frequently) where they worked and what their job titles were. The Cornell information was honed from class yearbooks, The Cornellian, and the Cornell Daily Sun. I even found a picture from The Cornellian of the Class of 1883. This is the only picture I have been able to find of William Eaton.
What about the structure of the house and how it has changed over time? Are there ways to trace those aspects of a residence?
If you are interested in the actual structure of your home, I cannot say enough about the usefulness of Sanborn Insurance maps. Originally created to determine insurance rates for homeowners insurance as well as insurance for commercial properties, these are now an invaluable resource for researchers trying to learn about the built environment. They detail the structure’s material: wood siding, brick, stone, or stucco. They also show the structure’s footprint, including porches. The maps were produced for many towns and villages, as well as cities, from the late nineteenth century through the first half of the twentieth century. While not done annually, there are usually enough to get a pretty good idea of when/how various neighborhoods developed. For example, I can tell from looking at several Sanborn maps that 705 North Cayuga Street was one of the first houses built on the block that still stands today. I can also tell that several houses that exist today were not the original structures built, because the footprint is different from the original. I can also see that the garage in my backyard was built much later than the house, sometime in the 1920s. That’s because it was not there in the 1919 Sanborn map, but was there in the next one in 1929. For Tompkins County, Sanborn maps exist for Ithaca for the following years: 1893, 1898, 1904, 1910, 1919, and 1929. There is also a 1961 version, but it is essentially overlaid on the 1929 map, so not as useful. The History Center in Tompkins County has hard copies of all of the Ithaca Sanborn maps available for researchers to view in the John Marcham Research Library.
Any additional tips you'd like to share?
The best tip I can give is that people should not be afraid of doing research on their homes. Librarians and archivists are always happy to help you get started. Which reminds me, the Tompkins County Public Library has a wealth of information for those interested in researching their homes. In fact, many sources, including directories, are available online. I hope this post will inspire others to investigate their own homes and/or neighborhoods. Good luck!