Monday, October 21, 2013

House History Research in Massachusetts just got Easier!

A terrific event has made house history research on historic Massachusetts houses even easier!

It used to be that you could do research online on the county Registry of Deeds sites until you hit the wall - that point where they stopped indexing the deeds. For Norfolk County that means the year 1900. For Middlesex County South that means only as far back as 1974. In Franklin County you can go back to 1958.

While it's great to have any deeds online, if you have a house built in the 1700s you are not going to
Click to enlarge
be able to research very far back until you have to go the Registry in person to find the rest of the deeds.

Help has come in the form of FamilySearch.org, the site created by the Mormon Church.  The Mormons are very committed to family history research and have become a major provider of online records for free to help people in their research.

Earlier this year FamilySearch.org add a database called "Massachusetts, Land Records, 1620-1986" which provides images and indexes for all counties in Massachusetts.  The images of the deeds and indexes are not themselves indexed but you can use the images of the index books to find the book and page numbers of the deeds you need. While this may be a bit cumbersome it certainly does save a drive in person to the Registry and if you are researching from outside of New England it is an absolute blessing previously not available.

The images contained in the database are scans of the actual index and deed books from each Massachusetts Registry of Deeds. These images have been available in their original form, on microfilm, for quite a long time through the Family History Library based in Salt Lake City, Utah. With the advance of technology, FamilySearch is now digitizing many of these microfilms and we were lucky enough that this particular record group was selected. There is detailed information about the record group, including known issues, available from FamilySearch.

The deeds available will vary county by county and there is some variation in the years that are available for deeds vs. deed indexes. For instance, Hampden County has Grantee and Grantor Indexes from 1636-1909 while the Deeds themselves only cover 1638-1901. Hampshire County on the other hand covers Grantee and Grantor Indexes from 1787-1986 and Deeds are available from 1789-1900.  You will have to check your county to see what years are available.


Click to enlarge
While having these deed resources online is a major advantage, there is still a bit of an online gap for certain counties, especially those that are not indexed back to 1900.  For instance, the Middlesex County South Registry of Deeds site mentioned above is indexed back to 1974.  On the FamilySearch site deed indexes are available from 1699-1950.  That still leaves a 24 year gap for indexes. And the actual deed images are only available on FamilySearch up to 1899 which provides a 75 year gap for viewing the deeds themselves. 

For genealogists, micro historians and local historians the new deed images are going to provide an extraordinary research opportunity online for the very first time. For house historians who are researching their house from the present and working backwards it still provides a gap and does not prevent a trip to the Registry (with the exception of certain counties) but it will save an immense amount of time once you have gotten back to 1900 in your research.

Another advantage is that you can view and save copies of the images to your computer for FREE. The option of saving deeds images for free is not always available from all the Registry of Deeds sites. A number of them charge per page if you wish to save or print them.

Go explore this tremendous new resource and then let me know how it helps improve your research!

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Please Help Save One of the Earliest Brick Houses in America

The Peter Tufts House, Medford, Massachusetts (1677-1680)
The Peter Tufts House, Medford, Massachusetts
I received an email from Ryan Hayward of The Preservation Collaborative. He is seeking help getting word out to help save the Peter Tufts house in Medford, Massachusetts. This is one of the earliest brick houses in America (1677-1680). Please volunteer to help in any way if you can.

Here's the information from Ryan:

Dear Friends,

The Peter Tufts House needs your help! For many of you who don't know me personally, my name is Ryan Hayward, a historic preservation consultant (from The Preservation Collaborative, Inc.) who lives and works in Medford, Massachusetts. I have a number of preservation projects underway, but nearest to my heart is my volunteer effort to help the Medford Historical Society, a non-profit organization, raise awareness for one of the oldest brick houses in America (1677-1680). They have allowed me to spread the word that they are looking for volunteers to form a committee which will take charge of preserving this National Historic Landmark for future generations. This is where you come in!

I am asking you to review the enclosed press release (below) from the Society and distribute anyone you think would be interested in assisting this organization. They are seeking a number of professional skills and I know there are individuals out there with these expertise's. We need your years of experience! The preservation community has been challenged; united, lets show that we have strength and can provide the support the Society needs towards realization of their goal.

For those unfamiliar with the Peter Tufts House, it was constructed in the last quarter of the seventeenth century. It is well known architecturally for a number of features: one of the earliest gambrel roofs, the circular port windows and its beautiful colonial revival interior. It has been saved in the past by a number of caring individuals including Medford's first mayor, Samuel Crocker Lawrence, and later by William Sumner Appleton. For many years, the house was known as the Old Fort or the Cradock House, for its supposed association with Massachusetts's Bay's first Governor and original grantor of Medford settlement.

Since acquisition in 1982 (from SPNEA, now Historic New England), the building has been occasionally open for tours and was home to a full time caretaker. Deferred maintenance has finally caught up with the building, and it is in need of significant amounts of work. The committee will be charged with drawing up a work plan, then seeking out grants and funding to make rehabilitation possible within the next few years. The Society, to the best of its ability, is trying to keep the building in public hands. It honors the intent of the many donors who provided the original money to purchase the building. Although appearing daunting, the work before this board is managable and can be done! A number of organizations have faced (and conquered this very same issue); now it's our turn.

I look forward to hearing positive response from this and, of course, if you have questions/comments and suggestions, please feel free to send them along to either myself, or to the Society's President below!

Thank you for ALL your support and everything you do to help ensure New England's rich heritage stays alive for the next generation!

Sincerely,
Ryan D. Hayward
President
The Preservation Collaborative, Inc.
40 Sheridan Avenue Medford, MA 02155
781 241 7253 Ryan@preservation-collaborative.com
www.preservation-collaborative.com

Begin Press Release:

CALL FOR VOLUNTEERS FOR THE PETER TUFTS HOUSE, MEDFORD, MASSACHUSETTS

From: The Board of Directors of the Medford Historical Society, John Anderson, President

Date: 6/5/2013

The Peter Tufts House at 350 Riverside Avenue, Medford was built around 1678. It is one of the oldest brick houses in America. Peter Tufts, Sr., the first owner, emigrated from England around 1640. A descendant, Charles Tufts, provided 200 acres and a large sum of money to found Tufts University in 1852.

The house was purchased by William Sumner Appleton, the founder of SPNEA, in 1929 and subsequently gifted to SPNEA. Eventually, faced with the cost of maintaining so many historic houses, SPNEA decided to dispose of some of their properties. In 1982, the Medford Historical Society purchased the house from SPNEA (now known as Historic New England), with the purpose of keeping the house in the hands of a non-profit organization that would operate it for the benefit of the community.

During the last 30 years, the house has been open for tours from time to time and also used on occasion for academic research. A long term tenant is in the process of moving out.

Now, the Medford Historical Society finds itself in the same predicament that SPNEA faced 30 years ago. We do not have sufficient resources to maintain the house and are considering putting the property on the market for sale to a private party. Fortunately, SPNEA placed a number of conservation restrictions on the property 30 years ago so that regardless of who owns the property, it cannot be torn down, built onto, or have its historic features altered by any owner.

We believe that grant money could be secured to improve the property. Then we could rent to new tenants and generate the income necessary to sustain the house for a number of years. But the Society does not have the volunteer resources to manage this effort.

We will keep the house if a committee of five to seven qualified volunteers comes forward and is willing to take responsibility for managing the house. "Qualified" means:

Expertise: The committee must include people with the following skills:
- Property Management (relations with tenants, routine maintenance)
- Historic Preservation (knowledge of available resources, best practices, etc.)
- Construction Management (how to administer and oversee relatively complicated projects)
- Fund Raising (Grants, donations, etc.)

Personal Commitment:
- The committee members commit to staying on the committee for at least three years.
- They will be unpaid volunteers.
- The committee chairperson attends the regular monthly board meetings of the Historical Society.

Results Oriented:
- The committee will be responsible for drawing up and executing a plan for stabilizing and maintaining the property. The plan will be subject to approval by the Society board.
- The committee will commit to a timeline for fund raising and repair projects. While the dollar amount is not yet determined, it will be in the $50,000 to $100,000 range, not counting funds from the Society treasury.

Timeliness:
- The Board needs to be up and running by July 31, 2013 and work with the Society Board to establish a timeline for subsequent activities.

This message is being sent to:
- Medford Historical Society Members
- Medford public at large through Medfordmass Listserv
-The Medford Historical Commission and Historical District Commission
- Historic New England
- Tufts Kinsmen Association
- Mass Historic Preservation email list

 If you are interested in this exciting opportunity to conserve this important property and maintain public access, please contact John Anderson, President, for more information. Please include a summary of your relevant experience. John can be reached at jwa02155@yahoo.com or 781-395-5138.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Learning from Visual Clues Part 2

In Part 1 of Learning from Visual Clues I asked everyone what we could theorize based on what we see in these photos. I concluded with "Remember, every house, no matter what age, has a story to tell!"

And therein lies the trick to this question.



New England can be very challenging to interpret because of all the changes that have occurred through the years. Sometimes old houses can look new. Sometimes clues from the property can speak to the changes that have occurred on the site.

In the example above the house is in fact not old. It's a two year old modular home what was placed on the property. The big clue is the old barn. This property formerly was the site of an old house. The previous house was placed to the left of the new house. After the modular home was installed the old house was taken down but the barn was kept in place.

We can also surmise that a different house was sited here because it's unlikely that a barn such as this would have been built without a house nearby. You can't tell but this property is located on an old thoroughfare hence the reasoning for a house and barn instead of just a barn.

The reason this is significant is that there are often multiple houses located on one site at different times. If you are referring to old maps you need to be open to the possibility that a house designated on an early is not the same house as one on a later map. This was exactly the case for the house I used as my example when I spoke to the Beebe Memorial Library in Wakefield back in October.

Iif you miss the physical clues (which are there if you just take a close look) you can try to find archival clues, even when researching in the 21st century.

Similar to when determining the year built by carefully looking for increases in 19th century tax records, you can do the same with modern records.  Look at this recent data from the local assessor:

Previous Assessments
Year Code Building Yard Items Land Value Acres Special Land Total
2013 101 - ONE FAMILY 296,400 3,000 155,000 0.56 0.00 454,400
2012 101 - ONE FAMILY 296,400 3,000 158,300 0.56 0.00 457,700
2011 101 - ONE FAMILY 99,200 7,100 164,900 0.56 0.00 271,200
2010 101 - ONE FAMILY 105,900 7,100 163,500 0.56 0.00 276,500
2009 101 - ONE FAMILY 105,900 7,100

Notice how the acreage stayed the same yet the total value jumped from 2011 to 2012? That would indicate a major change to the property. Also note that the "Yard Items" decreased. Perhaps there was another barn or outbuilding on the property that was taken down.

We can learn so much from properties just by looking for the visual clues. Once we have a hunch we can search for supporting documentary evidence. This will help us to accurately interpret what we are seeing.

Walk around you property and look at it with fresh eyes. Perhaps you won't discover new information about the age of your house but maybe you will discover old cart paths, a grown over road or foundations for barns or outbuildings that are no longer there. There are lots of surprises waiting to be discovered!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Learning from Visual Clues

There are so many aspects of discovering your historic house that will help with uncovering the details and clues to its history. While it's important to search for historical documents and to analyze the architecture there is something much simpler you can do.

Spend some time conducting a visual survey of your house and property. Looking at your home and the lot that it sits on can be very revealing.  Sometimes we get so caught up looking at the minute details such as paint, nails or cornices that we forget to step back and see what the big picture is trying to tell us.

Look at these two photos. What important information can we theorize based on what we see in the photos? You can click the photos to enlarge. Leave your suggestions in the comments. Tomorrow I will post the answer.

Remember, every house, no matter what age, has a story to tell!

What to do the photos tell you about this house and property?
(click photos to enlarge)

Have I stumped you? It's probably not what you're expecting. But that's good because you need to expect the unexpected especially when it comes to houses!

Read the answer in Part 2.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Random Thoughts from a Docent

In February of this year I started my journey as a docent at the Fairbanks House in Dedham, Massachusetts. My tenure this year will soon end as the house readies to close at the end of October.

Here are some random thoughts on my observations as a first time docent.

1) There is no better way to get to know an historic house (short of living in it) than by visiting it every week. I suspected this would be the case when I signed up and I was proved right. There is no way you can get to know a house from a one-time visit.  Being a docent allows you to really get to know the nuances of an old house.

2) You will see something new every week. Without fail on every tour that I gave someone asked me a question about something I had never noticed before. There is no better way to try to see everything. It is also interesting to discover and interpret objects and houses through the eyes of visitors. Every visitor has a different bent on what they are interested in seeing.

3) It is difficult to learn and internalize someone else's research. This may be the case because I'm an historical researcher myself. I find it so much easier to talk about my own research than someone else's but that's exactly what you need to do to prepare for giving house tours. The thing that worked best for me was following along on tours given by the curator or other docents.  I could copy their performances quicker from hearing and watching than from reading.

4) It is really fun to work with a group of people who all love the same thing you do. Being a house historian can often be a solitary task. Being a docent for a house museum allows you to get to know the board, the staff and the other docents, not to mention the visitors and the descendants who come for the annual reunion.

5) Your faith in mankind's multi-generational interest in preservation will be restored. I worked at the Fairbanks House with docents from age 17 to 70+. I worked with high school students, college students, grad students, retirees.  They all had a passion for this old timber frame house. They all had a curiosity and drive to know as much about history as possible. Each one of them brought their own special expertise. It was an incredible learning and sharing environment.

6) You become a cheerleader. I know I did. I was so impressed with the energy, determination and professionalism of curator Meaghan Siekman. She is an inspiration and every day with her brought a new adventure. It's exciting to watch what she brings to the world of public history. I know I'll be a big fan for a long time to come.

If you find that you want to get involved with historic houses more than just the research you are doing on your own, I would highly recommend becoming a docent.  Join the team at the Fairbanks House or find another house museum close to your own area. I think you will find it a rich and rewarding experience.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Real Estate, Politics and Historic Houses

When we talk about researching the history of houses the focus is typically on the past.  Yet recording the present is just as important.  As historic house owners or historic house fans we are in a unique position to consciously preserve history as it happens.

How many times have you found an old photo of your house and wondered when it was taken? If you are careful and pay attention to the details in the photo you may be able to narrow down the date by examining the clues.  Wouldn't it be great if all old photos had revealing clues?

You can do your part to help house historians of the future. Here are two types of photos that will make it easier to date photos that are left unidentified.

1) Political signs are a gift to historians

Election season is upon us here in the United States. In my neighborhood I have seen signs sprouting up for State Representatives, Congress and the President. Let's put a positive spin on this otherwise dreaded political season by using the campaign signs to capture history. What better clue to date a photo than one that has a political sign in the yard.  If your yard is devoid of political signs then capture a street scene. Perhaps one of you neighbors is displaying their support for a politician. The politician's name and the campaign slogan can forever be used to determine the year of the photo.

2) Real Estate signs

Similar to campaign signs, real estate signs can be a great help to determine when a photo was taken.  The combination of the real estate agency and the agent should help in future identification of house photos.  While tracking sales electronically in the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) is a relatively new resource, this is a growing database will continue to track information about sales and sales agents.

If your house isn't for sale, take a street scene that shows your house and another on the street that is displaying a sign in front. While deeds don't list information about real estate agents, you could narrow down the date based on when the house sold.

While you're at it, ask a real estate friend to print out the MLS listings of all previous sales of your house (with photos) and include those as a part of your house history documentation. Keep in mind that sales prior to the 1990s might not have photos available.

Don't miss an opportunity to further document the living history of your house while it happens. Go to the effort to photographically record your house while including the most historic clues possible. What a great contribution this will make toward preserving your house!


Thursday, August 2, 2012

Free House History Webinars: Mass. Mini Series

I am pleased to announce that the New England House Historian will be offering a series of  webinars presented by Marian Pierre-Louis. All you need to access these webinars is a connection to the internet. The webinars are free but registration is required and space is limited. Everyone with an interest in house histories or Massachusetts research is welcome to attend. 

Massachusetts Mini Series

1. Researching Massachusetts Deeds

The most important place to start your house history research is with the deeds. Without understanding who owned your house it is difficult to effectively research other record types. Join Marian Pierre-Louis, the New England House Historian, to learn how to do deed research in Massachusetts. After this talk you'll be on your way to Massachusetts house history research!

Time/Date: Tuesday, August 7, 2012 at 8:00pm EST





2. Tips from Town Hall


Town Halls across Massachusetts have all sorts of information useful to house history research. You would be surprised at just what you can find. Come discover what kind of records are available and how you can make use of them in your research.

Time/Date: Tuesday, August 14, 2012 at 8:00pm EST





3. Prime Time Probate

Some of the richest information for house history research come from probate records. Probate records include a range of files such as wills, administrations, guardianships and estate inventories among others. This webinar will focus on showing you how to access Massachusetts probate records and examples of the information you will find..

Time/Date: Tuesday, August 21, 2012 at 8:00pm EST




See you at the webinars!



Friday, June 29, 2012

Taking a Stroll at Historic Deerfield

Historic Deerfield in western Massachusetts is one of the most stunningly preserved historic neighborhoods in New England.  The museum of over 40 buildings is also unique because it is spread across a public street and village.  You can pay to enter and take tours of the historic houses or you can simply spend an hour or two strolling along the street.  The old burying ground located nearby completes that sense that you have stepped back in time.  Historic Deerfield is one of the most satisfying historic house experiences you will ever find. Start your journey with this virtual tour and then plan for the day when you can visit in person. (click the photos to enlarge)












Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Essential Summer Historic House Destinations

Historic Deerfield
This summer, in between the beach and the barbeques, perhaps you'll find some time to do some touring around New England.  You'll want to include historic house destinations on your itinerary.  Here are my top 6 Picks (in no particular order).

1) Strawbery Banke, Portsmouth, NH

Experience four centuries of history in one location in one of the quaintest places in New England. Reserve a full day to visit this 10-acre site. You will get your fill of historic houses as you tour the 42 buildings, many of which are on their original foundations. Strawberry Banke is open daily 10am - 5pm through October 31.

2) The Moffat-Ladd House & Garden, Portsmouth, NH

While you are in Portsmouth to see Strawbery Banke, make sure you save some time to see the Moffat-Ladd House.  This is one of my most favorite house museums.  It must be something about the combination of beautiful architecture, seafaring history and a site overlooking the water that makes it so appealing.  After your visit stroll across the street to eat in some great restaurants on the harbor. Open Monday - Saturday, 11am - 5pm and Sunday, 1pm - 5pm through October 21.

3) Sturbridge Village, Sturbridge, MA

Journey to rural New England in 1830s with more than 40 original buildings in this outdoor museum. I never tire of going to Sturbridge Village because they have done a superb job of making the experience hands-on and interesting. Your kids will have fun too with running around, trying on costumes, carriages rides and a hands-on craft shop. Don't forget to stop for a snack in the General Store to buy some homemade chocolate chip cookies. Open daily 9:30am - 5:00pm.

4) Historic Deerfield, Deerfield, MA

This is another trip that will take you a full day to fully appreciate all the sights. This is perhaps the best preserved 18th century neighborhood in all of New England.  The English arrived in 1669 but Deerfield is better know as the site of the 1704 massacre at the hands of the French and Indians. There are 22 houses still standing that were built in the village before 1776.  In addition to guided or self-guided house tours, take advantage of the other museums and workshops available. Lodging at the Deerfield Inn and a food wagon catered by Deerfield Inn chefs provide services for both stay over and day visitors.  Open daily 9:30am - 4:30pm through December 30.


5) Historic New England, Across New England

Historic New England is the oldest and largest regional heritage organization in the nation. They maintain 36 historic sites across New England. Visit the 1807 Nickels-Sorrwell House in Wicasset, Maine, the 1678 Coffin House in Newbury, Massachusetts or the 1796 Watson Farm in Jamestown, Rhode Island.  The houses are spread across New England so be sure to plan your visits ahead of time. See the website for individual opening times.


6) The Fairbanks House, Dedham, Massachusetts

The Fairbanks House is the oldest timber-frame house in the United States, built circa 1637. What makes it even more significant is that it is the least altered original dwelling and was occupied by a single family for eight generations.  It is perhaps one of the most significant cultural assets in the country. Open 10am - 4pm Tuesday to Saturday through October.  The guided tours start every hour on the hour.