By Melanie Rossi
GREEN BAY – Through UW-Green Bay’s Archives and Area Research Center Department, staff members can help homeowners navigate the resources necessary to research their homes’ histories.
Every property conceals its own stories about its past owners and structural history, and the Area Research Center provides the resources to help interested homeowners bring these stories to light.
Debra Anderson, director of the UW-Green Bay Archives and Area Research Center Department, said, “Because of the collections that we have here in the archives, we are able to help people uncover the history of their house. And we do that by using a number of different types of documents, such as land records, maps, tax rolls, surveyors records, city directories, census records — and with those materials we are able to provide homeowners and those who are interested in it with an idea of when their structure might have been built.
“We can provide a pretty good narrative or story of the owners that would have been in that house who might have built it, or who the first occupier of the home was and so on… We can provide sometimes a sketch of the shape of the house, or a layout of the house — not a blueprint, those don’t exist… Sometimes we are able to provide a photograph depending on where the home or the building might be located.”
With the resources in the archives, the staff members at UW-Green Bay work together with the homeowners on the research — they do not do the research for the interested homeowner; instead, they help them through the process.
“We welcome individual researchers to come in, or individual homeowners — people who are interested in learning their house’s history — and we will help you navigate the different records that you need to use depending on what it is that you want to find out about your home,” Anderson said.
“Some people want to know exactly who lived in their house because they found a photograph stuck in the attic, and they want to know who these people may be. Other people come in and they may be interested in trying to get their house to look like a specific time period, and they want to know information about that. Other people come in because they bought a new house, and their neighbor told them, ‘your house is 125 years old,’ and they want to verify that.”
The Area Research Center has been helping around one family a week, according to Anderson, and the interest in conducting house histories has been steadily increasing.
“The interest in the histories of individual homes has been increasing steadily over the last few years… I think, in part, that people are interested in their home, who might have lived there — they like to imagine what type of history might have taken place inside the walls of their home, and they are trying to… get a better understanding of those walls that are surrounding them currently.”
As a way to provide the strategies for researching one’s home in a workshop format, the UW-Green Bay Archives Department hosted a free event on May 20 entitled “If These Walls Could Talk: Discovering Your House Histories.”
The program allowed participants to familiarize themselves with research strategies used to conduct house histories and help them as they begin the process.
“It was part of Brown County History Days,” Anderson said. “We invited people to come out to learn the basics of how to understand the history of your home and what the story is of your home.”
For researchers interested in finding their house histories, the length of time spent with staff members researching one’s house depends on the complexity of the research.
“Some are more complex than others,” Anderson said. “If you have boundary changes or changes in physical property descriptions, we might be engaged with the researcher or helping them more in depth, and sometimes if its people just wanting to know who lived in their house, we don’t need the staff assistance as much for that, but we are always here helping people as they work through their process; we are always available to aid people, whoever’s coming in.”
According to Anderson, investigating a house’s history is just “one of many types of research” that the Archives Department helps people with.
“We provide all kinds of other research assistance — you can be trying to find your Civil War ancestor, and we’ll help you with that. You can be trying to figure out something about a historic plant that you want to grow that used to be in the neighborhood… We help people with all kinds of different research; this is just one type of thing that we do.”
Anybody interested in working with the UW-Green Bay Archives and Area Research Center Department to conduct a house history can contact them at [email protected] or visit their website at https://www.uwgb.edu/archives/.