Going Old-School


Wisconsin Rapids City Directory 1930

This post is actually not directly related to fundraising, but rather will describe how a little annual volunteer project I help with has enriched my prospect research toolkit. And, with this week being National Library Week, I hope you will find it appropriate.

For the last nine years, I have volunteered as a researcher for my local historical society’s annual tour of homes. In this role, I compile a brief history of the home-owners and residents of the home I am assigned to. This history is used to prepare scripts for tour-day docents, is given to the current home-owners, and becomes part of the historical society archives. But what it has given me is so very much more!

City Directories: my search begins with the reverse-search capabilities in city directories. My local library has them going back to 1926 (and most of those are also online) and our Central Library downtown has them going back even further. These directories, indexed both by address and last name, enable you to find out not just who lived at a particular address in a particular year, but often whether they owned or rented the home, and what they did for a living. Of course, since I think like a prospect researcher, once I find a new name, I often look backwards to find where they lived before the home I am researching, and forwards to find out where they went next. My city renumbered the streets in 1932, so that usually adds a fun little twist to my searches. An added perk of the city directories are the ads – not only are they interesting graphically and historically, but their placement and prominence can give you a sense of a business’s success.

Tax Assessor File: in my county, tax assessment records are housed with the city or village. At city hall, these records are in manila folders which you can request to examine (copies are 25 cents a page, and they do have a dollar machine if you didn’t bring quarters with you). These files contain one or two assessor’s cards, which include a historical record of assessments, often many of the owners’ names, often permit work amounts and descriptions, and a physical description of the home – dimensions, floor plan, a room-by-room list of surface treatments – and often an historical photo is stapled to the card. Sometimes copies of transfer deeds are in the files, but where I live those are usually just the most recent transfers. Correspondence disputing assessments will be in the file, as will a list of comps and sometimes recent remodeling permits.

Milwaukee Courthouse, Built 1931, Arch- Albert Randolph Ross of McKim, Mead & White

The Registrar of Deeds: My library is in the same building as my city hall, but a visit to the Registrar of Deeds means a trip to the county courthouse downtown. Here they keep records going back to when Wisconsin’s towns were originally platted in the 1830s. A search at my county’s registrar begins in their basement record room. They escort me to the books listing each lot by legal description and parcel number. Each of these huge, heavy volumes is organized by the blocks within the subdivision descriptions, and deed and mortgage file numbers are listed for each lot on facing pages – and, yes, everything is written by hand. Using the file numbers, you request microfiche copies of the deeds and mortgages. But once I was given access to the mysterious Mezzanine, where the books containing the hand-written transcriptions sit on crowded shelves, often falling apart and held together with rubber bands. For a prospect research geek like me, that was almost as cool as a trip to Grandma’s attic!

Microfiche: by the time I began doing prospect research the internet had already reached its ascendency, so I never had the experience of doing research on microfiche. Until the house tour, that is. Over the years, I’ve gotten pretty adept at using the machines, and after a couple of tries I manage to get the film inserted in the proper orientation and focus. The microfiche files contain a wealth of information – not just deeds, but also the occasional will or probate record, easements, lawsuits and other legal records tied to the title and ownership of the parcel. Just like with traditional prospect research, it’s far too easy to fall into an oubliette and find you’ve just spent 2 ½ hours sitting in a basement squinting at negative copies of handwritten documents, trying to decipher if a middle initial is a P or an F.

The Internet: Once I’ve compiled a list of owners, renters, employers, and purchase dates and amounts from these resources, I head to the internet to see what else I can find to write a compelling biography. I often hit “find a grave” websites, and the obituaries I find there and elsewhere are just as helpful for my house tour research as they are for my day job. Now that Google has digitized my local newspaper, I sometimes find stories in 1940s society pages, and once I found a classified ad which my homeowners had placed to find a rental home. One of the additional things I am looking for as I work on the biographies of the historical homeowners, is contact information for them or their children. Which takes me to the next step.

Cold-calling: Yep. I steel my nerves and pick up the phone. Once I launch into my rehearsed lines about their childhood home being on a tour, people are usually more than happy to share their memories. Believe it or not, I don’t recall anyone ever asking me where I got their number. Over the years, I have met some delightful people, including the youngest son – now well into his seventies – of a local artisan, who fast became one of my more eccentric and dearest friends.

Interviews: while many people need very little guidance to talk about their lives in the home I am working on, sometimes they do need a little coaxing. So while I don’t usually prepare a script ahead of time, I have learned to have a very clear sense of the questions I want to ask and the direction I hope the conversation will head. Often the interviewees provide me with the names of additional people – family, neighbors and friends – they think I should speak with, along with the best way to reach them. Just like for a fundraiser, when I am armed with both a cause and a connector, it makes the next cold call a little easier.

It can be refreshing to indulge in a little old-fashioned research without the complexities of capacity formulas, data-mining algorithms, and fundraising strategy; and even to get your hands little dirty – sometimes literally – plowing through old records using old technology. This old-fashioned research has helped me understand the sources of what Lexis/Nexis shows me, provided additional tools to use in my work, enriched my knowledge of my community’s history, and given me the chance to meet and talk to some really interesting people. And, for me, every year, this all begins in my local library.

Happy Library Week!

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