Friday, January 8, 2010

Discovering the history of your house

The following is an adaptation of a wonderful print resource put together by Vicky Ginther, Senior Reference Librarian and Virginiana Room expert at the Warrenton Library.

Researching the history of a house can be time-consuming, but also rewarding and a lot of fun! Use a combination of resources, including the Fauquier County Records Room, the Virginiana Room at the Warrenton Library, your neighbors, and the Internet.

Where to start
Start by writing down all you know about the house, such as the address, block/plot number, lot size, architectural style. Then, talk to your neighbors or the house’s previous owners, if possible. Longtime neighbors and previous owners may be familiar with the area’s history and changes in the neighborhood. They also may have interesting stories about the house and events that occurred there, even photographs of the house or neighborhood.

County Clerk’s Office
Next, initiate a deed search to find the names of the house’s previous owners, starting with the current owner. The Records Room at the Fauquier County Circuit Court Clerk’s Office has copies of deeds to all properties in Fauquier County. Deeds show the progression of ownership of a house and any legal notices against the house, such as liens and mortgages. You should be able to trace the property back to its original owner. Note any address or street name changes; these will be crucial for researching the area’s history.

Virginiana Room at the Warrenton Library
The Virginiana Room has these resources for researching your house:

  • Telephone directories: The Virginiana Room has Polk’s Directories for most years from 1963 to the present. The directories list head of household, owner’s occupation, and names of business owners. They also have a reverse directory to look up properties by address, which is useful for locating neighbors.
  • Newspapers: Once you have the names of previous owners, you can check the local newspapers for any articles mentioning them or the house. The Virginiana Room has an index to articles in The True Index newspaper (1865-1904), an index to articles in the Fauquier Democrat (1936-1966), and an index to births, deaths, and marriages noted in the Fauquier Democrat (1907-1981).
  • Federal census records: Census records for Virginia, taken every 10 years, are available back to 1810. For some years, the census will give you information on the house’s owners, such as names, ages, and how the people who lived in the house were related. These are available on microfilm. Fauquier County Public Library also has subscriptions to (for use in library only) and HeritageQuest online services, which have scanned images of the census records.
  • Books on the local area: The Virginiana Room, the Bealeton Library, and the John Marshall library have books on Warrenton, Marshall, The Plains, and Fauquier County history in general. These will give you information on the county’s towns, historical events, famous people, and some historic houses.
  • Sanborn Insurance Maps: These are detailed maps of urban areas, originally used for assessing fire insurance liability. The Virginiana Room has Sanborn Maps on microfilm for Warrenton, 1886-1931. They cover only the town of Warrenton.
  • Historic Records Surveys: Virginia did two surveys of historic properties: one by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s, and one by the Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission in the late 1970s. Only properties of historical significance were surveyed. Both sets of surveys are available in the Virginiana Room, and are listed under the name of the house or property. The WPA surveys are also scanned and available from the Library of Virginia’s Web site.
  • Tax Records: Tax documents will tell you what taxes were assessed on the property. A large change in the tax value may indicate an addition to or remodel of the house, a jump in real estate prices, or neighborhood rezoning. The Virginiana Room has land tax records on microfilm from 1783 to 1857.
  • Wills: Wills (or Probate Records) of previous owners may contain a description of a property or house or an inventory of the house’s contents. The Virginiana Room has wills on microfilm from 1759-1866. Wills after 1866 are found in the county’s Records Room.
  • Photographs: The John Gott Library in Marshall, Va., has a collection of Fauquier County photographs, including some houses. You can contact the library at (540) 364-3440. The John Gott Library is staffed by volunteers and is open a few hours each week, so call before visiting.
  • Vertical Files: The Virginiana Room has files of information on Fauquier County people and places, including some houses and other buildings.
Compiling Your Research
You might want to keep your information in a loose leaf binder; this makes it easier to add new items. It can be organized in chronological order, by subject, or by the name of each family who lived in the house.

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