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Going beyond the obvious: Creating compelling house histories

For many people, the history of their house, store or farm presents an intriguing mystery. Even recently built houses have interesting stories, although people typically think about a house history for places that are 75 years old or more.

Most libraries and historical societies offer information about doing your own house history. Look at the directions and all of the suggestions, though, and it's enough to make a person's head spin. The directions given seem easy, yet the reality is that there is a lot of running around to find and sort the sources. Anyone who is a historical research buff like myself will want to do that digging, but most people don't have the time or persistence.

Many house history guides begin with a picture of a house's past that's relatively easy to find, like building permits, architect biographies, and published histories of the city. But these resources are limited to the technical details. Resources that go far beyond a collection of mere facts, though, exist, but these are the more complex ones to find. Oral stories, original house documents – particularly any letters or photographs, abstracts of titles, and newspaper stories can turn up unique and truly fascinating information. These extra sources aren’t always available, but taking the time to find out if they do exist absolutely adds exciting directions for the detective.

What if you already have the abstract of title, or have luckily been provided with a collection of documents passed down from earlier owners? Isn’t that enough? Would you still want to have a history written? The one thing a house history can do is collect the information in those documents into one narrative. Ultimately you have the highlights to show others and an easy resource for future owners to know what they will find in that collection.

Oral stories can also bring a house history to life. Interviews can capture stories that have been told about a house or place, particularly if it has been in your family for a long time. Even if you’ve just purchased a house, there might be stories that neighbors or the previous owners could add. Interviewing an owner, family member, a previous owner - or even the oldest person in the neighborhood - is an opportunity not to miss. Sometimes there are pictures to scan. Bring together all of these elements into a published book makes for a special keepsake. Hiring a heritage storyteller to do the searching and narrative shaping means getting that keepsake without spending the time or effort.

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