Growing up on the East Coast, Kathy Kullberg always wanted to have an old house. She got her wish when she got married and moved into the Lowry Hill East neighborhood of Minneapolis, also known as the Wedge.
There, Kullberg met another neighbor who had done research on their house, and she decided she wanted to do the same thing.
“I thought, ‘Oh, I could do that. I think I could do it better,’” she said.
Kullberg found out that the house where she lives was built around 1904 by a master builder named Henry Parsons. The family who lived in the house had moved to Minnesota from Wisconsin.
“He had been a pharmacist, sort of. He was more of a drug salesman,” she explained.
The man’s last name was Pratt, and one day, one of his many children came back to Minneapolis and stopped by the house.
“We talked about the alligator in the basement and the maids, and we found out that his uncle had gone out to New York City and was a famous cardiologist who probably treated Queen Elizabeth’s father,” Kullberg said.
Researching further, Kullberg discovered that another person who lived in the house had been a Methodist minister at the church where the Scottish Rite Temple is now, at Franklin & Dupont.
“There’s lots of stuff in the newspaper about him,” Kullberg said. “His name was James Montgomery.”
Rev. Montgomery, Kullberg said, was quite the orator, and “quite handsome.” Eventually, he moved to Washington, D.C., and was appointed to be the chaplain for the House of Representatives.
“Usually the House of Representatives is [elected] every two years, and the minister is appointed every two years,” she said. “He was appointed minister in 1921 or ‘22 and he served for 30 years. He was the longest serving minister for the House of Representatives, so he went all the way through the Depression, through Franklin Roosevelt, through D-Day. He must have been — wow! The stuff that he saw.”
Bringing history to life
Kullberg’s research on her own house led her to help other people find out about their homes too.
“I call myself a house detective,” she said.
She meets with homeowners as well as real estate agents doing research about who lived in a house, what their occupation might have been, if there are any photos and who the descendants might be.
“I focus on the people and try to bring them alive,” she said.
After she completes her research on a house, Kullberg writes up a history in chronological order for her client and sends a copy to the Hennepin County Library and the Northwest Architectural Archives at the University of Minnesota — “so other people don’t have to do the same research,” she explained.
“I hope that I’m adding to those resources with each house that I do,” she said.
Kullberg also teaches classes about discovering your home’s history for the Hennepin History Museum and at Roosevelt High School, Pratt Community School and the Scott County Historical Society, to name a few.
“There are so many houses in Minnesota. I’d love to do them all, but I can’t, so I if I can help you do the same thing to the best of my ability, so be it,” she said.
Kullberg also writes articles for the Hennepin History Museum’s magazine and gives walking tours, including one Wedge neighborhood tour that visits sites linked to the city’s brewing history.
After the big brewery families like the Heinrichs and Orths made their fortunes, their children moved to the area around Lowry Hill, she said. The tour concludes with refreshments.
“We end up at LynLake Brewery for a cold one,” she said.
When teaching people about how to go about researching their home’s history, Kullberg recommends a few starting points.
The first is the digital collections section of the Hennepin County Library website, hclib.org/browse/digital-collections. There you’ll find building permits and maps, photographs of old houses and city directories.
“There’s a wealth of information that is updated almost weekly,” she said.
In the digital collections, you can search by address until you have a name.
“The goal is to find out who was the person, and then once you get the building permit, you can get the listing of different things that happened with your house,” she said.
Another tool is to visit Minneapolis Development Review in room 300 of the Public Service Center Building, 250 S. 4th St., where historical records may identify the original owner of the house and if there was an architect involved in its construction.
“Most houses did not [have an architect], so they’ll list the builder and a contractor. If you’re lucky, there might be a floor plan on there,” she said.
Another tool, according to Kullberg, is to visit the Special Collections on the fourth floor of Minneapolis Central Library, where she noted staff are very helpful.
The Hennepin History Museum is another place to check out.
“It’s more the old-fashioned research, where you have to do your own thing with their help, because everything is in the process of being archived but nothing is really digitized,” she said.
The museum has city directories from 1895–1990, which also include a reverse lookup after 1930.
“These are helpful because they give the name of the person who lived [at an address], or people, and also gives you their occupation.” she said.
The museum also has huge Sanborn Insurance maps that give a birds’ eye view of streets block by block. These maps show the outline of houses and garages and even show whether a house is wood or brick.
Karen Cooper, a volunteer at the Hennepin History Museum who is an expert on the history of Minnehaha Falls area, suggests using alternate spellings when conducting research, especially when using online search tools.
Looking up Belmont Avenue? Try using two Ls, she suggested.
Looking for someone with the last name Peterson? Try spelling it Petersen or Petersson.
Cooper turns to ancestry.com as another source once she has the name of the person living in the house. Access to the website is free at the library.
And remember, life is messy.
Take for example one family Cooper recently researched, the Belmonts, whose one son was engaged three different times to different people.
“There are stories to be uncovered,” she said. “Families don’t necessarily want that in the newspaper.”
Other good sources, Cooper suggests, include the Star Tribune archives, which are available up until 1922 on the Hennepin County Library’s website. Cooper also subscribes to newspapers.com, which is a paid service.
The most important thing when looking into home history?
Both Cooper and Kullberg stress not dismissing the details. Even a tiny little house can have big stories, as long as you know where to look.