Tim Cowdery was fascinated to discover an old check register and a grain tempering machine in the attic of his garage on the 200 block of West 33rd Street.
“The check register says it took three tons of coal to heat this house in January of 1909,” he said. “Can you imagine?”
Cowdery believes his house was built around 1891, and he’s dug up all sorts of interesting facts about it: The house was built on speculation just before the financial panic of 1893, which probably explains why the home changed hands five times in its first 10 years. One prior occupant, Regina Kirk, was struck in a hit-and-run accident in front of the house. When adjusted for inflation, the cost of building the Lyndale neighborhood house did not exceed its value until the early 2000s.
“I think a house takes on the character of its owners,” Cowdery said. “It’s nice to know who these people were, and know the other people who had become attached to the same house.”
How to do it yourself
To uncover all of this history, Cowdery relied on three primary sources: artifacts he found in the house, tidbits he learned from the neighbors, and his home’s abstract. (The abstract is a collection of all recorded documents related to a property, and it’s kept by the county recorder’s office or the property owner.)
Cowdery and his wife Jo also reached out to the Minnesota Historical Society.
“People there are willing to help you out, and they pointed us in a couple directions,” he said. “Once you have a person’s name, you can look at the city directories.”
The directories allow people to find the former residents of a home, and learn their occupations as well. Starting in 1930, the directories are searchable by address.
Cowdery learned that his garage once served as the machine shop for Alva Kirk, who served in the Civil War and owned a mill in Fergus Falls. The mill burned down, and Kirk later invented a grain tempering machine to clean and temper wheat. Cowdery found one of Kirk’s machines still in use at a Freeport, Minn. mill.
Cowdery also recommended walking a 10-block radius around a home to hunt for similar architecture.
“I found four houses like mine,” he said.
Tracey Baker, head of reference at the Minnesota Historical Society, said that if a home builder used a standard plan, it might be in the library stacks. The Society keeps many old standard plan books once used by lumber companies and local architects.
The Hennepin History Museum also keeps a collection of 2,500 exterior photos of Minneapolis homes — the collection comes from a real estate company that catalogued every house it sold from 1900-1945.
“You can see what the house originally looked like if it was sold between those dates,” Cowdery said.
That’s important to Cowdery, because he and Jo are trying to keep their home decor faithful to the original. The rooms showcase a colonial Northome stove, antique light fixtures, historic framed photos and stained glass windows.
“We’re trying hard to put the house back to the state it was originally in,” he said. “I’m very much an old house guy.”
Cowdery is also a member of the Lyndale Neighborhood Association’s Housing, Planning & Development Committee, which is starting to delve into home histories. At a September meeting, the group planned to meet with an expert that could demystify the verbiage in property titles. The group is considering introductory workshops, home visits, and field trips to gather information.
Baker said she is certain that most Minneapolitans can find success in their research.
“Almost anybody can find their building in a city directory, property records and the Sanborn maps,” Baker said. “And you might hit a treasure trove of photos.”
History how-to: a few resources
—The Minneapolis City Directory lists the previous occupants of a house, and often their occupations, from 1859-2003. Beginning in 1930, it includes a reverse directory that is searchable by address. It’s available in microfiche on the 4th floor of the Central Library. Directories from 1859-1917 are scanned online and searchable from home.
—Once you find the names of prior owners, you can look for mention of them in the Minneapolis Tribune. The Hennepin County Library digitized the paper from the years 1867-1922. Cardholders can enter their barcode numbers and search the paper from home.
—Sanborn maps date back to 1867; they were used to help fire insurance agents assess the hazard risk of a property. They show the size, shape and construction of buildings. The maps are searchable on library computers.
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