Researching the History of Your House

 

          Researching the history of a building can be time consuming and frustrating and often result in unfulfilled expectations.  However, the hints that follow may provide at least a start in your work.  There are hundreds of different avenues that can be pursued for clues. The books referenced below provide more detailed information about the myriad points to investigate.  If you believe this document can be improved by clarifying, editing, adding, or subtracting information, contact the Town Historian

                     Make notes while you are researching! Page numbers, dates of citations, etc.  New Baltimore has been a Town since 1811.  Before that, it was part of Coxsackie.  So, if you are looking before then, check Coxsackie.  Greene County was created in 1800.  Our part of the County previously was in Albany County. If your search extends back that far, you have to check with the appropriate agency there.  The Vedder Research Library (VRL)(Greene County Historical Society) in Coxsackie (open Tuesday and Wednesday 10-4, first Thursday of each month 7-9, and some Saturdays, 518-731-1033) has the indexes to early Albany County records that may be useful in initial research.  The VRL also has a lot of other material, which will become apparent later.  However, it is not a lending library so collections must be used onsite. 

Architecture and Building Features


                     What is the architectural style of the building you are investigating?  This can be an indicator of age.  Are the windows hard to see through or have bubbles in them?  Is the construction balloon-frame or post and beam?  What kinds of pipes or wiring are used?  What kind of roof is there?  How many roofs are there? Shingle roofs can last 50 years, asphalt 25.  If you have a shingle and two asphalt roofs on the house, it could be at least a hundred years old.  Was the building altered at some point?  It could be that another building’s materials were used to construct all or some of a subsequent structure.  A one-room school in New Baltimore was used in the construction of a barn.  Part of the wood from a church in the hamlet was used to build what became a small general store. 

                     Look for distinguishing features, such as original paint and wallpaper, in remote locations where fewer changes would be in evidence, i.e., dark corners of attics, basements, and closets, under carpets, linoleum, and moldings.  Who built the place?  Is there a plumber’s name on the furnace?  When were these people in business (censuses, phone books, and tax assessment records can provide leads here)? The location of chimneys, doors, and other features in addition to the materials of which they are made can help date a building. Many interesting things have been found when walls are replaced and other internal changes made in a building.  Look for writing on walls.  Some people locally even have found secret spaces containing odd treasures. 

                    This discussion has been somewhat a stream of consciousness but was intended to convey both the difficulty and complexity in dating buildings.  A full explication of the vast palette of architectural features and their meanings is well beyond the scope of this short summary.  However, there are reference works available to help you.  While your local librarian or an Internet search may lead to a variety of resources, Virginia and Lee McAlester’s A Field Guide to American Houses (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002) is remarkably detailed in providing a wealth of information on the history and architecture of buildings.  House Histories by Sally Light (Spencertown, NY: Golden Hill Press, 1989) is another valuable resource, covering everything from walls and paints to deeds and mortgages (but not locally specific).  It even has a primer on how to read old handwriting and how plantings can provide hints on age.  Other possibilities are Betsy J. Green’s Discovering the History of Your House and Your Neighborhood (Santa Monica, CA: Santa Monica Press, 2002) and House and Homes: Exploring Their History by Barbara J. Howe and others (Nashville, TN: American Association for State and Local History, 1987).  These books are in print as of fall, 2003, with the Light, Greene, and Howe works available at the VRL.  You also could check local public libraries for availability.

                   Make copious notes on all this.  Take pictures before and after rehabilitation work, of interesting design features, and of interesting finds.  Question everything.  For example, different types of foundations can mean additions were made to the building.  If a building was moved, which was common, there may be a much newer foundation under an older building.

 

Historic Registers

                   Several sites in New Baltimore have been recognized for their historical and/or architectural significance.  If your home is one of them, someone may have documented the building as part of the application process for recognition.  There are three Town entries on the National and State Registers of Historic Places and 14 on the Greene County Historical Register as of fall, 2003.  Check with the Town Historian for further information.

 Deeds

                  When all is said and done, though, architectural and related features are subject to considerable variability and can only be indicators.  You also should follow any existing paper trail.  First and foremost are deeds.  Deeds can tell us the date that a property transaction occurred and the names of the people involved.

                  Be aware that deeds may not be recorded until several years after a transaction has taken place or, particularly in earlier days, not at all.  Deeds should include the location of the property, its dimensions, and the name of the municipality in which each party involved lives at the time of the sale.  A deed may, but does not have to, explicitly indicate that the property being sold is either a vacant lot or includes a building or buildings, which may be useful in determining construction dates. Even if it does not, the amount of money involved may provide a hint as to whether it is just land or not.  Do not be surprised if a property description says that a property line extended from an old oak tree to a rock in a stream, which can make it difficult to identify.

     If you do not have a copy of your deed, there are indexes in the County Office of Real Property Services in Catskill that will lead you to the deeds for your property.  One index is by person (which would be you, or whoever owns the property you are researching).  The other is in numeric order, with a nine-digit section-block-lot number corresponding to the property tax maps defining the location of your property. (This number also is on your tax bill.)  There are further instructions on how to do this at the Real Property office. These indexes, primarily used to locate parcels on tax maps, also include the book (liber) and page numbers of the deeds, which are located in the Deed Books at the County Clerk’s office in Catskill.  From here you can start to track back previous owners of the property. There often will be a citation in the deed referring to the previous owner, including the book and page where the previous transaction is recorded.

      If the names of previous buyers or sellers are known, you also can use Grantee or the Grantor index books to locate the book and page number where a deed may be found.  (The grantee bought the property, and the grantor sold the property.)  If you do not find a transaction in one book, check the other as names can be misspelled and deed citations incorrect.  Deeds since 1992 are on computer.                 

The names in the Index books are listed by year and somewhat alphabetically.  There is a table in each book based on alphabetizing according to the second and third letters of a person’s last name (see Figure 1).  Thus, someone named Bagley would be listed on the same page as Badeau.  An individual “page” can extend for several actual physical pages of paper.  In the case of the example (see Figure 2), all the Bagleys and Badeaus are on page 27.

                 Also remember that the two names might appear anywhere on the pages designed for the names starting with “Ba" rather than all transactions involving people by the name of Bagley appearing in one place, and all transactions involving people named Badeau in another.  The upper part of one page of “page 27" is attached.  Notice that first names for designated ranges of the alphabet are arrayed in separate columns.  This makes searching a little easier.  Also notice that a single person can have numerous land transactions in relatively short periods.  That means you may have to read all of them to identify your property.


figure1
Figure 1
Locating Corporation Deeds

                 There are separate volumes for tracing deeds for corporations by grantee or grantor.  These provide similar information, being indexed by name of grantee or grantor at the beginning of each volume.  Earlier corporation deeds are found in “Miscellaneous” deed books.

Mortgages

                 Mortgages have been used for many years and may have some relevant information.  They are on file at the County Clerk’s office in Catskill and indexed in the same way as deeds, except that the mortgagor loans the money and a mortgagee is the borrower.

figure2 Figure 2

Wills

Wills are legal documents that define the disposition of a person's personal and real property after death.  Not all people have had wills, and not all wills have necessarily been filed for legal action.  Letters of Administration may be filed in lieu of a will. Wills and other legal instruments associated with death are filed with the Surrogate’s Court, usually in the location where the death occurred.  Be aware that other information may be filed in a person’s Surrogate’s file that could be of interest for either building or family history research.  In Greene County, Surrogate’s Court records from 1930 and before are held at the VRL.  Later records are at the Court House in Catskill.

figure3
Figure 3

 

             Surrogate records are indexed as in Figure 3.  Note that each “page” can extend to more than a single sheet of paper.  In this example, a page from the section listing people whose last names begin with B is shown.  While the last name itself within the B range is not alphabetical, the person’s first name is.  Look in both will packets (the number in the left columns; e.g., box number 20, package number 575), and for the books and pages on the right to find any legal documents that were recorded.  If the documents listed under the columns “Miscellaneous Orders and Decrees” are not in the will packet, ask Surrogate’s staff in Catskill about them.

Census Records

            Census records can provide names of occupants of properties, including women and children.  Addresses may be listed in order on a given street, but they do not have to be.  You may have to search an entire municipality to find an individual family or location.  Not all residences or occupants may have been counted.

             While the Federal census has been done every ten years since 1790, all members of a household were not listed until 1850.  The 1890 version was destroyed in a fire.  Later years have more information.  Each Federal census is arranged according to state, county, municipality, and enumeration district, each State census by county and municipality.  State censuses are available for Greene County for 1855, 1865, 1875, 1892, 1905, 1915, and 1925.

             The VRL has a few of the censuses for the County.  The New York State Library in Albany has full sets of all Federal and State censuses on microfilm, and some Federal years on CD.  The County Clerk’s office has most, if not all, the censuses in hard copy.

             Depending on the year, some of the types of census information available are names and relationship to head of family and street addresses (but street names and numbers may have changed over the years, or streets may have been constructed since a given census). Of course, in a rural area like New Baltimore, exact street addresses would not exist for many locations. Some censuses tell whether residents owned or rented the property and provide values of real estate and statistics on individual farms.

Maps

            Maps and atlases chronologically arranged can provide a visual history of a location.  They often indicate original and subsequent settlement patterns, changes in boundaries, former names of streets and parks, dimensions of individual lots, and even property ownership. Dates of construction for structures may also be narrowed down.

             The VRL and State Library have collections of maps and some atlases that may be useful.  The County Clerk’s and Real Property Services offices keep maps for a variety of purposes.  For example, there are maps relating to the building of highways that often have the names of owners of property along the route of the road.  Former New Baltimore Town Historian Anthony J. Gambino compiled Town of New Baltimore and Vicinity: A Historical Atlas, which provides a general, map-based perspective on local history.  Copies are available at the VRL and some local public libraries and for purchase from the Town Historian.

   Photographs

            Photographs, prints and artistic renderings of buildings can aid the researcher in documenting renovations, alterations or former commercial occupants of a structure. The Town of New Baltimore has a limited number of photos of buildings, as does the VRL.  The key with any photo used for historical research is the date of the scene.  Not all photos may be captioned, which makes it difficult to link a building to a particular time.  The Town’s photos are not currently indexed.  The Heritage of New Baltimore book mentioned below has many photographs of buildings in it and may be of use.  The book currently is out of print but copies are available for use at the VRL.  Also check the local public library.

 Miscellaneous Sources

            There are a number of other resources that can provide hints and tidbits about people.  A few of the more useful ones could include the following.  In the mid-1990s, the Town completed the sizable project of having many official records placed on microfilm.  Records since then, which would be less useful for the instant purposes would be hard copy.

             Assessment rolls have been compiled for Town property tax purposes. Depending on the year, they can list the owner, lot size, structures, and other information.  When this information is collected for each year of the building's existence and arranged in chronological order, the researcher will have an outline of the history of the building that could approximate the date of construction and dates of alterations.  Early years’ rolls are intermittently available.  Many 20th-century records are on microfilm. 

            Building permits are issued to people who intend to alter property and/or buildings.  In New Baltimore, they exist from 1972 through the mid-1990s on microfilm and are still issued.

             County directories were the forerunners of today’s telephone books.  The VRL has the 1870 to 1928 Greene County directories that included New Baltimore.  They were not published every year.  The early ones give the names of prominent residents and businesses for a limited part of the Town.  The later editions provide the names of most, if not all, people, their occupations, and the general part of Town where they lived (e.g., Medway). 

            Planning Board minutes are on microfilm from 1961 through the mid-1990s and still kept today.  If land were subdivided or altered, there might be details useful to the researcher. 

 Secondary Sources

            It is possible that your building or a previous owner or inhabitant was prominent for some reason.  Consequently, secondary sources such as local history books could be consulted to identify people, get additional leads to more information, and gain context for your research.  The most important for the Town of New Baltimore are the aforementioned The Heritage of New Baltimore, which was prepared by local residents for the United States Bicentennial and is one of the better examples of the many volumes of this genre that were done then, and Town of New Baltimore and Vicinity: A Historical Atlas

            There also are several countywide volumes available at the VRL that may be of interest, including the History of Greene County, New York, with Biographical Sketches of its Prominent Men (New York: J.B. Beers and Company, 1884), Frederick W. Beers Atlas of Greene County (New York, NY: F.W. Beers, A.D. Ellis, and G.G. Soule, 1867), and Jessie VanVechten Vedder’s History of Greene County (Catskill, NY, 1927). 

            Local newspapers contain a multitude of information on local citizens and their activities, reporting on many aspects of daily life.  The VRL has many of the county’s publications in hard copy and on microfilm.  Also check with the public libraries and existing newspapers.  There could be information about your property and its previous owners.  The problem is that there is virtually no indexing so a researcher has to search page-by-page.  If you can define a specific period to search, this may be doable.