When History Comes Knocking at Your Door, Literally!

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When History Comes Knocking at Your Door, Literally!

Image caption: House documents dated from 1910-1924

It was about noon on a typical Houston summer day (Hot!) The kids and I were home, deciding it was just too hot to go to the grocery store – popcorn for lunch would be just fine! We were all startled when the doorbell rang, not because no body ever came over, but because it rarely worked.

At noon on a weekday you’re more likely to get a well-intentioned Jehovah’s Witness at your door than someone you actually want to talk to. So I sized up the elderly man on the other side of the door with a folder in his hand – thinking, at least I could take him if he was too pushy with whatever he was selling. My escape plan, a quick, polite ‘no thank you’, quickly close the door, and back to popcorn.

But Frank, as he later told me his name was, wasn’t selling salvation. He had something better to offer.

Hello, I’m sorry to bother you. I bought this house in 1960 and I have all these original documents from when the house was built in 1924, and I was just wondering if anyone was interested in having them?”

My knees buckled. Was he kidding? Was I interested? This kind of stuff never really happens! But it did, and I immediately invited Frank in. “Wait,” he said handing me the folder, “I’ve got more in the car.”

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I love my house, it’s the first “old” house I’ve lived in. I had been thinking that I should do some research on it only about a month before Frank showed up on my doorstep. Now, before you New or Old Englanders start to snicker at the fact that I think 1924 is “old”, keep in mind that we Houstonians are notorious for tearing down anything older than 40 years and making a parking lot. Yes, I’m exaggerating. But not my much! Although there are some organizations valiantly trying to preserve history in Houston.

The next hour or so of that hot day was spent with Frank introducing me to my house. It was built by the couple who had built the house next door in the late 1890s. They wanted a place for their unmarried grown children to live. It was originally a duplex for two sisters and a brother. The parent’s house (now our neighbor’s home) has a steep pitched roof. “You see that roof?” Frank asked. “They moved here from Illinois and built that roof so snow would slide off of it.” We both started laughing. Clearly they were new to the humid, swampy environment.

Frank had bought the house from one of the daughters who had lived there all her life. He owned it for almost 30 years, living upstairs and renting out the bottom “apartment.” He clearly loved the house and thoroughly enjoyed telling me what each room used to be, even examining crawl spaces! It really was a genealogists dream come true.

The Agreement

The Agreement

The house was renovated into a single family home in the 1990’s but retains most of it’s original features (windows, fireplaces, moldings, and more.) I’m pleased to say the kitchen and bathrooms are not original! In it’s most recent iteration (before we bought the house in 2009), the lovely old place had been a small (and poorly run) restaurant. It’s a colorful history and I treasure these documents that give me insight into where it all started. And I am constantly thankful that it was too hot to go to the grocery store that day!

So, get to know your home, or any place you love. It too has a story to tell, a part to play in understanding how our families lived. I lament that my grandparents house was torn down after 43 years of their life before I appreciated what I do now. If only I had known how much I would miss it, and what questions I should have asked.

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About Jodi Bash

Jodi Bash is a genealogist living in Houston, Texas with her husband and three children. She is founder of Family at Your Fingertips and is passionate about finding creative and tangible ways to connect with family history. She runs two blogs: Unclaimed Ancestors is an effort to connect old photos with descendants, and a way to scratch the ever-present research bug! A more personal blog at Family at Your Fingertips explores family heirlooms and the love of history. Jodi has been researching family history for over 15 years, and is a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists. She is the Director of Communication for Covenant Church in Houston, holds a B.A. in History and English from the University of Texas at Austin, a Masters in American History from the University of Houston, and an M.B.A. from Rice University. You can reach Jodi at Jodi@familyatyourfingertips.com and follow her on twitter via @famatfingertips.

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6 Comments
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  • joan
    February 24, 2013 at 6:32 am

    I loved the story – we inherited old photos of our house going back 150 years – have found deeds since. On another note, please look up the use of apostrophe for It’s [it is] and its [possessive]. One of my pet peaves. will make your writing more professional, and you have a nice way about telling a story. J

  • Linda Schreiber
    February 23, 2013 at 5:32 pm

    House histories are really fun! A couple of decades ago, I got into researching the 1918 house we are living in, in coordination with an ‘Historic Preservation’ course I was taking. Dug into crawl spaces, framing, foundations, etc, and tracked the changes over the years, as well as the ownerships. Families, then a sorority house, then a family again, then ‘student housing’ (read slum landlord), then us.
    And, of course, the evil DYI guy, somewhere fairly early (probably late 1940s/early 1950s), that we have dubbed “Uncle Fred’…. The one who redid the drain line from the laundry area to run uphill. And who redid the plumbing for the second floor tub so that it had been slowly leaking into the center of the first floor *tile* wall.

    • February 23, 2013 at 7:16 pm

      Linda, sounds like you’ve done ALL the dirty work. I wish I had the guts to crawl under my house, but I don’t think it will ever happen 🙂
      Jodi

  • February 23, 2013 at 8:47 am

    Grant, It’s so true – you can’t make this stuff up! That’s amazing. I still go by some of the houses I used to live in as a kid in Houston and ALL of them have been torn down for new HUGE houses. Makes me a little sad. It also makes me want to take good photos of the houses I live in now – my kids will need them someday.

    Thanks for the comment.
    Jodi

  • February 22, 2013 at 3:08 pm

    Jodi,

    Interesting post. Yes houses do have stories to tell. I just discovered the location of the home where my gg grandfather wrote a letter from in 1864 to two of his children in Illinois. He was boarding there for a little while before going on a trip. I lived on this same block from about 1983-1993 (120 years later). Hard to believe. I did a posting about this recently on my blog. I couldn’t make up the stories I find when I do family history. I walked by where that house used to be almost every day for years and still walk by there. Today it is a parking lot. He didn’t live there, just happened board there for a little while before going on another of his adventures. What are the chances of something like that happening. When I am writing my blog, I can’t wait to find out what will happen to Stephen Sherwood next. There is so much history around him. (I even found out recently he had a brickyard in Illinois, and about the homes where some of that brick was used–a future post)

    Regards, Grant

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