My Family History Staycation, by Paula Stuart Warren, CG

Back in August, George Morgan wrote about genealogy “staycations.” Many people have taken staycations this year rather than the usual travel vacation. In case you are not familiar with the new buzz word, staycation means a vacation at home due to the family budget and the cost of travel.

My Dad recently turned 89 and my present to him was our own staycation of guided family history tours around the St. Paul and Minneapolis area to places where various family members lived over the years. Another part of the gift will be a tour to the various places he and my late Mother used to work. We didn’t even have to pack a suitcase for this staycation.

Locating the Addresses
We remembered some addresses of the homes we wanted to visit, and what the houses looked like. Others had to be looked up in city directories and censuses. Deciding where to go brought up many family stories, as did the actual driving trip.

At the Minnesota Historical Society I reviewed older city directories that list the head of the family with address and occupation (and sometimes the employer). Around 1930 the name of the wife was included. As children in the household went out to work or to college they were added to directory listings. In the World War I and II eras, I saw men in the family listed with a designation such as USA-meaning they were in the armed services. I made a list of the names and addresses to visit and have a reserve list for another tour.

I wanted some more detail on exactly when they were living at the addresses. Many of our families were renters and moved frequently. City directories were often compiled with information gathered before the year listed for that directory. Thus, the 1911 directory listing for an ancestor generally meant that they were living at that address in 1910. It is possible they had moved by 1911. If they stayed in one place for several years, it is easier to estimate the time span.

The Minnesota State Censuses
Ancestry has Minnesota state censuses online as part of the U.S. Collection. The 1895 and 1905 enumerations listed the address for each household in St. Paul. Checking the actual date of the enumeration, I was able to tell the address on that date. U.S. censuses
for 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930
also list the street address for St. Paul residents. Check the actual enumeration date at the top of the page to see what day and month your family was at the address.

Other Address Resources
Family letters, photos, tax records, old address books, phone directories, scrapbooks, and World War I draft records are just some other records that may yield a specific address for family members. A family member may have a good memory and be able to provide some addresses and possibly pictures of the way the houses looking decades ago.

Reverse Directories
My Dad was trying to remember people that lived in the other houses at the places we visited. He did an amazing job. I told him I would check reverse directories to compile a list of the other surnames of the people living nearby. Reverse directories began as a separate section in the regular city directory. In some larger cities, these became a separate directory. Using a known address, it is possible to look at the nearby addresses for that block and learn the names of the head of household for neighboring houses. Most reverse directories also tell whether the resident was the owner or a renter. A scattering of reverse directories began in the 19th century but this rapidly expanded as the 20th century moved forward.

Check out this example of the reverse directory from the 1947-48 Phoenix directory as found at

Pleasant Surprises
Checking more current directories may show that someone with the same surname still lives at the same nearby house! In St. Paul’s Merriam Park neighborhood where I lived from 1970-2004, some houses had the third or fourth generation of the same family as residents. They may even have pictures of the neighborhood as it used to look.
I had warned my Dad that a couple of the addresses were now in areas that meant they might be in bad repair. We were pleasantly surprised to see that these blocks were still being taken care of.

At the house where my parents were living when I was born, we saw a “for sale” sign and felt a little more comfortable staring at the house. We drove down the alley and saw the current owner. He was the surprised one when we told him we lived there 60 years ago. Looking at the second story where we lived was a surprise in itself; it looked too small for two adults and a baby.

What Did We See?
The homes where we each lived after birth, where we grew up, and where we lived as married adults. We called my sister from in front of the second home she and her husband owned. We drove by stores where we used to work or frequent and saw what other businesses had replaced them. Lunch was at O’Gara’s, an Irish restaurant and bar that has long been a long-time family favorite. My Dad knew the “founder” long before the bar began; I didn’t know that before today. Dad has gone to that bar and restaurant for sixty-seven years–and did he ever have stories to tell. It has now expanded into the space where the father of Charles Schultz (of Peanuts fame) had his barber shop.

County, Regional, Farm Directories, Maps, and Plat Books
Coupled with land and tax records, these may be the key to locating a family residence in a rural area or a small town. Don’t forget to ask at the post office, local café, or library for any clues to “the old John Griffin family home.” An older and a newer map may help direct you to the correct place in both rural and city areas.

Always a Few Quirks
In some cities renumbering of homes occurred. Street names may have changed. Old 7th Street may be Martin Luther King Drive today. Elm Street became 4th Street. In 1909-1911 an enormous renumbering took place for Chicago addresses. Often, a city directory would give details on the numbering or street name changes. (You can also learn about some of the Chicago street name changes at the Chicago Historical Society website. 

One family address we drove by today is now the location of a law enforcement building. Another area is under a freeway. Porches have been added or taken off of homes. The home and neighborhood where I grew up is very different. Some of the homes no longer look the same as they did in the 1950s and 60s. Be prepared for change. That said, the house on Princeton Avenue where my Dad lived as a child looks about the same on the outside, right down to the same garage. It has been well taken care of!

Do You Want a Staycation?
If you live in an area where many relatives once lived, ask for a family history staycation for a birthday, anniversary, or other special gift. It is more difficult to look at everything if you are the driver, so ask to be driven around. If you live in the northern climes, you may suggest this as a gift for next spring and summer. As a genealogist you know how to find the addresses for the driving tour. Use a clipboard for the paper containing addresses and directions and to make notes. A digital voice recorder is another good way to capture the stories that are told and your impressions of each place.

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Paula Stuart-Warren, CG, a resident of the Minneapolis/St. Paul area in Minnesota, is a professional genealogist, consultant, writer, and lecturer who is frequently on-the-road. She coordinates the American Records Course at the annual Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy. She writes for several periodicals including Ancestry Magazine. Comments and additions to her columns will reach her at or via her blog She regrets that her workload makes it impossible to answer individual inquiries. From time to time, comments from readers may be quoted in her writings. Your name will not be used unless you give permission in your email, but your place of residence might be listed (i.e. Salina, Kansas).
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5 thoughts on “My Family History Staycation, by Paula Stuart Warren, CG

  1. On one of my trips to the areas where my ancestors lived, I took along pictures of their houses as they had looked way back when and then I took pictures of the houses today. In one case the church my great grandparents attended, and which my great-great-grandfather helped found, was in the background of a picture taken in the front yard of my great-grandparents who lived across the road. From the yard across the road, the church today looks almost exactly like the church did in the early 1900’s.

  2. I guess I am fortunate to live in Chattanooga. What you call a “Reverse Index” is apparently a street and number address, which is in every Chattanooga City DIrectory back to 1897. But Knoxville TN and BRistol VA-TN also have street directories.

  3. A portable GPS unit is extremely helpful in finding – i.e., getting to – locations. Most units that can be mounted in a car have street maps (for most cities of significant size) that can be accessed by entering the address and the unit will provide screen and oral directions as you drive.

  4. Paula ~ I enjoyed this article, brought back memories of “our” area. I forwarded this to my cousin Barbara, told her it’d be a
    good project. Hope to see you in Raleigh 2009.
    JoAnn Stidger Becker

  5. Hi Paula,

    I really liked your story.

    I tried some of this drive about some time ago, both in St. Paul and in Skara and Medelplana, Sweden driving in the neighborhoods where my father and his parents grew up.

    When I drove by addressed where Dad grew up in the Lake Phalen area I discovered the current occupant of the home they lived in from around 1915 was a Harley owner. In 1996 I drove past an address in Sweden where Dad’s mother grew up in Skara, I had the address whereas I only had the small village church for Grandfather Gustafson’s family. What had been a small cottage was now a mini-mansion covering at least two city lots…cottage long gone. The small parish church was still going strong…no surprise, it is only about 900 years old!

    And, as for O’Gara’s do you remember Police Chief Lester McAuliffe from St. Paul? His daughter attended Hamline when I was there and – well let’s say that was one of her favorite hangouts. I am glad Billy Boy enjoyed the drive.

    I’ll have to share the photos with you some time. They are fun.


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