Why Can’t I Find or Recognize My Ancestral Homes? by Paula Stuart-Warren, CG

Home Sweet Home, by G.F. Gilman, 1877My oldest granddaughter and I recently drove past the house I moved out of three years ago. She said it didn’t look right with a different paint color, missing trees, missing lilac bushes, the enclosed porch now open, and no deck in back. She visited that house often during a period of ten years and remembers it well.

A few weeks ago I was invited to tour the remodeled house. They wanted to know about the house’s history, the past residents, and about what changes had been made. It was a nice tour. Some aspects were quite different, while some have stayed the same.

The new owner wants to compile a history of the house. I knew about a few of the families that have lived there since it was built in 1907. I am surprising him with the 1910, 1920, and 1930 census printouts from Ancestry for this address. I told him that his wife might request something the house had in 1910–a maid!

1234 Elm Street
In your own research on past family homes you may have encountered some roadblocks. Let’s pretend that last year Aunt Susie sent you some older pictures of the family home back in the town where she once lived. This summer you visited the town in the pictures. The reverse side of two of the pictures said “1234 Elm Street.” Once there you cannot find Elm Street. One of the local residents shares the news that in the early 1940s the street names in part of town were changed. Elm Street is now 7th Avenue. Perhaps there is still a 1234 Elm Street but the house doesn’t resemble what you see in the picture that was taken about 1921.

Here are some situations that may cause confusion when it comes to locating an ancestral address:

  • Street names may have changed.
  • It may be that the house numbers were changed years ago. 1234 Elm might now be 2110 Elm. 
  • The house in which your family lived might have been one at the back of the property.
  • The house at 1234 Elm may have more than one entrance and four mailboxes on the enclosed porch. It might be that the porch may have been an open one in the picture and the very large family home has been divided into several units.
  • It might have once been a small house that has had multiple eclectic additions.
  • The old house may have razed or burned down and a new one built on the same property.
  • The house in the picture is no longer at the same address; possibly, it was sold to an individual and moved to another site. Or perhaps a business purchased the land for a new building and moved the house. Some clues might appear in land records for the area.
  • A home on a rural route may now have a house number and street name. Changes of this type as well as city changes may have been instigated by the Post Office. 
  • Like my childhood home and the two homes where my own children were raised, it might have been totally remodeled. 
  • That open porch with the swing and the wicker rockers may now be an enclosed three-season porch.
  • The porch may have been added to or torn off what you see in the picture.
  • A garage may have been added or enlarged. The original attached garage may now be a family room.

Finding Answers
There are a number of ways to clear up this type of confusion:

  • City directories and newspapers may have clues about changes in street names and numbering. A topical index to a newspaper might also yield such topics. 
  • A building permit may have been obtained for the changes. These may be at the county courthouse or city offices or may have been transferred to an archive.
  • An older neighbor may have some of the answers for you.
  • A county or city historical society or public library may have knowledge of street and house number changes.
  • Check reverse city directories to locate past residents. Reverse directories list properties by address rather than occupant. Available for many years, they are often found in the back of traditional city directories or may be a separate book entirely.
  • Once you locate the name of an occupant, track them or their descendants down to inquire about more details and even pictures.
  • During the WPA era in the late 1930s into the early 1940s, WPA workers investigated, listed, and indexed street and numbering changes for some localities. Many were not published, but may be at a historical society or archives. 
  • Municipal publications regarding street changes may also be available. One such publication is online for the city of Chicago from 1909. .
  • A local researcher may know of such changes or where to find the details.

Additional Information and Indexes

Share Your Knowledge
What do you know about street and numbering changes? Please add them to the Comments section of this blog to share with other researchers. At the beginning of your comments, please put the city and state name first to make pertinent entries easier to spot for other readers.

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About the Author
Paula Stuart-Warren, CG, a Minnesota resident is a professional genealogist, consultant, writer, and lecturer who is frequently on-the-road. She coordinates the intermediate course, American Records & Research, 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 [email protected] but she regrets that she is unable to answer individual genealogical research inquiries due to the volume of requests. From time to time, comments from readers may be quoted in her writings. Your name will not be used, but your place of residence might be listed (i.e., Casa Grande, Arizona).
Upcoming Appearances by Paula Stuart-Warren, CG

  • 22 September 2007, St. Paul, Minnesota
    Footsteps to Your Family History–two-and-a-half-hour genealogy class
  • 13 October 2007, Germantown, Tennessee
    Tennessee Genealogical Society Fall Seminar

14 thoughts on “Why Can’t I Find or Recognize My Ancestral Homes? by Paula Stuart-Warren, CG

  1. My husband and I recently moved to the small village of East Randolph, New York. Coming from Las Vegas, Nevada and always living ‘out west’, I found things ‘back east’ to be quite different. In Las Vegas, for example, the first house where my husband and I lived – built in 1975 – has been torn down for a freeway expansion project. You rarely find a building built prior to the 1970’s left standing in Las Vegas. We are members of the local historical society here in New York and I recently worked on a “Then and Now” presentation which showed old postcards of homes and buildings in the area for the ‘Then’ part and my husband took photographs of those homes and buildings as they are today for the ‘Now’ part. Surprisingly, there have not been that many changes. I would suggest that a person looking for a family residence check out local libraries and historical societies, Collectible and Antique shows and eBay or other web sites that feature old post cards. By looking up the town and state, a person might be lucky enough to find a photograph of thir home. I know I was that lucky. I found a photograph postcard from about 1881 showing the second owner and her husband in front of my home. The good news? Our 143 year old house hasn’t changed a bit!

  2. I had this problem in Beloit, Wisconsin in the 1920s, when the numbering on the streets was changed.

    My grandmother and grandfather, Lois Ford Smith, were living on Fayette Avenue, as were my great grandfather, Frank Smith, and Ford’s first cousin Hollister Webster. I was tickled by this genealogical gem, then flummoxed because I could not find the houses. The block for my grandparents’ old house appeared to have been replaced by a factory.

    I had my breakthrough by examining old photos. I had a picture of Hollister’s wife Erika and their daughter Grace, and on the front porch of their house were TWO house numbers. It was evidently taken right about the time of the switch! So using that as my guide, I’ve been able to figure out the other houses as well.

    You may have resources to solve this problem among your own stuff. Give it a try!

  3. Luther Oklahoma has had at least three street naming systems. I have a copy of the original plat map, showing street names and lot numbers from Territorial times. I also have a cross-reference list for the addresses published in a 1950s phone book. So if someone can give me an old Luther address, I can tell them the current name of the street, the nearest cross street, and often the exact location of the house within that block. Sometimes a local history buff is the resource you need to solve one of these puzzles.

  4. I have the address of the last house my Mother lived in back in 1945, Last time I was in Henderson, Ky I looked it up. Wouldn’t you know, it was the only house on the block that had been remodeled. So I took a picture of it and also pictures of the other houses on the block. These were added to my Family Book

  5. Milwaukee, Wisconsin – Both Milwaukee’s street names and the house numbers changed in 1930/1931. I don’t know of an online site to find the changes, but I know the conversion information is available at the Milwaukee Public Library (Central Branch)(414-286-3000) and the Milwaukee County Historical Society (414-273-8288).

  6. Ligonville, Texas was at what is now the west intersection of FM 621 and FM 1979 in Guadalupe County. In about 1900 there was a post office at this location operated by, of course, Mr. Ligon.

  7. The 1929 city directory for Birmingham, AL has two house numbers listed for each address. One is the “old” number and the other is a “new” one.

    The numbering system had been changed between the printing of the previous edition. If one can find persons and/or addresses in this directory, then it is easy to work backward with the old numbers and forward with the new ones.

    Hope this helps

    You can get copies of the home surveys done in the 1930s from the Carnegie Library. Contact Marilyn, the director, and she will help you determine if an old survey was done of the house you are interested in. I found some terrific information this way on houses in the Mt. Washington and Beechview sections of the city, including drawings of the houses’ floorplans as they then existed.

  9. Paula – it’s always interesting to read your articles. Yes, everything does seem to change, sometimes we don’t know why. Within a year we had an extra number added to our house number because another community had the same street name. Then came a new zip code, and then the phone company decided we needed a different area code. Can you imagine the cost for a business: cards, stationary, ads, signs, etc. Also the county decided that instead of using a RR Box or State Road number, they would put a name to the road. So they used the name of the oldest or first person that lived on the road, or what the people called it. We had several streets with at least 3 different names. Thanks again. JoAnn – Jacksonville, NC

  10. Re: Saranac Lake, New York State, USA. The village went through a bunch of address changes in 2004 which were required for the new E911 system installed for the area. Some street names were changed. MOST house numbers were changed even if there was not a street change. Changes in the villages of Lake Placid and Tupper Lake also took effect. FOR SARANAC LAKE, NY: Check out the Saranac Lake Free Library. The basement floor includes a great place, The William Chapman White Adirondack Research Room. Among other items you will find a publication called ” 911 Changes for the Village of Saranac Lake “, containing most of the changes. The old addresses are used to list the data. Columns include: Old Number and Street, New Number and Street, Apt/Location, and Owner/Occupant at the time. Fair warning here is that the local phone books generally have not completely caught up to these changes (as of August 2007) as they still often list incorrect street names, house numbers and even surname spellings in a few cases. In addition, the Research Room contains some village directories and phone books from years past dating back to the early 1900’s. Some old maps can be accessed with the help of staff. You might also check out this address written on the back of the first page of the above publication: Franklin County Emergency Services, 911 Numbering Project, PO Box 348, Malone, NY 12953. I am not sure if the project address is still in use since the changes have already been done. The Franklin County Clerk Office in Malone may help.

  11. Mr. Lepak is correct about 911 changes. They occurred all over the country as 911 systems were put in. In the little village of Canaseraga, NY, I was able to locate the changes, including the old addresses, at the local fire department! To make matters confusing, many of the “old timers” didn’t want their addresses changed and continued to use their old house number.

  12. Thank you all for your comments about other street and numbering changes. I knew there would be additional input.

  13. Another source for many large cities is the Sanborn fire insurance maps. According to the Library of Congress, these fire insurance maps, prepared for underwriters, provide block-by-block inventories of individual buildings for more than 12,000 cities and towns from the 1870s to the 1950s. The outline or footprint of each building is indicated, and the buildings are color coded to show the construction material (pink for brick; yellow for wood; brown for adobe). Numbers inside the lower right corner of each building indicate how many stories the building had, while the numbers outside the building on the street front refer to the street addresses, allowing researchers to correlate these locations with census records and city directories.

  14. For 28 years, I have lived in a rural “subdivision” of Willits, Mendocino County, California, known as Brooktrails township. This wooded residential area is less than a half century old, but if anyone is looking for a family that lived here in its early years, you should know that during the 1980s (I forget when exactly) the house numbering was changed, many from four digits to 5 digits. Furthermore, before the change, the numbering was somewhat random, going up and down erratically. E.g., House #1354 might be flanked by #1350 on one side and #1352 on the other! (Being relatively new, the homes themselves haven’t changed much, but there are more of them.)

    Willits was originally called Willitsville until the arrival of the railroad in 1888, at which time it was incorporated as the city of Willits with a whopping population of 720. Brooktrails is located in the hills northwest of Willits. There is extensive documented history of the early settlers in the area and a fine museum featuring the history of the region.

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