Tips for teas­ing out the tales be­hind your fam­ily home. by Paul Jones

Canada's History - - CONTENTS - Paul Jones, a for­mer pub­lisher, is a writer, a con­sul­tant, and an avid ge­neal­o­gist.

When it comes to ge­neal­ogy, there’s no place like home.

Re­tired broad­caster John Dawe knows a thing or two about telling a story. Im­pres­sively, he can item­ize the many own­ers of his for­mer Toronto house all the way back to the Sec­ond World War, when it dou­bled for a time as “a safe house for spies who came to Toronto to go to Camp X in Oshawa for train­ing.”

My ge­neal­o­gist friend Bill White­side can’t match this in­trigue, but he can claim ac­quain­tance with all the fam­i­lies who ever owned his eighty-year-old house. He even at­tended univer­sity with the builder’s son.

Few among us have ac­cess to such juicy or com­pre­hen­sive lore about our own fam­ily homes. Most of us will need to un­der­take sys­tem­atic re­search if we are to learn when con­struc­tion took place and who lived there in ear­lier times.

Con­sider the first house my wife and I owned. Apart from the cou­ple who sold it to us in 1977, we knew noth­ing of its past. After a while, we re­al­ized that the house had a semi-reg­u­lar visi­tor, a con­fused and wiz­ened va­grant who knocked on our front door ev­ery few months, al­ways ask­ing for Mrs. Cham­bers and al­ways con­vinced we were hid­ing her from him. Many years later, I hired a house his­to­rian. It seems that Mrs. Cham­bers, after be­ing wid­owed, ran a room­ing house there in the 1950s and 1960s.

It was not un­til the 1970s and lat­ter that gen­tri­fi­ca­tion re­stored the neigh­bour­hood to the sin­gle-fam­ily dwellings prop­erty de­vel­op­ers had orig­i­nally en­vis­aged in the 1910s.

It should be noted that houses are not the only struc­tures that can be re­searched. Dr. Jay Young, now with the Ar­chives of On­tario, pointed out in 2011 in “Re­search­ing the His­tory of Your Home,” at Ac­tiveHis­, that “home his­tory” was a more gen­er­ally ap­pli­ca­ble term than “house his­tory.” He ex­plained that “apart­ment renters, like my­self, can also re­search as­pects of the struc­ture they call home.”

So how do you un­der­take a home his­tory? To hire a re­searcher, ask your lo­cal his­tory or ge­neal­ogy so­ci­ety if they can re­fer you to some­one with the nec­es­sary ex­per­tise. Or con­sult the online mem­ber­ship rolls of the Cana­dian chap­ters of the Asso- ciation of Pro­fes­sional Ge­neal­o­gists.

How­ever, the DIY op­tion is less daunt­ing and more fun than you might imag­ine. Many mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties of­fer help­ful re­source guides, al­though th­ese can be frus­trat­ingly mute on rel­e­vant records that may be held by dif­fer­ent ju­ris­dic­tions.

Try googling “house his­tory re­search” plus your city’s name. You’ll be in­ter­ested in pro­vin­cial land reg­is­tra­tion, plus mu­nic­i­pal prop­erty tax and build­ing per­mits.

Don’t for­get pho­to­graphs and maps, in­clud­ing fire in­surance; th­ese could turn up in var­i­ous li­braries or ar­chives. Voter lists, news­pa­pers, and city di­rec­to­ries are held in both online data­bases and brick-and­mor­tar repos­i­to­ries.

Pub­lished neigh­bour­hood his­to­ries, al­most cer­tainly avail­able in lo­cal li­braries, can pro­vide an over­view of the var­i­ous phases of de­vel­op­ment within a district.

An­other friend from the ge­neal­ogy world, Ellen Maki, ob­serves that the build­ing to be re­searched need not be home to any­one you know per­son­ally. For ex­am­ple, she has stud­ied the stately Drum­snab house in Toronto be­cause of its his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance to the broader com­mu­nity.

I’ll leave the fi­nal words to Me­lanie McLen­nan, a pro­fes­sional ge­neal­o­gist who op­er­ates the busi­ness An­ces­tral Ta­pes­try.

“My hus­band and I owned a beau­ti­ful old Queen Anne Re­vival style home in Guelph, On­tario, for nearly thirty-one years,” she re­ports.

When they pur­chased the home in 1985, it had been used as a room­ing house for twenty years. Part of their restora­tion in­cluded com­pil­ing a his­tory of the house.

She also talked to neigh­bours, who had pho­tos of the house in dif­fer­ent eras.

“As we re­stored the house, know­ing more about its past gave us a sen­si­tiv­ity I don’t think we would have had oth­er­wise,” McLen­nan said.

They even­tu­ally opened what be­came a seven-room B & B, which they op­er­ated for al­most twenty-nine years. The gra­cious home re­ceived his­toric des­ig­na­tion and var­i­ous awards and was used as a set for three films.

File this case un­der “house his­tory as life-chang­ing ex­pe­ri­ence!”


Drum­snab, built in 1830, is one of the old­est homes in Toronto.

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