Saturday, April 9, 2011

How to Research the History of Your House in Madison, WI

I thought it would be useful to outline some strategies for researching the history of one's house. I'm going to speak directly about resources availible specifically in Madison, but the concepts apply most anywhere in the US.

There's a lot of information out there for those that are ambitious enough to labor hours in the library or the County offices. But now with the wonders of the internet, you can usually find some interesing things without having to leave your keyboard. I'll go through the whole gamut of tools out there. We'll start with the easiest. Implicit in all these steps is to record, save, photocopy and document everything that you find. Build a file.

1. Start with the City of Madison Assessor Look on the Sales Details page for your house. It will tell you the recent history of when your house transferred ownership, by who, and what the price was. Don't you wish you could have bought you house in 1977? It will also give you a year for when the city thinks your house was constructed. Beware! The estimated construction dates the city assessor keeps are notoriously inaccurate for older homes in the city. This is because pinpointing a construction date for any single structure older than the 1920's, usually requires some significant investigation...

2. Old Fashioned Googling. You'd be surprised what you might find by just typing in your address. Especially into Google Books.

3. The Wisconsin State Historical Society (WSHS) has an excellent website. Go to the research page and try the Architecture and History Inventory, and the Historical Images.

3. Old City Directories are availible for Madison starting in 1857. These are availible at the Central Library in the local history reference section. 1857 through 1919 is also available online. I've taken up to 1894 and scrubbed up a lot of the OCR text to make it more serachble. You can find that here on the thirdlakeridge site. The addressing that we know today didn't show up until the 1883-4 directory. The directories did not have indexes until the 1894-5 edition. That makes the serach function handy. Compile a list of all the inhabitants of the house for each year, and their occupations, or whatever information is given. Some years they tell if they are renters, or owners, or if they have a phone. Be careful of addressing and street name changes.

4. Madison Library Newspaper Clipping files. If you're at the library looking at City directories, turn around, and in the file cabinets behind you are newspaper clippings about homes and buildings. Look under "Architecture - Madison." The files are then organized alphabetically by street name. If there was anything significant written about your house, from the 1950's to the present, it will be in that file. Many of the older clippings have been moved to storage. You'll have to ask at the reference desk to see those.

5. You can text search through a good portion of all the old Cap Times and State Journal editions here. You have to go through the South Central Library's website, and enter your library card number. Or go access it through the library computers. Filter your search by Madison, and then search by your address. You can also search by the names of the folks that you found in the city directories.

6. US Census data. You can find some of this for free at, or all of it at, which requires a subscription. However, if you go to the Madison, or Wisconsin State Historical Society (WSHS) Library Computers, you can access it free from there. Starting in 1900, the Census began to record street addresses in the left hand margin of the form. You have to Browse to the appropriate ward in Madison, and then spool through all the ward until you find your street, and then the entry for your house number. It will tell you all the people who were living in your house, how old they were, where they were born, where their parents were born, their occupations, etc. All of the US Censuses 1930 and earlier are public. You can also view all these on microfilm in the WSHS microfilm room.

7. Building Permit history. Go to the front desk of the Planning Division in the basement of the Madison Municipal Building (the new-old Post Office), at 215 Martin Luther King Jr Blvd. Tell them that you are interested in looking up the old building permit history on your house. You will either be taken to the microfiche room, or sat down in front of a computer with scanned microfiche images, depending on where your street falls in the alphabet (they're slowly scanning them all, starting with the A's.) Here you'll find every permit, or building code related complaint about your house since the 1920's. You can find out how old your additions, or dormers, or bathroom sink, or garage is. If your house is newer, it might have some of the plans for, or at least the names associated with it's construction. You can make copies for 25 cents a page.

8. While you're down there, you should ask to the Kitty Rankin files. The now retired City of Madison preservation planner has some file cabinet treasure trove of local historical and architectural information. The files are now maintained by here successor, Amy Scanlon. You should probably call ahead.

9. Sanborn Maps. The Sanborn Company made maps of cities across the United States for insurance companies gauge levels of fire risk. The incredibly detailed maps exist for Madison for years. 1885, 1892, 1898, 1902, 1908, and 1942. If you're lucky enough to know someone with a Milwaukee Library Card, you can access all the Wisconsin Maps online through ProQuest. Otherwise, you can find them on microfilm at the WSHS. Or, to get the full effect in color, go to the WSHS Archives Room and look at the originals.

10. While you're in the WSHS archives, check out the City of Madison Tax Rolls. This can be quite a chore, but it's also some of the most rewarding research. This is one of the best ways to determine when your house was built. Make sure you have the legal description of your lot handy (block and lot numbers). (See the City Assessor page in Step 1). If you're not part of the Original City plat, find your Town/Range and Section too if you want to see what was happening before you were platted. Take half a dozen reels at a time. Start with the first, 1839ish. Each year will have list the owner of each parcel, and the assessed value of the parcel. When you see the value of your lot jump dramatically from one year to the next (relative to all the neighboring lots), it's probably from a structure being built there. These rolls also have personal property tax details listed on them, which may be of interest if your house is nice enough to have been built by someone with enough money to have had to pay personal property taxes.

11. Also, while you're in the archives, make sure to look at the 1934 Property Appraisal Cards. This provides a detailed analysis of the inside and outside of every building in 1934.

12. Plat maps and other maps. You might be able to find your house in Plat Maps, or other visual materials. Many of these maps are available in the archives, or at the Madison public library. Many have also been reproduced in various history books. Especially Madison -
The Illustrated Sesquicentennial History
and Madison -
A History of the Formative Years
. The two historical birds eye views of Madison are available at the Library of Congress website.
The 1873 Dane County plat map is available at the Dane County Historical Society website.

13. There's a plethora of other material in the archives. Take some time there.

14. Look up the real estate transactions on your house at the Register of Deeds. It's on the first floor of the City-County building, 210 Martin Luther King Jr Blvd. Know your property description, and if possible, some names of past owners. The people at the front desk will be able to show you the basics of how to navigate the records.

15. Find descendants of the people who were associated with your house. They might be able to give you information, or more importantly, photographs. Again, this is a little harder to do, but it can pay big rewards. Out of all the names of people who have owned, or lived in your house, trace their family trace to the present day. This can be done through the use of online tools like, or, and newspaperarchive as discussed previously. Or you can do it the hard way at the library. Madison newspapers are availible on microfilm at the public library. Go to the historical society for a larger selection of paperas from around the state. There's also some tools unique to the area at, and the Forest Hill Cemetery burial records. Burials in Sun Prairie and parts of eastern Dane County are here. Also, the Register of Deeds keeps all the county Birth, Marriage and Death certificates next to where you look at the property deeds in item #14. Usually, the strategy is to trace descendants down to the point where you can find obituaries that reference surviving family members that are still alive today. You might have to go to the WSHS to view the obit on microfilm. Once you have the name and town of a surviving descendant, look them up in the white pages and call or mail them nicely, or I guess facebook them now. Sometimes it's difficult to explain to someone who you are and what you're looking for without sounding crazy. Sometimes they may not even know the house or even the ancestors that you are talking about. Usually, they can at least refer you to the family member who knows the most, or has the most family history material.

Well, I'm sure I missed some things, but that's the majority of my tricks. Just remember to keep notes of all your research. Save everything you find, because it might become relevant later once you know more.

7/4/2011 - Updated with some corrections and additional info from Ann Waidelich.