Happy Birthday, House.

When we bought our home, the city records stated that it was built in 1870. In honor of her 150th birthday, we’re throwing her a party! It got me thinking about all the families who have called her home long before we showed up. Who were they? Let’s find out…

My search began at our local Registry of Deeds. Luckily, a lot of their records are online at masslandrecords.com. I live in southern Middlesex County, so I started with a registered land search there:

The search surfaced all of the deed-related property records from the present (“Hey, there’s me!”) back to 1986. By stepping through these records, it was easy to gather the names of all the families going back to then. But how could I dig further back?

Luckily, many of the online entries contain scans of the original records and by reviewing the 1986 deed, I could see that the sellers were the Donovan family.

From there, I had to put down the computer and head to my local library’s history room. There are bound volumes of city directories dating back to the 1800s. Starting with the 1986 directory, I confirmed that the Donovan family did in fact live here:

Thus began the slow process of working backward through the volumes to see when our house changed hands. It wasn’t so painful because I quickly realized that the Donovan’s had lived here for a very long time! I confirmed this by just stepping back through the volumes 10 years at a time.

The directories are organized by ward and precinct, so as long as you know yours, it’s fairly easy to look up your address. The precinct boundaries did change slightly over the years, but that was the only hitch.

Stepping back through the volumes, I learned that in 1940 the Donovan’s took the house over from the Kelly family. Again, I continued stepping back through earlier volumes to see how long they had lived here. It became slightly confusing in the early 1900s directories because wards had not yet been established, so the entire directory was listed alphabetically. There were over 61,000 people living here at the turn of the century!

Lucky for me (again), the Kelly’s lived at our house for a very long time too, so it was easy to track them in earlier directories by their last name. Here’s the 1910 record:

Going back even further, another interesting twist is that houses were not numbered on my street until about 1900. So entries in the directories from the late 1800s read like “3d on the left of Clyde”. I stepped back all the way to the oldest record on file, the 1871 directory:

So there you have it: Our little house started with a man named Patrick Kelly. He was a “vegetable and fish pedler”. Thank you, Patrick.

And happy birthday, House! Hope you enjoy your gift…

If you happen to also live in Somerville, Massachusetts, you can find more tips on researching your home at our library’s website:

If you live elsewhere, talk to your local librarian. They can point you in the right direction.

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