Thursday, March 22, 2012

Slow Home: Do You Know Your Home's History?

One of the central goals of the slow movement is to foster a sense of community and connection, and researching the history of your home is a great way do that. Here's a case study on how to go about it, using the house my husband and I just bought. I thought it would be fun to show that even a relatively new home can have a history worth looking into!

If you live in an older house, you may find the tips and resources in the "Be your own House Detective" articles in the October 2010 and November 2010 issues of UK genealogy magazine Family History Monthly very useful. There are also great resources at the UK's National Archives and Bricks and Brass, and at Active History (for Canada) and the cities of Edmonton and Calgary - try adding your municipality to the search terms 'researching history of house' to find relevant resources for your area.

{Step 1: Write down what you know about your home's previous owners, builder, architect (if any), location, and prior land uses.}

Our new house was built in neo-Craftsman style in 2008 by Alberta-based builder Homes By Avi, as a  spec home using their "McCullough A2" plans (according to the builder's records; the MLS listing had it as a former showhome). The subdivision in which it was built is new enough that when we moved to our current home in an adjacent subdivision in 2001, the land was farmland used for growing canola and wheat, and deer and the occasional moose were routinely seen grazing along the road. It is still an active construction zone with only about a third to a half of the lots completed. The land is adjacent to a ravine that has been designated a wildlife refuge, called MacTaggart Sanctuary. A lovely unpaved walking path winds through the Sanctuary along Whitemud Creek's wooded banks past an active beaver colony, and the path connects to paths through our city's river valley and comprises part of a huge hiking trail network called the Waskahegan Trail

I snapped this photo from the edge of a beaver dam in MacTaggart Sanctuary last October.
Nearby there was a trail of flattened grass on the bank, where the beavers like to slide into the creek.
{Step 2: Look for documentation and clues to the house's former life outside and inside the home.}

We don't yet have possession of the home, but I took lots of photos and measurements during the house inspection, and we will take another look once we are in. We don't expect to find much, since the property was built so recently - but in an older home, the architectural style and changes to the layout as the home has grown additions or suffered renovations can give important information about its date and past. So, taking measurements and drawing up your house's floorplan can yield clues. When we compare our home to the current version of the floorplan linked above, we see a number of changes: the entire second floor is different (with 3 larger bedrooms and a media room, instead of the four bedrooms shown in the PDF), and a hallway was closed off and space stolen from the front room to add a shower stall to the powder room and a closet to a home office suitable for seeing clients. Those changes and the slightly worn builder-beige paint throughout this house are consistent with the information from the MLS listing that it was a showhome before it was lived in.

A quick, rough sketch of the house's actual floor plan, not-to-scale.
Modified from the current version of the McCullough marketing materials on the Homes By Avi website.
{Step 3: Look for further information that is part of the public record. Start with online searches, then check with the local archives for your city, county, and province (or state). Don't forget to look at the websites of community organizations and local newspapers, as well as local histories, maps, surveys, and census records for heritage homes.}

Here is what I found out:

- By searching on the street address, I found the website of a business that was run from the home office of the house, and the name of a previous owner.

- By searching on the name of the subdivision, I found the marketing materials for this subdivision and the one next-door, information about adjacent model-green-community subdivisions, the city's neighborhood profile and Neighborhood Area Structure Plan (PDFs), and an article for the local community league's newsletter about the history of the subdivision (on page 18 of the PDF). The city's plans call for this to become a highly walkable mixed-density neighborhood.

- From the Neighborhood Area Structure Plan, I learnt that there once were coal mines on the north bank of the creek, and as a result a larger buffer zone than would usually be needed is required around the ravine. This makes for nicer park areas on the upper edge of the ravine. Googling told me that the development on the other side of the ravine (Twin Brooks) is on the site of a former mining village, traces of which can still be found in the subdivision. So I'm guessing that the miners who dug the mine shafts in the ravine lived there.

- From the newsletter article, I learnt that the farm and ravine had belonged to Walter Street, who had retired to a one-room cabin overlooking the ravine, and that Maclab Enterprise's Sandy Mactaggart bought the land from him (after years of conversation) with the promise that he could continue to live there, and that the ravine would become a nature reserve. Mr. MacTaggart made good his promise and arranged for the land, along with adjoining land owned by the Province, to be donated to the University of Alberta as a nature reserve.

- I also learnt a fair bit about the colourful, community-spirited Mr. MacTaggart who bought Mr. Street's farm and ravine from him. Anyone who lives in Edmonton is likely familiar with the development corporation that Mr. MacTaggart was a partner in, but the many new residents of our rapidly-growing city might not be aware of the large role he and his wife played in both building Edmonton's inner-ring suburbs and cultural community (I've lived here going on eighteen years and had not been aware of his work and legacy). I do think it's fitting that the nature reserve and the new neighborhood on its edge are named for MacTaggart.

- A sign (in the photos above) at one of the entrances to the MacTaggart Sanctuary from the new neighborhood of MacTaggart confirmed the newsletter story, and added a few crucial clues to Walter Street's identity: that he lived 1878 - 1969, that he fought in World War One, and that before his retirement to farm the land beside Whitemud Creek Ravine, he had managed the stable at the Edmonton Ice Company.

- I found Walter Street listed in the 1950 Henderson Directory for Edmonton, occupation "stableman Arctic Ice Company" (who bought out Edmonton Ice Company), living at a Rossdale address near (or perhaps in) the Arctic Ice building at 100 Street and 97 Avenue; by 1952 he had moved and is no longer listed (although a carpenter of the same name is).

- A search on Walter Street, Edmonton, Alberta on led me to census records of two possible individuals, one of whom was married (and seems to be the carpenter I just mentioned) - and the other of whom is too young to be the correct individual, if the signage placed in the community is correct, but who otherwise seems to fit the facts. I'm now corresponding with one of the people researching that Walter Street's family tree, and have promised him I'll make enquiries at the local archives to see what else we can learn. Using the dates from the signage instead of a location in Edmonton has suggested a few other possible individuals, so I will need to find more information in order to narrow down the origins of the Walter Street who farmed the land my house now sits on, regardless. My next step will be to visit the archives, in person.

Walter Street's name ought to be more widely known, since his foresight and generosity ensured that his land on Whitemud Creek was preserved in as unspoiled a state as possible for us all to enjoy. I hope he would approve of the beautiful wildlife sanctuary and the neighborhood being built on its banks.

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