Old houses are keepers of secrets and witnesses to history. They have many stories to tell if you are willing to listen. We bought an old house with a view to restoring it and quickly developed a great passion for the rich history of the house and the community. It began during the home inspection, when we discovered something which made us suspect that the house had chosen us as its custodians. In the attic, nestled amongst some bat droppings and a bird’s nest, we found a 1946 edition of the Star Weekly. The headline read: “Dance, Little Ladies.” My wife Marion has toured the world as a professional dancer, so we considered this to be a warm welcome, and bought the house. Since the newspaper was used as insulation, the date told us when the attic was renovated. Later we learned that this was at a time when the residence was being used as a rooming house.
The inspection of a house can reveal many clues to its history. When possible, take a close look between walls, under floorboards, inside attic rafters, and fireplaces. Contractors, carpenters, and plasterers have often signed and dated their work. Upon investigation, we discovered that George Swayne signed and dated the plaster prior to hanging wallpaper for his daughter in 1938. The original carpenters who built our house signed and dated moulding around a door frame and left a note hidden behind it. They even left one of their tools behind. While the house was being rewired, an ancient screwdriver was discovered under the floorboards in the attic. Reginald Burroughs moved into the house in 1907 and signed his name in a concrete windowsill in the basement. A tax stamp from 1940 indicates that an empty rye bottle in the basement probably belonged to former owner Harry Buchanan. During our dining room restoration, we discovered a century-old golf ball which sparked a media frenzy and made national news headlines. We even uncovered some archaeological finds buried in the backyard while digging to create a terrace, including broken plates, glass milk bottles, cutlery, fireplace tiles, and some marbles.
Gathering all the deeds for a property and connecting them in chronological order creates a chain of ownership or a chain of title. This is a very valuable tool when researching the history of the former owners of your house. If this information is not available online, you may have to visit your local official responsible for keeping property records. They should have records of every sale of your home, dating back to when it was built. We were fortunate to acquire this information from our lawyer when we purchased our house. We were able to trace the sale of our property through the previous 12 owners, and as far back as the Plan of the Town of Smiths Falls in 1890. We learned that architect George Thomas Martin bought the land in 1891 for $300 and had contractor Matthew Ryan build the house. We also learned that a person of historical significance lived in the house after it was built. Agnes Lamb was the niece of Alexander Wood, who was a partner in the Frost & Wood Company, Ltd. For 116 years, this company played a huge role in the history of Smiths Falls. They were one of the largest manufacturers of farm implements in Canada, and the biggest employer in town.
A chain of title opens many avenues of exploration. Town and city directories existed before the telephone was invented. They are organized by address, and document who resided at your house for a particular year, often with their occupation. Old newspapers are loaded with information such as obituaries, birth and marriage announcements, hobbies, affiliations, and sometimes even a photograph. They can be found online at sites like newspapers.com or at your local museum or library.
Historical maps can also provide an abundance of information. We found concrete evidence that the Poonahmalee Golf Club was at one time located across the street from our house, based on a 1928 topographical map. Tax departments have records including construction dates, square footage, and number of rooms. The census is taken every 10 years and provides names of all occupants, addresses, ages, professions, and nationality. Local history books can be treasure-troves of information. Photo archives collected by libraries, museums, historical societies, and government entities are becoming increasingly available online. You can also check to see if your street was located along parade routes. We were fortunate enough to find photos of our house taken during the Old Home Week parade in 2000.
One of your most valuable sources of history is other people. Spreading the word about your search for information can lead to some wonderful stories from neighbors and older community members.
Ted & Marion Outerbridge are currently restoring a Smiths Falls heritage home built in 1893. They are also being swept away by local history & mystery. You can follow them at on Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok @thekeyholehouse or email firstname.lastname@example.org.