The Older House: How to Research Your Older Bloomington/Normal Home
The problems of dating a house are as varied as the number of houses in existence. Each house has its own history, and that history is simply a reflection of the people who occupied it before you. For that reason, finding out who lived in a house and when they lived there is the first step in dating a house.
Compilers of city directories have done much to make that job easier. Street indexes to Bloomington have been published since 1893. Normal streets were added to the street index in 1920. A complete set of these directories can be found at the McLean County Museum of History and at the Bloomington Public Library.
An entry will read:
Taylor (East) 701 Vrooman, Carl*
This not only lets you know who lived at the house, but the asterisk indicates that Mr. Vrooman claimed to own the house. To find out what Mr. Vrooman did for a living, one simply goes to the alphabetically listed name section in the front of the directory. Here it reads:
Vrooman, Carl (Julia) pres. McLean County Coal Co. h 701 E. Taylor
This entry informs us that he had a spouse named Julia, that he had a pretty good job and that this Carl Vrooman is definitely living at the house in question, 701 E. Taylor.
By going through the entire set of street indexes, a complete list of occupants of your house can be obtained. The key to using this is that you can often tie occupancy or lack of occupancy to house-building and/or major remodeling.
There are a few pitfalls in using this resource. House numbers and street names change, houses are moved, and typographical errors and omissions are not uncommon.
For those who live in pre-1920 Normal houses, or pre-1893 Bloomington houses, the job is much more difficult. The earliest person who occupied the house can still be traced through the name indexes. Since the city directories date back to 1855 (they weren’t issued yearly until the 1960s), this search can quite often get you further back. What happens if the person you trace disappears or is listed at another address? In this case, you must turn away from the directories and start using other resources.
ABSTRACT OF TITLE
The first resource to attempt to locate is an Abstract of Title. This is a record created by a private company which searches deed records and proves a chain of title which establishes that a property being purchased is held free and clear by the seller. This system has been pretty much replaced by title insurance. Quite often, a copy of Abstract of Title is held by an earlier purchaser. It is important to note that a deed record and the abstract of the deed record refers only to parcels of land, not to buildings. It tells you who owns the land on which your house sits. Transfers of property in the chain of title can indicate house-building and/or major remodeling.
You can create your own chain of title by going to the McLean County Recorder of Deeds office in the County Building at 115 E. Washington (M104), Bloomington. There, you ask to see the Grantee/Grantors (Buyer/Seller) index which goes back to 1837. Each deed is indexed to the buyer and seller. This means every time the property was transferred that both parties are identifiable. Every seller was at one time a buyer. These transactions can be traced back to the original land purchases from the United States government. You must look back at the deed transferred by the person in question to make sure that the property in question is, indeed your property. This takes time.
To use this record, you must have the legal description of the property. To acquire this, look in a county plat book. These are available at the Museum library and at the Bloomington Public Library. Your lot will have a number, as will your block. Your area will have a name. A typical legal description is Lot 11, Block 8 of Evans 2nd Addition to the Town of Bloomington. A deed will only refer to the legal description, never to a street number.
By the time you finish this work, you should have some idea of the age of your house. Your estimates can be verified in some interesting and quick ways. This is done by consulting a few pictorial sources. They are:
1895 Plat Book of McLean County. This volume shows rough outlines of structures on lots for all McLean County town plats, and is relatively accurate. It is available at the McLean County Museum of History Library.
1873 Birds Eye View of Bloomington. This large picture is a lithograph that shows most of Bloomington in a perspective drawing. It views Bloomington from the southeast in the foreground and the northwest in the background. Just about every house and store building in town in shown. It is not absolutely accurate in detail, but it is very useful. There is also a Birds Eye View for 1867 http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query it is on-line at the American Memory Page Library of Congress. Both maps are also at the McLean County Museum of History library.
Sanborn Insurance maps. These are hard to find, but they show an outline of every structure (including porches), indicate construction materials (wood, brick, stone, iron, etc.), and show locations of windows and doors and the number of stories. These maps were made for fire insurance purposes.
An 1896 Sanborn map is at the McLean County Museum of History, as is an 1886 edition on microfilm. A 1953 map (with updates through 1963) is also available in a digital format. The library staff can access this map for you. The museum library also has a 1952 map updated through 1961. Illinois State University’s Milner Library subscribes to a database of Sanborn maps, dating from1867-1970. Not all neighborhoods are covered by Sanborn maps, but an index map is at the front of each volume.
TAX ASSESSORS RECORDS
For those of you who are into exhaustive and complete knowledge of your property, more still can be done. Bloomington and Normal records can be searched here:
This is the record by which your taxes are assessed. The dates are not always accurate. McLean County Assessor’s office handles the rest of the county.
By this time, you have your house firmly dated, you know everybody who ever lived there or owned the land, and you know why your tax bill reads the way it does. There are still things that can be done. By knowing who previously lived in the house, family members can be contacted for photographs. Information on where these people are can start with the phone book and end with newspaper obituaries. The (Daily) Pantagraph is indexed (although not completely) at the Bloomington Public Library, through 1990. Pantagraph obituaries after 1990 can be found via ProQuest, one of the Bloomington Public Library’s subscription databases. While you’re looking up obituaries, you might want to read the obituary of the first owner of the house. You may find that your house was built for a newly married couple or with an inheritance. Quite often, in the 1870s, 80s and 90s, articles were written about new building construction. During the last half of the 19th century, yearly summaries of building activities were published. These are usually found in December or January. Many of these articles are on file at the McLean County Museum of History Library.
Besides newspapers, there are seven published books with biographical sketches of McLean County residents. Ask your reference librarian about them.
Another method of house-dating is based on identifying architectural style and on construction technique and materials (wood type, nails, plumbing, and such). Because this requires much more information, this method is not discussed here. To get started, read, Researching Your Illinois House (Greg Koos, Illinois Preservation Brief Number 7, Illinois Historic Preservation Agency—available at the Bloomington Public Library and at the museum library). You can also visit this on-line resource: http://www.preservationdirectory.com/historicphotogallery/architecturalstylesgalleries.aspx
In all, researching your house can be a time-consuming, but rewarding search. Learning about those who have, in a sense, shared your house might encourage us to ensure that our houses can be shared by future generations.
Beier, Lucinda McCray
A Matter of Life and Death: health, illness and medicine in McLean County, 1830-1995. [Bloomington, IL]: McLean County Historical Society, 1996
Bloomingon-Normal Black History Project
We The People Tell Our Story. comp. and ed. Mildred Pratt. Bloomington, IL: Bloomington-Normal Black History Project, 1987.
Cabek, Melanie, Mark D. Groover and Scott J. Wagers
Health Care and the Wayman A.M.E. Church: historical archeology. Tucson, AZ: Society for Historical Archeology, 1995.
Ekberg, Carl, Anne Malone, and William Walters
The Legacy: a survey of the historical architecture of Normal Normal, IL: Town of Normal, 1990
Ives, Elizabeth Stevenson, and Hildegarde Dolson.
My Brother Adlai. New York: Morrow, 1956. Note: She mentions employees including some represented in the oral histories.
Jelks, Edward B., and John W. Muirhead.
The William Carey Barton Family: a study in historical archeology. Bloomington, IL: Bloomington-Normal Black History Project and McLean County Historical Society, 1996.
A Report: survey of the Twin-City Recreation Center, Bloomington-Normal, Ill. [Bloomington,IL]: Central Illinois Committee on Community Development, 1957.
McLean County Genealogical Society.
African-American Residents of Bloomington-Normal, IL, 1885-1917. Normal,IL: McLean County Genealogical Society, 2002.
Muirhead, John W.
A History of African-Americans in McLean County (Ill.) Bloomington, IL: Bloomington-Normal Black History Project and McLean County Historical Society, 1998.
Orser, Charles E., and David W. Babson.
Families and Cabins: archeological and historical investigations at Wessyngton Plantation, Robertson County, Tennessee. Normal, IL: Midwestern Archeological Research Center, Illinois State University, 1994.
Richardson, Harriet Fyffe.
Quaker Pioneers. Milwaukee, WI: Press of Gillett & Co., 1940. Note: Includes information on the Duff family.
Turner, Glennette Tilley.
The Underground Railroad in Illinois. Glen Ellyn, IL: Newman Educational Publishing, 2001.
Wagers, Scott J.
McLean County Blacks in the Civil War. [S.l.:s.n.], 1993.
Washington, Caribel and Scott J. Wagers.
Wayman A.M.E. Church: one hundred fifty years of history, 1843-1993. Bloomington, IL: [Wayman A.M.E. Church], 1993.
African-American Churches in Bloomington-Normal: the development of Black Baptist, Methodists and Disciples in the 19th and early 20th centuries. [History Department Honors hesis] [Normal, IL.: Illinois State University, History Department], 1991.
BPL–Bloomington Public Library
HCC–Heartland Community College Library
ISU–Illinois State University, Milner Library
IWU–Illinois Wesleyan University, Ames Library
|ISU||Harrison, Edgar Agustus. The Financial Status and Occupational Opportunities for Negroes in Bloomington-Normal[MS Thesis]. Normal, IL: Illinois State Normal University, 1950. Studies in Education (Normal, IL); no.128.|
|ISU||Phelps, Landra G.. From Negro to Black to African-American: name changes and their effect on Black residents in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois [MS Thesis]. Normal, IL: Illinois State University, 1999.|
|HCCISUIWU||Pirtle, Carol. Escape Betwixt Two Suns: a true tale of the underground railroad in Illinois. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois Univerity Press, 2000.|
|Pratt, Mildred A Tribute to Love. Bloomington, IL: Heartland Publishing, 2002.|
|BPL||Wells, Wyatt. The background of the Negro in McLean County [Archival material], 1940|
|BPL||Williams, Rick D.. Black Disciples in McLean County, Illinois: a history of the Second Christian Church, Normal and the Third Christian Church, Bloomington. Normal, IL: Illinois State University, 1990.|
These materials are available for in house use only. Much of this collection is unprocessed so be sure to ask the Librarian for assistance.Information about African-American history and families in McLean County is located in the Archives under the following box and/or folder names. Also check the Archives card catalog and the photo index for additional resources.
Note: If you are making a special trip to use these materials please call first to be sure someone will be available to assist you. Phone: 309-827-0428, ask for the Library.
Duff Family (7 boxes)
Major Collection of Letters from Liberia
Photograph Collection -- BNBHP
Photograph Collection -- Subjects -- BNBHP
Black History (Not BHP)
Links open in a new tab
eBlack Champaign-Urbana - A collaborative portal on African-American history
Illinois Alive! - African American Experience
The Hartford Black History Project
African American Perspectives
African-American History - Slavery in America