Anyone who’s lived in an old house has encountered the same curiosity: What’s this home’s story?
Who built the place? What did he or she do for a living? Did anyone noteworthy live here over the years? Any exciting — or surprising — things happen here decades ago that are now lost to memory?
These are all questions I’ve had since purchasing a 1923-built bungalow in Sleepy Hollow last fall.
Some people get lucky enough to find historical trinkets in their home’s walls when doing renovations — as the Eagle’s Denise Neil did recently.
But until you’re ready to tear your home’s walls to shreds, you’ll have to settle for digging through public records and old newspapers — as I’ve done for the past few months.
In doing so I’ve started to piece together the story of my house, though there are still a few gaps in that history. It’s been sort of a fun mystery that my wife and I have been trying to solve — we can recite our original landowner’s name, who built the house, as well as a host of people who’ve lived in it over the years.
Here are some ways you can research the history of your house, using public records and other fairly easily accessible data sources in Wichita. These are in the order that I proceeded:
Look up historical newspaper references
If you live in Kansas, you have access to this pretty nifty perk, courtesy of the Kansas Historical Society.
In 2013, Kansas Digital Newspapers partnered with Newspapers.com to digitize a vast swath of newspapers published in the state prior to 1923 — and Kansans can search those old newspapers online for free.
Just go to www.kshs.org/p/kansas-digital-newspaper-program/16126 and follow the prompts.
Normally a subscription to Newspapers.com — a subsidiary of Ancestry.com — starts at $7.95 per month.
If you’ve never trawled through century-old newspapers before, you’ll be surprised at what all was published back then. Newspapers were the Facebook walls of a century ago — announcing when and where prominent Wichitans were building new homes, when homeowners were hosting guests, traveling, or other such business.
One caveat: Newspapers.com currently only has pre-1923 newspapers available to search because of copyright restrictions and, while the Kansas Historical Society plans to add more content in the future, “a timeline is not available at this time,” wrote Lauren Gray, the society’s head of reference, in an email.
When your house was built in 1923, that leaves the majority of content tantalizingly out of reach.
The Advanced Learning Library downtown does have microfilm reels of the Eagle from 1923 to present, but it’s near-impossible to search those reels unless you have a specific date and page in mind. You can’t search your address as a keyword with an analog microfilm library like you can on Newspapers.com.
The Wichita Eagle does have a searchable online archive of all articles from 1965 to the present — which is available to the public starting at $3.95 per article. A “day pass” to the Eagle’s archives (including 20 articles) is $9.95 and an unlimited 24-hour pass to these historical articles is $19.95.
They’re available for access at kansas.newsbank.com.
Anywhere from 1923 to 1965 is still relegated to the microfilm reels, though.
I was able to find out the original owner of the land my house sits on through Newspapers.com, as he was desperately trying to rid himself of it so he could move to Oklahoma City, running multiple ads for a “lot bargain” “for quick sale” in 1922.
That led me to step two:
Finding out who built the house
Land-ownership information is public record, and it’s not too difficult to request.
I knew who owned the land, but whoever ended up buying it and building a house there was just beyond the 1923 cutoff.
That’s where the Sedgwick County Register of Deeds comes into play.
Anyone can file a Kansas Open Records Act request to find out who the original owner of a house was, given a few details.
First, you’ll want the legal description of the property — which can be found online at Sedgwick County’s property tax portal at ssc.sedgwickcounty.org/propertytax/default.aspx. Type in your address as “real property” and on the results, you’ll find the legal description for your property. On this page, also take note of what year your house was built.
What you’ll want to do next is file your KORA request with the county. Go to ssc.sedgwickcounty.org/ContactForm/(S(3ysip0yf3vew5mipksafmbf1))/OpenRecordsRequest.aspx to do this easily online.
In the body of the text, write something like this:
“Please provide documents detailing the original sale and transfer of the deed for the property legally described as (insert lot numbers here) of the (insert addition here) addition in Wichita (commonly known as (insert your standard mailing address here)). These documents were filed around (insert year home was built). Please provide advance notice of any charges that will exceed $50 (or whatever amount you are comfortable spending.)”
Generally it will not cost anything for county staffers to research this information and deliver it to you via email, and they usually have it done within a couple days.
This is, of course, made under the assumption that the original owner of the land sold it as a vacant lot, and that the buyer of that lot was the one to build a house on it. You’ll be able to tell whether that was the case by cross-referencing when the house was built and when the deed to the property was transferred.
Using the document they provided, I learned who bought the land that was advertised in the papers in 1922 and then was able to search that buyer in Newspapers.com to try and glean some of his past.
Who were the people who’ve lived there?
Once you get some names of people associated with the property, then you can search through old Wichita city directories — which are provided to Kansans for free, again, through the Kansas Historical Society.
Go to the same website mentioned above (www.kshs.org/p/kansas-digital-newspaper-program/16126) but instead of clicking Newspapers.com, select Ancestry.com when given the choice.
There, you can search through all sorts of historical archives to research people — but one of the most helpful is the U.S. City Directories option.
Type in all the information you know to try to narrow down the results — including that he or she lived in Wichita in the exact year (or following years) the home was built.
Sometimes the city directory will list what a person’s occupation was alongside the name.
Ancestry.com also lists Census data, which will allow you to see a little more information about the people.
By this point, your history may have a few holes in it — just as mine did. I knew who built the house, but by 1930 he was no longer living there (at least according to the Census), and by 1940 yet another family was living there.
One of the coolest resources is the official 1940 census records — provided your house was built prior to 1940. The massive census, which was released to the public in 2012, lists all sorts of information about your home’s occupants — everyone’s occupations, home states, how much rent (or mortgage) they pay, ages of children and more.
You can slog through the 1940 census data by going to www.1940census.archives.gov/index.asp. Sometimes it’s a little slow to load.
In some rare cases, there may be building plans for your house on file at the Metropolitan Area Building and Construction Department (MABCD), though their records are a little hit-or-miss when you go back more than 50-or-so years.
You can, however, request to see any building permits, plans or other documents associated with a specific address by visiting the office between 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays or from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. on Wednesdays.
From my visit to the office, it was pretty clear this doesn’t happen often there, so be prepared to be met with some strange looks.
I was able to scroll through microfilm reels that showed inspection cards for the house in the 1930s, but — other than providing another resident’s name — it didn’t provide much information.
These cards are organized by address and grouped by years.
It does cost a bit of change to print out any of the microfilm pages — nothing more than 25 cents a page.