When we live inside a home for any period of time, it begins to collect physical and emotional residue for us. People can go to strip off old wallpaper and find seven more layers of wallpaper underneath it. Carpets can hide beautiful floorboards, Drywall can cover up part of an old brick chimney, a crawl space, or even a secrete staircase.
We’re constantly touching, living in, breathing, and adding more life inside our homes. We begin to experience this feeling that our home is in and of itself an entity, something permanent that has always existed. It provides comfort, shelter, heat and water. We can throw ourselves inside it after a rough day. We can gather our loved ones for a hearty meal.
Space holds memory. Memory will persist even after the four walls come down. A house is not a natural feature. It’s impermanent architecture — added to over time, torn down and rebuilt, upgraded with a new roof and coat of paint, or neglected and deteriorating — following the dictates of those inside it.
We want to find out more about our homes, particularly our older homes. Who built it? How old is it? Who lived in it? How did it change over time? People sometimes want to track down the history of their home. A house is a brick-and-mortar family tree.
Beginning the search
How does one begin to trace the history of their home? I live in New Paltz, so I tracked down Carol Johnson, coordinator of the Haviland-Heidgerd Historical Collection at the Elting Memorial Library. I knew only that I owned a relatively old small cottage in the village.
Johnson said that the deed was the first place to look. “Go to your lock box or wherever you keep your deed, and look through it, because it holds a lot of information,” advised Johnson. She had already made a copy of my deed. “It will tell you when you bought it, who you bought it from, what your property lines are, its building style, the improvements that were made.” The deed also tells the assessed value of the home, a property description, its overall condition, how many bedrooms and bathrooms it has, and what year it was built.
If you don’t have your deed, you can find a copy of it online by going to the Ulster County clerk’s website and search under ‘Parcel Viewer.’ “Type in your name or the address and the deed will come up,” Johnson said. “Often it will give you detailed information about previous owners.”
My deed listed the two most previous owners and said my home was built in 1890. Johnson, a seasoned local historian, disagreed with the dating. “Sometimes that date is a guess or just something someone said a long time ago,” she said, “but it’s not always accurate.”
Her suggestion was to start with my own deed and work backwards. If it only lists the previous owner, she said, look up that deed and then move backwards again.
While the online tool was an enormous help, Johnson was quick to point out that there was a gap between 1900 and 1950. “The Mormons have everything digitized on their site, which is free, ’Family Search.’ In Ulster County, we have everything digitized from 1950 on, but those five decades in between require a visit to Kingston.”
I’m the ninth owner
The deeds themselves are housed at the county clerk’s office on the second floor above the DMV, where you go to get your driver’s license, explained Johnson. “When there, you look for the liber [book] and page and find your deed. You start with your own deed and work back.”
Since 1965, the HHHS has been saving newspaper clippings, photos, letters, and any other type of archival material they can get their hands on. They put everything in a plastic sleeve inside hundreds of blue binders that hold the history of each residential and commercial building in New Paltz.
“Newspapers are a great source of information, and luckily New Paltz had very gossipy papers,” said Johnson with a laugh. The old New Paltz newspapers would have articles or little tidbits about someone building a new porch, putting on a roof, or selling a piece of property to whom. “We cut all of these out and then match them to the property,” she said, pointing to the sleeve that held whatever information they have collected on my property.
I’m the ninth owner of my parcel.
A newspaper clipping discusses Jared Smith building a home in 1911 on his property, which was purchased from D.C. Storr, who purchased it from Cornelia Deyo Broadhead, who was related to one of the twelve original New Paltz patentees. According to the History of New Paltz, written by Johnson and Marion Ryan, New Paltz was “founded in 1677 by 12 French Huguenot Settlers” who “bargained for land extending from the Shawangunk Mountains to the Hudson River” with indigenous people. Referred to as an “Indian Deed,” it traded the land for various material goods including 40 kettles, 100 knives and 40 oars.
The indigenous people had no concept of ownership in the sense that Europeans had. Referred to as the Esopus Sachems, their names were drawn on the deed, which gave the dozen colonial families access to 400,000 acres of land, later split among them by pulling lots out of a hat.
The Deyo family and hence Cornelia Deyo Brodhead, seventh-generation Huguenot, inherited Lot 4, Tier One, which included the three-tenths of an acre that my house sits on.
Further sleuthing tools
Through this walk back in history I was able to see the way that the landscape had changed from rural to residential to commercial. I had learned the names of all the people who had owned my property before me. I could envision the fertile soil of the Wallkill River and the Munsee Esopus and Lenape tribes moving from the flood plains to the mountains and back to the valley.
The land was further divided into rectangular pieces over time. The houses in the Village of New Paltz are now a stone’s throw away from each other as in a Fischer Price toy residential neighborhood.
With Johnson’s flytrap memory, ability to navigate records and websites, and knowledge of how to cross-reference newspaper articles to deeds and photos, we were able to reasonably assume that my house was built around 1911. A trip to Kingston and some further poking around in the newspaper archives could pin that date down.
Johnson pointed to various maps on the wall and explained how the land was originally held collectively by the patentees and then divided up among their children and then others. “Not many towns have an historical collection of this size,” conceded Johnson. “Many just have one shelf in a library.”
Fortunately, there are other ways that you can go about learning who built your home, what type of people lived in it, and what their lives were like. “Newspapers and maps are a good resource, also census records, family lore, obituaries, etc.,” said Johnson. “Letters and diaries, and receipts that are found in attics are very helpful. These also help you to know about the people who lived in the houses. We probably get one to two queries a week, from Robert DeNiro to you.”
Thanks to Carol Johnson for all of her help in researching this article and to the HHHC for all its resources.