Voices From the Past

When we moved into our old house, one of the first things I did was visit our Town’s historical society.
I quickly became friends with Ms. Historical Director—who knew more than I could believe about the history of the Town, the Portland area, and basically the history of everything. Ms. Historical Director is “wicked smaht,” as a Mainer would say.

She directed me to the Cumberland County Registry of Deeds in Portland, the largest city in Maine. For those of you from larger states, I add this: the total population of the State of Maine is about 1.3 million; the population of the whole “metro area” of Portland is 220,000, Portland proper is only 64,000, my town is 8,500. Yes, small, very small.

The Registry of Deeds is an amazing place. Huge books dating back to 1760—way before my house was built. If you’ve never done research on deeds, you should try it. It’s fascinating. Here in Maine, each property has a book and page number. And each book and page refers to the previous deed’s  book and page number. It’s like a treasure hunt.

The place was bustling, with realtors and tax attorneys and historians…and probably other writers, too. As always in such places (you’ve read about my fascination with libraries), I need to work to stay focused because I’m like a kid in a candy shop—so many possibilities! Not the least of which is my curiosity about all the people; who are they? what are they doing there? Many looked like they had permanent stations, like desks they came back to each day!

In the end, I spent all afternoon looking at deeds and so much more pertaining to my house’s ownership over the years: mortgages, contracts, liens, and mapping plans. What I discovered is this: the house was built in 1885 by a woman, and it has had fourteen registered owners, sometimes passed down through generations as shown by a sequence of owners with the same last names. I also found out who owned the land before the house was built—whose name is now my street’s name!

I went home, thinking about Annie T., the woman who built her house, my house: now I know whose initials are etched in the glass of my front door. A return trip to Ms. Historical Director helped me find out that Annie worked in one of the mills in town; it makes me happy to be living in a working woman’s house. I thought about Fred and Molly S., who in 1903 bought the house from Annie T. and lived in their house, my house, for almost 30 years, raising a family. Fred was a train conductor and Molly a nurse.

Ms. Historical Director introduced me to an elderly town resident for whom, many years ago, Molly had worked as a nurse. She described Molly as a lively, energetic, red-headed Irish woman who loved laughing and cooking and gardening—like me! I would’ve liked to have met Molly and Annie, who probably sat where I’m sitting right now, or walked these very same wide pumpkin pine floors to the kitchen…to get themselves another cup of coffee

—like me!

Are you, like me, fascinated with history of place? Do you enjoy doing research? Have you researched the history of an old house or another place? What are your favorite stories about research?



  1. Oh how fun. For some reason, I got chills when you mentioned the carved initials in the glass. What a great find that must have been for you – a treasure hunt of sorts in your own home.

    I hear you about costs being stressful in the building/renovation process. Our house build is a bit on hold at the moment – for those very reasons. I always joked that we’d be lucky to move into our ‘dream home’ by the time I’m retired. Now I’m thinking that is a GOOD goal to shoot for! All in due time …

  2. cathy says:

    A house with a past, oh think of the stories! You may like to read the blog of Muriel Jacques, a Londoner who often writes about her old, but new to her, house in London. Here’s the link: http://mumugb.blogspot.com/2011/03/1869.html

  3. Melissa — I know what you mean about the chills, because it happened to me too when I first found out, REALLY! I really enjoy mysteries and treasure hunts, which has been the absolute best fun about this house. I know what you mean about hoping to finish before retirement, me to (or sell the darn thing!).

    Cathy, I will definitely check out that link! Sounds great. And the stories that this house could deliver — old and new — are seemingly endless! Thanks, Julia

  4. Julia, I have been LOVING reading about your old house in this post and the last (you had me at “old house”)! As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, I’m so fascinated by the stories left behind in homes. How amazing that you actually got to talk to people who knew this woman, and that you can have an image of her in your mind as she walked the same halls as you, heard similar creaks in the wood and watched the sunset from the same window!

  5. Natalia, Thank you for the compliment! I think we share that fascination of the stories left behind; honestly I don’t go through a single day without thinking about it. I hope you enjoy today’s post, too, about Mr. S. — as you say, I feel so fortunate to have talked to people who lived in or knew people who lived in my house. Thanks for coming by again, Julia


    You whet my appetite in your previous post about writing in your old house, so I was glad to come here and learn more about the woman who built the house. Plus (bonus) another family who owned it.

    I loved living vicariously as you went to The Registry of Deeds to do your research. I probably would not have the patience for that, myself. But then, I’m living in a rental in a city I have absolutely no roots in . . . perhaps if I owned an old house like yours I would feel drawn to do that. Meanwhile, I totally “get” your problem with focusing on the research you came to do because the place was full of people you were wondering about. I would be the same. I would be making up stories about them and trying not to get caught staring. :~)

    I look forward to seeing what else you do with this background and history on your old house. With your love of research, maybe you can find out more about Annie T. She is shaping up as someone who could appear in a short story or novel set in your house. . . .

  7. Thanks for the comment, Milli! Glad you’re enjoying it. (The research is one of my favorite parts!) And Annie T.? She really could be in a novel or short story, couldn’t she? 🙂