Tracking Your Past

Doris Green

Registered state or national historic homes offer links to our ancestors’ lifestyles. From the Gundry House in Mineral Point and Villa Louis in Prairie du Chien to the Baraboo homes of Albrecht and Charles Ringling, cultural evidence lingers in their architecture and décor. Victorian tapestries, marble-topped tables and everyday items foreign to our modern eye (churns, trundle beds or long-handled pumps at the kitchen sink) help us walk in our ancestors’ shoes.
If you are lucky, you may even connect a Wisconsin historic home with an ancestor who lived or visited there. Perhaps family oral history tells of a young woman who cared for children or a young man who worked as a driver for the family in the home. Or maybe you have a census record, city directory or other document that officially places them in the home.
When I researched the early life of my Aunt Elsie, her marriage certificate placed her at a home on Orchard Street in Racine. Initially I thought she had roomed there with her friend Ann, whose family owned another house later rented by a newly married Elsie and her husband. But I was wrong. When the National and State Orchard Street Historic District was created in 2016, its documentation suggested Elsie may have been a live-in worker at the 811 Orchard St. residence — a likelihood I’d never considered, but one that made perfect sense. Many young women who’d grown up on farms in the early 20th century went to work for urban families, and, in fact, Elsie’s younger sister told me she had gone to work in the home of her former schoolteacher.
Historic districts like the one on Orchard Street, the Mineral Point Historic District or the Honey Creek Swiss Rural Historic District west of Prairie du Sac may provide unexpected clues about our ancestors’ living or working arrangements. One place to begin a search is at the Wisconsin Historical Society webpage listing National Register and State Register of Historic Places by county: http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Article/CS15299.
Additional research can reveal more information about a home or district. A function of the National Park Service, the National Register of Historic Places (http://www.nps.gov/subjects/nationalregister/database-research.htm) contains added details about these properties and sometimes lists the National Archives site where you can find the original application for historic register status. The original application may even include photos and maps, as well as clues about the lives of your ancestors.

Doris Green authored “Elsie’s Story: Chasing a Family Mystery” and “Wisconsin Underground: A Guide to Cave, Mines, and Tunnels.” Newly available: “Minnesota Underground: A Guide to Caves & Karst, Mines & Tunnels,” is co-authored with Greg Brick. Contact http://henschelhausbooks.com, Amazon or your bookstore.