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November 7, 2007

Heritage House History


An interesting category of historical research is the history of a building or home part of which is, of course, the people who lived there.  A recent issue of the Globe and Mail had an interesting story "Does Your House Tell a Story?" by Wency Leung. 

The article focuses on the desire of people who have bought or own a heritage home and want to know its history.  You can do the research yourself or if you live in a big city you can perhaps find a professional who will do it for you for a fee.  The history of people who lived in the house or events that took place there certainly became a part of the story if not a story in itself. 

Leung wrote about a couple who bought a 108 year old Queen Anne style house and wanted its history.  They went to house historian James Johnstone.  Johnstone has done histories of over 500 homes over the years.  For $500-$2000 he provides a genealogy of the home and the surrounding area.  These researchers are sometimes referred to as house genealogists. 

Johnstone has occasionally found some fascinating facts but the history is usually a series of ordinary profiles of families that lived there and moved on.  Genealogical skills are part of the qualifications for the job.  The people profiled in the article found that their basement had been a bootlegging depot for a period.  Johnston has found some gruesome and disturbing details sometimes and in one case a man refused to tell his wife about a double murder in their new home. 

Many communities like North Bay are involved in the Doors Open project looking at heritage buildings which I wrote about in Community Voices on May 11, 2007.   In this case people visit the houses, schools, churches etc and see the space and learn about the history.  The North Bay Museum also has a separate walking tour which features old buildings. 

I will share some house histories here in the future and suggest some techniques to help with the process.  In each case different circumstances apply.  Today I will look at an old abandoned house that would be a Halloween heaven.  I will follow with an old home that has become a bed and breakfast and later an old pre-motel complex that served North Bay for years. 

Tricks of the Trade 

What you do to find the history of the house is to go with what you know.  If you know who lived in the house try to find a surviving family member or go to the genealogical society and do a search like you would do on your own history.  There is lots of online help.  Mr. Johnstone recommends Automatedgenealogy.com or Ancestry.com.  The Nipissing Branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society in the North Bay Public Library allows you to search or for a small fee will search basic documents for you and give a report.  There is also a professional genealogist who will do a search for you for a fee. 

For a house history the Registry Office for Nipissing District is in the Court House where you can have a look at information and get copies for a small fee.  The Parry Sound district office is in Parry Sound.  The tax history which provides different information is available free to the property owner only.  The boundaries for tax assessment are different than the Registry boundaries.  The Assessment office is in Northgate Square upstairs.  For an interesting website with more details on searching a home is http://www.nwheritage.org/heritagesite/homes/content/research.htm. 

Abandoned Spetz House

The Annie Spetz House 

Jamie Toeppner from Powassan has an interest in local and family history and is an excellent photographer with a fascinating website worth having a look at.  www.toeppner.ca.  He recently tracked down the abandoned house of Miss Annie K. Spetz, a nurse who lived on the Alsace Road in Nipissing Township near the old Alsace Church.  (see photo of the church in my article online July 5, 2002 - note the Toeppner name on the gravestone).  The church has an interesting local History room. 

The Spetz family had an original house that was moved to be a part of the church.  The second house shown here was built in 1909 by two men, one of whom was Jos. Livingstone who is the grandfather of my next door neighbour Joe Livingstone. (I wrote about the Livingstone family in an article on December 5, 2003). 

Inside the Spetz House

Gladys Piper who knows the Spetz family history was visiting a friend of Annie long after Annie had died and received a silver candlestick of Annie's as a gift.  It is in the history room at the church. 

When I wrote about Mailman Fran Young in an article in July 2000 I mentioned Annie.  She got lost in the bush for a couple of days on one occasion picking berries and survived quite well.  People found her because she hadn't picked up her mail.  In the article I mentioned a lady who had a lot of cats and gave them to Fran Young to take care of while she was away for a month putting Fran on the spot.  That was Annie. 

There are other abandoned buildings on the Alsace Road, including one in the Fran Young article and they all evoke a sense of history.  With Halloween just passed I thought for a minute that the Jamie Toeppner photo had picked up a ghost of Annie Spetz by it turned out to be Jamie's shadow.  What was that hole in the floor - a trap door to the cold cellar? 

Watch for more house history stories.

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