Chris Shatto’s house is one of the more colorful ones in Fort Wayne.
Yes, it does have eye-catching harlequin colors of painstakingly applied paint coating its exterior.
But, after becoming something of an amateur house detective, Shatto also discovered the Victorian-style home at 1701 W. Main St. in the Nebraska neighborhood had a colorful history.
The house’s first owner, Christian Siebold, was killed in a bizarre workplace accident in 1918 – when a locomotive that wasn’t properly loaded onto a turntable at the roundhouse where he worked knocked down a wall that crushed him to death.
Another owner, former Fort Wayne City Councilman Charlie Westerman, went to jail in a parking ticket-fixing scandal in the 1970s. He was found dead in the house by his pastor on a hot summer Sunday after failing to show up for church.
“He passed away right there, on his couch,” says Shatto, pointing to a spot by a fireplace in what is now his restored dining room.
Such are the rewards that can await curious owners of some of the city’s older homes – if they’re willing to invest some time and patience into research.
Researching houses’ history is becoming more common – and more possible. House detectives can access computerized property, census and obituary records from home, visit a well-stocked and well-staffed genealogy department at the Allen County Public Library and tap resources available through historic preservation and neighborhood groups.
One place to start is “Researching Your Old House: A Guide to Resources for Fort Wayne and Allen County, Indiana” at http://www.acpl.lib.in.us/amv/oldhouse.html.
We asked some local experts how to make those walls start talking.
Title abstracts. If you’re lucky, the previous owners of a house will have saved these to pass on, says Michael Galbraith, executive director of ARCH, the non-profit historic architecture preservation group. Abstracts outline the chain of ownership of the house and the land, and in the Fort Wayne area, many go back to the early days of statehood. So, he says, if you find the original land grant from a U.S. president, (say, Andrew Jackson), to the first owner, expect chills, he says. When you sell your house, don’t take the abstract with you; he adds – they don’t make them anymore. The Allen County Public Library’s genealogy department has some donated abstracts.
PATI. Short for Public Access Tax Information, this is a database available online in Allen County that provides the legal description of a property and its relatively recent transfer history, says Jill Downs of Fort Wayne, who has researched properties in the West Central Neighborhood as well as her own home.
Downs says you can then take the names to other sources and go farther back in history by visiting the auditor’s office/and or the recorder of deeds office in the Edwin J. Rousseau Center, formerly the City-County Building.
In some counties, these offices may have pictures; most counties have interior descriptions of properties used for assessment purposes. Such records can help you pinpoint when additions/garages were built or major features changed. Also try the Allen County Building Department for permits or plans filed for relatively recent changes.
R.L. Polk & Co. City Directories. If you have a name or an address in Fort Wayne or other communities where these fat volumes were published, you can look it up. Available at public libraries, the directories will likely list the occupants’ names and employment. Looking at surrounding addresses gives you similar info about neighbors. Nationalities can often be deduced from names.
A couple of hitches, says Downs: In 1902, Fort Wayne changed the numbering system of many streets, and until around 1928 there are only lists of names.
Maps. The Sanborn Fire Insurance Co. mapped counties about every 15 years beginning in the 1890s to the 1960s, Galbraith says.
He says the maps, more detailed in towns and cities, show what neighborhoods looked like and include details about building materials and whether a home had a stove or porch. Copies are available at ARCH and the library and online through Indiana University.
Townships also have historical maps, so you can see, for example, when farms were subdivided. The Recorder of Deeds Office’s Neighborhood Resource Center, at http://www.allencountyrecorder.us/Resources/ResourceCenter.aspx, includes links to maps, plus subdivision information and a compendium of neighborhoods’ restrictive covenants
U.S. census records. At some point, says Galbraith, the story of your house will become a story about people. They are listed in the area’s census records, which go back to 1820. The genealogy department at the Allen County Public Library gives you free access to those records through Ancestry.com. Genealogy staff member Dawne Slater-Putt says the census lists only heads of households from 1820 to 1840, but, beginning in 1850, it lists everyone. Unfortunately, she says, the 1890 census was destroyed in a fire. Look for hints for more information on people, such as dates of birth and death, through leaf icons on Ancestry.com.
People information. Searching for a deceased person’s name online will often lead to a published obituary, which usually provides a wealth of information about a family and its connections. Family, ethnic group, business and religious institution histories also can be found in the two-volume set, “A History of Fort Wayne and Allen County: 1700-2005” and earlier histories. Experts also pointed to “Builders of Fort Wayne” by Burt Griswold from 1926s a sort of promotional guide for the prominent. And, they say, don’t neglect local newspaper accounts, although searchable library online access goes back only to 1990.
Architectural clues. For information about when your house was built, look to its design, says Don Orban, preservation specialist for the city of Fort Wayne. Unusual features, such as a Mansard roof, or ordinary details, such as plaster walls, can be a tip-off to its period of construction. “I usually send people to ‘A Field Guide to American Houses’ by Virginia and Lee McAlester, which has lots of usable information and lots of pictures,” he says.
If you find an architect’s name, Ball State University has a drawings and documents archive that provides information about major home designers, Galbraith says; ARCH has information on many local architects.
Pictures. These can be tough, to find, Orban says. But the library has a large photo collection that is searchable by keyword, so you might be able to find a photo of, say, Berry Street from 1909. It helps, he says, to broaden your search beyond your address and look for neighboring properties or whole neighborhoods. The collection includes old postcards. Other sources include “Artwork of Fort Wayne” from 1880 and “Fort Wayne Illustrated” from 1889 and 20th-century Chamber of Commerce publications.
Local publications. Brochures from neighborhood tours or historic walking tours often include house information and might be available from neighborhood groups. ARCH has documents used in preparing a historic district or property designation. There’s also an Allen County historic buildings survey available from ARCH. “On the Heritage Trail,” another publication available from ARCH, has some house, people and neighborhood information.
Dumb luck. Don’t count out the power of serendipity. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that somebody is at home one afternoon and somebody will knock on the door and say, ‘My grandmother lived here’ and have all kinds of information and photos,” Orban says.
Shatto says he found details of his house just by renovating the place – when he was tearing out a wall in a back bathroom, he found newspapers from the 1940s stuffed behind it for insulation – and thus pinpointed the date of the addition’s construction.
And while cleaning up the base, the original iron door keys were found attached to a ring hanging on a nail on a beam. “We just looked up,” Shatto says, “and there they were.”