Home sweet history: Researching your home

R. SCOTT RAPPOLD Updated: January 28, 2013 at 12:00 am • Published: January 28, 2013

Around the turn of the 19th Century, Theodore Gill headed west.

An Indiana boy, he fought for the Union in the Civil War, part of a regiment that was at Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Kennesaw Mountain and dozens of other fights. The 88th Indiana Infantry laid siege to Atlanta and marched with Sherman to the sea.

And as near as I can tell, Gill was the first person to live in my Colorado Springs house.

What stories would your house tell if it could?

From the west-side Victorians to the mansions of the Old North End to the cottages east of downtown, every old house has a history. And finding yours might be easier than you think.

At the Pikes Peak Library District’s Penrose Library, local history specialist Jody Jones helps people research their homes and teaches a class called “If Your Walls Could Talk,” on the many resources available for the curious. Such research used to be common in property sales, before title insurance was used to ensure there are no other claims to a parcel.

With just a few hours of research and a little luck, it’s possible to piece together a detailed history, not just of a house, but the people who called it home. Because an old house is more than bricks and mortar. It’s a record of everyone who came before, of love and triumph, loss and heartbreak. And until you look, you’ll never know what might have happened right where you lay your head.

“When the town was founded, (General William Jackson) Palmer encouraged folks from England and back East to come settle. So there’s a lot of Victorian style, Queen Anne houses, a lot of very interesting architectural styles,” said Jones. “Even the little cottages that were built for the working men and the railroad workers, those are also interesting. I encourage everyone to look up the history of their house.

“You really can’t do much house history without knowing who lived there, who made it their home. That’s the interesting part.”

* * *

Since buying our house in a historic neighborhood east of downtown, I’ve always wondered who were “R” and “L?” When did they draw their initials, and a heart, in the drying cement of my front steps?

Every old house probably has such quirks, maybe marks on a doorway where a growing child was measured or antiques hidden in a dank bedrock basement.

When people come to the special collections room at Penrose Library, Jones sends them to city directories first.

You can search by address from 1901 on, and by name as far back as 1879. So I started with 1901 for my house, which I believed to have been built in 1898.

But there was no record of a house at my address until 1906, occupied by one “T.F. Hill.” That turned out to be a misspelling, as future directories listed the occupants as Theodore and Mary Gill.

This type of research is detective work. You get one clue and with luck that leads you to the next. So, armed with Gill’s name, I searched for him in the newspaper database, which goes back to 1872.

There he was in black and white. A harness maker and Civil War veteran, he died in 1926 in New Mexico. But a one-paragraph obituary tells you only so much. With the library’s extensive genealogical resources, Jones helped find his hometown and the history of his regiment.

The idea of a veteran sitting in my living room reminiscing about — or perhaps reliving the horror of — battles such as Stone’s River and Chickamauga was exciting. I had to know more.

But there was no more to tell. By 1912, Gill was gone and the house was apparently empty.

* * *

Thomas C. Lopeman also came west. A miner from Illinois, he arrived in Colorado Springs in 1911 with his wife and young son. They moved into my house in 1913.

Lopeman died from tuberculosis that same year, and newspaper accounts say he died at home. Quite likely in my bedroom.

Yes, many old houses have ghosts, even if they’re not the sort that rattle around at night with chains.

The grief was probably too much for his wife, Melia, because she moved out and the house sat vacant for several years. All this I learned from searching city directories and newspaper archives, and Lopeman’s cause of death came from coroner records on file at the library.

While records are incomplete, the library has many other documents to help fill in the gaps of a home’s story. Through tapping records, a list of permits issued when homes were connected to the water system, I discovered my house was hooked up in March 1902, the earliest of any on the block. While we could not find the original building permit, we found one for my garage when it was built in 1922 by one P.R. Phillips.

Back to the city directories, I learned Phillips was an engineer who lived there with his wife for six years, followed by Charles Edwards and his wife for three years. Harry Hiatt, a plumber, and his family lived there for most of the 1930s.

* * *

By World War II, Colorado Springs was booming, its population swelled by service members, and my house mirrors the story of a growing city with a transitory population: every year or two, a new resident, many of them in the Army or Air Force. Nurses, teachers, salesman, many called it home. None stayed long.

By the late 1970s, the urban heart of Colorado Springs was in decay and the house sat vacant for years. The revitalization of downtown in the 1990s brought people back, a succession of young people and students, until I opened the 2009 city directory and saw my own name, inheritor of this legacy.

I hadn’t solved all the mysteries. I didn’t know who built the house or exactly when, or if Gill was, in fact, the first to live there. So with a “thank you” to the library staff, I headed across town to the El Paso County Citizens Service Center on Garden of the Gods Road.

* * *

If searching city directories and newspaper archives seemed too easy, I was in for a shock. At the El Paso County Assessor’s Office, I learned just how befuddling such research can be. Armed with a printout of the assessor’s information on the house, an employee and I began flipping through old desk-size journals, in which everything is listed by subdivision and blocks, not names and addresses. And my house could be considered on one of three blocks in two subdivisions, thanks to piecemeal annexation over the years.

When we were lucky enough to find an entry for my house, matching the lot and block number in the correct subdivision, all we got was a book number and name, coinciding with records in the Clerk and Recorder’s Office.

Once there, I began to trace the sales backward. The house was sold in 1945, 1941, 1918. Even the deeds offer little information, since most deeds at the time indicate the property was sold for “one dollar and other considerations.”

I finally got to Gill, and learned he began leasing the house in 1905, paying on a $605 loan to one Alex Adams. It became Gill’s in 1911. Adams, with a Chicago address, bought it in 1903, but there’s no indication he actually lived there. He bought it from a Paul Hutchinson, who was busy buying dozens of plots from the Colorado Springs Co., Palmer’s company, and others.

I reached the beginning, some questions answered, others destined to linger. So it goes with historical research, especially when that research is not on monumental events or extraordinary people, but normal lives in a normal town.

I never did discover the identities of “R” and “L.” But since those are the initials of the current occupants, we decided the heart in the cement was for us.

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