Tracing a house’s history in Tazewell County

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

In June 2013, this column offered some guidance on how to use old Pekin city directories to trace the history of a specific address in Pekin. As we saw, old city directories are an essential resources for family historians and other researchers, because the information in the directories makes it possible to reconstruct the succession of occupants at a particular location.

However, city directories cannot tell who may have owned a particular property at any given time, nor when a house was built, nor when and to whom it may have been sold. Those who wish to obtain that information will be able to find much of that information in the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room, but a lot of the most important information they seek will be found at the Tazewell County Record of Deeds Office.

Old Pekin city directories are just one of many resources on which researchers must rely to reconstruct the history of a house in Pekin.

Old Pekin city directories are just one of many resources on which researchers must rely to reconstruct the history of a house in Pekin.

We can, nevertheless, offer some guidance and pointers on how to go about tracing the history of a house in Tazewell County. In fact, just last year, in Dec. 2015, Carol Dorward of Washington, Ill., prepared something of a “cheat sheet” (well, a series of three sheets) for the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society. The TCGHS has given the Pekin Public Library a copy of Dorward’s article, entitled, “To Find the History of a House in Tazewell County, Illinois . . .” This column will summarize Dorward’s instructions and tips.

Dorward recommends three reference works on this general subject: Historic Midwest Houses, University of Chicago Press, 1977, by John Drury; House Histories: A Guide to Tracing the Genealogy of Your Home, Golden Hill Press, 1989, by Sarah B. Light; and A Field Guide to American Houses, Alfred A. Knopf, 1990, by Virginia and Lee McAlester.

Dorward says the first step is the create a listing of persons who owned the property. As we said above, this isn’t the same thing as a listing of persons who lived at the property. “To acquire this information,” Dorward says, “you will need to go to the Tazewell County Court House. (The staff at the courthouse will not do the research for you, but they can assist you in getting started in the right direction.)”

To begin making a listing of owners, you will need the legal description of the property. If you have either the property tax identification number (found on the property tax statement), you may visit the Assessments & Board of Review Office in Room 410 of the McKenzie Building in downtown Pekin (just east of the courthouse), or go online to http://il-tazewell-assessor.governmax.com/propertymax/rover30.asp?sid=115B5C5051F643AE838EB2D5AE48471E and conduct a search at that website. Sometimes the legal description provides a date for when a residence was built or when additions were completed. You may take the legal description to the County Recorder of Deeds Office in Room 124 of the McKenzie Building for a listing of the property owners.

Dorward also provides an explanation of the coding used in property tax identification numbers. Dorward’s sample coding for a parcel of land in Washington, Ill., is 02-02-24-125-004. She deciphers the coding as follows:

“The first set of digits represents the township survey. (For Washington, it is 02-02-.) The next set of digits will range from one to 36 and represents the section of land. The first number in the fourth set of digits represents the quarter section of land (100 = NW ¼ ; 200 = NE ¼ ; 300 = SW ¼  and 400 = SE ¼ ) with the last digit(s) being the block number. The last set of digits is the parcel number.”

Dorward also says that you’ll need to know the subdivision in which the property lays. The legal includes the township number, range number, and prime meridian. Atlases and platbooks of Tazewell County are available in the Local History Room that will enable you to figure out the township and range numbers. For a map of the prime meridian divisions of Illinois, go online to http://genealogytrails.com/ill/schuyler/ILMeridiansandBaselines.html .

Some important terms that Dorward explains:

Deed Record – refers only to the parcel of land, not to buildings on the parcel. “However, transfers of property in the title can indicate when a house was built and/or major additions/remodeling was completed,” Dorward writes.

Abstract of Title – “a record created by a private company which searches deed records and proves the chain of title which establishes that a property being purchased is held free and clear. The Abstract of Title is often held by an earlier purchaser. Today, more often, this method has been replaced by Title Insurance.”

Once you’ve got a list of the property owners, you’ll need to search the microfilms of the Pekin Daily Times in the library’s Local History Room to find publications of assessments. Using the legal description and owners’ names, you can find how much the owners paid in property taxes through the years. “A significant increase in a tax payment may suggest the initial construction, an addition to the property, and/or remodeling,” says Dorward.

To tell the full story of a house will require doing genealogical research on the occupants. This is where city directories will be of great help, along with census records, books on local history, newspaper obituaries and advertisements. “Learning about the families that lived in the home may provide clues to the activities that took place in the home,” Dorward says. Those activities could include weddings and parties, meetings of clubs and social organizations, or even visits from famous or prominent individuals.

Genealogical research will also help to determine how the property was passed from owner to owner. Sometimes a house stayed in the family for generations, or sometimes might pass to a relative or a friend, or a friend of a relative.

Another helpful resource are the old Sanborn fire insurance maps of Pekin. The Local History Room collection includes Sanborn maps from three different years, and the TCGHS has a fourth. Sanborn maps give the uses and the outlines of buildings, as well as brief descriptions of building materials used for a house. Comparison of the maps can help determine when a particular structure was standing, or when it was remodeled or replaced.

Dorward offers one final tip: sometimes old newspapers in the 1890s and early 1900s published reports on building construction, usually in December or January. The Pekin Daily Times microfilms in the Local History Room only start in 1914, but the TCGHS has microfilms of newspapers from those decades, and the Local History Room has microfilms of the Green Valley Banner from that period.

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