Historic Sanborn maps show daily life’s grid

Here’s a chance to read again one of our old Local History Room columns, first published in January 2014 before the launch of this blog . . .

Historic Sanborn maps show daily life’s grid

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

The resources available in the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room include an array of vintage maps and atlases of Pekin and other communities in Tazewell County reaching back to the 1860s. Among those maps are three bound collections of Pekin maps that are noticeably different from most other kinds of maps, and that can provide details and information not usually found on a map.

These are the historic insurance or fire maps of Pekin that were prepared by the Sanborn Map Company. The Local History Room’s collection includes three sets of Sanborn maps, from Nov. 1903, Dec. 1909, and Sept. 1925.

The value and usefulness of these historic maps of Pekin are explained by the description included on the maps cataloguing label, which characterizes the Sanborn maps as showing “The Grid of Daily Life.” The label says:

“Sanborn maps are primary sources essential to researchers in history, urban studies, genealogy, architecture, engineering, and countless other disciplines. Originally created for fire departments and risk assessors, they show details such as the outline of each building, construction materials, windows and doors, street names, street and sidewalk widths, property boundaries, building use, water mains, and more.”

The Sanborn Map Company produced this particular sort of map in order to help insurance companies conduct risk assessments on buildings, so fire insurance policies could be suitably crafted. That’s why Sanborn maps include the above listed details. What was originally intended to be useful for risk assessors also proved to be very helpful for municipal fire departments – the information on the maps was often of great help to firemen battling fires, because the maps could tell them what buildings were made out of, or where windows and entrances were located.

With the passing of time, and the construction and demolition of structures in Pekin, the old Sanborn maps now help historians and genealogists to discover the locations of old buildings, or to find out how long a particular structure has been standing, or to learn what a building was used for in the past.

For instance, the Nov. 1903 Sanborn map of Pekin shows the old Zerwekh Building at the corner of Fourth and Elizabeth streets. In those days, as the map indicates, it was the location of a bakery and a Masonic Lodge. Among the fascinating details about the Zerwekh Building that one can learn from this map are that there used to be two bakery ovens beneath the sidewalks along Elizabeth Street, built into the basement foundation on the north of the structure.

Later, the Zerwekh Building became the location of the Pekin Daily Times. The newspaper vacated its building in Aug. 2012, and the former Times Building was demolished this fall. In the process of demolition, several bricked-up passages were noticed in the basement foundation on the north side. Thanks to the Sanborn maps, we know what those “passages” were before they were bricked up by F. F. McNaughton: They were the ovens where Albert Zerwekh and his sons baked their breads, cakes, cookies and pastries.

This detail from the November 1903 Sanborn map of Pekin shows the block of Elizabeth Street between Fourth and Fifth streets, including (at the top) the old Zerwekh bakery and confectionary that later would serve for many decades as the home of the Pekin Daily Times newspaper.

This detail from the November 1903 Sanborn map of Pekin shows the block of Elizabeth Street between Fourth and Fifth streets, including (at the top) the old Zerwekh bakery and confectionary that later would serve for many decades as the home of the Pekin Daily Times newspaper.

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