Starting from Scratch

Detail of an 1883 Wellington Corporation tax record.

Detail of an 1883 Wellington Corporation tax record.

You may be asking yourself, wasn’t this blog supposed to be about the story of an old house? You are correct, though I hope it will also be about a great deal more than that. One of my goals is to highlight resources for those local readers who want to investigate their own houses or ancestors. Many people I have talked to about this project have expressed surprise that I have been able to find so much; they aren’t aware of how many types of materials exist that can be very useful when conducting historical research. So how do you go about beginning when you know nothing about your house?

The first step that one can take to identify previous owners of a property is to do a “chain of deed” search. For those unfamiliar with the term, it means going to the appropriate government agency–in my case, the Lorain County Recorder’s Office in the county seat, Elyria–and tracing the transfer of a parcel of land backward through time. I confess I did not do this for our house. My father-in-law is also very interested in local history, and he went to the Recorder’s Office almost before we passed papers. The image below is his handiwork.

Part of the

Part of the “chain of deed” on 600 North Main Street. Photo by author.

As you can see, there were many previous owners of what is now 600 North Main Street. My next step was to take this list and begin looking up individual names. I have already discussed several reference books for nineteenth-century biographical information. Another option is to look in the local newspaper, in this case The Wellington Enterprise. It is available on microfilm from 1867 to the present, and the Herrick Memorial Library maintains an alphabetical name index of birth, marriage and death announcements on its home page. There is a span of years in the early 20th century that has not yet been added, but the Wellington Genealogy Group is constantly working to close that gap, and regularly updates the index.

[ETA: Since this post was published, most of the nineteenth-century issues of The Wellington Enterprise have been made available digitally via Chronicling America.]

Obituaries are good places to start, as they often include the dates of the most important events in a person’s life. If you cannot find an obituary in the index, another place to locate death dates is in Records of Greenwood Cemetery, Wellington, Ohio, compiled by Linda Boyles Navarre in 1997. There is a non-circulating reference copy in Herrick Library’s local history cabinet. An online index to Greenwood burials can be found here; while I have found this tool enormously useful, I have also encountered many instances of omitted burials. If you don’t find a person you are looking for in the online list, check the published version to be certain.

When you have determined a person’s death date, you can check for documents associated with the probate process, i.e. wills. The Lorain County Probate Court has an online database of names. Though the description claims the database contains only records added since 1990, what it does not say is that the office conducted a project in the late 1990s to retroactively add historic documents. I have found wills from as far back as 1857 that were recorded as “added” in 1998. If you have a name, give it a try regardless of the date. Once you have the case number, you can travel to the Elyria County Court House and visit the Probate Court on the sixth floor. All the microfilm is publicly available and you can print for a fee (cash only).

Another terrific resource offered free-of-charge on the library home page is a collection called the Wellington Family Album. This is a group of images that was assembled in cooperation with the Southern Lorain County Historical Society. It contains hundreds of digital photographs that are keyword searchable, either through the collection page or through the library catalog, where each image has its own individual record. It is a tremendous asset and has shots of Wellington citizens, civic groups, private homes, public landscapes, businesses, and more.

1896 image of The American House, the hotel made famous by the Oberlin-Wellington Slave Rescue of 1858. Photo 970095 of

1896 image of The American House, the hotel made famous by the Oberlin-Wellington Slave Rescue of 1858. Photo 970095 of “Wellington Family Album” Collection, Herrick Memorial Library. Permission to display generously granted by the library.

Finally, an absolutely indispensable tool to my research has been the Wellington Corporation Tax Records, which are available free-of-charge online from the Lorain County Records Retention Center. The overall collection dates from 1824 to 1941. The database is searchable by year and location, and each year’s volumes are scanned in high-resolution PDF file format. Taxes were recorded in handwriting until 1914, and can be challenging to read and use if you are unfamiliar with that type of document.

Detail of an 1882 Wellington Corporation tax record.

Detail of an 1882 Wellington Corporation tax record.

The tax records are alphabetical by the name of the individual or corporate tax payer. They indicate the taxes paid on lots of land; the value of buildings is not listed separately until 1907. Once you have found the individual you are seeking, you will see “block” and “lot” numbers. These tell you where the parcel was located in the village. You may need to consult a period atlas, such as Atlas of Lorain County, Ohio (1874) or Atlas and Directory of Lorain County, Ohio (1896) if you do not already know the block and lot number for your property. I have been fortunate to be able to borrow copies of both of these works, and I could not use the tax data effectively without constantly cross-referencing with them.

There are so many more items one can consult: federal and local census records; agricultural surveys; legal documents; church and civic organization records; private and corporate paper collections held in archives; Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps; newspapers published in other localities that report on your town (The Lorain County News published in Oberlin, or The Elyria Chronicle-Telegram, for example); school records and alumni publications; yearbooks (which, in addition to student information, sometimes feature advertisements from local businesses); online information-sharing groups such as the “Memory Lane Wellington” and “Oberlin in the Past” Facebook communities; and of course, fee-for-use genealogy websites. Rather than finding nothing, you will likely find that you quickly have more leads to chase than you have time to pursue.

I hope this post is encouraging, and not overwhelming, to someone starting the process. There are more specific resources I will mention as I progress through the story of my own project. And if anyone reading has additional suggestions, please feel free to post a comment.

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