DIY Historical Research

Here's how to learn about your historic house's past

Dear Doc Knox:

My husband and I moved into an historic home in Old North Knoxville this past July. We are interested in finding out the history of the home, but so far, haven't been able to find much besides the names of former owners. Do you know anything about our house? And do you have any advice for other historic home owners who want to research? We'd be thankful for any advice or information you could provide!

Becca and Russell McCurdy

My Dear McCurdys:

You can easily spend hours finding interesting stuff about the history of one house and the people who lived there, especially in Old North, one of Knoxville's most interesting historic neighborhoods.

First, as requested, here's a primer to looking up the history of any house in Knoxville:

Go to the (Calvin M.) McClung (Historical) Collection in the History Center downtown. The McClung Collection is an annex of the Knox County Public Library system, and it works like a big reference library. The only difference between it and any library is that (a.) you have to sign in (b.) you can't carry anything in bigger than a notebook (they furnish free lockers for handbags, briefcases, etc.) and (c.) you can't check anything out. Once you get used to those three simple rules, it's a jolly place to visit.

First, look up your address in the city directories. Published every year since the 1800s, they allow you to look up residences by address. At McClung, they're bound from 1901 to present, and on microfilm before that. One tip: Because number and even street addresses sometimes changed, it's a good idea to research backwards—that is, start in familiar times, when you're sure of the address. And just start going back, year by year, or every five years if you're in a hurry. Write down the names of each resident listed. Also observe the nearest cross streets. In the same book, look up those names, and see what they did for a living, and where they worked. Sometimes also listed are names of spouses. And, if relevant, the same book may have further information about that person's employer.

If things start to look screwy, and you think you're lost, chances are you've hit a year when the addresses changed. So this time ignore the number addresses for a moment and look at patterns of specific neighbors, as well as cross streets. That way you can usually figure out the previous number address. Keep at it, going backward, until your house vanishes. That's probably close to the year it was built.

With that information, in the same cool place, take the names you've found and ask a librarian's help to see the biographical files, a combination of clippings from old scrapbooks and clippings made by librarians in recent decades.

This step doesn't always pan out, but you're likely to be surprised by how much you'll learn.

Then you can find further information about your quarry's employer, via the business files in the vertical-file section. These are accessible to the patron, but you may want to ask for help.

Finally, have a look at the old Sanborn fire-insurance maps. These offer detail of a degree that amazes people who've never used them. You could call them the Google Earth of their time, but in fact they offered more information than Google Earth. From roughly the 1880s to the 1960s, the Sanborn company made painstaking maps of cities, showing the precise architectural layout of each house in a city. They show how tall they were, what they were made of, where the windows and doors and bedrooms and kitchen were. They're in the original big-book format at McClung, but now you can also access them online.

The only thing to keep in mind is that dates aren't exact. These weren't intended to be historical records, and over the years they were all amended with scissors and paste, usually without noting the date of the change, or leaving any record of what was being pasted over.

By the way, Knox Heritage hosts an annual workshop for showing homeowners how to research the history of their historic houses. The next one will be held Saturday, April 9, at 10 a.m., as luck has it, in your neighborhood—at the Time Warp Tea Room. Seasoned KH researcher Hollie Cook will preside.

In his quest to provide the greatest good for the greatest audience of the curious, Dr. Knox doesn't do much in the way of private-home research, but couldn't resist having a look at this one. It appears the original resident was one Edward Coykendall—who was manager of the once-beloved Fountain Head Railroad. The steam-driven line started at what was then known as the Central Market—now Emory Place—where the Fountain Head RR offices were. (Mr. Coykendall could easily have walked to work.) From there, the small train proceeded 5.75 miles north to the Fountainhead, now known as Fountain City Park.

The train was known as the "Dummy Line," for reasons now obscure, except that it has something to do with the fact that the train appeared to lack an engine—its steam engine was enclosed in a box to make it resemble an ordinary car, on the theory that it would be less frightening to horses in city streets. On special occasions, like Fourth of July and Labor Day, the train would work double duty, sometimes late into the night, ferrying passengers—as many as 10,000 a day—to and from picnics, dances, baseball games and other sporting events. Fare was a dime one way, 15 cents round trip, and typically took about half an hour, with multiple stops.

The Dummy Line was converted into a regular electric streetcar line in 1905. Coykendall remained in the house after that, working as an executive for a clothing manufacturer, Royal, based on West Jackson. You can certainly learn a whole lot more about him and his successors in your new home, at the McClung Collection.

We hope that gives you a start.

Yr. Obt. Svt.,

Z. Heraclitus Knox

Send your historical inquiries to: editor@metropulse.com, addressed to the good doctor.