Researching the History of Your House

by Gene Moulton

Have you noticed the unique features of your house? Have you discovered
architectural details that do not appear in new houses? The patina of wood
that has endured many decades? The large kitchen that has hosted numerous
family gatherings? The romantic fireplaces that have given warmth and
comfort over many winters?

If you think your house is old, how do you determine its age? If you are
curious, you can discover a lot of information without ever leaving
Wakefield. For the more serious minded — those who want to find precise
facts and dates — it will be necessary to make a trip to Cambridge.

Locally Available Information

Where to you begin? First, go to the Town Clerk’s office in Town Hall.

In Wakefield, a law was passed in 1911 requiring every man to pay a poll tax
upon reaching the age of 21. In order to keep track of these gentlemen and
where they lived, each man’s name and address were entered into a book that
came to be known as the Street List. At Town Hall, there is a Street List
for every year since 1911. Some of the early lists are in the basement
archives, so it could take a few days to find them. To use these lists,
suppose you find that a certain person living at, say 508 Robie Street, paid
a poll tax in 1921, but 508 Robie Street wasn’t listed on the 1920 Street
List. What would you conclude? That the house was built between 1920 and
1921? Maybe. Maybe not. You wouldn’t have proof, but you’d have a place
to start. And you would have gone back 70 years in time!

During the decade of 1880-1890, the town entered into a contract with the
Wakefield Water Company to provide water for home use. Up until this time,
each household had to dig its own well for water. At town meeting in 1893,
the voters agreed to purchase the Wakefield Water Company. And in 1895, the
Wakefield Sewage Act became the law. People had to start hooking up to
sewers. The days of cesspools were coming to an end. Right after the clock
turned to the next century, the town purchased another privately owned water
company, and in 1910, the town water and sewer departments were

The Department of Public Works now performs the work of the Water Company,
and has records that show when municipal water and sewer pipes were dug
along your street. Your house might not have been hooked up right away, but
the DPW may have records in its archives that would show the hook-up date.

In 1890, the first electric light service was made available to the town’s
homes and businesses. A year later, the town voted for municipal street
lighting. In 1892, the town entered into a contract to provide gas for the
municipal lights. Wakefield was being transformed into a community with
modern amenities.

Visit the Wakefield Municipal Light Department Offices on North Avenue, and
ask when electric lights were strung along your street. Archival records
will also indicate when a gas line was installed under your street. You may
also find the date when gas and electricity were installed in your house.

The above information is about all that you can find out locally. This
information might prove to be all that is needed for a relatively newer
house. However, if you live in an old house, the resources available
locally don’t go back far enough in history to give you a clear picture.

A Comprehensive Search

If you are interested enough to do serious investigation, you will need to
devote about a half day or so of your time and spend maybe $5 or $10 for
transportation, duplication costs and the like. But you’ll have an
enjoyable day and learn a lot.

Start your research with your real estate tax bill. On the left side of the
bill there is a description of your property. The book, page number and
deed date on the bill refer to the book and page number where your deed can
be found at the Registry of Deeds in the Middlesex County Court House on
Cambridge Street in Cambridge, not far from Lechmere. Parking garages are
in the area, but you can take public transportation to the Registry via the
Green Line.

Once there, go up to the second floor of the Court House to the Registry
Office. It includes a large library with thousands of books, each one
bearing a number. With the date taken from your property tax bill, you can
find the proper book and page. That page will show the last recorded sale
— to you — and will reference an earlier book and page, explaining who the
previous owner bought the house from. Duplicate that page, and ask for the
previous book. (In some cases, the page will reference a will filed in
the Probate Court, which is right across the hall. ) This process will
probably bring you to the house’s first owner. Unfortunately, some of the
earliest records were lost because of incomplete filings and clerical
errors, but you will have made a good start. Good luck with your search!

The author’s home in a early photograph, illustrating some of the original features of the house.

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