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Taking Walks with the Census Taker and my Dad

By Daniel Hubbard | March 6, 2011

I’ve been preparing a new talk about maps and one of the things I will discuss is using Sanborn Maps. I have the images for my father’s home town from a few years before he was born. I also have the census that was taken a few months after he came into the world.

Censuses and Sanborn Maps

In a small town things didn’t always change so fast, so I was able to combine the the addresses on the Sanborn Maps with the addresses in the census and come up with a view of my father’s neighborhood for his early childhood—the buildings from the maps and the people from the census. I found that it was a much more immigrant rich place than I expected. I thought I would see birthplaces no more exotic than Wisconsin, Michigan and New York. I certainly did find those places but I also read Scotland, Holland, England, Poland and Ireland. There were Alsatians and Hanoverians, Danes, Norwegians, Welshmen and Greeks just looking at a few pages from that little town, population three thousand.

With the pattern of addresses in the census, I could wander the streets on the map just as the census taker followed them decades ago. I could follow him from house to house. I found an old photograph of one of the houses in the neighborhood and saw how it matched the little drawing for that address on the map. The porch and the bay window were faithfully shown in the mapped outline of the building. I realized while comparing that the enumerator had skipped a house. Maybe the house was vacant. Maybe it had been torn down in the intervening years. Maybe a family had been missed. I checked the extremely thin phone book for the town that came out only a few months after the census taker took his walk. It was a bit of a gamble. Was the problem a skipped family or just an empty house? If there was a family, did they have a phone? Then I found George Ives, my grandparents’ missing neighbor. My grandparents had no phone but George did. Using his name, I found George and his family thirty or so census pages away from the rest of their neighborhood in a section of miscellaneous people who were missed on the first pass through town. The gamble paid off and there were 58 census pages I didn’t need to scan for that address.

We like to think that looking at a census tells us who our ancestors’ neighbors were. If I hadn’t been looking at the map, I would have thought that I had seen the whole neighborhood on that census page.

Then I called my dad…

Dad is not one to be particularly interested in family history but I told him I had a few questions. I explained what I was working on and what Sanborn Maps are and how I was, at that moment, looking at the location of the upstairs apartment where he was born and wanted to know about the hardware store across the street.

Pretty soon he had me wandering up and down the street and was asking me how a certain alley was shown and where the bakery that I had mentioned was. It didn’t sound right. It turned out that I was talking about the backroom where the actual baking took place—fire insurance maps do tend to emphasize things like ovens. Of course, my dad remembered the storefront.

He told me that as we moved north I wouldn’t be able to find the movie theater that is there today, the one that when my dad was a kid, had a somewhat ill-behaved usher by the name of Marlon Brando. Instead, I should look for a tiny third-floor theater on the corner of School Street. Had I found it? Yep, there it is, right above a bank. We talked about the position of the village hall and the fire station. Apparently the water tower that was outside the fire station in the ’20s was still there when I was a kid but, no, I don’t remember it. He asked where the grocery store was. That moved around so much he wouldn’t know where it had been before he was born. I found it and explained the location by counting buildings up the street and then back down an alley. He said that there was no grocery store there when he was a kid. He was amazed that though he can’t always remember what he did an hour ago, the layout of those few blocks came back as if he was still there.

We must have spent an hour on the phone discussing just a part of a map that he couldn’t even see. Of course, he could see it all far better than I. That was the magic of the whole thing.

Dad will be coming over to look at the maps in person as soon as he can. I’d better set aside plenty of time and get out a recorder.

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Topics: Genealogy, Local History, Memory, Methods | 4 Comments »

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4 Responses to “Taking Walks with the Census Taker and my Dad”

  1. Greta Koehl Says:
    March 6th, 2011 at 11:03 am

    This is exactly what I would love to do for the small town near my mother’s parents’ farm. Unfortunately, only a couple of abandoned buildings still exist and my mother and all of her siblings have passed on.

  2. Michelle Goodrum Says:
    March 6th, 2011 at 5:19 pm

    Fascinating and something I’ve wanted to do for several of my ancestors’ neighborhoods. What a bonus to be able to have your dad to talk you through it as well.

    Make sure you have an extra set of batteries for that recorder. You could be at it for a while!

  3. Daniel Hubbard Says:
    March 12th, 2011 at 10:27 pm

    Thanks for the comments. I’m really looking forward to going through those maps with my dad. It was fun over the phone. It ought to be much better in person.

  4. Martha Says:
    June 20th, 2011 at 10:01 am

    I have a photo of that water tower (I’m pretty sure it would be the same one). It was taken as a roof shot from Central when the school was being built in 1939.