Family history researchers usually have located their ancestral families on a census record, but have you ever visited the homes or neighborhoods of your ancestors? Later census records will usually list the street and address where the ancestor was living at the time the census was taken. City directories can also be used to locate ancestral homes. Visiting the locations will probably not yield birth, marriage, or death records, but it is an exhilarating feeling to walk in the footsteps of your ancestors. If you are fortunate, the current owner may invite you to step into the ancestral home.
I had personal experience with this on a visit to Reading, Pennsylvania. I took my mother on a trip around the city to see some of the places where she lived in her youth. One of places we stopped was a house that her father had built prior to 1920. She did not spend many years in the house but remembered it from her childhood. When we arrived at the house I suggested that we knock on the door and see if anyone was home. Mom was hesitant, but I, being young and bold, knocked on the door.
When the owner answered, I told him who I was and that my grandfather had built the house. He asked me the name of my grandfather and upon answering various questions correctly, my mother and I were invited into the house. We sat at the kitchen table and the owner discussed various changes that he had made to the property. When we walked to the backyard, my mother proceeded to describe the property as she remembered from her youth. I believe it was a thrill for my mother to step back in time just for a few moments.
Now, not all visits to the ancestral home may be successful, so let me offer some suggestions before you visit.
- Contact the current owner to ascertain if he or she will let you visit the property.
- Depending on the location, contact the local police department to learn what type of area you will be visiting. Unfortunately, many neighborhoods have changed and you do not want to visit an unsafe area.
- If you have an older picture of the home, take it with you to give to the current owner. I have learned that many homeowners are curious about the history of their property.
- If possible, take an individual who lived in the neighborhood the same time as your ancestor. He can explain the make-up of the neighborhood and point out where the butcher shop, gas station and markets used to be in the old days.
These are a few suggestions, but my most important suggestion is visit the old homes and see how your ancestors lived. In many cases you will learn to appreciate the many comforts we have today.