Local History: House Research
Guide to Property Research
A printable copy of this Guide is available here (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader).
Researching the history of your property can be done but it does take some time. **Some important things to remember.** Our resources work best on properties within the city of La Crosse. Properties outside the city are difficult, if not impossible. Our plat map collection may help with these, and if the names of the people who lived in these homes are known, obituaries may help also. The Area Research Center at UW-L has tax records for townships outside the city of La Crosse. This also applies to French Island, most of which is in the town of Campbell.
Related to this, some properties on the far southern and eastern fringes of the city may have been recently (within the last 50 years) annexed into the city of La Crosse from the townships of Shelby or Medary. Many of these homes are fairly new, and city tax records may be helpful in determining when they were built, but if they were built prior to when they were annexed into the city, the city tax records are useless and chances are pretty slim that we can find out when they were built.
Generally, for a building in the city, Archives can help you find ** what year it was built, and who owned it and occupied it over the years.** If you are only interested in seeing old pictures of your home or building, we check the Picture File or refer you to the photo collection at the Area Research Center. Be sure to check the STREETS subject headings and not just the RESIDENCES or BUILDINGS subjects. Sometimes a picture in the STREETS file will show the building or house. This is especially true of buildings in the downtown area.
When you arrive in Archives let the staff know you are searching for a history of your property and we will pull out a Property Research Form. This form lists most of the sources used to do a property search, along with some instructions on how to use them. The instructions can provide valuable guidance. The first page of this form lists places to check in the Archives Room for histories that may have already been completed on a particular property. The last page includes other sources outside the library that you can try.
Start with the water tap record first
A water tap record will potentially give you three important bits of information to start with. City water hook up was originally intended as a tool in fire fighting in the downtown area and began in 1877, but residents quickly began demanding the water lines be extended into residential areas. By the mid 1880s and early 1890s, most new homes were tapping into the water main when they were built. The city water tap records are on microfiche and were filmed from left to right, starting with the most current changes to the oldest; go to the document to the farthest right to find the beginning document.
1) When city water was hooked up to the property. This could, but not always, indicate when the house was built. Either way, it’s a good place to start. The date is in the upper right hand corner of the document.
2) The tap record will list the owner of the property at the time water was hooked up (if you can read the writing)!
3) Many times the tap record will provide a legal description of the property (lot#, block# and subdivision name). This information is VITAL when using the city tax records. The tap record doesn’t always provide the legal description, and sometimes it’s even incorrect. Other possible sources to find the legal description of the property include using the real estate parcels search on the County of La Crosse website (/http://www.co.la-crosse.wi.us/LandRecordsPortal/Default.aspx) or the City of La Crosse website (http://www.cityoflacrosse.org/tax.aspx), or the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps. The 1898 City Atlas and the city map in the 1931 La Crosse County plat map also provide subdivision names, blocks and lots.
The Sanborn Fire Insurance maps on microfilm are a good place to go after the tap records. You can use the maps to verify the legal description, or get it in the first place. The Sanborn maps show the street address. Look for the subdivision name printed nearby, and note the lot number and block number of the address you’re searching. The Sanborn maps show the actual lot lines, so finding the lot number is easy. The block number is usually printed right in the middle of the block.
Since an outline of the house is shown on the Sanborn Map, they are useful for determining structural changes to the building. The earliest Sanborn Maps (1884, 1887, and 1891) pretty much concentrate on buildings in the downtown area. The 1906 map is the first one that really expands into the residential areas of the city. Each map year has a separate index that shows the pages a range of addresses can be found on. (Sometimes pages with odd- or even-numbered addresses are differentiated). If you find a building on the 1906 Sanborn Map, you will find it on the same page of the 1944/50 map.
Obviously the Sanborn Maps can help narrow down when a building was built. For instance, if the tap record shows city water being hooked up to an address in 1925, yet the Sanborn Map shows the building was there in 1906, it’s likely the house was built way before the water tap record date. (This is not unusual). Of course, it’s possible that a new house was built in 1925, after an older structure was razed. **That’s why it’s important to check out the house on the Sanborn Map and see if this is how your house looks now.**
The 1898 city atlas is another very useful map. It shows ALL the structures within the city at that time. Although it doesn’t have the detail of the Sanborn Maps, and it doesn’t show street address numbers, it’s detailed enough that a person can reasonably determine if the building in question existed at that time. It also shows subdivision names, lot and block numbers. This atlas is currently kept in the wooden atlas case in the vault.
City Directories & Tax Records
City directories did not have an index by street address until 1903. However, indexes have recently been completed for the years 1884, 1890 and 1900. For directories other than these, you will need to search by the occupant’s name. Wives were not listed until 1919. La Crosse underwent a complete street renumbering in 1883. Then, using the information you’ve already gathered to narrow your search, find the earliest city directory with the address in question listed. The year of this directory will be your starting year for using the tax records.
You can also ask Archives staff to search the city directories using the digital copies of the directories. This works better if it’s a named street, rather than a numbered street because the city directories, especially the older ones, were not consistent in how the streets were named (Third vs. 3rd). Plus the N. and S. designations are difficult to include in the city directory database search parameters. The database works best when you find the name of a person who lived at the address in question. Searching this person’s name in the city directory database can help determine how long they lived there.
It’s very important to remember that **city directories do not list the owners of the property, only the occupant**. It’s certainly possible that the occupant is the owner, but that’s not always the case, even with businesses. The tax records will list the actual owner(s).
To use the tax records you must have the legal description of the property. The tax records are divided up by subdivisions, and then by block and lot numbers within each subdivision. Most of the tax books have an index at the beginning of the volume listing the names of the subdivisions and the pages they are found on.
The tax records cover 1857-1979 (with some minor gaps). From 1886-1918 the tax records are divided into two volumes, with Volume 1 being the South Side of the city and Volume 2 being the North Side (1888 is the exception with the volumes being reversed). The tax books from the 1920s are in large, unwieldy volumes and from the 1930s on, the tax books are in multiple volumes for each year. Archives staff will bring out the tax record volumes for you to search.
The tax records are a reliable source in determining when a house or building was built. Starting with the tax records in 1886, this is very easy to determine. The 1886 tax book was the first to list a Value of Improvements column. This column indicates if there is a structure on a lot or not. If there is no dollar value entered in this column, it means there is no building on the lot. The first tax year a dollar amount appears in this column gives you a good indication that the house was built right around that year.
For tax books before 1886, a significant jump in the overall value of the property is a good indicator that a house had been built on that lot. Vacant lots often have assessments of between $25 and $100. If this assessment jumps up to say $300 that would seem to indicate a building’s been added to the lot.
For the years 1882-1901, the La Crosse newspapers listed new buildings that were built in the city during the year. These lists have been printed out and are located in a box by the microfiche reader. The lists include a separate column for homes, and are listed by ward. There is an index in the box that you can use to determine what ward a particular address was in for a particular year.
Suppose the tax records indicate a house may have been build in 1890. First, determine which ward the address was located in 1890. Then check the newspaper lists for 1889, 1890 and 1891 to see if the owner’s name shows up as building a house. Experience has shown that not all homes constructed are included on these lists, but if you do find it, it really verifies the year of construction. If the tax record jump closely matches the first time the address shows up in the city directory, or the date on the water tap record, these are also good verifications of the year of construction.
Property research is very time-consuming and can be difficult. Houses can be moved to different lots, owner’s names can be horribly misspelled in the tax records and passed on from year to year, legal descriptions can change and can become longer than a Longfellow poem and more complicated than a physics equation. Becoming familiar with the procedures listed here will help the research process go as smoothly as possible! Be sure to ask Archives staff for help.
Click here for a printable copy of this Guide (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader).