History

I live in an old neighborhood. I was drawn to the area because the houses are all different and there are some families who have been here for decades. My next door neighbor (the good one) grew up in his house and bought it from his father about ten years ago. He has told me stories about the elderly couple that lived in my house when he was growing up. Apparently, the lady paid neighborhood kids a quarter per bucket of acorns they collected in the fall, then parceled them out to squirrels over the winter. (Personally, I think she created an unnecessary middleman, since modern squirrels seem to have no problem digging nut holes all over my yard and flowerbeds.)

In the history of Elgin, my neighborhood was the home for many of the workers at the Elgin Watch Company. At the time, it was called Dutch Flats since it was originally settled by Germans who fell into the common mistake of being called “Dutch” rather than “Deutsch.” From where I sit at this very moment, I can see across the river to the site of the former factory and tower – though now it’s a somewhat seedy strip mall. In the summer, the grove of trees block much of this view.

When I was buying, I knew I wanted an older house, since they often have far more character than the newer cookie cutter houses, plus they’re more often situated in the older, urban neighborhoods that are walking distance to (in my case, anyway) the train depot, supermarket, library and the historic downtown. True, new houses can have the manufactured charm of built-ins and woodwork, but that usually comes at a steep price. Plus, I could afford far more old house. I gave an emphatic no to the new cornfield subdivisions that require a car to get milk. I didn’t want to live in a place where visitors had to know the exact house number to differentiate mine from its identical neighbors. I like being able to say, “It’s the white house with the big porch.”

When I found my house, the realtor guesstimated it had been built in the early 1900s. The inspector guessed about 1920. The township said 1900, which seems to be its default date for the neighborhood. I went with the inspector’s guess and imagined my house being built during the Roaring 20s, with Prohibition and a booming economy.

Then, last night, at my neighborhood meeting, someone brought a copy of an architectural survey the city did a few years ago. Excitedly, I flipped through it. Each house in our neighborhood was listed, along with date, style and any special significance. My house is listed as a Gabled Ell style built circa 1890. Apparently the Gabled Ell features a floorplan with the entrance in the corner (check), a steeply pitched roof (check), a second floor gable of nearly equal height to the main roof (check) and tall second floor windows (check). They were built using a simple design, but allowing for more light and cross-ventilation than traditional. That last bit was one of the big draws of my house – it felt very open and sunny upon first look, and that remains true. In summer, with windows open, I get a great breeze, especially since I’m perched on top of a hill next to a river.

But now that I’ve discovered my house is older than I originally thought, I’m anxious to research my home’s pedigree. Apparently the city has a trove of resources. Some rainy Saturday, I’ll head down to the library and see if I can trace its history. Depending on the number of owners over the years, I might be able to put together a pretty comprehensive history!

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