The Secret Lives of Houses

Underneath the layers of wallpaper and dropped ceilings lie clues to your old home’s age and the people who have lived there.

By Virginia M. Wright
Photo by Brian Vanden Brink

The little Cape’s floor was sagging at the edges, its center chimney and three fireplaces were sinking into the cellar, and its steep, narrow stairway spiraled up to a space so cramped it was a stretch to call it a room.

But as far as the parishioners of the Great Cranberry Island Congregational Church were concerned, the house was perfect. The price was right (it was a gift), and the location (just steps from the church) made it an ideal parsonage for the island’s first resident minister in 51 years.

It didn’t take long for the parishioners to discover that their renovation project came with a bonus: a historical adventure. Hiding inside the wall, wedged between a stud and one of the brick fireplaces, were four stiff and curling leather shoes: one man’s, one woman’s, one boy’s, one girl’s. Who put them there and why? And what did they reveal about the house?

Today, after months of poring over deeds, picking through town documents, and consulting with architectural historians and archaeologists, Anne Grulich, the archivist for the Great Cranberry Island Historical Society and an archaeologist herself, thinks she knows. Written evidence, architectural clues, and the shoes’ construction and style suggest the house was built for ship captain Enoch Spurling in the 1830s — a good 50 years earlier than anyone on the island had supposed.

Hiding inside the wall, wedged between a stud and one of the brick fireplaces, were four stiff and curling leather shoes. Who put them there and why? And what did they reveal about the house?

It would have been Spurling and his family who hid those sensible shoes in the chimney wall. “Concealed shoes are a tradition that came over from Europe,” explains Grulich. “The Romans possibly brought it to England, and the English brought it here. It showed up in the colonies early on, especially in New England. In medieval times, people did it to ward off evil spirits. In the 19th century, they did it for good luck or to be remembered. Thousands have been found in this country — they’re always well-worn and almost always singles, rarely pairs.”

As word of the parsonage cache spread among Great Cranberry’s small population, stories of shoes hidden in other old homes came to light. One family found several old shoes in their house’s crawlspace. A summer resident discovered a baby’s shoe in the wall of her house when she was doing some remodeling. Grulich, whose investigation into the parsonage’s history led her into other island homes, found five horseshoes deep inside a fireplace warming oven — good luck charms, perhaps, or makeshift trivets, or simply the work of a mischievous child. The parsonage too has yielded more footwear — or, rather, pieces of it. Found in the construction debris below the kitchen wing were the heels, toes, soles, and uppers of at least 10 laced, high-top boots, a style worn by women in the second half of the 19th century when Enoch Spurling’s daughter, Sarah Jane Rosebrook, lived in the house with her family. Had the Rosebrooks continued the tradition of concealing shoes for luck? Or had their long-forgotten shoe cubby been uprooted by the construction? Grulich doesn’t know and says the question may never be answered with certainty.

That’s the reality facing almost anyone attempting to unearth an old house’s history. Unless it was built for a prominent citizen or its construction attracted attention for some other reason, a house’s roots may be murky indeed. Gaps in the paper trail are common. Answers are frequently elusive. But for lovers of old houses, that’s part of the fun, and they soon find themselves spending hours in local archives huddled over yellowed deeds, old maps, and miles of microfilm. Often, their passion is ignited by one deceptively simple question: how old is my house?

The house itself usually has that answer if you know what to look for, says Tom Hinkle, a member of the Greater Portland Landmarks Advisory Service. The service’s trained volunteers answer homeowners’ questions by examining architectural details, such as the shape and style of the exterior, interior finishes, room arrangement, floorboard widths, and the size and location of the fireplaces. “The problem is, if a house has any age at all, it has probably been altered, maybe repeatedly and maybe drastically,” Hinkle explains. “We try to trace the architectural history and find the oldest part.”

A summer resident discovered a baby’s shoe in the wall of her house when she was doing some remodeling. Grulich found five horseshoes deep inside a fireplace warming oven — good luck charms, perhaps?

For some homeowners, that just provokes more questions. They want to put a human face on their house’s frame, to know the midwife whose stockinged feet padded over their wide floorboards — or the ship captain who stuffed shoes in the chimney wall for good luck. That’s where a title search comes in. In theory, the process is simple. Copies of deeds are filed in numbered books at the registry of deeds, and every deed contains the book and page number of the deed that preceded it. The owner begins with his own deed and works back through the title chain until he comes to the building’s original owner.

But a genealogy, whether human or architectural, is rarely so straightforward. For one thing, records for a single property may be stored in two or more locations. Topsham residents, for example, usually begin title searches at the Sagadahoc County Courthouse in Bath, but they must move on to the Lincoln County Courthouse in Wiscasset to see documents from the mid-1800s and earlier (since Sagadahoc County was carved out of Lincoln County in 1854). Cumberland County land transaction records dating back to 1760 are filed at the Registry of Deeds in Portland; earlier deeds are in the York County Courthouse, with microfilm copies available at the Maine Historical Society in Portland.

Faded and handwritten, the old deeds can be difficult to decipher. There are other obstacles, as well: Transfers between family members may not have been recorded. If a property was divided at some point, the house detective can easily trip up and get on the wrong paper trail. Property descriptions may be sketchy or imprecise. And deeds are not likely to show whether a house burned, fell into disrepair, or was moved — a practice that was surprisingly common in the 19th century. Because there was no plumbing or electricity to fix a building to a lot, moving it with a team of oxen was relatively uncomplicated.

The task was a bit more involved, however, for transplanted Scotsman Robert Pagan, who fled, house and all, from Castine in 1783 as the Revolutionary War was drawing to a close. Pagan is one of several Castine Loyalists who dismantled their houses, shipped them up the coast and across Passamaquoddy Bay, and reassembled them in St. Andrews, New Brunswick — a story that is told in the meticulously labeled boards that the Pagan house’s current owners, Ardeth and Jeffrey Holmes, uncovered when they renovated their kitchen several years ago. “All the boards had numbers and letters on them — A1 north, A2 north, ” Ardeth explains. A subsequent renovation revealed other idiosyncrasies of early construction, such as randomly spaced framing timbers that are a mix of rough-hewn boards and cedar tree trunks. “The trunks obviously had been soaked and bent into place to give more soundness to the structure,” she says. “When building the house, they used the materials that they had nearby.”

Because Pagan was a prominent citizen, Heritage Canada The National Trust has thoroughly documented his house’s social and physical evolution in St. Andrews, but the Holmeses know little about its roots in Maine beyond those rustic studs and the unusual vertical roof boards that are a hallmark of the St. Andrews Castine houses. “We would love to know where it stood in Castine and when it was built,” Ardeth says.

Transplanted Scotsman Robert Pagan was one of several Castine Loyalists who dismantled their houses, shipped them up the coast and across Passamaquoddy Bay, and reassembled them in St. Andrews, New Brunswick.

A number of sources can fill gaps in a house’s genealogy. Tax records can pinpoint when a dwelling was built by revealing a spike in taxes paid. Old survey and insurance maps show buildings and their construction date. City directories, wills, cemetery records, and town histories also may yield clues. Nothing beats first-hand information if you can get it, says Michael Mertaugh, who lives in Portland in a late-19th-century Queen Anne–style house designed by preeminent Maine architect John Calvin Stevens for Charles Foss, a founder of specialty food purveyor Schlotterbeck & Foss. “My wife and I have been very pleased to meet all the owners of our house since 1945,” Mertaugh says. “We’ve reached out to some of them, and one of them just happened to come up on our porch one day. She had lived here from 1945 to 1971, and she wanted to say hello.”

From them, the Mertaughs have learned what the original bathrooms looked like, how there used to be a pass-through from the kitchen to the room they use as a library, and that, yes, a hippie couple really did keep a hot tub in the living room just like the neighbors said. One detail they haven’t been able to confirm is the year the house was built. “The deed says 1899,” Mertaugh says, “but the assessor’s record shows a date of 1895. The water service record also goes back to 1895. The architecture firm has good records, but unfortunately, the drawings for this house did not survive.”

Back on Great Cranberry Island, the parsonage mystery has grown to encompass seven other houses that appear to share the same builder. “They don’t look like it from the outside because they’ve been altered over the years, but they’re very similar inside, with that same central chimney and three fireplaces and the curved staircase,” Anne Grulich says. The builder was likely one of the house’s original owners, Michael Bulger, who immigrated to Great Cranberry from Ireland via Newfoundland in the 1820s.

And what of those shoes that a young ship captain’s family, full of hope for the future, placed in their new home’s wall 180-odd years ago? One day, many years from now, another resident of the little Cape may find them in their new hiding place — a hollow in the rebuilt chimney, where they are nestled in a plastic box alongside a report from the Great Cranberry Island Historical Society and one very 21st-century pink flip-flop sandal.

 

Resources for the Old House Detective

Books and Pamphlets

House Histories: A Guide to Tracing the Genealogy of Your Home by Sally Light (Golden Hill Press, 1989).
A Field Guide to American Houses: The Definitive Guide to Identifying and Understanding America’s Domestic Architecture by Virginia Savage McAlester (Knopf, 2013).
Preservation Brief 35: Understanding Old Buildings: The Process of Architectural Investigation by Travis C. McDonald, Jr. (U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Preservation Assistance Division, 1994).

Organizations

Greater Portland Landmarks, 93 High St., Portland. 207-774-5561. portlandlandmarks.org. Research library has books and pamphlets on architectural styles, historic restoration, and preservation. Advisory Service volunteers visit old houses, analyze their architectural details, and make recommendations for maintenance and restoration.
Maine Historical Society Library, 485 Congress St., Portland. 207-774-1822. mainehistory.org. Large collection of family genealogies, vital records (pre-1892), U.S. census records for Maine (1790–1920), town histories, survey maps, and newspapers.
Maine State Archives, Cultural Building in the Capitol Complex, Augusta. 207-287-5795. Collections include birth, death, and marriage records from the Bureau of Vital Statistics (1892–1955), town and city vital records (pre-1892), vital statistics from the Secretary of State’s office (1864–65); federal census schedules (1790–1910), Maine Land Office records, county court records, and more.
Maine State Library, Cultural Building in the Capitol Complex, Augusta. 207-287-5600. maine.gov/sos/arc. The state’s largest collection of historical records with emphasis on Maine and New England. Materials include published family histories, town histories, census records (1790–1900), vital records, and cemetery records.


Virginia Wright

Virginia M. Wright is the senior editor at Down East.