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How to Research Your Historic Kalamazoo House

Start with Historic houses subject files – you may get lucky and find that there is some information – newspaper clippings are most common. These files are in the bank of file drawers facing the windows and past the sets of tables. Or ask the librarian at the desk for help.

City directories

  1. Start with the City Directories (The librarian or archivist can help you find them.) The first one you consult should be AFTER 1926.  You may want to start with the present day and just work backwards. (The addresses shifted on many houses in 1924-5. For example 810 became 738 Wheaton.)
  2. Look under addresses. Fill in the name you find for each year. (Neither the library or the archive has all the city directories. You may be able to fill in gaps by going to both places AND add the state library in Lansing if you want to be thorough)
  3. To bridge the 1926-1920 address shift: Check the post 1926 address and follow Steps 4 and 5 below.
  4. Look at the addresses and names one up and one down from your address:
    a. What is the name on your address? _______________________________
    b. What is the name on the lower number address? ____________________
    c. What is the name on the higher number address? ____________________
  5. Check the 1922 or earlier City Directory.
    a. What is the number associated with the name at your 1924 name? ______
    b. If your name is not there (the person could have moved) look for the neighbors (items b & c above). What are the numbers associated with their names? _________ and _______. Your number is probably in between.
    NOTE: Not ALL street numbers changed. But this is always a good place to start.
  6. From this point you can go forward –1926 to 1959. In the mid 30s you will see a small symbol “o”. This means that the person listed owned the home. You will also see phone numbers.
  7. Going backwards. Work your way backwards from 1920 to whenever the address disappears. Check one more year earlier than it disappeared to be sure it is not missing due to an error in the directory.
  8. Just before 1900 the directories became criss-cross or cross-referenced, listing people by their street address AND under their name. In the older city directories, you cannot look up houses by street address anymore only by name. There are two ways to continue:
    a. Look up under the last name you had. Say “John Anderson” appeared in the 1899 directory at 1218 Oak. So in the 1896 directory, look up John Anderson – is he still at 1218 Oak? Continue with the name until he disappears.
    b. Tedious, but fascinating: scan down the list of names until you find your address again.
  9. In 1883, Kalamazoo adopted the Philadelphia system of street numbering. Michigan Avenue (then Main Street) and Burdick Street were selected as the X and Y axis and all houses were numbered from those streets. Before that numbers started at the river and Main Street. Anyway – this means that pre-1883 addresses may be simply “15 Cedar St.”
  10. So from this point it becomes sheer luck that you can continue to trace your house back further. Start with the name you know – John Anderson again – and look him up – he may still be in the house. OR The house may have been built around 1883 and there are no earlier listings.


Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps

Ask the librarian or the archivist to show you the Sanborn Maps. These maps were first published in the 1870s and 1880s to help insurance companies determine liability. The maps show the materials the structure is made from, height, location of porches and their configuration and position and size of outbuildings. The earliest maps covered only the central business district or downtown – and industrial buildings and were issued approximately every five years. Beginning with the 1908 Sanborn in Kalamazoo, the maps included lots of houses and neighborhoods.

The maps start with an index and an index map – locate your site on the index map and see which page the map is on.

The Sanborn maps come in two forms in the local history room and the archive:

  • Bound copies: 1908, 1932, and 1957
    In the insurance offices, as houses and buildings changed, additions, new structures, demolition, the insurance company received a paste-over showing the new work. So the bound copies will have past-overs – look at the site of Kalamazoo City Hall (241 W. South) or Old Central High at 714 S. Westnedge in the 1908 bound Sanborn for examples.
  • Microfilm – full set back to early 1880s
    The advantage of the microfilm copies is that they are the originals – for example the 1908 version has no paste-overs. And you can make prints from the pages for .20 each. The index maps are at the beginning.

Plat Maps

Plat maps are issued as references to show acreage and who owns the land. Frequently the owners name can be found on the maps and can be checked in the early city directories for more info. The 1873 and 1890 ones are the most referenced for Kalamazoo. The maps also show the footprint of houses – the shape of the house including porches – and the position of outbuildings (except outhouses).

Birds-eye maps

These are essentially aerial maps – usually they were actually drawn from the ground. They show the general shape of houses and some outbuildings, but from one side. Generally they are accurate, but there are no addresses, only street names.

Researching the people

City Directories

  • Start with your list of names from the city directories.
  • Go back to the city directory for a specific year.
  • Look up the name you found for the address in the “Names” section of that year’s directory.
  • This will give you information on the primary person – usually a man or the head of household. In parentheses will be his wife’s name and following that will be his occupation. The abbreviation “res.” Denotes this is the head of household.
  • Look up the name of the place he works – is it close by? Is he an owner or officer in the firm?
  • Look for other people with the same last name AND the same address – these may be his children or relatives living with him. Generally children were listed when they were in high school or college – thus frequently their occupations will be “student”. These dependents will have the abbreviation “bds” for “boards at” in their line.


  1. Click to search the Local Information Database.
  2. Put the name of your resident in, last name first. Double check the spelling then hit “SEARCH”
  3. This database will lead you towards files or books with entries about your person. It also contains citations from the Kalamazoo Gazette. Not the whole article –just the title, date, page number so you can go to the microfilm. These can be a rich source of information – especially if they include obituaries, etc. Microfilm of the Gazette is available in the Reference room on the opposite side of the wall of the Local History Room.
  4. Look up everything about your person – in files and Gazette. From this point on, the question is not what you find, but when to stop.
  5. Ask the librarians for help.
  6. TIP: Take dimes with you for the microfilm printers!

Print a worksheet (PDF)