Before you do anything else, check to see if your house is in the Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System, known as MACRIS. Buildings included in MACRIS can have information including architectural styles, uses, significance, designations, building materials, construction year, and more. It is incredibly helpful. If you don’t find your house in MACRIS, move on to the next step.
Even if you aren’t necessarily interested in the architectural history of your home, it’s a good idea to conduct an informal survey of your home’s architecture. It will help you if you want to find out how your house was built but it will also help you discover what alterations were made over time. If a house has a mishmash of architectural styles, you can bet that someone made changes to the building along the way. Look at the roof, look at the style and placement of the windows, look at the building materials. Make notes as you go. You can also contact the Woburn Historical Commission to look at their architectural surveys for Woburn. It’s all part of a bigger picture and it will help you create a fuller history of your home.
The best place to start is with the deed of your house. If you rent your home, don’t worry. Deeds are a matter of public record and can be obtained by anyone, not just the building owner. You’ll want to establish a “chain of title” by tracing the deeds of your home back as far as you can. This will help you find out who the previous owners were, whether there were changes to the property lines, etc. Remember that information you may not think is relevant may later prove to be vital so make copies as you go!
For houses in Woburn, you’ll want to visit the Southern Middlesex Registry of Deeds.
Before starting your search, you may want to view their MassLandRecords Quick Start tutorial.
There are other records that will help in your search. Building permits can help you discover when changes were made to your home. You can contact the Woburn Inspectional Services office for help with these records.
Utility records can help you learn when the home was first occupied (assuming your home does not predate electricity and plumbing) or when your home was modernized. Try contacting the Water Department and Public Works, the website for which has links to the electrical, gas, and sewer companies that operate in Woburn.
Insurance records can also be an information goldmine. You can find claim forms for fires, water damage, and more. Look for any insurance company in Woburn (the longer the company has been active, the better!) and ask for records of policies associated with your address. Similarly, you can look at the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps which contain information including but not limited to the property lines, building materials, and street names (remember street names change over time!). Luckily, we have both hard and digital copies of the Sanborn Maps in the Woburn Public Library Glennon Archives. Soon these will be available in our Digital Collection.
Which brings us to the area that we can help you with the most in the archives: people! We can look through the poll lists and directories dating back to the 1800s to find out who lived at your address. You can also access these digitally on the Woburn Historical Commission’s website. These resources can tell us the names of any occupants, what their occupation was, and whether they owned or rented the property.
Once we are armed with a list of names, we can try to find them in the newspaper index and then look at the corresponding microfilm. Our microfilm reader lets you scan articles and email them directly to yourself. If anyone of local prominence lived in your house, we may also be able to find them in our books about important Woburn figures.
Once you have all of this information you can begin to create your timeline. This can be as detailed or sparse as you want it to be. If you prefer to note who lived in the home at what time and when certain events occurred, such as fires, additions, or electrical wiring, that’s great! If you would like to create a more narrative timeline, including information you have discovered about the people who lived in your home, that’s great too! The choice is yours so have fun with it!
How to Trace the History and Genealogy of Your Home by Kimberly Powell.
House Histories: A guide to tracing the genealogy of your home by Sally Light (it is available to check out and for in-library use or you can purchase a copy).
How to Research Your House’s History: Part One by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
How to Research Your House’s History: Part Two by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.