When I originally decided to present “Bits & Pieces”, I had this notion that I would write these postings in a very organized, systematic way as far as topics went. The first bit was on population, so the second would have to be on a topic directly related to population. Alas, things don’t work that way, because once I start a project, I become completely immersed and forget about everything else. So today’s bit is based on my most recent undertaking, placing street numbers to historic properties.
One of the most frequent patron requests is: “I am curious about the history of my house.” And with thanks to Lucius J. Marsh, Jr., we are often able to provide answers to these requests.
Born in 1889, Lucius J. Marsh, Jr. followed the footsteps of his ancestors and became a prominent figure in the Town of Douglas. Between being a member of the Board of Assessors, Town Clerk, and unofficial town historian, Marsh dedicated sixty years of his life to serving Douglas. Through his work with the town and his love of history, Marsh provided the townspeople a unique gift, a comprehensive history of Douglas in the unpublished manuscript “History of Places, Homes and People in the Town of Douglas.”
In this work, Marsh drew on the resources provided to him as Town Clerk and Chairman of the Board of Assessors, the registry of deeds, and his own knowledge of the town’s history. These resources allowed him to provide us with a history of the town, the properties, and its people.
The library is lucky enough to have three different versions of Marsh’s work. The first was written in 1941 and was expanded on in 1959. Marsh had commented that he wished he could do an updated version every year, but that was impractical. His final version was presented to the library in 1970.
The 1959 version tends to be the most referenced of the three versions. It was used by Douglas historian, Anthony H. Coppola, in his research for They Raced Horses on Main Street. The Douglas Historic Society has a copy for visitors to the E.N. Jenckes Museum to view. And here at the library, it is the version most used for patron requests.
So how did this preexisting work, which is so essential in answering many of our reference questions, lead me down a rabbit hole?
Back in 2017, when I first created the archive, I quickly realized how important this resource was, but since it was simply a hardcopy, there were no search options.
The work was organized by street with a table of contents. And by the way, since 1959, some of those street names have changed. What we today consider Main Street, was actually called North East Main Street, and a part of North West Main Street was Oxford Road, and don’t forget Douglas Center, Centerville and the Lower Village. So we were able to locate your street, the name is the same and it isn’t in one of the districts, the rest should be easy, right? Unfortunately, the scavenger hunt for your house has just begun. Prior to 1987, properties did not have assigned street numbers, instead Marsh referred to the properties by historical names or by the current owners. You did not live at 290 Main Street, you either lived at the Joseph Lee House (he built the home) or the Starrett House (a previous owner of the property). If you don’t know either of these facts, how do we move forward finding your house?
After five years of playing scavenger hunt, and having an archivist’s copy of Marsh all notated up, I decided to fill in the blanks by connecting the dots.
- The Belding Report & MACRIS
- In 1988, the Historical Commission hired John Belding to complete an inventory of the Historic Properties of Douglas. This work was completed in 1989 and a copy is held at the library. More important, one of Belding’s primary sources was works done by Lucius J. Marsh, Jr.
- And thanks to technology, there is also MACRIS (Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System), which allows you to search the Massachusetts Historical Commission database for information on historic properties. Every property inventoried by Belding can be found on this website, with a condensed snapshot, or the complete inventory form.
- GIS – Geographical Information System Maps
- Published by the Town of Douglas Assessors Office, this online map system provides users quick access to Town Maps and the Assessors’ database. This includes CAI Property Cards, which include descriptive data such as parcel identification, location, owner, deed reference, and year built.
- Worcester Registry of Deeds
- An online database of property documents provided by Masslandrecords from January 1, 1961 to present day.
Using these three resources, as well as some personal knowledge of town history, I was able to place many of today’s current street numbers with properties described in Marsh’s 1959 “History of Places, Homes and People in the Town of Douglas.”
I would first see if any of the properties Marsh described were considered historic homes and could be found on the MACRIS website. In 1989, homes built in the early 1940s were considered historic, so I was able to place a majority of the properties using this method. In other instances, I used the GIS Maps in order to determine what year the home was built and the style of the home. If both of those methods failed, I would attempt to trace the owners of the described property. At times, this method was effective, but not for all properties. I would often find that parcels of property had either been combined or split up, which would skew the ownership of the searched property. There would be times that the original owner had passed away and the ownership trail would end. And finally instances of foreclosures, liens, and sales to developers cause the trail to run dry.
Although I was able to connect the dots to fill in the missing street numbers on the majority of the properties described, there are still a few missing pieces. Nevertheless, my rabbit hole has now made your research at the library much easier.
So if you’re looking for information on your old home, or maybe curious about someone who lived in town, or the history of a certain place, come visit us and take a look at the carefully transcribed and heavily researched “History of Places, Homes and People in the Town of Douglas.”
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Annual Town Meeting on Saturday, May 16, 1987. Article 30 “The Town voted to adopt the following House Numbering ByLaw” passed by Unanimous Voice Note.
Worcester Registry of Deeds: https://massrods.com/worcester/#