Some years ago, I read about the Great Renumbering. The Great Renumbering sounds like something out of the Book of Revelation. Something awful a vengeful God is planning to smite us with. But it’s not. It refers to a time in Portland when all the addresses got swapped out. Up until 1933, every little neighborhood numbered their houses independently of each other. One community would start at the richest person’s house and number their way outwards in a spiral, and the next community over would pull numbers randomly generated from a box of dice and hamsters. Mailmen, then as now, were savants. There was no grid.
The Great Renumbering enforced discipline on the territory. It was sensible, but no longer special. Now any dang fool could find a house without being a mailman.
Which means if your house was built before 1933, as ours was, it used to have a different address.
Forty years ago, we watched a car roll up to our house, and a tiny little old lady leaned out the passenger window and snapped a photograph with a Kodak Instamatic. She said she used to live in our house. We invited her in; she clutched the kitchen counter while Dave slumped against the far wall, so she didn’t have to crank her neck up too far. “Did you know,” she said, “my father built this house in 1906, and he didn’t know a thing about construction?”
Dave nodded weakly. He’d been attempting some renovations, with growing horror.
Mrs. Kraxberger–that’s the lady–also told us that our kitchen was the original house, and that the kids lived in a tent in the front yard until her father could scab on the rest. Everyone had assumed the kitchen was a one-story addition to the two-story house, but it was the other way around.
We let Mrs. Kraxberger go on her way and looked forward to some old photographs she thought she could drop by. But we never saw her again.
Recently I decided to try to find our old house number. This is the internet age. After several hours, the only thing I came up with was a PDF of the Great Renumbering with no search capabilities. It was 243 pages long and the old streets didn’t show up in any particular order. I tried to slog through it hoping to get lucky and then I got the nifty idea to bring in the Cavalry. I wrote an email to the Multnomah County Library. Could they point me in a more fruitful direction?
I sent the letter before noon. An hour and a half later, with the clatter of galloping hooves, a response zinged into my mailbox.
First, Library First Class Baron thanked me for my letter. Then he commiserated about the clunky website I’d found. However–he went on, employing full sentences and paragraphs in flawless English–an alternative site is the Sanborn Maps 1867-1970. He included a link, but also mentioned my address was in Volume 5, Sheet 553. He then freaking told me my old address and the name of someone who lived there in 1930. He attached a copy of the 1950 map showing both addresses and the 1924 map showing just the old address. He went on to say the information is verified by the Ancestral Library Edition featuring old city directories including the 1930 version of Polk’s City Directory with listings by occupant and address. All these resources are available digitally, he wrote, although that’s only temporary for the Ancestry database because of the pandemic, and he was sorry, but I might need to visit the library in person for that, once things return to normal.
“Again, this is a print item,” he wrote. “We could look up your address in this book. However, that would require asking a colleague to search for it at Central and get back to you.” He hoped this had been helpful. If I have additional questions, I should feel free to contact him again.
Attached were copies of the pertinent pages of the 1924 map, the 1950 Fire Insurance map, and the City Directory.
All this on a Sunday morning. I’m sure he was sorry to have kept me waiting, but he had to iron his cape and pull up his tights. Librarians! I swear to God.
Why, yes, Baron, I do have additional questions. Can you locate a colorized high-res photo of the original 1906 hut? Does the family mule show up in a census? What is my password for online banking again? Where do we go when we die? Do you like cookies? Can you fly?