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?
Loved reading about your house and “the Great Renumbering”, how cool about that older woman who’s dad built your house. Back around 1985, my one sister & I was showing our youngest sister where we lived in town for many years before she was born. The people that lived there now came out on their porch and asked if we needed anything, and when we told them we used to live there until 1970, the woman said “Is your last name Morris?” We said yes and I was so much hoping she’d invite us in, but we just had a nice chat outside. Darn it, I wish I’d just asked.
Also, I believe that librarians have a calling, like nuns or (legitimate) priests. My career was in the IT field, and back in the early 2000s I was friends with another programmer named Martin, who went to school at nights for “Library Science”. He was so earnest about it and moved his family from Pittsburgh to Roanoke Va when he was offered a position at a library there. I think I’m going to shoot Martin an email today :^)
I too once visited my childhood home and knocked on the door and everything, and the people stood in the door and wouldn't even let me peek inside. Said I could look at the back yard, and then they chaperoned me. I look burgly I guess. They didn't even ask me any questions.
Originally build in 1906, you must have some ghosts. You are certainly diligent when it comes to information searches. Not I said the lazy person I am.
And…this is the first of three parts!
Houses built back then certainly have a dubious provenance! Our house was built about then, and it, too, has a story.
It was my childhood home; my mom left it to me. She told me its backstory. It was built by a police captain, who called in "favors" to get it built. Which totally explains how un-level the door frames and floors are. And also how the plumbing in the basement looks like it was designed by Rube Goldberg. The outtake pipe from the washing machine is a much lesser diameter than it should be, and it's connected to the kitchen sink in some way, so that if the washer is draining, it's advisable not to use the sink until it is finished. Every couple years, the drainpipe backs up and we have to call the plumber to snake it from the basement. He earns his money for THAT, boy howdy. Our plumber suggested that the original "plumber" just didn't feel like going to the hardware store for the correct pipes, said "Aw, fuck it" and just configured whatever he had on hand. But it works. After a fashion. Though it certainly isn't "up to code."
There are things to be said for new houses. But.
"up to code" is the name of one of our local plumbers. It's the name of the company, anyway, if not the plumber. (Spelled with capitalization and a "2" for "to.")
That particular librarian was a king among librarians. Which doesn't accord them the status they so richly deserve.
On the household numbering front I was told that in some parts of India houses were numbered in the order in which they were built (with inauspicious numbers being left out). The poor mail carriers.
Oh, we could handle that!
"Does this answer your question?" is the follow up I learned in Intro to Reference Work (way back in 1972)…..I'm delighted that the MCPL librarian was helpful and prompt. (And you did him a great service with an interesting historical query.)
I definitely get the idea I"m not being a bother. Look out Liberrians!
I expect you made Library First Class Baron's day!
Our house was built in 1912 – and attached to an already existing chimney (presumably left after the original structure burned down?) – we've been living here since 1981. In the earlier days of our owning it we were periodically visited by people who said they grew up here – apparently it was owned by a family called Patterson that had seven daughters – so we met several of them. I don't know that we ever invited them inside! And then – several years ago now a gentleman and his wife came up the driveway and said that he was the son of one of those Patterson girls. We had quite a pleasant few hours with them (again – outside) and later they actually did send us some photos of the place the way it looked when he was a boy – which are now framed and hung on a living room wall. One photo of all the sisters in a row. Another of his grandmother and grandfather in front of the already large white oak tree that is still in the yard and a good deal bigger around now. It's likely more than 250 years old – or so a tree company person once said. Meanwhile – regarding the quality of the construction – I can't tell you how many times The Husband has said "we should have torn this place down instead of trying to fix it up…"
I should say Dave definitely took a chain saw to the kitchen, after first boosting me up to a high stringer on the front porch to paint, which I couldn't get off of by myself…blue smoke was pouring out of the house. I might have squeaked loudly.
Hopeing? Murr, I'm so sorry. You're the second of my 'very intelligent friends who write and would never publish something with a typo in it' who's gone and gotten COVID brain.
I can't wait to read the next two installments of this story. My neighbor was the head reference librarian for the city library. He was an amazing researcher but sadly has no personality.
Naw, naw, it's all fixed, my friend Kimb already told me about it earlier. It's not always a slam-dunk to read your own copy, and I now make more typos because I often write on a laptop on my lap, and it binds up my arms. I should really sit at a desk! I think it would make a difference.
Oh lovely! Blessings to you and everyone else who ever worked for the USPS. 10 years ago we stopped by the house we re-built and expanded in the early 1970's and were given a royal tour by the current owners. Very gratifying!
Thank you! Yes, I wish the owners of my childhood home had invited me in. It was clear they thought I was casing the place. Oy!
Librarians are worth their weight in — in something dense and valuable — gold? print editions of the OED?
I do have one of those, and am lacking only a scale and the pertinent liberrian in the flesh.
Wow! That really is great service. Finding a photograph of the original hut would be icing on the cake.
I think I'll have to track down descendants still in the county. I think there are some–it's an unusual name.
What great work by your librarian. I am astonished. But, from some of the comments, it's all part of the job (and profession).
I remember being so young I couldn't imagine why people would pursue "Library Science–" not realizing it means "the key to all knowledge."
From the late, great Terry Pratchett ("Going Postal"): "People flock in, nevertheless, in search of answers to those questions only librarians are considered to be able to answer, such as "is this the laundry?", "How do you spell surreptitious?", and, on a regular basis, "Do you have a book I remember reading once? It had a red cover and it turned out they were twins."
I think I would have enjoyed that job. Because weirdly you can GET a question like that last one and get somewhere with it. Being a mailman was occasionally similar.
PS I particularly like that it's Pratchett's "Going Postal" that features this quote. (Please tell me you've read Terry Pratchett?)
I was a school, vocational school and NOAA librarian. I also love librarians!
Great story, Murr. Speaking of libraries and librarians, have you read "The Library Book" by Susan Orlean? Wonderful book which is both a history and a who dunnit.
Per M. Hurtt's suggestion, it's on my liberry hold list right now!
My sister was able to go into the house we grew up in when she went to her 50th class reunion . The owner was very generous with his time but told her that it was a Sears house. Nope. My father built it from the ground up with help from my builder grandfather; no kits involved. The current owner is at least the third since we lived there, so I guess some realtor wanted to make the story of its provenance more interesting.
I hope your sister straightened them out. Stories get lost just THAT fast.
Got to work at my college library on work/study for four years in the Reference Department way back in the 80's when there was still a card catalog, card pockets in the books for check-out, and certainly no digital way to search for info. The utter amazement other of students when you could take them directly to what they needed was priceless — I felt like a rock star! I'm thinking your guy had the same experience.
I hope so. He earned it. When I complimented him, he made a big deal out of saying the whole team at the library was wonderful and he was just doing his job.
As my T shirt says "I'm a Librarian. What's your superpower?"