Ever thought of visiting your childhood home? Here’s a story about people who are actually buying theirs back. For the rest of us, here’s how to use Google and Google Earth to revisit your childhood home and relive some memories–without spending a dime.
Your childhood home–or perhaps another beloved family home–is your own personal address on Memory Lane. Who wouldn’t love to stroll up to its doors and recapture some memories?
The image above is of my husband’s great grandfather’s home in Winthrop, Minnesota. It’s a home that I have many photos of, have researched, and have come to feel personally connected to although I’ve never seen it in person. It’s one of many ancestral homes that I yearn to visit one day. So as you can imagine, I really enjoyed this report from The Wall Street Journal about a few lucky folks who are living the dream of not only visiting, but owning and restoring, their childhood home.
Even if you’re not interested in buying back an old family home, many of us are curious about the houses we used to love. Are those houses still there? What do they look like now? What else can we learn about them?
Let’s explore three ideas to help you stroll down memory lane. Then, I’ll share a discovery from a Genealogy Gems Premium podcast listener who recently dropped me a line.
1. Find the address for your childhood home
If you don’t recall the street address of your favorite family home, ask a relative or look it up. For U.S. addresses since 1940, you might start with the U.S. Public Records Index, searchable in part or full at Ancestry.com (volumes 1 and 2 for 1950-1993), FamilySearch.org or MyHeritage.com (click here to learn more about that database). Look also in records such as:
Johnstown, PA city directory listing, 1889, digitized on Ancestry.com.
draft registrations and other military paperwork
Social Security application forms, known as SS-5 forms (click here to learn more about them)
old family letters
newspaper articles (click here for tips on searching digitized newspaper content by address)
For U.S. addresses from 1880-1940, look to U.S. census records, which include street names and house numbers. In the example below from the 1930 census, you can see “Cedar Street” written vertically by the red arrow, and the house number written for each household entry, as shown in blue.
From the 1930 US census, Ancestry.com.
If you can’t find an address on an old record, but you think you could navigate yourself there on a map, it’s time to go to Google Earth and fly yourself there!
2. Use Google Earth to view your childhood home now
Learn all these Google skills with step-by-step tutorials and video demonstrations in The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox book and Google Earth video tutorial. Click here for a special price on the bundle!
Google Earth is your on-ramp to your own personal Memory Lane. Go to the site, enter an address, and watch yourself “fly” to that address. If you don’t know an exact address but you know where to look, enter a street name or even a city. Then zoom in to the neighborhood and street section of interest. Activate Street View, if it’s available. Not sure how to do that? Watch my free Google Earth for Genealogy Video Class to get started.
Once you’ve found the location, take a close look. Is the house still there? What does it look like now? How has the landscape changed? The neighborhood?
You can use Google Earth to revisit your own childhood home or another family landmark, such as an ancestor’s homestead or burial place. (Click here to read about one genealogist’s virtual trip to an ancestor’s business using Google Earth’s Street View, and click here to see how another genealogist used historical map overlays in Google Earth to identify an old home’s location.)
3. Google the address of your childhood home
Googling the address of your family home may produce unexpected and interesting results like these:
a) Sale listings. If your house has been on the market in recent years, you may be able to find a listing with great details, and even pictures of the inside today. Top Google search results from specific addresses often bring up real estate websites with varying degrees of information, such as square footage, current estimated value, year built, most recent sale date and price, and more. Weed through these entries to see whether Zillow or another similar site shows a current or past listing for sale or rent. These may contain more details and may even have interior and exterior pictures of the house as it is now.
Watch closely—Google may bring up houses nearby, not the one you’re looking for. But even a neighborhood listing for a house built on a similar floor plan may jog your memories of the home and may give you a sense of what the area is like now.
b) Historical information. A Google search result may bring up historical news coverage or obituaries from digitized newspaper websites like Newspapers.com (a subscription may be required to view these in full). Or you may find something really fascinating, like a discovery made by Genealogy Gems Premium member Heather. After listening to me talk about this subject in Premium Podcast episode 141 (click here to subscribe), Heather wrote me this email:
“I love listening to the podcasts while driving to and from work, often sharing my own thoughts with you. This happened yesterday while listening to the latest Premium Podcast episode on family homes. I decided that I had to write and share what I managed to find! Since I have deep family roots in Connecticut back to 1650s, I managed to find a few family homes, but I started searching with the more recent generations and addresses that I knew. The two homes where my great-grandparents (Inez Hart and John Milton Burrall) and my great-grand aunts (Mary and Lucy Burrall) lived were written up in an application for the National Register of Historic Places!
The National Park Service is working on digitizing these applications. I found the application with a narrative description of the home and pictures of the interior and exterior. I have found other applications that have also included some genealogy of the family who lived in the home. Here is the website for the National Park Service and the database search page.”
Thanks for sending these in, Heather! And for sending along copies of the applications she found. The multi-page applications (more than 10 pages each!) include historical background on the buildings and former owners, as well as photos and site maps. Above is a photo–and below is an excerpt–from these applications.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase (at no additional cost to you) after clicking on these links. Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!
The Newberry Library’s online Atlas of Historical County Boundaries is finally fully updated and interactive! Read the good news here–and my preference for using the powerful geographic data that drives the Atlas.
The Atlas of Historical County Boundaries at The Newberry Library’s website has been undergoing upgrades for quite some time. Genealogists who rely on this fantastic online resource to research old county boundaries in the U.S. have been able to access the basic data that drives the map (dates and geographic boundary changes). But they haven’t been able to use the popular interactive map. Great news: the Atlas is finally fully interactive again.
Changing Boundaries Reflected in the Atlas of Historical County Boundaries
Understanding changes in county boundaries over time is key to doing genealogy research in the United States. Boundaries have changed repeatedly–and some dramatically. County governments typically keep important genealogical sources: vital records, court records, land records and more. We need to know which county would have housed our ancestors’ records during specific time periods so we can find the records we want.
What’s New at the Atlas of Historical County Boundaries
According to the Newberry Library’s press release, users can now:
view a base layer map that allows an overlay of boundaries on top of cities, towns and other geographic features;
zoom in and out of maps and expand the view to full screen;
select a date of interest from a drop-down box with all border change dates for that state; and
view information about border changes in a hover box that changes as users hover over different counties.
Here’s what the new interface looks like:
Google Earth Pro vs. the Atlas of Historical County Boundaries
It’s great to see improved functionality on the Atlas site. But after reviewing the update, I still think the experience of using data from the site is superior in the free Google Earth Pro (GEP) program. To use the entire data set in Google Earth Pro, simply download the KMZ data file onto your computer,and when you click to open the file, your computer will detect the KMZ format and know to automatically open Google Earth Pro (as long as you already have GEP installed on your computer.)
Using the file in GEP allows you to use the data in conjunction with the rest of your genealogical information (such as placemarks indiciating places lived & schools attended, historic map overlays, embedded old family photos and home movies, etc.). This provides a more integrated genealogical research experience. Learn more by clicking here to watch a free video I’ve made about using Google Earth for genealogy.
Google has announced that it is bringing Google Earth to the HTC Vive virtual reality (VR) headset. Here’s what that could mean for family historians.
Google Earth VR (virtual reality), which is available through Steam, allows users to visit various landmarks around the world, providing a 360-degree, immersive view. According to Google, “you can fly over a city, stand at the edge of a mountain, and even soar into space.”If you’ve read my book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, then you already know the potential genealogical goodness that Google Earth can bring to your family history. (If you haven’t, visit my Google Earth for Genealogy page to see what I’m referring to and you’ll quickly embrace the idea.)
And, if you’ve had the opportunity to sit in on my presentation The Future of Technology and Genealogy at a conference or seminar, then you’ve followed along as I explored the potential application of VR to genealogy. It’s a match made in heaven. VR does not only allow us a deeper exploration of our ancestral homelands, but could potentially intertwine with historical imagery.
According to Polygon.com, right now “the app is only available to use through the Vive. Google has not said if it plans to make the program accessible through its new, lower-end VR headset, the Daydream. The company recently released its ultra-powerful, VR-capable phone, the Pixel, so there’s a good chance that Google will eventually bring the app to specific phones.”
Since Microsoft announced in October it was working on a program called HoloTour (which allows headset wearers to visit different cities around the world through VR), the competition should encourage expansion beyond just global landmarks. But, it’s a start!
Watch this video to see it in action.
Learn More About Virtual Reality and Genealogy Tech
Use this free online tool to calculate lot size for an ancestor’s piece of property. The drawing tools overlaid on Google Maps help you determine the area of a lot and distances along its perimeter.
Researching a family piece of property can be tricky for several reasons. But there’s an easy and free tool you can use to help you calculate the size of an ancestor’s lot. It’s FindLotSize.com. This is what it looks like to use:
2. Enter a street address and click Go. (If you don’t know an exact street address, get as close as you can, then zoom around on the screen until you can see the property of interest.)
3. Zoom in (or out) to the level that you can see all the lot boundaries.
4. Click on one corner of the lot. A red marker will appear. Then click on the other corners in sequence to draw the perimeter. You don’t need to “close the gap” by clicking a second time on the starting point; the site will automatically assume you mean for the last point you enter to connect to the first. The site will calculate the lot size in square meters/kilometers, square feet/yards and acres.
Here are a couple more tips for using the site:
If you wish to know the distance around the perimeter, click Distance. (You can measure individual distances, such as the width of the lot at the back, by only clicking on the points between which you want to measure.)
In the upper left are options to view satellite or map images. The satellite view is a bird’s eye view of the land today. You’ll see fence lines, roads, hedges and other practical clues to property boundaries. But sometimes these are obscured by tree cover. If you click on “map,” you’ll see a simple line rendering, like a traditional map, but with many buildings outlined. Depending on the tree cover, you may find this view helpful.
Thom learned how to use Google Earth for family history after watching my free Google Earth for Genealogy video, and then made a landmark discovery: his ancestors’ pond, business and a photo of his family at work.
This Using Google Earth for Family History success story was recently sent in by Thom, a young genealogist who blogs at The Millennial Genealogist. Be sure to click on the picture that goes with his story–it’s really neat.
“I am writing to share with you a TOTAL (and entirely unexpected) success in using Google tools for my research. By way of introduction, I am a young genealogist (age 21) from Massachusetts. I recently discovered your podcast and have been working through the archived episodes on my daily 1.5 hour commute. I watched your Google Earth presentation last weekend, and had some time to try your tips out after work today.
My curiosity having been piqued, I began exploring the map. I know that two sets of my second-great-grandparents, Bert Barrett and Grace Freeman, and James Adams and Elizabeth Todd, all lived near Oldtown Church (presently the First Congregational Church). I zoomed in:
Looking at Google’s current street names, Oldtown Church is right by the intersection of Mt. Hope and Old Post (you’ll note the small cross). Now keep following Mt. Hope Street – do you see what I see? Todd’s Pond! I just knew this couldn’t be a coincidence. So I went straight to Google again:
And the very first result, a page within a Google Book on the history of North Attleboro, was astonishing:
In the days before electric refrigeration, North Attleborough’s homes and stores relied upon ice harvested from either Whiting’s Pond or Todd’s Pond (depicted here). By the time this 1906 photograph was taken, farmers George, Henry, James, and William Todd found selling ice more profitable than farming and founded the Oldham Ice Co. Todd’s Pond was located on the westerly side of Old Post Road near the corner of Allen Avenue. The Oldtown Church is visible in the background. -from North Attleborough by Bob Lanpher, Dorothea Donnelly and George Cunningham (Images of America series, Arcadia; click here to see the picture that goes with this photo, along with other pictures he found with a follow-up visit to the area)
The ice trade around New York; from top: ice houses on the Hudson River; ice barges being towed to New York; barges being unloaded; ocean steamship being supplied; ice being weighed; small customers being sold ice; the “uptown trade” to wealthier customers; an ice cellar being filled; by F. Ray, Harper’s Weekly, 30 August 1884. Public domain image, Wikimedia Commons. Click to view.
Mentioned by name are great-great-grandmother Elizabeth’s four brothers, George, Henry, James, and William Todd. What a spectacular find! I plan to reach out to the local museum that prepared the book to see if they can provide a better copy, and even additional media should I be so fortunate.
In short, I wanted to take a moment to say THANK YOU so very much! Had I not been exploring Google Earth at your suggestion, I’m not sure if I ever would have ever noticed “Todd’s Pond.”
I hope you are using Google Earth for family history! Paired with Google Books and the rest of rest of Google’s genealogy tool box, it can help you unearth fascinating facts about your family history. Here’s an image I found (using Google Images) that shows the process of harvesting ice, a profession long gone with the age of modern refrigeration.
Resources for Using Google Earth for Family History
In my book, The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, I’ll teach you how to use Google Earth for family history, along with Google Books, Google Images and more. Bundle it with my Google Earth for Genealogy video tutorial series for your complete Google Earth for family history education. Both are packed with step-by-step instructions and examples from my own family history research to inspire you. Google and all its powerful tools are FREE. Why not invest some time in learning to harness its power?
More Google Earth for Family History Success Stories
Attending both days will give you the ultimate Google for genealogy experience: Lisa’s Google search methodology PLUS her unique take on Google Earth. You’ll come away with powerful new tools and strategies for finding your family history in free Google resources that are literally at your fingertips every time you go online.