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Poking around in the archives | VRChristensen

Poking around in the archives

archives-departementales-de-la-haute-loire.-magasins_imgI don’t know when I’ve had so much fun. And yes, I know that makes me sound like a geek. And I’m OK with that.

There were a few things I knew when I bought my house. Mostly things I’d learned from hearsay. I knew that my house had been owned by a woman named Evelyn Day. She was my neighbor, after all. (We rented a house nearby for a year or so.) I had never met her, but I do remember walking by and waving hello. I do that, it seems. I remember sneaking a peek, while her foyer light was on, into the house through the window in her front door. I wanted to know what it looked like inside. I wanted one of those grand old Sutherlin houses, or perhaps one on Holbrook, so bad it hurt. I had been told, after I bought it, and from a local old house and history expert, that the house had been owned by that family for perhaps a 100 years, but that he did not believe they had built it. He believed, in fact, that they had purchased it in the teens, maybe 1917. He suggested I go down to the archives to find out. Only I couldn’t quite remember just where I needed to go. To the courthouse? To City Hall? And, having just moved in, I had a million other things to do. I put it off.

But then the local Historical Society had that same expert come and speak on just how to do it. It was noted, while I was at the meeting, that I had very little work to do since everyone knew that the Days had always owned the house. With such conflicting information, I was understandably confused. Shortly after that, a very wonderful and generous neighbor brought me some photographs he had. I don’t know how he came by them. Perhaps, like me, he found them at the estate sale. I had picked one photograph up myself, though I don’t know who it was of. He had evidently asked around and had been told that the photographs were of  a mother and daughter, who had both lived in the house, and that they had been the only family to live here.

Day pic 1 Day pic 3 Day pic 2

(Elsie Saunders Day (?) left, Evelyn Day center, a photo I bought at the estate sale right)

With so many conflicting stories, I was curious, and so I headed down to the Circuit Court Clerk’s office, where the archives are kept. Now I was in for a treat, I’m telling you, because not only was I going to look through records, but I was actually going to physically handle THE records. Meaning all the deed books are there for people to look through, complete with indexes and maps. The actual books. Not microfilm. Not photocopies. Not digitized images. No. But the books, however old they may be. I gave myself two hours to search, and within and hour, I’d found everything I needed.

Now whether that first very knowledgeable gentleman told me they had bought it around 1917 or if that was just the date I fixed arbitrarily into my skull, there’s no telling. But I had found a cancelled check when we had excavated the fireplace in the bathroom. The check was dated 1915, so I had begun to wonder. Sure enough, searching back, I found where H. Fenton Day, the man to whom the former owner of the house, Mrs. Evelyn Day, had been married, had inherited the house from his mother, Elsie Saunders Day, her husband Henry F. having died in 1954. The will was dated November 1959. Now with deeds, you search for what you know and you go back. In my case, the last three deeds (the ones indicating the foreclosure, and then the sale to us) were listed on the tax records. Along with it was the will’s document number. And from there the trail ended. Each deed will list the document before it, usually another deed, so they are quite easy to search, but the will lists no other documents. Fortunately the indexes are easy to use, and so I was quickly on the trail again. Cole advert

The true story!

In September of 1915, Elsie Saunders Day bought the house from Oliver W. and Annie Bell Cole for $7,200. Interestingly, the deed stated “this conveyance includes the Mills Range now installed in the kitchen of said dwelling house, and all heating fixtures and appliances.” I’ve tried to search for an image of such a stove, but so far have had no luck. I looked up Mr. Cole in the directory and found an advertisement for his photography studio in the 1906 directory. He did indeed live at 134 Sutherlin.

Cole bought the property in August of 1904 from P.F. Conway and his wife, Maggie B. “a married woman holding separate property.” Mr. Cole sold the house for $5,000. It seemed, however, that Mr. Conway did a great deal of real estate transacting in the area, and so I wanted to be sure that he actually lived in the house and, possibly, built it. The next deed took me to a man named Robert Brydon. In that deed it states that Brydon sold the property in October of 1896 for $1,000 cash “All that certain lot of land situated in the city of Danville…” Then it goes on to give the lot description. No building or improvement is mentioned. I know the house was built in 1897. A plaque near the front door says so. In December of 1897 there is another deed, in which Mr. Conway grants the property, “all that certain lot or parcel of ground together with the improvements thereon and the appertanances thereunto belonging….” to his wife “in consideration of ten dollars paid by said Maggie B. Conway, and of the natural love and affection he bears to said…” So it looks like he bought the property, built the house, and gave it to her. They lived in it, it seems, from the time it was built until Cole bought it. I found them, too, in the directory for the years 1898-1899. And doing a little more digging, found reference to him in two books on local history, Virginia: Rebirth of the Old Dominion and Men of Mark in Virginia.

Powhatan Fitzhugh Conway

PF Conway

Mr. Conway was born 11 Nov 1867 near Danville. He attended public school, but he was not a robust child and so was forced to quit his education early. Upon leaving shool in 1886 at the age of 17, he commenced work as a solicitor and collector for Messrs Bass, Brown & Lee, who, at the time, had the largest coal, wood and manufacturing business in Danville. He worked there for four years, until 1890, when he formed a partnership with F.L. Walker to start their own business dealing in the same. Six years later (1896) they bought Bass, Brown and Lee, consolidating with Anderson & co and incorporating as Danville Lumber & Manufacturing co. It grew to be a large firm, over which Conway served as chief executive and genral manager. They had an “extensive line of millwork, including interior trim, sash, doors, frames, molding, blinds and other materials.” Conway served as vice president of the Masonic Building Corp, which erected the handsome Masonic Temple on the corner of Main and S Union Streets.

On Feb 14, 1893 at Richmond, VA, he married Maggie Bradford Brown of Richmond. She was educated at Danville College for Young Women. She died Apr 2 1925. They had one daughter Margaret (Moore).

Digging around a bit more, I discovered that Mr. Conway bought the two lots east of mine at about the same time, built houses on them and sold them. In 1903 he bought two lots to the west of mine and built houses there. At one point they lived in a house on Main street, in which there was a fire that caused considerable damage. My next research project is to learn which houses he built and how many of them there are. It does make me happy to know he was such a big part of Danville’s development.

So now I know the history of my house, and, as history does, makes me feel like I am a part of something important. And this house will something significant once again. That I’m truly looking forward to.





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