Scouring Secondary Sources

by Josh on November 17, 2005 · 0 comments

in House History,Journal

Over the past weeks I have spent some time in the central library and city records office researching the history of this house. My goals were:

  1. To find architect information, floorplans and photos of the house from the time the house was built
  2. To fill in gaps in the chronology of residents and get some basic biography on past owners/residents
  3. To document the occassion when the King of Norway visited the house

After this first round of formal research, I got a few answers and eliminated some possible sources but several of my goals remain unmet.

In the library’s special collection, I was able to pull a record of the building permit history for the house. This describes the work performed, date, contractor and cost through . The cost for the basic building in 1923 was $6,850 and with additional permits for electrical, garage, plaster, etc. the total cost to build the house appears to be $8,755 not counting the cost of land. (According to the Inflation Calculator that would be $96,720 in 2005 US dollars.) It also shows that the coal-fired boiler was converted burn oil in 1938 and then to natural gas in 1952. The tuckunder garage was lengthened by 30? in 1960 when it was surely housing something larger than the Model T for which the garage was originally designed.

Later at the Minneapolis Inspections Department, I was able to get a copy of the original hand-written building permit you see here.

Original building permit

The script appears to be the contractor’s– whatever you say about the quality of labor these days, I’m certain that contractor penmanship is one thing that was better in the good old days.

I could not find any information on an architect, original floorplan, or photographs of the house. The librarian in the special collections area thought that based on the cost of construction and the contractor’s name on the permit, the house was most likely built from a standard plan of some kind. On a future trip I will do more research on the contractor to look for old records or plan books.

As for the information on past residents, I had some good success. I already had a list of past owners from the abstract, tracing the property back to 1855 when the US government offered land on the west side of the Mississippi River controlled by Fort Snelling for sale to private citizens. The house was built for a medical doctor named Wilford Widen (1895 – 1982) and his family in 1923. The only biographical information I could find on Dr. Widen was an obituary, but it has been very helpful listing his notable accomplishments (founded Bloomington-Lake Clinic & served on the board of Bethel University) and his heirs who could be fascinating to talk to if I can track them down.

For the years 1952 – 1973, the house was owned by a church to be a parsonage, so the abstract does not name the pastors who lived here. Fortunately, I was able to track down the missing pastors in the Minneapolis city directory, the predecessor to today’s phone book. The phone book also was better in the good old days because people were listed twice: by last name and by street address. The listings in many cases also included the person’s profession. Using the address listings I was able to piece together the chronology for the parsonage years. A total of three pastors and their families lived in the house over those twenty years, although the last one was only here for a year before the house was sold to purchase a different parsonage for his family, according to the abstract.

library brochure

From 1959 – 1971, the pastor who lived here was a notable fellow. Rev. Ivar Aus (1907 – 1993) was a Norwegian minister who was active in the underground resistance movement against the Nazis during World War II. Rev. Aus was well known to King Olav V of Norway who visited Minneapolis several times during his reign and awarded Aus the St. Olav Medal in 1964.

I was told by the previous owners that on one of his trips through Minnneapolis, King Olav was a guest in this house. Thanks to the Special Collections staff at the Minneapolis Public Library I was able to see a number of news clippings and press photos from royal visits, but none that I saw showed or mentioned visiting the house. Fortunately, Rev. Aus’ obituary indicated that his daughter still lived in Minneapolis, so perhaps I will be able to hear about this from her if she hasn’t moved in the last dozen years.

So, after scouring the secondary sources available at the library I found some very nice biographical information. The obituaries could prove to be particularly special if they are able to point me to some of the former children of the house. Newspapers are great, but there’s nothing like getting your history from someone who was there.

For local readers interested in researching their own house, the Minneapolis library has some resources online and a printed brochure with research suggestions. The staff is very helpful, but the special collection area will be temporarily unavailable for a few months while the collection is moved into the new central library for its opening in the Spring of 2006.

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