Monday, May 20, 2013

Southwest Michigan Fire Insurance Maps Collection Complete at Library

Map lovers will be happy to learn that there is now a complete set of Southwest Michigan Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps housed in the Local History Collection of the Van Buren District Library. 

What are fire insurance maps and how are they important to family & local history?  Named for D. A. Sanborn, a civil engineer from Sommerville, Massachusetts, these maps and others like them were designed to "detail the structural characteristics and functions of buildings and their environs as they pertain to fire hazards or prevention." [Fire Insurance Maps : their history and applications, by Diane L. Oswald]

For each community, there are typically a handful of single or multi-page maps representing the 1890 thru 1935 time period.  Streets are identified by name and each structure is hand-drawn, showing such elements as dimensions, how many floors, stairways, windows, and doors. 

Marcellus, 1899
In this portion from the Marcellus map of 1899, we see a wonderful snapshot of a portion of Main Street, detailing the location of the grocery, three barber shops, hotel, meat market, clothing store and variety store, among others. 

The residential areas within the boundaries of the drawn map are similarly diagrammed, however (and this is the negative part of these maps), there are no names of owners.  Some businesses are named, but usually, with some exceptions, there is only a broad category description such as those listed above. 

Fire insurance maps should be a mainstay for those researching historical structures, with businesses in particular.  Larger multi-building companies have some amazing detail including uses of each building, like Martin Manufacturing Company, Berrien Springs, a manufacturer of cue tips & chalk in 1932, shown here. 

Martin Manufacturing Co., Berrien Springs, 1932
Even in the case of a residence, although the name of the owner is absent, these maps can give insight as to the structure of a house.  Using maps over a period of years, it is possible to plot out the addition of rooms or the change of a building altogether.

Maps were not drawn for all communities, but for Southwest Michigan a good majority of them were:
  • Augusta
  • Bangor
  • Benton Harbor
  • Berrien Springs
  • Buchanan
  • Burr Oak
  • Cassopolis
  • Centreville
  • Coloma
  • Colon
  • Constantine
  • Decatur
  • Dowagiac
  • Fennville
  • Galesburg
  • Hartford
  • Hopkins
  • Kalamazoo
  • Lawton
  • Leonidas
  • Marcellus
  • Mendon
  • Niles
  • Otsego
  • Paw Paw
  • Plainwell
  • Richland
  • St. Joseph
  • Saugatuck
  • Schoolcraft
  • South Haven
  • Sturgis
  • Three Oaks
  • Three Rivers
  • Vicksburg
  • Watervliet
  • Wayland
  • White Pigeon
Through an anonymous $1,600.00 gift, the 15 reels of microfilm have been purchased to round out the library's collection of surviving Sanborn maps for the Michigan counties of Allegan, Berrien, Cass, Kalamazoo, St. Joseph and Van Buren.  These reels also include many other communities outside the SW Michigan area.  For a complete list, see the library's Microfilm Listings, or contact us with any questions.

The Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps are the most recent addition to the Local History Collection in support of the library's Historic Sites Inventory (HSI) project.  For more information about how to access the HSI or to inquire about donating information, contact the library at

Nameless Picture of the Day
 Barnes School students
Lawrence Township, Fractional District #6

Can you identify the students and teacher in this photo of Barnes School in Lawrence Township?  Please contact us if you any information and we will publish it in a future blog.  Please include the photo's catalog number with your e-mail.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

20% Off Summer Book Sale!

The Van Buren Regional Genealogical Society (VBRGS) has recently announced a special Summer Book Sale.  Through August 31, 2013, all items listed in their online Book Store will be available at 20% off the list price. 

With over 125 unique items, most of which are Southwest Michigan and out-of-print, visitors to the book store are bound to find something of interest.  Categories include cemetery readings, vital records, family histories, census indexes, yearbooks & annuals, plat books & indexes (some on CD-rom), local histories, church publications, city & telephone directories, and other unique items.  Although Southwest Michigan is the primary coverage (counties of Allegan, Berrien, Cass, Kalamazoo, Van Buren & St. Joseph), there are some listings from other counties in Michigan including Muskegon, Cheboygan, and Kalkaska. 

Featured titles include [new uncirculated editions]:

Michigan Quakers : abstracts of fifteen meetings of The Society of Friends, 1831-1960, compiled by Ann and Conrad Burton.

Published in 1989 and consisting of 589 pages with an every-name index, Michigan Quakers includes records for Quaker societies in Cass, Grand Traverse, Presque Isle, Ogemaw, Wayne, Leanwee and Calhoun counties.

"This book of Michigan Quaker abstracts is designed to make these records known, to publish the location of the records, and to help further the use of these records for research."

 A Scrapbook History of Early Decatur, Michigan, 1829-1876,   by Catherine Howland.   This
softcover two-volume set consisting of over 1500 pages has long been considered the standard for Decatur [Van Buren County] history. 

Ms. Howland, a former area school teacher, meticulously extracted articles from the Decatur Republican and other titles from Decatur's earliest days through the bicentennial...providing a wonderful overview of the pioneers and enterprises of Decatur and surrounding communities.

Van Buren County, Michigan : a pictorial history, published in 2003 by the Van Buren Regional Genealogical Society.

At a never-before seen low price, this beautiful coffee-table book has sold nearly 1,500 copies.  Hardcover with dust jacket, pages are high-quality gloss and provide a photographic overview of Van Buren County's residences, businesses, churches, notable people, mills, organizations & groups, and schools. 

Each photograph has a brief historical caption and the book includes an every-name index, as well as a full-color vintage map of the county.

All titles are original publications and available only while supplies last.  Visit the VBRGS online Book Store to view the entire list with current prices, and contact the society for the discount or with any questions,

Nameless Picture of the Day
 unknown residence
Hartford, Michigan

 Can you identify the location/address of this house, taken in Hartford, Michigan?  Please contact us if you any information and we will publish it in a future blog.  Please include the photo's catalog number with your e-mail.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Library Launches New Mentoring Program

The Van Buren District Library (VBDL) is pleased to announce the initiation of its Mentoring Program for family and local history patrons. 

Are you starting out in your search for your family history and would like to know about how to find more information, or how to better organize it?  Do you have roots in Southwest Michigan and would like to learn all you can about what information may be available about your family?  Have you spent most of your time surfing the internet and would like to know where to go next? 

If the answer to any of these questions is "Yes", then the Mentoring Program may be for you...

Starting this May, experienced volunteers from the VBDL Local History department will be providing a one-on-one opportunity for instruction to its patrons.  The Mentoring Program is a free service available to those who can visit the library in person. 

Using the resources available in the Local History Collection and research tools such as forms & charts and select online subscription databases, volunteers will provide instruction to specific research questions.

Those who sign up for an appointment should plan to:
  1. Select a specific research question or goal 
  2. Bring with you any documents or paperwork associated with your query
  3. Organize information for quick access
  4. Create a checklist of those things that have already been tried or completed
 Each session will consist of at least:
  1. Entrance interview to determine goal(s)of session
  2. Introduction to the Local History Collection and checklist of resources pertinent to session goal(s)
  3. Discussion about organization of data
  4. General information about upcoming events & programs
  5. Exit interview and creation of To Do List
The mentoring sessions are an opportunity to "pick the brain" of experienced family & local history historians, but are not research services.  Visitors will be be provided with valuable instruction in order to continue their research on their own either in the Local History Collection, online or at other sites.
One-hour mentoring sessions may be scheduled by contacting the Local History department by e-mail at or call (269)423-4771. 

Nameless Picture of the Day
 unknown man
Photographer - Withey, Bangor

Can you identify the man in this carte-de-visite, taken in Bangor, Michigan?  Please contact us if you any information and we will publish it in a future blog.  Please include the photo's catalog number with your e-mail.