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.


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