24 December 2015

Perusing Your Municipality's Archive of Annual Reports for Neighborhood History

This tip may take some digging or some asking around at your local municipality government office, historical society, or library. However, it might be a source you did not previously consider, and can provide you with local historical information which can further enrich your house history. I'm speaking of Annual Reports for your local government entity. Yay! Sound dry? Well, they certainly can be, but if you look past the blocks of financial stats and scan for relevant information, you just may find very useful details about the origins and development of your neighborhood or even your particular street.

As with a corporation or any other organized entity, the Annual Report is created to apprise shareholders, residents, or other interested parties of the finances and major efforts of the organization from the previous calendar or fiscal year. While it may be relatively easy to find recent Annual Reports, what you will find most useful for your historical research are those reports from the time period within a decade or two of when your house was built, or when your subdivision was created. There is no one consistent place to find such reports across all types of municipalities, but you should start off by contacting the Town Clerk office, or the staff for the local Board of Commissioners or Supervisors. In larger cities, you might seek out the Annual Report for the city's Planning agency or commission. These older reports might also be housed at a local historical society or the public library.

What Abington Township Annual Reports Told Me

My local municipality is the Township of Abington, a first class township (in Pennsylvania, a township is either a first-class or second-class township). And wow! The Township's official website includes a "History" page which includes every single Annual Report prepared by the Board of Commissioner from the years 1917-1962, plus 1914. Call me lucky.

You should be looking for any information related to your street or your subdivision. Of course, if you are like me, you will probably find most of the information on your entire locality interesting as well. Going back to, say, the 1920's when my house was built, you will be able to learn of how Township leaders dealt with rapid growth. street expansion and repair; grappled with funding police and fire departments properly; and you will likely also see the names of leaders whose legacy may continue on in the form of street or park names.

In Abington Township, by the time the "Roaring 20's" hit town, the exploding use of the automobile in combination with the growth of the suburb made street conditions the topic du jour, and it remained so for several years thereafter. Macadam streets were clearly incredibly worn down, and township leaders had immense trouble keeping up with the costs of repairs. Much effort is made in the reports of the years from 1918 to the early 1920's to convince residents that their tax dollars simply were not sufficient to keep up with the exponentially increasing costs of road work.

A clip from the 1918 report expresses the need to create an ongoing budget for more permanent road reconstruction. Note that auto traffic has doubled in the Township since the year 1916.

A clip from the 1920 report conveys that by this time, auto traffic has now tripled since 1914. Real estate investors are subdividing the township land at an alarming rate, laying out new streets without paving them in any permanent way.
A clip from 1922. Now, although the Township has the power to approve new subdivisions before they can legally be recorded at the County Recorder of Deeds, most development is still occurring without sufficient permanent roads. The Township Commissioners make clear to the newer lot owners that this work will need to be done at their own expense.
Speaking specifically about the immediate area where my house is located, Reginald Ferguson's North Glenside subdivision was filed with the county in 1919, before the Township had the oversight it established in 1921. A significant amount of maintenance and improvements appear to have been performed on Central Avenue in the years 1924, 1925, and 1928. Although it is possible that some work was done to the 400 block (and, if you'll remember from my deed analysis, the house may have been constructed in 1922-1923), I believe it more likely that most or all of this work occurred just to the south, in the stretch from Spruce Street to Limekiln Pike, an older subdivision. During this time period, this block of Central Avenue only housed a handful of homes, and according to the 1927 map, no water service existed on this part of the street. Also by 1927, we are starting to see some road improvements on the north side of Jenkintown Road, in Ardsley proper, the area subdivided by Ferguson.

Description from the 1924 report of road surface treatment on Central Avenue.
A breakdown of 1924 streets spending in the North Glenside section.

A breakdown of 1925 streets spending in the North Glenside section. Notice it has quadrupled from spending there the year before. Most or all of this likely occurred between Spruce St and Limeklin Pike, south of our house.
By 1927, new road construction is beginning to occur in Ardsley just to the north of my house.
As you can see, much of the reports from the decade deal with road construction and improvement. However, as the Township continued to grow, it began to create new regulations and flex more oversight over the increasing construction and development. A building code was adopted in the early 1920's, along with plumbing regulation, increased police forces, and the expansion of public amenities such as the creation of a Parks department.
This clip from 1924 is a testament to how much the Township has grown in such a short time.

By 1922, township leaders sought to preserve some land for public use. As described in this clipping, the southwestern part of the Township, where my house is located, had been nearly completely subdivided.

Yet, by 1930, the Great Depression had hit, and in combination with the fact that not many large tracts of land were left, development had slowed down to a near halt...

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