1924 Portland Maine Goes Digital

In 1924, every taxable property in the city of Portland, Maine, was reassessed, photographed and documented. The records were then bound into 131 books containing approximately 30,000 pages and stored at City Hall.  And there they sat until recently when this remarkable, 88-year-old, newly digitized collection was made available to anyone with access to the Internet.

The photos take families with roots in Portland on a fascinating trip back in time to see the city their ancestors lived and worked in.  And for current residents simply curious to know what their Portland home looked like in 1924, a high-resolution digital photo attached to the record provides a clear and detailed picture of the building.

If the Portland collection consisted solely of photos, it would still be great, if not unique.  New York City also shares old tax photos with the public, as does Seattle.  But Portland’s inclusion of the reassessment documents online puts the city in a class of its own.

Each record contains the name of the property owner, the number of rooms and types of materials used to build the structure, its estimated age and general condition, and if a residence, how many families lived there.  There’s also a hand drawn sketch of each building’s footprint and dimensions.  The entire record is literally at your finger tips, easily searched by address, neighborhood, owner’s name and other categories and key words.

I’ve never been to Maine and have no ancestors from the area, yet I found plenty to do and explore on this website.  Trying to match the photo of a 1924 building to its 2012 address using Google’s Street View can be fun, and challenging.  Many of the old buildings no longer exist, and those that do often have added a room, enclosed a porch or have huge leafy trees blocking the street view, making it difficult to know if you have the right house or not.  But most of the time you will be rewarded with “Then and Now” pictures that show how the house and neighborhood have held up over the years.

As I was browsing the collection, one photo in particular caught my eye.  It showed five kids of varying ages playing in front of 41 Arcadia Street.  The tax form revealed that the home belonged to Carmela Cipriano.  Cross-referencing her name with the 1920 U.S. Census showed that she and her husband, Antonio Cipriano, a laborer on the railroad, lived on Arcadia Street in 1920.  The Ciprianos were Italian immigrants and had seven children by 1920, four girls and three boys.  I presume five of them are the kids we see in the 1924 photo.

I also looked up Carmela in the 1930 census and learned that she was living in the same house and now had twelve children, five boys and seven daughters.  It was a decade defined by the Great Depression that brought fear and uncertainty into households across the land.  It was an especially tragic time for the family living at 41 Arcadia Street.

According to the 1930 census, Carmela Cipriano was now a widow, with her youngest child just a year old.  One can only imagine the hardships she endured raising twelve children alone without Antonio.  But she and her family survived.  The 1940 census has Carmela and five of her children still living at 41 Arcadia Street.  Two sons worked at a canning factory and Carmela rented a room to a young married couple for $8 a month.  It’s the story of a family’s perseverance through hard times told here thanks to records now available online.

Visitors to the website may discover much more than they expected.  I found other photos among the collection that contain shots of people a relative might recognize.  Here’s a picture of a young boy taken outside 29 Arcadia Street, just down the street from the Ciprianos.  The tax record lists Ferdinando Fasulo as the owner.  The boy in the photo could be one of Ferdinando’s eight sons.  Hopefully, descendants of the Ciprianos and Fasulos will hear about the records of their old family homes and share them with their relatives.

Providing Internet access to the 1924 Tax Records is a group effort of the City of Portland, The Maine Historical Society, The Portland Public Library and The Maine Memory Network. But only about half of the books containing the tax records have been digitized and placed online.  More funds are needed to insure that the remaining books are added to the database.  If you want to help, please contact the project partners through their links above.

To access the 1924 Tax Records, click here.

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Company Towns

My father’s New Jersey home was bought by the railroad in the mid-1930s and torn down to make way for a new road running parallel to the tracks.  The family got a good price for the old house and moved to a much nicer part of town.  Still, it must have been strange for my father driving over that road, his vanished living room, kitchen, and bedroom hanging like ghosts above the pavement.

It’s not unusual among family histories to find an old home bulldozed into oblivion to make way for a parking lot, highway or a new, more contemporary home.  While historians and preservationists may see it objectively as another assault on our cultural heritage, the families that used to live in the home experience a different, very personal and isolated sense of loss.  Their lives are changed forever, while down the street, across town, and a few blocks over, life goes on as usual.  But what if all the homes in the neighborhood were leveled?  What if the entire town became a tear-down?

In 1984, I was part of a television news crew documenting the last days of a small Oregon company town high up in the Coast Range.  Valsetz, Oregon, was founded in 1919 to harvest and mill the towering stands of Douglas fir that flourished in the cool, wet climate of the surrounding forests.

At its height of productivity during the 1940s, over a thousand people called Valsetz home.  The workers and their families lived in company houses, bought their food and supplies at the company store, and sent their children to the company schools.  But by the early 1980s the country was deep in a recession, with the timber industry particularly hard hit.  Owner Boise Cascade decided to shut down the sawmill and turn the entire area into a tree farm.  The mill was dismantled and hauled away, along with anything the company could salvage.  The homes of the workers, however, never got a chance at a new life someplace else.

All the old buildings were torn down and turned to rubble.  Valsetz, home to generations of hard-working timber families, ceased to exist.  All that remains today of this once thriving community is the tree farm, an annual town reunion and a website that keeps the memory of Valsetz alive.

But not all company towns that outlive their economic usefulness meet a similar fate.  The 100-year-old sawmill in Bonner, Montana, closed down in 2008, but the old company homes were never destroyed.  New owners recently bought the property and plan to renovate the old houses and rent them out as part of their overall economic development project.  Click here and here to read about how two local men with a plan for the future are breathing new life into this old company town.