How Richard Crabtree Has Made a Hobby out of Springfield History

Sep 18, 2017

So you’re in the market for a new home, or just bought one, and curious about its history. When was it built? Who were its previous occupants? Most sellers would have some of this information, but would that tell the whole story? Richard Crabtree is a realtor with Murney Associates in Springfield who, in addition to his day job, spends countless hours digging up historical data on properties. In fact, the back of his business card reads “Realtor – Historian – Restorer.”

Crabtree says, “Some people wanna find out do we have any original pictures? Can we find the family? Can we find some pictures of the outside, maybe the inside?…They wanna see the background – they wanna kinda see has the house been altered?”

Other times, he says, current owners might want to get in touch with former occupants or their relatives to invite them back and learn what it was like to grow up in that home.  

The Search

I recently met Crabtree at the Greene County Archives just north of the courthouse on Booneville Ave. It’s here the longtime historian begins his investigations.  

“As you can see over here, a lot of these books are the original tax records. And those typically don’t lie.”

Crabtree's notes as he searches the origin of 521 E Loren.
Credit Ryan Welch / KSMU

Crabtree started researching homes in his own neighborhood of University Heights in 2007. It expanded from there to include a historical publication he delivers about once a quarter to homes and restaurants in and around Rountree and Phelps Grove. Two years ago, Crabtree began sharing his work on Facebook, which is where he’ll get a majority of research requests.

On this day, he’s trying to identify the origin of a home at 521 E Loren.  First, understand that any home built in Springfield before 1948 likely has a different address than it does today. That’s the year, according to Crabtree, a lot of the city’s street numbers changed; some by a couple numbers, others a couple hundred. Researches are advised to look up the name of the owner or the 1947 address year equivalent.

“I’m gonna open up the Sandborn map.”

The pages of this large, fragile book published by the Sanborn Map Company more than 75 years ago are held together by layers of duct tape. You can zero in on specific neighborhoods and from there a single lot, which shows its address number prior to 1948.

“So here’s Loren and here’s 521. And 521 used to be 455. So then we write that down.”

More on how that original address is helpful later.

Next, Crabtree will use the current address to pull up a tax description. He does this through the Greene County Assessor’s website on his smartphone.

“And then we scroll down here and we see that it’s Roanoke Addition, lot number 94.”

After writing down this information on his legal pad, Crabtree dives into the Greene County Land Tax Books.

“So we’re now going to look for Roanoke Addition…actually goes back to around 1912, so it’s an older subdivision. And we’re looking for lot 94.”

The land tax books, which indicate lot prices and ownership, are printed from June 2 through June 1 of the following year. Here, we’re looking through the 1924-1925 edition.

“So 94… we see the [lot] is worth $1,500. Now we can see other lots up here are $400 so we know that the house was built before 1925. At this time it shows that a Lew W. Carroll owns the house. That could be short for Lewis…”

At this point, Crabtree will work backwards through the older land tax books, searching for Lew Carroll and Lot 94 until either the name or the lot value changes, indicating a switch in ownership or the time of the home’s construction.

“Okay here we are," says Crabtree as he locates the discrepancy. "So right here, it was owned by Land Security Companies, which was the one that was actually marketing and selling and owned the lot, and it was only worth $125… So sometime between June 2, 1922 and June 1, 1923 that’s when that house was built.”

Crabtree’s research could end at this point. Or he could now dig into old city directories and newspaper articles to learn more about the home’s previous owners and what changes it has undergone through the years.

Applying the Historical Data

The information gathered by Crabtree is valuable for homeowners like Brian and Susan Camey, who are currently renovating what’s now their third property at 1257 E Delmar in Springfield’s Rountree Neighborhood. You can hear the church bells from nearby University Heights Baptist Church as we sit outside and talk.

Susan and Brian Camey in front of their home at 1257 E Delmar holding a booklet created by Richard Crabtree that details the home's history.
Credit Ryan Welch / KSMU

“When we do renovation work we usually uncover things from those people [previous owners] and find things in the house. So that’s always kind of cool,” says Susan.

Documents show the home had a few additions before the Cameys moved in. They’ve since upgraded its electrical, plumbing and HVAC, and they’re working to preserve original features of the home, which was built in 1930.

“The exterior is an English Tudor style with the stucco, and it is the original stucco. And the plaster walls actually have the horse hair in them which is really cool,” says Susan Camey. “The inside, though, and also in some of these articles that Richard [Crabtree] included it does have more of a French traditional style to it, it’s not really Tutor style but it’s a little bit more ornate.”

Crabtree, who was representing the sellers at the time the Cameys bought the home in 2015, had already done research on the property. He’s provided them with, among other things, the home’s original abstract of title, plus photos of previous occupants.

“And here’s a picture of Mrs. Bruce,” Camey points out. “And this is in the backyard and the planter is still right over there and we kept that.”

The Cameys have returned the home to its original Tudor style; a white exterior, which had been painted tan, along with brown trim. They’ve replaced the brick driveway with a concrete one, but have redistributed the bricks throughout the yard for landscaping and a patio.

“It was a great way to retain them and they have the markings of the brick foundry that made them from all over southwest Missouri – so that’s kind of cool.”

The fuchsia pink closet the Cameys have left as is to showcase its history.
Credit Ryan Welch / KSMU

Inside, several originals remain; the upstairs bathroom’s lime green tile, the stair railings and treads, and a ceramic gas fireplace insert. There’s a picture rail molding system just below the ceiling. By hanging artwork from a hook affixed to the molding, it prevents the use of nails or screws, thus preserving the home’s lath and plaster walls.

“So it’s really easy to move your art or take it down and you don’t damage your walls. I wish modern homes did this, it’s just a great way to hand artwork,” says Brian.

An excited Hildi and Scout, the Camey’s two dogs, bound across the hardwood floor as I’m introduced to the home’s dated coat closet; which is almost entirely fuchsia pink.   

“And then we have the quilted vinyl shelf liner with the gold trim scalloped going across it,” Susan points out with a laugh. “This is something that, when we opened the closet we said ‘This has to stay.’ It is just totally how the house was.”

There’s even a button on the floor of the dining room, which someone sitting at the table would activate with their foot. The Cameys believe it was used years ago to alert the home’s maid. This person used to live above the garage, documents show, and could be paged through the buzzer either in their bedroom or in the kitchen.

“When they’re finished with the kitchen remodel that buzzer will be working again so I can call Susan in with my buzzer,” Brian quips.

The Original Address

Back at the Greene County Archives, Richard Crabtree has just identified when the home at 521 E. Loren was built using old land tax books. You’ll recall Lew. W. Carroll was listed as the owner.

Crabtree points to Leo W. Carroll, found in an old Springfield city directory using the original address of 455 E Loren.
Credit Ryan Welch / KSMU

We can confirm that and learn more about Carroll with the help of the home’s original address, which Crabtree found using the Sandborn map. Since address numbers in Springfield changed in 1948, any reference to the property on Loren Street - in old newspaper articles or a city directory - would be by the original number of 455.  Crabtree grabs an address book.

“The one reason we do this is to figure out who they were possibly married to, did they have kids, and where they worked. So we’re gonna look up Carroll… Here’s a Leo W. So it’s not Lew, it’s Leo," says Crabtree, who had mistaken the cursive O in Leo for a W.

"Another reason we actually look at this,” he says.

Directories those days also listed a person’s occupation. Leo W. Carroll was the manager of Underwood Typewriter Company.

Should he choose to dig deeper, Crabtree could learn about the owner and their family through sites like www.ancestry.com. Back then, home building and remodeling projects were often published in the local paper, so sorting through old microfilm or www.newspapers.com, which digitizes decades-old articles, could prove useful.

Crabtree says people tend to buy older homes for historical purposes and the way they’re constructed. Some, the Cameys included, also like to know who used to live there. And while he enjoys a good search through the Greene County Archives, Crabtree says homeowners could make his hobby a lot easier if they think twice before discarding old documents.

He adds, “All that stuff that some people think is just old garbage is not – it’s valuable – and if you don’t know what to do with it there’s plenty of us they can bring it to and we can utilize it."

Follow Scott Harvey on Twitter: @scottksmu