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Whose House Was This, Anyway?

June 2024
4min read

How to find out where you live

When it comes to owning old houses, some people have all the luck. They discover polished oak floors beneath a ragged shag carpet or turn up a missing chandelier in a shed behind the garage. They can even answer a knock at the door one day and find the first owner’s daughter—spry as a schoolgirl and full of old stories—standing on their front porch. That happened to Andrew Ward, who wrote in the July 1990 issue about his historic Northwest house.

If it happens to you, count your blessings. The rest of us need patience and the skills of a private detective to piece together the history of whatever house we call home. When my husband and I first moved into our 1920 bungalow, a few blocks from the state capital in Olympia, Washington, we cursed everyone who had lived there before us: the jerks who had wallpapered (repeatedly) over the sandfinish plaster, the fools who had “fixed” termite damage with masking tape and paint.

But then, while stripping the bedroom walls, we found a sweet antique nursery paper of castles and longlimbed fairies. And suddenly I wanted to know who had put it there. Who had owned this house when it was new, in the days right after World War I?

Lloyd, the man who sold us the place, gave us one hazy clue. “You’ll notice,” he had said while showing us the overgrown garden, “there are some nice plantings here. We’ve heard that a capitol grounds keeper lived in this house at one time.”

Since the state capitol and its immaculate grounds had been built in the late 1920s, I wondered if our little house could have belonged to one of the very first capital gardeners? Better yet, the boss of the crew? It might be enough, in this government town, to land our little bungalow on the local register of historic buildings. All I needed was proof.

I began at the county courthouse, in the assessor’s office. It didn’t take me long to find our house in one of the loose-leaf “field books,” the notebooks appraisers use when they come around periodically to reevaluate properties for the purpose of figuring taxes. Along with square footage and dollar amounts, field books often contain brief comments jotted down over the decades. “Renting for $80/month” someone had written of our house in the year I turned sixteen, information that made me feel slightly historic myself.

Also included was a list of past owners of our house. We were down at the bottom, with Lloyd’s name directly ahead of us and above him a stack of strangers, each one a step toward the past. Unfortunately no dates appeared alongside the earlier entries. But logic suggests that the name at the top, L. L. Swaney, was that of the original owner. Not bad for a half-hour of research, I thought.

My next stop was at the Washington State Library, with its shelves of Olympia city directories. Ever since the late 180Os, long before telephone books appeared, these directories have published the names, addresses, and even occupations of most local residents. But much to my disappointment, the 1921 book did not contain any Swaneys. Nor did the next edition, nor the one after that. Whoever L. L. Swaney had been, he was not going to make this easy.

Undoubtedly census records would help. But the 1920 federal census will not be released to the public until 1992, and I wasn’t willing to wait. Instead I turned to the Washington State Death Index, guessing as best I could when Swaney might have died. I rolled through two reels of microfilm before I finally found him. Then, armed with his date of death, I peered at microfilmed copies of old local newspapers until at last I had my hands on L. L. Swaney’s obituary.

It could have been a great triumph; instead I read that Lewis Leon Swaney had been a pharmacist, not a capitol grounds keeper, and that he had not arrived in Olympia until 1943. I realized that for the better part of a morning I’d been treeing the wrong raccoon. Exasperated, I returned to the county courthouse. This time I at least had the sense to ask someone for help. A number coded beside Swaney’s name in the assessor’s field book led me to a copy of his actual real estate deed. With the seller’s name and date from that deed I settled down to search backward through old grantee and grantor books. These were ponderous, handwritten volumes, nearly too heavy to lift, solemnly bound in leather and faded red corduroy. Grantee records are indexed by the names of property buyers, grantor records by the sellers'. It is theoretically possible, as long as the records are complete, to trace a chain of title through one index or the other.

Swaney bought from a couple named Gould in 1943. By scanning the grantee columns until I found their transaction and then repeating the process with the people who had sold it to them, I slowly managed to piece together the last links of the chain. The man who first owned our bungalow had been someone named John H. Dunbar. Whoever he was, I had reached the end of the line. Would Dunbar, after all, turn out to be the very first capitol gardener? Back at the library once again, I reached for a city directory. Whatever it said on those pages, I couldn’t change history. Dufault, Duffin, Duke …

“Dunbar, John H. (Marie R.); Attorney General.” I read it again, and then again, afraid to trust what I saw. But the names matched the property records, and the address matched the house. A Washington State attorney general, at least as good a catch as the capitol grounds keeper.

John Dunbar, I discovered, had not led a long and happy life. Most of his time in office, from 1923 to 1932, he spent wrangling with a hotheaded governor who tormented him by ordering him to pursue ridiculous cases. At the height of Prohibition, Dunbar turned to alcohol. Repeated arrests for drunk driving threatened his re-election in 1928, and he died at fortyfive from what reporters called “a liver ailment.”

By then Marie had divorced him and moved out, taking the baby, Dorothy, the daughter for whom they had papered the nursery walls with castles and elves. Marie went on, within a few years, to a long and successful run as chief society writer for the Seattle Times . Dorothy, the child raised on fairies, grew up to write Blood in the Parlor , a collection of true murder tales. A secondhand bookstore found me a copy in Kalamazoo, Michigan. There’s a picture of Dorothy on the back cover; she looks just like Marie.

Our home is noW’an official Olympia Heritage Site, with a bronze marker declaring it the John H. Dunbar House. It’s the house where the Dunbars were happy, at least for a little while, when the Great War was finally over and the future seemed ripe with hope. Dorothy died young, like her father, without leaving any heirs. But the plaque guarantees that the Dunbars will never quite disappear.

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