November 20, 2020

This is the last activity for 2020! We will be taking a hiatus until February 2021, when we will come back with some fresh activities for you!

In Activity #1, we explored a wide range of sources that could be used to investigate historic buildings. This time around, we’d like to focus on one of those sources – City Directories – in greater depth. As we mentioned in Activity #1, the La Crosse Public Library Archives has digitized a series of City Directories spanning from 1866 – 1924. And, the ones from 1907 onward contain two sets of listings: city residents in alphabetical order by their last name, and city residents in the order of their street address, which is listed in block-by-block entries.

If you knew the name of a person and wanted to link them to an address, and by extension a neighborhood, you could use the alphabetical listings of last names. For example, here is part of the Ns from the 1926 City Directory, which includes an entry for Carl and Mary Noelke, the second owners of last week’s featured historic home at 236 9th Street South.

The block-by-block entries for city streets can be used to help us envision what the neighborhood around a particular building was like: whether it was residential, commercial, or mixed use, how densely populated it might have been, how much ethnic and class diversity existed in a particular part of La Crosse. We can gauge these kinds of neighborhood characteristics because of the categories of information that City Directories typically provide. The block-by-block entries tell us what kind of building was at each address: businesses, residences, churches, government offices. And, for residences, we get the name of the head of household, and sometimes, their occupation or the name of the business they owned. Although it’s not always entirely accurate, we can also sometimes use surnames to gauge the ethnic composition of neighborhoods.

Below  we walk you through two sample pages from the 1926 City Directory, then provide two more pages from a different part of the city which you can explore on your own. If you want to, you could also pick a favorite block or neighborhood in La Crosse and look at its listings for a time period between 1907 and 1924, using the digitized collection of City Directories.  Another way to explore is to look at the same set of blocks over time: for example 1909, 1919, and 1924.

To envision the potential ways City Directories can help us investigate neighborhood history, have a look at the listings for part of the 700 through 1500 blocks of Caledonia Street from the 1926 City Directory:

Across the entries on the above pages, we can see private residences (indicated by people’s names after the address), a school, two churches, a library, a funeral home, and a range of businesses. In addition, if you look at the entries for the 700-1000 blocks of Caledonia Street, then the 1100-1200 blocks, and then the 1300-1500 blocks, you can watch the nature of the neighborhood change from residential to mixed-use (commercial and residential intermixed) and then back to residential again. For example, while there were only three grocery stores and one meat market among the 800, 900, and 1000 blocks (806, 912, 932, 1033), the 1100 – 1300 blocks offered access to a much wider range of goods and services. Starting from the corner of Windsor and Caledonia Streets and walking northward, someone could buy groceries, say a quick prayer in church, visit an optometrist and a chiropractor, get a haircut, buy candy, fill up on gasoline, shop for a whole new outfit, visit a dentist, see a movie, look for a new couch, play a game of billiards, stop at the drugstore, borrow a library book, and cap it all off with dinner in a restaurant. 

Depending on our hypothetical visitor’s age, gender, religion, and amount of disposable income and leisure time, they might have skipped some of those activities. But these pages from the 1926 City Directory helps us understand what these blocks of Caledonia Street had to offer. Clearly, North Siders in the early 1900s supported a commercial district for goods and basic health services in their own area of town. This made it so they didn’t have to travel downtown for each and every trip they needed to make. And, even more business owners and health care professionals realized this was a profitable place to provide their goods and services.

In addition, this page also lets us draw some initial conclusions about population density in the neighborhood and its ethnic diversity. See the addresses with ½ next to them? Those indicate buildings with apartments or additional office space on the second floor.  Several addresses also have multiple residents listed for them, suggesting apartments, roommates, or boarders (examples: 703, 807, 927, 1007, 1105, 1323, 1436, 1513). Although we’d likely need to look at census information to be certain, from the listings it appears that this part of La Crosse was home to multiple ethnic groups. We can see last names that appear to be German, Norwegian, Irish, English, or French, among others. And interspersed among them, in the listings for the 900 and 1000 blocks, we also see a few members of La Crosse’s Syrian and Lebanese community – early 20th century immigrants from the Ottoman Empire (including Asfoors on the 900 block, Reverend Phil Salmone and George Seroogy at 1004, and grocery store owner John J. Wakeen at 1033).

Now that you have a sense of what City Directories can help us envision about a neighborhood during a given timeframe, have a look at the 1926 City Directory pages for the neighborhood around Activity 1’s featured building: 236 9th Street South. (Since the building is on the corner of Ninth & Cass, we provide entries for both streets.)

What strikes you about this glimpse of the Ninth & Cass Streets area in the mid-1920s? What kinds of similarities do you see between this area and Caledonia Street? What kinds of differences seem evident? What kinds of things can we not figure out about a neighborhood based on City Directory listings?

Join us for our History Club’s monthly meeting on Sunday, November 29th! Register for the meeting (to receive the Zoom meeting information) here. Remember, you don’t have to complete the activities to attend the meetings! We welcome any history lover to attend.

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