It’s in the Cards
- Discoveries in the Archives
Michigan’s Rural Property Inventory project, a New Deal project, put unemployed individuals back to work during the Great Depression. This inventory provides great research material for genealogists and local historians.
A Short History
The Rural Property Inventory project started in 1935 and continued through 1942. This project provided jobs to previously unemployeed surveyors and engineers. In addition, it gave state and local governments a uniform basis for assessing property taxes. In Michigan, approximately two thousand white collar workers prepared inventory cards for each individual land parcel outside of Wayne County. As a result of their hard work, more than 400 boxes of rural property cards are currently held at the Archives of Michigan.
These cards portray a remarkably sharp picture of Michigan’s landscape in the 1930s. For example, each property card offers a property description, utilization, and improvements. The cards also give you the general information on the parcel, such as
- the year the inventory was conducted,
- the school district,
- name of village,
- township and county,
- legal description of the land,
- and the owners name and post office address.
Moreover, the cards answer questions about building materials and technology used at the time. Was there a phone line? What was the property’s source of heat and light? What buildings were on the property? How far away was the nearest school or town center?
Sketches of houses and general land areas are included. Building description includes:
- year built or remodeled,
- dimensions in linear and cubic feet,
- condition and type of foundation,
- type of exterior and roof,
- type of floor,
- and nature of utilities.
Buildings of lesser importance—such as cribs, poultry houses, garages and fruit storage—are described by brief narrative. For those working on a history of a home, these are great details.
Look at This
For instance, this is a rural property card from Lyon Township in Oakland County. By reading the card you learn that the house was built in approximately 1845 and has two covered porches. In addition, this home had electricity and telephone service.
More on the Back
The property cards also offer information about how the land was being used. Did the property have fences? Farm fences are described by kind and condition of fence and posts. What kinds of land made up the property? The “woodlot and forest timber tally” offers type, board feet, cord, stem cut and density. How much of the property was swamp, forest, farm or orchards?
You get the idea. There is a lot of information on these cards to describe what is happening to the land at this time. Were they tilling the land for farming? Living on swampland fighting off mosquitoes left and right? Picking cherries in the orchard every July? Did they have an abundance of trees to cool their home during the hot summer?
Look at This
Now look at the back of the rural property card from Lyon Township in Oakland County. By reading the card you learn the land is good farmland, consisting of mostly sandy or gravelly loam. Through the sketch, you see that he property is bound by gravel roads and the Grand Trunk Railroad line.
Start Your Researach
Overall land and building research might seem intimidating, but these property inventories are very easy to use. You can browse by geographic location because rural property inventories are organized by place. Specifically, the cards are arranged alphabetically by county then numerically by township, range, and section number. They are also keyed into township maps that cross reference the property cards.
If you flinched and gritted your teeth when I mentioned township, range, and section, not to worry. There are plenty of maps at the Archives of Michigan to help you determine the most likely township, range, and section for your property. Plat maps that show ownership are a great tool in finding a section within a township.
Rural Property Inventories
If you are looking for property cards from Oakland, Jackson, and Grand Traverse Counties, you are in luck. A sample of rural property cards from these counties are freely available on Michiganology.
CollectionProperty Tax Division
Date1935 - 1939
Research Property Cards
at the Archives of Michigan
The rural property inventory cards are easy to browse, have great information, and should be on your list for the next time you visit the Archives of Michigan!