By Pete Kendallemail@example.com
Researching the roots of downtown Cleburne is no snap. You can’t just walk into an attorney’s office and ask, “Is this the place where they used to watch professional wrestling on television?”
Though if you’re referring to the Turner Law Office, it was — when it was the Ace Cafe.
The best way to get your downtown bearings is at Layland Museum by consulting city directories that date to the late 19th century and the slightly mysterious Sanborn Fire Insurance Co. maps that go back even further.
Want to know what the Plaza Theatre building was before it became a house of culture? The people who were refurbishing it did. They’d found bits of metal and other oddities predating the Western Auto store that was located there in later years.
By consulting the directories and Sanborn maps, Layland Museum director Julie Baker was able to report “we found a harness shop and various other buggy related things.”
You may be intrigued to know that the Smith Building, the 1914 structure behind the museum, was once a farm.
“The brick building was built as a grocery store,” Baker said. “In earlier photos from the top of the courthouse, you can tell there was a farm there and a one-story frame house.
“Those early pictures show Caddo and Main streets deeply lined with huge trees.”
Some downtown structures stayed pretty much the same over the decades, such as the Liberty Hotel, now in the final stages of renovation.
“Through the years, a number of people have researched the Liberty,” Baker said. “They were people who were interested in buying it. Any number of times, we thought it had been purchased up to the time that Mr. [Howard] Dudley finally got it.
“That was a structure that was easy to find on the Sanborn maps. Some of the other buildings were added to. The Wright Building was one.”
The old Santa Fe and Trinity & Brazos Valley railroad depots are shown on the maps. So is Brown’s Opera House, Cleburne’s oldest remaining downtown structure.
The museum has Sanborn maps from 1885, 1888, 1893, 1898, 1904, 1910, 1918 and 1925. That includes updates.
“They apparently sent out sheets of updates, and you could cut them and glue them over the original sheets,” Baker said. “That’s sometimes a problem for us, because I want to see what the old sheet looked like. If I hold it up to the light, I can see a little bit sometimes.
“I’m not sure how we acquired all of the maps. Some, we got through a surveyor. Some, I think Mildred [Padon, former curator] must have gone to Austin and copied at the Center for American History, because our dates exactly match theirs.
“The copies are large in format but not in color.”
The original intent of the maps was to help settle insurance claims.
“The maps included roof materials, whether the buildings were wired, the construction materials, the dimensions,” Baker said. “I don’t know who paid for the maps. Perhaps local offices purchased them from the Sanborn company.”
Their use today is historical.
“Someone who owns a historic property more often than not wants to know where doors and windows were, where porches were,” Baker said. “Sheds, barns and carriage houses are often shown. If someone buys a historic home close to downtown, we’re likely to have it on the maps.”
City directories are equally valuable.
“The average researcher has no idea what a city directory is,” Baker said. “They think it’s a telephone book.”
It is and more. A city directory is full of advertisements. It shows the address of every person and building. It usually shows the person’s occupation.
Researchers also come looking for photographs of structures.
“Most likely, those photographs will have been taken by families,” Baker said. “We may have something under the family name or building name. Our clipping files are most likely to give them something on the families.
“Until they get to the courthouse, we’re usually not able to tell them exactly when the house or building was constructed. However, we may be able to see on the Sanborn maps when the site was just a field and then when it became something.”
The biggest drawback of the maps and directories is that block numbers in Cleburne have changed.
“Sometimes, they’re numbered differently today,” Baker said. “But the map and directory will indicate, for instance, that a building is the second property from the corner. You can usually find its footprint.”
Even if the footprint, like many historic Cleburne properties, is now a parking lot.