It’s Easy to Fail

Anybody could guess that historical research is hard.  I expected this project to be challenging but I didn’t realize that there is no correlation between time spent researching and success in finding useful information.  I am sure that my peers in this class, historians and any other person doing research shares my frustration.

As a teacher I have little time between the hours of 9:00 am and 5:00 pm to go to remote offices or make personal phone calls.  Last week the school I work at had their February break– I thought I lucked out and would be able to get a majority of the research for this project done.  Boy, was I wrong.

The first day was lost to President’s Day, the second day to snow and the third to a prior commitment.  On the Thursday of break I headed off to Ho-Ho-Kus’s Town Hall to introduce myself to the borough clerk and ask about going through any public records the town had.  As I entered the office that I needed to be in, someone immediately asked how they could help me.  I explained that I was researching the history of the town for a grad school project and I was hoping to go through any records or documents that the town might have from the 1850’s through the 1940’s.  The town clerk asked if I hadn’t received the message she left on my voicemail; I responded that I had not.  She gave me the news that the town does not keep any records on site and that I should try the County Clerk, they might have what I was looking for there.

I tried not to be discouraged by this, but I wasn’t entirely sure where the County Clerk’s office was.  What does someone do when they don’t know something?  I pulled up Google on my phone and searched for an address which I then typed into my GPS.

Upon arriving to the building where the County Clerk’s office is located, I fumbled through an explanation of the project.  I explained that I am doing a research project on the history of Ho-Ho-Kus and I wasn’t entirely sure what kinds of records were even available to me.  The guy at the desk kind of laughed and said that I needed to be more specific if I wanted him to be helpful.  I said the first subtopic that came to my mind: the racetrack.  Unfortunately, I didn’t know much about the Ho-Ho-Kus Speedway at the time, I pretty much just knew the year that it was shut down.  The guy introduced me to someone else, Danny.

A tax map of the Ho-Ho-Kus/Ridgewood border from December 1902.

A tax map of the Ho-Ho-Kus/Ridgewood border from December 1902.

Danny sympathized with my total lack of knowledge and said that we might be able to find more information if we looked at an old tax map to figure out what block and lot the racetrack was located on.  Once we knew the block and lot, I would be able to go through the tax lists to find out a name.  We walked over to the tax maps and he pulled open a big, flat drawer labeled Ho-Ho-Kus.  Inside were large maps, the kind of maps and drawings you might expect to see in the hands of an architect.

The oldest map available was from 1960.  Next, Danny sat me down at a computer and said that I could search through older maps that had been scanned into their network.  After two hours of searching through maps I still hadn’t found any maps with even the slightest indication of a racetrack ever existing in Ho-Ho-Kus.

I decided that I would try a different approach.  I went up to the third floor and found the tax office that Danny had mentioned.  I asked the clerk for any Ho-Ho-Kus tax records from 1934-1938.  I was handed a roll of microfilm and set to work.  I spent an additional three hours going through each page of tax lists from the years 1935 to 1941.  I found one name associated with Race Track Road.  O’Mealia Adv. Co.  I believed that this was what I was looking for, I found something!  I happily printed a copy of the page, handed the microfilm back to the clerk and walked out of the building with a huge smile.

The first page of tax records I found that mentioned Race Track Road.  This is from the year 1939.

The first page of tax records I found that mentioned Race Track Road. This is from the year 1939.

Once I arrived home, I took out my computer and Google searched what I thought was the “O’Mealia Adventure Co.”  What I found out was Adv. stands for Advertising.  O’Mealia might have used the race track as an advertising spot, but they probably did not own the track.  I had spent the whole day for nothing.

I did learn a few things though:

1. Know as much as possible before you go to look through old public records.

2. Bring a computer or something that will allow you to Google-search information while at the County Clerk’s office.

3. Say a prayer that the records you have dreamed of actually exist.

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3 Responses to It’s Easy to Fail

  1. wardc481 says:

    I can relate to lessons #1 and #3. I just spent an entire evening at the Denville Museum with less than a clue of what I wanted to get out of my visit. Luckily the curator was very helpful and, coincidentally, in our conversations I learned that he had assembled an entire binder on the subject I chose for my first blog post. A lot of research comes down to luck and prayers!

  2. soothinghands01 says:

    I completely relate to the time issue although my problem seems to be with the Historical Societies being opened either once a month or maybe once a week. Thank you writing this, I now don’t feel so alone and frustrated.

  3. dfreeman82 says:

    While I find it unfortunate that you had to deal with such a headache this really is a very important topic. When you are in your Graduate studies and have a project that is not funded by anyone it requires that your prioritize your time. The fact that you have limitations on hours due to work is a prime example that many Historians face. Many of the places that we need to go to have very limited hours which is highly unfortunate. What is ironic is that the people who are in charge of the offices like the county clerks may not understand just the type of gold mine they are holding you back from. I feel that even in my research so far when I have found information people look at my a little funny over my excitement when they show me a stack of old newspaper clippings. I sincerely hope your further searches go a bit easier on you. If you are finding it to hard to track down this information I recommend possibly switching to a topic that is more easily researched with the time constraints you are facing.

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