Melanie Marks has accomplished what many people dream about; it is rather a comfort to me to see that it can, in fact, be done. She’s turned a personal hobby into a full-fledged business. Starting with researching the antique house that she and her family purchased in Fairfield, Connecticut, and learning, for her own interest, about the property’s history and that of the families who had lived there in the past, and then going on to do projects for historic preservation organizations and private clients, she now has a thriving business researching genealogy, historic homes, properties, and artwork. She was kind enough to sit down with me in her charming home (built circa 1700) to tell me more. Here’s what she had to say.
The NewsWhistle Q&A with Melanie Marks
Date: March 8, 2019
Occupation: founder and president, CT House Histories
Hometown: Kettering, Ohio
Current town: Fairfield, Connecticut
Thanks for taking the time to meet with me and answer some questions. I understand that your sister has a similar business to your own, is that correct?
Yes, my sister, Melissa Beal Beyerlein, formed her own company like mine, OH House Histories. I made her do it! She was helping me with mine, and she now does similar projects, sometimes with me and sometimes on her own. Our father calls us the sleuthing sisters!
So, researching local history really is a bit like sleuthing, I imagine, trying to find details about daily life in the past. Do you have any formal training in history?
No, no formal training, not even a degree. Back in 2002, I bought an antique house and I got curious, so I dug up the history. I started to get involved with the preservation of historic homes. Morley Boyd, who was then the chair of the Westport Historic District Commission, was trying to get four houses listed as local historic landmarks and asked me if I would be interested in doing the research. I thought it would be great practice so I offered to do it for free.
And was it successful?
Yes –all of the houses got listed! And from there, people started calling me about their houses, wanting to find out the history. When I started, I had no letterhead, stationery, business cards, nothing. I really thought I couldn’t do this without a college degree (I studied early childhood education but never finished the program due to marriage and children). I thought I needed to be on a consultant list, and I didn’t have the qualifications. I realized that I couldn’t do this alone, so I surrounded myself with people who were experts in fields where I was not. I have a team of consultants that work for me and who compliment my talents.
Morley was qualified, he had the degree, and so I thought I could make this happen. I realized that in order for us to compete with others doing this type of work, we would need to look more professional, so in 2009, I formed a company, with a website, letterhead, and it looked good. And from there it just took off. He’s still a consultant I work with. I know my weaknesses. I’m not a writer. My sister is a writer, as is my colleague Pat Hines! My strength is research. I am good at it because I am very meticulous. I am not an architectural historian either and thus why I have two architectural historians as consultants. To be successful, we work with people who have different types of expertise.
I’m glad that it became so successful.
One of the most amazing complements I received was from someone who was on the list at the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), who wanted to know how we were able to get these big jobs that they couldn’t get with given they were on SHPO’s list. And once at a town meeting, the Executive Director of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation said that CT House Histories was a brand. That was one of the biggest compliments I had ever received while doing this work.
So what is your takeaway on this?
Just because you are not good at certain things doesn’t mean you can’t compete. You have to know who to work with, who can compliment your strengths and strengthen your weaknesses.
That reminds me of some good advice I’ve received about law. You don’t have to know everything, every area of law. You do need to know who to ask.
We’ve never done any advertising, it has all grown by word of mouth. It’s thanks to good research and good teamwork. Our workload has grown tremendously and I find myself having to turn away work. There are only a few of us, and we plan projects six to nine months out. We really only take on a few houses a year.
What is the most interesting story or location that you’ve researched?
The Adam Stanton House in Clinton, Connecticut. That house is a museum. Adam Stanton was a sea captain and a merchant and everything was contained in this house. They had a curator who was living there, it is owned by the town, and we toured the house to go through everything. I can’t tell you what a treasure trove it was. Stuffed in closets, in drawers, in pockets of coats, there were deeds that went back to the 1700s, just shoved into things.
With permission, I brought all of the documents home, put them in archival sleeves, photographed them for their records, and gave it all, organized, back to the museum. I couldn’t fathom it. I was holding deeds from 1776, records about Adam sailing to Barbados and the West Indies. It was the history of ship-building and local property and commerce.
Was it one of those houses that had been in the same family for a million years?
Yes, it stayed in the same family for generations. All of it was there, it was the Stanton family’s up until the very last Stanton deeded the house in a trust for a museum. It was a historian’s dream!
Do you ever hit any historical dead ends?
Yes! I’m working on something now, researching when and why a road in Bluffton, South Carolina is called Burnt Church Road. There’s a local distillery named Burnt Church Distillery which will be opening in 2020 and the owner is interested in the history. Sometimes you only have a window of opportunity. I’ve tracked down that the name came sometime between the 1940 census and 1954 when the state took in the road as a state highway, but I haven’t further narrowed it down from there. We believe there were structures there, slave houses that morphed into housing for a turpentine farm, and that there was likely a church, or a praise house there, which at some point burned. I’ve been told that the black folks in the community just started calling it that and I’ve been interviewing people to develop this more. I had a contract for 50 hours – which I have clearly gone over, so it was time to stop. If they decide to have me continue, then I will be more than happy to do more. Historical research can go on forever!
It sounds a bit like that show, “Finding Your Roots” with Henry Louis Gates?
Yes, a lot of the work we do revolves around genealogy. Once you know the age of the house, and figure out who the people were that once lived there, then you can develop the history from there. For some consultants they only focus on the age and construction of a house, but knowing who once called it home brings that house to life.
That’s what makes history come alive, I think, the everyday life of ordinary people. What is the best advice you’ve been given in historic research or in life generally?
The best advice is to be honest. It goes a long way in anything you do. I don’t put out a product that I cannot back up and prove. It has my name on it. I believe in always being compassionate and caring. My parents instilled that in us.
What’s something most people don’t know about you?
I have dabbled in many things. My kids always came first. I used to struggle with the education issue, when people started talking about colleges, and I didn’t have that degree. But I got over that. Would I have liked to have finished college? Yes. But I always found ways to keep busy. Taking the kids to girl scouts, cub scouts, tennis. My husband wanted to know how I could put 5,000 miles on my car while driving within a five-mile radius. Then he tried taking care of the kids for a day and he got it!
I can relate to that! I spend a lot of time driving locally!
I think most of us do that! After my son started kindergarten and now both kids were in school and my husband was working internationally, I found myself at home with nothing to do. I had to figure out what to do next, and in the paper there was an ad for help in an infant room at a daycare center in Westport, and I knew I could do that! I didn’t want a job, I just wanted something to do that would be fun, so I interviewed. My boss said I couldn’t volunteer and insisted on paying me! So I worked there during my son’s kindergarten schedule, we always worked it out so I could work when I could but be home before and after school. I had a business background, so I eventually worked in the office and became the office manager. I was there for 15 years, my son ended up working there, and now both of my grandchildren go there! My old boss and I are very close friends. We’re actually planning a trip together to South Carolina in April.
I would still be there if my husband and I didn’t decide to do more traveling due to his job, so I finally had to say goodbye. It was time.
Can you do the historical research and write your reports from anywhere?
Yes, I typically pull any records I cannot find online, but do find the internet very useful in this line of work. I have no idea how people did this type of work before the internet. You just have to be careful of what you take off of the internet. I won’t use information unless I can source it.
Are you thinking about going back to school and finally getting that history degree?
I had signed up to do a genealogy certification program through Boston University but I had to postpone it due to my in-laws have some health issues. Once things slow down with work, I do plan on revisiting that. I don’t profess to know everything about genealogical research and I’m sure I would learn new things that would help in my line of work.
I’m sure you’ll learn a lot. It sounds really interesting. Have you been reading about genealogists who have been solving crimes?
Yes! Genealogists can solve crimes. Also some genealogists work in conjunction with the probate courts with helping to find heirs of people who have estates but left no will.
I met someone once at a party who did that. He tracked down relatives to tell them that uncle so and so had died (sometimes someone they didn’t even know) and that there was money for them. I thought it was such a strange and cool niche occupation!
Yes, genealogy is quite amazing and the things one finds is even more amazing. “Finding Your Roots” on PBS has really propelled genealogy out into the world and has gotten so many people interested in finding their “own roots.” People have been doing it for years, but I think the show has put a new spin on its popularity now.
Do you have any book recommendations?
Once I get into a project, it is like being in a classroom. I end up with a stack of books, for sources at first, but then I end up reading them. A new one for me is A New Plantation World: Sporting Estates in the South Carolina Lowcountry, 1900-1940 by Daniel J. Vivian. It’s about what the south called the second Yankee invasion. In the late 1800s and early 1900s industrialists were buying up plantations and turning them into hunting clubs.
The same people who were building “cottages” in Newport?
Yes, definitely the Vanderbilts! They got out of NYC with plenty of money to enjoy a good climate, and the railroads made travel easy.
So, the new money was annoying the old money?
Yes! There’s still a little resentment and snide remarks about northerners. Attitudes are slow to change!
Another book that I came across while I was doing research is The Leverett Letters: Correspondence of a South Carolina Family, 1851-1868. It’s writing back and forth between family members during the Civil War. Real life dispatches of life during wartime. So I don’t go to Barnes and Noble! I find books through my work!
So you also have been doing research on art, is that correct?
Yes, I have a client that I had done research for on six historic homes that she owned, and then she wanted to work on her family genealogy. I worked on her family lines, and created a private family tree in Ancestry.com for her. I keep it updated as I discover new things. I got her into the DAR [Daughters of the American Revolution] by discovering that she had five patriots in her family lineage!
One day she contacted me to say she had these two portraits and was trying to find out more about them – mainly who the sitters were. They were painted by Ammi Phillips. So here I was playing detective again…whether it’s houses, genealogy, or paintings, it’s the same technique. She had the portraits that she thought were a husband and wife. It turned out there were actually three, one had been separated, and what she really had was a brother and sister, they were siblings. The husband’s portrait was sold separately. I helped her track down the missing one, and ended up being a broker or facilitator in the process. She went out to see it and ended up buying it, and had it brought to her, and now all three portraits are reunited and hanging in one of her homes.
There was another Amii Phillips portrait in which the sitters were unidentified. It sold in 2007 at Sotheby’s for $264,000. And I figured it out. I did it for free, just a test case to see if I could this type of research, and I found out I could. Arts and Antiques Weekly did an article about Barbara Holdridge (who wrote the first book on Ammi Phillips in 1968) and myself. Barbara is in her 80s and is just terrific, and we’ve been working together to learn more about the many unidentified Ammi portraits. I found out that from speaking with someone at Sotheby’s, that this type of research definitely will increase the value of a painting – especially if the sitter can be identified.
Barbara wasn’t a professional at this either when she got started. She was intrigued by the paintings of Ammi Phillips when she purchased one of her own which was signed by Ammi, got curious, did her detective work, and eventually wrote a book out about him in 1968. She got a lot more attention when the American Folk Art Museum did an exhibit on Phillips in 1994.
It may be time to write another book! We’ve uncovered portraits that have never been in the public sector which is very exciting. Because of the article, people have been calling us wanting to know more about their own Ammis.
Do you find yourself digging around doing archival research?
Sometimes, yes, at churches and town halls, looking for land records, going to state libraries and historical societies. You have to be very careful though. People do pilfer books and records. Also, sometimes information out there is inaccurate. We find ourselves sometime undoing someone else’s bad work, in order for us to move forward. People rush and are careless about dates and things aren’t done well. It doesn’t help to put wrong information out there. Accuracy is a reflection of me and my work, and my consultants are just as meticulous. We pride ourselves on being accurate.
Have you always enjoyed history?
Yes, I have. When I was moving boxes around recently, I found a stack of stuff from high school. My history teacher, Mr. Karl, had heard I was graduating early and wrote me a letter wishing me much success and that he hoped that my love of history would continue. When I found this, I contacted a friend through our alumni website who put me in touch with Mr. Karl. I scanned him the letter and gave him my website so that he could see what I now do and he was extremely grateful. He said it’s a teachers dream to see where their students end up.
Of course he was! His student continued the passion of history.
He made such an impact–he made history fun. I still remember his class, tenth grade, so well, even where I sat in the classroom!
Good teachers do that. It is really amazing. Do you have a particular favorite era of American history?
I love the Civil War era. I’m named after Melanie in Gone with the Wind! My mother was in love with the movie. She said that Melanie was the nicest person in the story. My sister is named Melissa (the character is Prissy in the movie) who was the servant.
Wait, your sister was named after the servant that served the character you were named for? Why not Scarlett?
Scarlet wasn’t that nice!
She was kind of a jerk, wasn’t she?
And I asked why my brother wasn’t named Ashley or Rhett, but my mother said, “I had to name him after your father”!
Ha! Do you like the famous Carol Burnett skit when she wore the curtains with the curtain rods?
It’s my favorite episode! I am also learning to love the Revolutionary War period. It’s fascinating.
Getting back to the Civil War, I found out after having moved to Bluffton, that the secessionist movement started there; back in 1844 there was a a big movement and discussion about leaving the Union. That time in history is very sad on many fronts. Yes, it was where it all started, but what the people in the South went through during the war and the period after, was just sheer devastation and heartbreak.
I think that really comes across when you do the personal kind of research that you do, the letters and diaries of the individuals and how the larger issues of the day affected them.
I think you would like the artwork of Camilla Huey…she has done a lot of work based on the women of the Revolutionary era. The men we know, the founding fathers, but she is interested in their wives, their sisters, their daughters, and what we can learn from reading what they wrote. It is really fascinating stuff…there are so many stories that haven’t been told.
Last but not least, is there anything else you’d like to pitch, promote, or discuss?
Yes! CT House Histories…you can find information about what we do on our website, cthousehistories.com.
Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.
Laura can be contacted at email@example.com
Images Courtesy of Melanie Marks