It was not uncommon for folks to find new hobbies during the COVID-19 pandemic. For some, those hobbies turned into passions — and for a rarer few, into professions.
Longtime friends Mel Fox and Lauren Higgs are among that rare few. The two took up genealogy in 2020, doing a research project for a friend with no intentions of going any further. They were soon subsumed with the pastime, taking on more clients for whom they began publishing small family history books.
In January 2022, they went pro, launching Rootsbound, through which they offer services related to research, history, DNA analysis, custom family history books and fan charts.
While most people connect genealogy to family lines, Fox and Higgs have recently begun carrying out architectural genealogy projects, tracing the histories of homes and spaces in NoDa — formerly North Charlotte and before then the Highland Park Mill Village — where Fox has lived for over a decade.
Queen City Nerve caught up with the duo on a recent afternoon to discuss how they’ve come to run a business based on what began as a whim.
Queen City Nerve: Where did your interest in genealogy come from?
Lauren Higgs: It made history interesting for me. My dad was a political science major. He lived in Cabarrus County his whole life. I grew up there and I would hear him tell stories, but it wasn’t until I found this as a hobby and then a career that it contextualized historical events for me so well that it made it more compelling.
Mel Fox: I really like the mystery of it, putting the pieces of the puzzle together. When COVID came, I was like, “I’m going to lose my mind if I can’t use my brain on something other than first-grade homework [with her son].” So I bought a computer and started researching on FamilySearch. And then [my husband] Jeff gifted me an Ancestry subscription. He was like, “Here, just do it.” And then [Lauren and I] just started going back and forth and decided to work together on a project. And then after that, we were like, “Wow, this is really cool. Let’s keep working on projects together”
Higgs: I think one of the things, too, that kind of elevated it for me was when her and I started working together, we realized pretty quickly that so many people do this as a hobby. And on the one hand, the availability of information nowadays on Ancestry and things like that, it’s incredibly convenient, and it means that a lot of people can do it as a hobby, but it also means that there’s not always the level of care or detail in the work that some of those folks do.
And so we realized we loved the research, we loved solving these mysteries, and we were confident that we would be able to produce high-quality research and content for people that we felt confident in — that we could say, “This is where your family came from, and here are all of our sources and why we’ve reached these conclusions.”
Where did the idea to begin researching home histories come from?
Fox: I’ve had that idea for a while. We just haven’t really gotten to it because we’ve been doing other things. But this one was just a regular family tree project, coffee table book, and it just happened to lead us to the Parkers that lived [on Charles Avenue].
Higgs: We talked about how fascinating it would be to know all the different families who lived in these homes, who worked in the mill, who walked to Astor Theatre when that’s what [Neighborhood Theatre] was. What the neighborhood was like, what their lives looked like and how much they paid in rent.
Fox: The Parkers were paying $5. What I think got me started in wondering about my property is when we got our crawl space done right before COVID, a guy was under the house, and he comes out and he’s like, “Did you all have a fire here?” And I was like, “No, I don’t think so, but maybe.” So then I was like, “I have to figure this out.” And so I started researching our house. We’re always finding all these toys and trinkets and weird things buried in the yard. Hosiery, shirts, a Chrysler car emblem from a hubcap, marbles, barrettes. It’s weird. So I was like, “Who lived here? Whose stuff is all of this?”
So I just started to see what I could find, because the research websites are set up to look for people, so I was like, “What if I start looking for an address?” And now recently we’re starting to research the actual people that lived here. What did they do? Who were their families? Who were their neighbors? And what did they do after they worked at the mill? Which is really fascinating, because a lot of people will work at the mill for, like, 50 years. But one guy who lived here went on to be chief of police of rural Mecklenburg County and then a sheriff and then tragically died in a car accident in Savannah. It really gives a human connection to just a name on the page.
Where do you start with home research? How do you build out that history?
Higgs: You go backwards. So owners of properties are public information, and the best way to be sure you know you’re looking at the right set of folks is that you start with who owns it currently and you look at the sale of the house from the current person to the previous owner and so on, all the way back. So it’s really a backwards process.
And then in the case of Mel’s home, when we were looking at the history of this, it got pretty complicated pretty quickly, because when these homes were first built, they didn’t have street numbers, so we had to make sure we found the correct maps for the time, and roads were not like they are today.
Fox: It’s not like this was always [my address]. It was house number 109 of Highland Park Mill Village. I found kids from the village writing to Santa in the paper, and they say, “Dear Santa, whatever, I want oranges and candy.” And then they sign it, like, their name, and then they don’t have an address. It just says 120 Highland Park Mill. So the house had a number but there were no street names yet.
Have you all found any anecdotes that really stick with you?
Fox: We researched for a good friend of ours, too, earlier this year, who also happened to be NoDa natives. And one of my favorite things that I have found ever, they lived on East 34th street between Holt [Street] and Wesley [Avenue]. And it was one of our friend’s grandfathers. He was a baby in the mid-’30s. And this was a broader trend in the country where people were awarding Healthiest Baby and Healthiest Teenager awards to kids, mostly in the Midwest. But apparently it happened here too. And I think it was through the Methodist church — Brevard Methodist. His grandpa was awarded Healthiest Baby. And there’s a picture of him all pudgy in suspenders and it’s ridiculous and I love it.
Higgs: We’ve come across several Healthiest Baby and Healthiest Teenager competitions in our time and it is so ridiculous and so bizarre.
Fox: I love it. (laughs)
Did everyone who lived in the neighborhood work at the mill or were there other options?
Higgs: You had to. There’s this great book called Like a Family [by Jacquelyn Dowd Hall] that traces the history of Southern mill industry that I highly recommend, and they talk about how a certain percentage of the household, children included, had to be working at the mill for you to have the privilege to rent the homes. And the rent for the homes was actually discounted, so it wasn’t really comparable with what rent was in other places. So they were saving money on the rent. They were upcharging them, however, at the mill store. And a lot of people did get into that same problem that coal miners did, where you’re indebted to your employer.
What have you guys learned about the mill village in terms of social life? Beyond the Astor, what did people do on Saturday and Sunday?
Higgs: Baseball. Lots of baseball. All of the Mills had baseball teams, it was a big deal. And I’ve even read anecdotally, I think it was passed down from a family, where some of the managers at the mills would actually select their employees based on their baseball playing skills. They would make deals with folks. And the young men who were really talented at baseball a lot of times were not really expected to pull their weight inside the mill. So they’d show up for work and then they just kind of screw around for hours.
Fox: There’s a lot about social life in this other book, it’s amazing, The Spirit of a Proud People by Mary Lois Moore Yandle.
And you all publish books for your clients. What’s that process like?
Higgs: The big ones are more like three- to six-month efforts because we really research as far back as we can go given ancestral lines, and we look at historical context and we really try to tell our clients where their people came from and who they were and what they did and what their lives were like. And some people are willing to make this kind of investment. And I think one of the reasons we came up with the coffee table book idea was that we had folks who seemed really interested in this idea but didn’t feel like they were ready or able to invest the amount of money it requires, because it takes just a lot of our time to put together something of that larger size.
So we pivoted and decided to also offer this coffee table option where we kind of time-box the amount of time we research and we say, “We’re going to look into your family history for 20 hours, and then we’re going to pull out the most compelling stories.” And we felt like this would be the appropriate format for telling the history of someone’s home as well, so that it’s something they could keep out in their house and display to other folks.
Fox: We’re also doing beautiful full-color family circle charts designed by Lauren that we want to start doing more of, too. If anybody wants wall art for Christmas or anything like that, it’s on Etsy and through our website.
Will your home research remain centered on NoDa?
Fox: It will be for now, because we are focusing our sort of locality and background research on the mills here. And we know where the maps are. We know what the streets looked like back in the 1920s or what have you. So we’ve already learned so much about the beginnings of the mills and Spencer and Holt and all those folks and how the village kind of progressed. We have the solid kind of foundation of knowledge, and then we just feel that there are probably a lot of folks who live in this neighborhood who would love to know who lived in their homes over the course of the last hundred years.
What would you say to anyone who shares your interest in this but doesn’t know where to begin?
Fox: Talk to us. What do you want to know? It’s as easy as doing one hour of research for $49 or all the way up to a full-scale book. We did a free giveaway online and researched somebody’s great grandma, and it turned out to be a completely different story from what she was told as a kid. And we just did an hour and found all this stuff. So we want it to be accessible. We don’t want everybody to have to pay us thousands of dollars for six months of work. We really have fun doing it and love sharing people’s stories with them.
Higgs: And I would say, too, to not get discouraged, because when you look back at the census records for the homes in this neighborhood, your streets are not going to line up. It’s not going to be clear cut. You’re not going to go back and see, “Oh, here’s 605 Charles in 1920.” It didn’t exist. So there’s quite a bit of legwork there in figuring out exactly where these homes were and what they were called and making sure that you have the right property. The information’s out there, but it’s not immediately available.
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