Sears, Roebuck and Company 'Kit' homes and barns
by David Dorpfeld
I can’t remember when I first learned of Sears Roebuck homes, but it must have been decades ago.
There are several in the county and one was on Greene County’s Tour of Homes when it was in Durham in 2012. What I did not know until yesterday was the existence of Sears’ fabricated barns.
I was attending a lecture by Greenville Historian Don Teator when he mentioned there was such a thing. Of course, his remark caused me to go on a mad search to find out more.
First question: What is a Sears home?
Actually sold by Sears, Roebuck and Company, the homes were actually kit homes. They were sold under the name “modern homes” and featured in catalogs.
The buyer mailed his or her order to Sears and the kit was shipped via railroad boxcars to a siding nearest to where the home would be constructed.
I have to believe many people had seen a constructed example prior to placing their order. Between 1908 and 1940, more than 70,000 of these homes were sold in North America — primarily on the east coast.
Over the years, more than 370 different home designs in a wide range of architectural styles and sizes were offered. A few years ago, someone pointed out a house in Tannersville that he claimed was a Sears home.
It was huge. Frankly, I did not know they came that large.
The houses were assembled in several ways — sometimes, the homeowners along with relatives, friends and neighbors got together in similar fashion to the old-fashioned barn raisings.
Plumbers and electricians may have been hired for some of the more complicated work. Other times, local contractors were hired to assemble the entire house.
Lastly, some builders bought the kits and assembled the houses on speculation.
Sadly, from historians’ point of view, most Sears’ sales records have been lost in the midst of time. A few years after the last house was sold in 1940, the company destroyed them during a corporate house cleaning.
There were other manufacturers of precut, kit homes in addition to Sears, including Gordon-Van Tine, Montgomery Ward, Aladdin and Harris Brothers. Because of this, it’s often difficult to establish the company that made a specific kit home.
Suffice it to say, Sears was the most well-known and largest player in the market for a number of years and has become the generic name for kit homes from the time period.
Establishing the origin of a particular kit home can require a great deal of research and, in the end, the researcher may still not find the answer.
Now to barns: Don Teator said he was told years ago the barn at the George V. Vanderbilt Town Park in Greenville, known as the North Barn, was a Sears kit barn. The barn will be the headquarters for Greene County Historical Society’s 41st Annual Tour of Homes.
The July-August 2007 newsletter of the Preservation and Conservation Association says the following: “Precut or ‘kit’ buildings were an American innovation in building technology. As far as we know today, no other country has ever marketed such buildings.
“All the framing elements were cut to size at the mill, labeled with identifying numbers and shipped by rail to the buyer, along with doors, windows, millwork, roofing materials, flooring, exterior siding, paint and varnish. Catalog advertisements claim that the buyer could save up to 30 percent of the cost of standard construction by choosing a precut building.”
If anyone knows of any “kit” barns from the early 20th century, please contact me. I would like to thank Don Teator for supplying me with much of the information for this column and my friend Margaret Donnellon, president of the King Barn Dairy Museum in Boyds, Maryland, for encouraging me to write it down.
Part two will continue next week.
Questions or comments? Email David Dorpfeld at firstname.lastname@example.org.