Chesterton Tribune

Houses by Mail: Historians take new look at Duneland with Sears homes talk

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Houses by Mail! Margaret Larson told in her memoir about her father, Peter, showing the family a Sears and Robuck catalog with Houses by Mail on the cover. He said “They will sell you everything, even the door knobs.” The date was 1910.

The Larsons moved into the house, located on Howe Road, in June, 1911 and lived there until 1948. The Sears and Roebuck catalog listed the model as “The Silverdale” priced at $1,623. It is now owned by the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and near the entrance to the Environmental Learning Center (formerly Goodfellow Camp).

A large crowd of members and guests of the Duneland Historical Society heard about Sears houses at the society’s meeting September 21 at the Library Service Center.

Sarah Mullen, an expert on domestic architecture from Valparaiso University, told the history of “kit houses” which might have had 30,000 separate pieces and came with a leather bound, 75-page construction manual.

Early Sears catalogs listed parts for houses and in 1908 their Modern Homes Division began selling whole houses and continued until 1940. It is estimated that up to 100,000 houses were sold.

In 1911, when mortgages were not especially common, Sears began offering financing plans. The only question asked was “What is your vocation?” Business peaked in 1929 and by 1934 many foreclosures took place as the depression deepened.

Hundreds of plans were offered over the years, including modest cottages, elaborate single family homes, barns, apartment buildings and offices. Each house had a name as well as a catalog number.

Lumber was pre-cut and each piece marked usually with a letter and 2 or 3 numbers. Plans could be changed and individualized to suit the owners. Plumbing, heating and electrical fixtures were optional.

Most Sears houses are located in the upper midwest and the northeast. 48 sales offices existed at one time with most situated near railroads for easy delivery. Nearby offices were in Gary, Hammond and South Bend.

Historians Eva Hopkins and Nancy Vaillancourt showed pictures of 22 local houses which have been identified as Sears houses or are thought to be “kit houses.” In some cases the houses have been referred to as Montgomery Ward houses. Also included were examples of pre-fab and Lustron houses which date to the 40s and 50s.

At 417 Bowser in Chesterton is the Argyle model. It was built in 1927 for the Fred Hyde family. In a phone interview Fred Hyde, Jr. recalled being told that the house was brought to the site from the railroad station and that the instructions said “If you use a square or a saw, you are doing something wrong.”

A Puritan model is located at 418 Franklin in Porter. It was built in 1926 for John and Margaret Lindquist and they lived there until 1974.

The Elhers house at 445 Franklin is the Wilmore model, built in 1940. The parts came in a box car and were brought to the lot by Willett’s horses. The family still has the house plans.

The Ernest Anderson house in Burdick, which is still in the family, was built about 1920 and has been added onto.

The house at 135 Westchester was built for Anna Gartman in 1926 and is called the Vallonia. Her grandson Roland Pearson has given the original house plans to the Westchester History Museum.

Still occupied by the Martin family is the Winslow model at 405 S. 9th St. It was built for Lloyd Martin in 1941. By that time Sears no longer had its huge lumber centers and sent the order on to Lewis Manufacturing in Bay City, Michigan. The family has the original papers and says the parts were brought from the depot by Bob Greer.

The Duneland Historical Society will have its fall dinner October 19 at 6:30 p.m. at the Library Service Center. Members have received reservation forms. The public is invited to the program at 7:30 p.m. when Jim Cullen will present “Railroad History with Music.”


Posted 9/29/2006