Friday, September 19, 2014
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Hundred-year-old catalogue mail order houses, still in our midst
Cow head on Route 121 barn marks one home location

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[September 19, 2014]  LINCOLN - Monday evening, Sharon Reynolds was the guest speaker at the Logan County Genealogical and Historical Society monthly meeting.

Reynolds topic was close to home, well in fact, her topic was her home, a two-storey house on Route 121 south of Lincoln that has a storied history. The house is one of as many as 100,000 homes sold from the Sears, Roebuck and Company catalog during the early years of the 20th century.

For about the last century, at least until the later part of the 20th century, the department store chain mail order catalog was the main way to buy almost anything. The Sears catalog would be delivered right to a customer’s doorstep by the Postal Service and all a person had to do was mail in an order form and have the item delivered right to the home.

The big players in catalogue sales were JC Penny, Montgomery Ward, and the world famous Sears, Roebuck & Company. In 1894, the Sears catalog had 322 pages, covering almost any product a household could use.

Since the digital age took over, Amazon and eBay have mostly supplanted the old line retailers.

“You could buy anything from the Sears catalog,” said Sharon Reynolds. And one of the most unusual choices, was all of the necessary items to build a complete house. “Sears sold houses from their catalog between 1908 and 1940. Our house was purchased by Ruben Miller around 1916, and with the help of his brother, constructed at its present location,” she said.

“There were no specialty contractors on the job. When people ordered a Sears home, they expected to build it themselves with help from family and friends,” she added.

The Reynolds house was model number 132, which was later given a name, the Palmyra.

The Reynolds’ beautifully restored Sears home.

Sharon said “Our number 132 was the second of this model built near Lincoln. The first one is still standing about six miles west of Lincoln on Fifth Street Road,” Reynolds said.

The very first Sears home model 132 is west of Lincoln. Note the same roof line as the Reynolds’

Once a Sears house was ordered, it was shipped by railroad, all 30,000 parts of it amounting to 25 tons, to a location near the customer, who then picked it up at the station. In the case of the Reynolds’ house, the railroad had a station at the present location of the Chestervale elevator, so it was a relatively easy task to move all of the parts to the nearby building site.

The Sears homes were considered state-of-the-art at the time. When all of the myriad parts were put together, the house had built in plumbing in an era of outside facilities, especially in country homes. It had two indoor bathrooms, one on each floor of the two story house. The houses had wiring for electricity and a Delco generator to provide that electricity, although some early models had built in piping for gas illumination. The house had central heating that could be paired with a coal fired boiler that provided hot water heat, when many houses were still heated by fireplaces and wood burning stoves. The houses even had built in cabinets.

The houses came with roofing options. The Reynolds’ house has slate roof, but shingles and metal roofing were also offered.

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“The Sears house was a distinctly American concept, and set the tone for marketing and mass produced products that took hold in the 20th century,” said Sharon. Sears even owned a lumber mill in southern Illinois that mass produced the wooden parts of the homes.

Depending on the model selected, the price of the houses was anywhere from $360 to $2,890, when they were initially offered. Sears even provided financing, although this practice was eliminated in the 1934 due to the large number of defaults during the Great Depression.

When the Reynolds family purchased their house, it had sat empty for five years. When they brought in a contractor to inspect the house and recommend a course for restoration, he noticed that the roof rafters had numbers stamped on them. “This was our first indication that we had a Sears’ house,” Reynolds said.

The blueprints for construction of a Sears’ house referred to stamped numbers on the thousands of parts to get the correct order of construction. The numbering system on the parts is one clue that a house may be a Sears’ catalog house.

Unfortunately, all of the sales records for Sears’ homes were destroyed during the 1940’s during an ill conceived paperwork house cleaning by the corporation. A ten step investigation developed by a house historian is one way to positively identify an authentic Sears’ home. No one knows where the next Sears’ house will be discovered.

Sears used architects to design its catalog homes. The Reynolds’ house has been standing for almost 100 years, which attests to the sturdy quality of the building materials and well designed house.

“Our Sears’ home has been a magnet for visitors who own Sears’ homes of their own. We have even had visits from relatives of some of the previous owners of this house. It served three generations of the original owner’s family,” Sharon Reynolds said.

While individual Sears’ homes are seen all over the country from Florida to California, and even Canada, there are clusters of the houses in some locations. In Illinois, Elgin and Carlinville have large neighborhoods of Sears’ homes. This usually was the result of a large company providing housing for workers at a nearby factory, or in the case of Carlinville, a coal mine.

Sharon and her husband Clyde have showered their historic home with attention to detail with the intention of preserving this important part of American history. With a laugh, Sharon said “When we bought the house, there was so much work that needed to be done, we thought it would be a five year project. When five years came and went, we moved the time line to ten years to get it completed. When ten years passed, we thought surely fifteen years would see the project completed. We have finally decided that taking care of this special house is a lifetime project.”

The beautiful house south of Lincoln attests to the Reynolds’ love for their home. Oh, and what about the large cow head sticking out of the end of their barn that faces Route 121? Well, that’s a completely different story.

The Logan County Genealogical & Historical Society meets the third Monday of the month at 6:30 p.m. at their research facility at 114 North Chicago Street in Lincoln. After a short business meeting, there is always an interesting speaker discussing fascinating subjects. The phone number is 217-732-3200 and email is  Their website is The Society also provides research for those interested in their Lincoln and Logan County heritage.


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