Living the American Dream in a House From Sears

By Mitch Traphagen (mitch@observernews.net)
 

PICNIC, FL - The cities were becoming crowded and polluted and crime was on the rise. An economic boom was on the horizon and advances in public urban transportation were making a commute to work a possibility.

At the very same time, in the offices of the world’s largest retailer, a group of executives decided to shape a failing mail order business in home building materials into a new force in American housing.

In the early 1900s, Sears began selling houses through the mail. Although today no one knows the exact number, by most estimates at least 100,000 families called a Sears mail-order house "home."

One of those homes can be found in eastern Hillsborough County in an area known as Picnic.

And it most definitely is a home. With traditional 1920’s style architecture, polished hardwood floors and varnished doors, it was clearly built to be home. You can almost hear the laughter of children and see the Christmas lights adorning the tree placed near the window facing the road.

"This was a wonderful place to grow up," said Jane Saranko, who spent her childhood in the house. "There are no bad vibes here." Saranko, along with her sister Ginger Fortner, recalled many pleasant memories about growing up in their Sears house.

Sears made it relatively easy to buy a mail order home. The houses were shipped in 30,000 pieces - not counting the nails. They included everything needed to complete the home - from cabinet doors to windows, paint and varnish and even bricks for the fireplace. Sears advertising suggested that a man of average abilities could complete the home over a period of weeks.

Beginning in 1908 the least expensive complete home sold for $107.

The house in Picnic is today owned by Ron Sumner of Valrico who is currently using the house as an office. Sumner is excited about the home and its history.

Decades of family living have made an indelible impression - the feeling of "home" is still there. The look of the large rural lot and foliage have likely changed little since the house was completed on March 22, 1926.

In that year, a home kit such as this one would have sold for between $1,400 and $1,700.

In 1926, buying a Sears kit house involved little more than filling out a form and sending a check. At that time, Sears even offered up to 100% financing at six percent interest.

The order was shipped in multiple pieces, with each new shipment timed to arrive when needed. All of the houses were shipped by rail. Stories abound of the excitement involved in the day the family went to the rail yard to claim their new home.

In the case of the house in Picnic, the entire community pitched in to build it. "My grandfather said it took the community to build this house," said Fortner. "Everyone brought something - it was wonderful. The community was like an extended family."

According to Saranko, the house was the first in Eastern Hillsborough County to have electricity. Her father, Curtis Colding, lived there at the time. "My Dad said that he could remember people coming by in their horse and buggies just to watch the lights come on," said Saranko.

The property also contains an artesian well that feeds a small creek. "That water is cold and pure and good tasting," said Saranko. "This is where we got our water - we had no well. When the electricity went out Daddy would send me down here with a bucket to get water."

By the height of the Great Depression in 1934, Sears was getting out of the mail order house business because of huge losses on their financing plans. Approximately $11 million dollars were written off (nearly $11 billion in today’s dollars) because the company largely decided against forcing people out of their homes for failure to pay. In many cases, there wouldn’t have been buyers anyway. According to most historians, the last Sears kit house was sold in 1940.

The houses, however, were designed to last. Sears homes cover the American landscape and may well be a testament to an era of our emerging nation. The kit houses helped define the American Dream of home ownership, after all. Families from the Greatest Generation were moving into Sears homes before the Great War and through the Great Depression. The American Dream was established for the families as the United States became established to the world. The thousands of Sears homes still standing across the country are a hallmark of an age.

Today they are often sought after due in large part to the quality of their materials but also for their history and tradition. The homes that were purchased as a kit for a little more than a thousand dollars 70 years ago are now selling for well in excess of $200,000 today.

Back at the wooden Sears home in Picnic, the years have rolled by, children were born, they laughed and played and they became adults. Friends and family gathered to hear the news of an attack on Pearl Harbor and to see news of a giant leap for mankind on the moon. Storms came and went, wars and Presidents passed. The house, however, remains.

"I guess my fondest memory is growing up here with Mom and Dad," said Saranko. "We had a good time growing up here."

"It’s home," said Fortner. "It’s part of our heritage."

Even to a visitor it is clear to see. And the feeling from decades of happy memories is clear as well: This house from Sears is a home.

Mitch Traphagen Photos

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