The House My Ancestors Bought at Sears

By: Nephi Henry

As I imagine a lot of people do, I used to think of genealogy as one of the blandest, most tedious things a person could do. The endless list of names and dates to be memorized, the stale pedigree charts, the distant places with names I couldn't pronounce—genealogy was too much for my busy 21st-century brain to keep track of, the kind of thing I'd have to store away in spreadsheets and could never really find a way to sink my teeth into.

Then, one day, that very same 21st-century brain gave me my breakthrough into how personal and real genealogy can be. I called my dad, who lives on the other side of the country, and due to my habitual multitasking I was also browsing the Web on my laptop. Dad started talking about his grandparents, my great-grandparents, whom I don't remember ever meeting or even seeing pictures of. They lived in a little white farmhouse near Canton, Illinois, and Dad reminisced at length about the idyllic summers he spent there as a boy, walking the fields and drinking fresh milk straight from the dairy cows. He tried to describe the house for me, but his memories were vague and sparse.

Dad then mentioned casually that his grandparents had bought their house—or rather, the kit for their house—from the Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog. Frankly, I was astonished: I knew Sears had essentially revolutionized American consumerism with its mail-order catalog, but I had no idea that the company had ever dealt in anything as big as houses. So on a hunch, I opened a Web browser and searched for "Sears houses."

Lo and behold, there were entire websites dedicated to these houses, complete with scans of original catalog pages featuring the kits, their exteriors, and their floor plans. It turns out that like my great-grandparents' old farmhouse, many of these decades-old kit homes are still standing today. As landmarks of an American sociocultural phenomenon, they create quite a niche community online.

Soon Dad booted up his home computer and we were looking together through page after page of the houses. Within a few short minutes we found the very one my great-grandparents had built on the Illinois plains—the Starlight. And as we looked at the floor plan and the pictures, it was as though a dam broke. Memory after memory came back to him; he hardly had time to share one with me before the next came rushing into his mind.

About a week later, I got an email from Dad and found that he'd attached a dozen photographs of faces I'd never seen, but I could tell almost at once they were relatives: the great-grandparents I'd never known, along with my grandmother and her siblings. And there behind them was the house Dad had struggled to recreate in his mind. I'm not sure where he found the pictures, but I'm pretty certain he went looking because we'd found that old farmhouse using some very 21st-century technology.

How have you mixed the old and the new in genealogy? Has technology unexpectedly opened doors to your own family history?

5 comments:

Michelle Goodrum | September 23, 2010 at 9:26 PM

Great story! Some friends of ours still have the "Sears" house that their dad built in the family. It's been remodelled but it's really cool.

sprklsnshsn | September 24, 2010 at 11:26 AM

Does anyone have a pic of a sears house? Please post it, i've never seen 1. This is the 1st time hearing of them.

The Generations Project | September 24, 2010 at 1:01 PM

The link in the post shows a picture of a Sears house. Click here http://www.searsarchives.com/homes/images/1927-1932/1927_p3202-p7009.jpg

Amy Coffin, MLIS | September 27, 2010 at 12:40 PM

My grandfather told me about Sears houses on more than one occasion. I had forgotten all about them until this blog post. Thanks for jogging that memory out of the cobwebs of my brain.

Marc Monson | September 27, 2010 at 10:01 PM

Wonderful story, Nephi! The unexpected things in our heritage sure make life interesting. Thank you for sharing!

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