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Seven years ago, my wife and I stayed at a bed and breakfast on a South Dakota cattle ranch. It had been settled by the owner’s grandfather in 1920 and, because there was no place to buy and sell cattle in the area, he had also added an auction barn to the site. The ranch is nine miles of narrow dirt roads from anywhere, but the people had come and brought their cattle just as we had come and brought our interest and enthusiasm.
The owner’s stories were all intriguing, but the one that caught our attention was the story of the eight-room house where we stayed. Built in 1923, it had been ordered from a Sears, Roebuck and Company mail order catalog as a pre-cut house kit. When I heard this, I remembered my father showing me a house on Dresden Road that was a pre-cut Sears home. He said the man who put it together had made only one saw cut on one 2x4 in completing the house. Everything else fit perfectly.
When we got home, I decided to dig a little deeper into this construction story and found that it began in 1906 when Frank Kushel was made responsible for the company’s unprofitable building materials department and the large excess of inventory in the Sears warehouses. Kushel approached the company’s owner with the idea of using the excess materials to assemble building kits which could be sold through the Sears catalog. The first house kits were sold in 1908. They were not pre-cut, but contained everything needed to build the house ordered, including lumber, windows, doors, trim, roofing, nails, hinges, hardware and more.
Pre-cut house kits (no saw needed) were first offered by Sears in 1916 and continued into the early 1940s. They supposedly saved up to 40 percent on labor costs. More than 70,000 various kits were sold from 1908 to 1940 according to Wikipedia.
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Kits were delivered by railroad to the nearest siding where the buyer was responsible for unloading and hauling the material by truck or horse and wagon to the building site. The average house weighed 25 tons and had 30,000 parts. At its peak, the Sears catalog listed 400 types of homes, barns and other buildings ranging in price from $700 for a 600-square-foot house with no bathroom to $5,000 for a 10-room house with several bathrooms. Barns ranged from under $1,000 for a 32x32-foot structure to $5,000 for a 36x146-foot dairy barn.
You could also order a milk house, chicken house, corn crib or hog house kit. Since Sears also sold almost everything for the farm and home in their mail order catalog, the buildings they sold boosted other catalog sales as people ordered other equipment and accessories at the same time.
The houses and barns in the Sears pre-cut kits were economical and easy to construct. They have stood the test of time. Last fall, we visited a 1926 Sears dairy barn that had been converted into a winery in northern New York state. It was still in perfect shape and as sturdy as when it was built. Sears certainly added a new dimension to the construction industry with their pre-cut house and barn kits. They also put new meaning into the term some assembly required.
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