February 22, 2022

Were All Sears Houses Delivered by Train?

In this post I will re-examine another common misconception about Sears kit homes.

Were All Sears Houses Delivered by Train?
  • "Because the Sears Catalog Houses were shipped by railroad boxcar (typically two boxcars per home) to a rail station near the purchaser, most often Sears houses will be located close to a railway line or station, perhaps within one or two miles."
  • "It is a simple law of early 20th Century geography that because Sears homes were delivered by rail, nearly all are found near rail lines."

According to the internet, Sears homes were exclusively delivered by railroad, and therefore nearly all Sears houses will be found near rail lines. Is that true?

The short answer: sometimes Sears homes were delivered by train, and sometimes they are located near train tracks.  Let's look at the facts.

The Sears Roebuck Plants
For most of its years in operation, the Sears Modern Homes department served its customers from three locations:
  • In Cairo, Illinois, Sears had a 40-acre lumber and millwork plant. Cairo had access to five railroad lines, and the Illinois Central line abutted the Sears plant. Cairo was also adjacent to the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, and three barge line companies maintained terminals.
  • In Norwood, Ohio, Sears had a 17-acre millwork factory. There were multiple railroad lines near the factory.
  • In Port Newark, New Jersey, Sears had a 50-acre lumber mill. The port was 32 feet deep at points, which enabled the largest barges and draft ships to dock there. 

The Sears mill in Cairo.

If you purchased a Sears kit house, most components were shipped from one of those three locations. 

Frustrating Freight Charges
Customers were responsible for all freight charges, and freight was expensive! Obviously, the farther you lived from Illinois, Ohio, or New Jersey, the more your freight charges would be. That is why we rarely find Sears houses on the west coast

In their catalogs, Sears insisted that the savings on the building materials was so significant, that even with exorbitant freight charges, customers would still save money over buying locally. Sears even offered to help customers finance the freight charges because sometimes people couldn't come up with the money to get the materials to the building site.

The 1913 Modern Homes catalog featured many customer testimonials that mentioned the freight costs. Sears had to address the elephant in the room--the fact that freight charges were deterring potential buyers.

In the 1938 Modern Homes catalog, customers could complete an information form so that Sears could provide them a total price for their order, including the dreaded freight charges.

Minimizing the customers' freight costs was critical for Sears. This is why they gave customers the flexibility to choose whatever delivery method was best for them: train, truck or barge. 

The Most Common Delivery Method: Train
Rail was the predominant delivery method for Sears homes.  Is this the reason that most Sears houses were built by railroad tracks as some authors have asserted?

Let's look at the Chicago area. Chicago had many "railroad suburbs", and residential and commercial development after the turn of the century was centered around the railroads. So, the assumption that many Sears houses built during that period were located near railroad stations because the materials were delivered by rail is spurious. Most residential development was centered around the railroad stations, period. Chicago is not unique in this respect--the suburbanization of other US cities often follows the same pattern.

Data scientist Mitchell R. Fawcett, Jr. examined Sears houses in Ohio. He found that 79% are located within two miles of a railroad.  Is this correlation or causation? Most Sears houses were being built in towns that were growing in the 1920's and 1930's, as were most non-kit houses. Those flourishing towns in Ohio typically were located on the rail lines. Further, according to Fawcett's research, there is a significant number of Sears houses not located near train stations.

4802 Greenwich Court, Rolling Meadows. This house was delivered by train.

Sears Woodland.

The shipping label for the Woodland in Rolling Meadows that shows the materials for the house were delivered to the Palatine train station, on the Chicago & Northwestern line. The house is 2.8 miles from the train station, in an area that was rural at the time.

A Newer Delivery Method: Truck
During the 1920's, the number of trucks and paved roads increased rapidly. Railroads began losing freight business as trucks offered better service and quicker delivery than the railroads could provide.

One advantage of the truck deliveries was that the building materials were delivered directly to the customer's lot. (The railroads could provide direct-to-home truck delivery from the station to the customer's lot, but this was typically an additional charge.)

Sears Roebuck capitalized on this development.  

This blurb ran in newspaper advertisements for Sears Modern Homes in Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and other east coast locations.

The plant in Norwood, Ohio, offered truck delivery of homes within 35 miles.

A Sears Roebuck shipping label from a Sears Malden in Rockford, built in 1941. The label clearly states that the carrier is the Keeshin Motor Express Company of Chicago, a nationwide freight trucking company.

The shipping label from a Sears Brookwood in Downers Grove, built in 1931. The delivery of the building materials was made by Benson Motor Service of Chicago. The word "Interstate" is also on the label.

The fact that trucks were becoming more commonplace also enabled customers to manage the deliveries themselves. I was contacted by a man whose father was a building contractor who constructed Sears houses in the Indianapolis area. His father would drive his truck to the Cairo mill to pick up the materials in order to save money on freight.

The Most Economical Delivery Method: Barge
Workers at the Cairo plant recalled sending the houses out by rail and barge.

The mill in Cairo was less than a mile from the Ohio River. Houses could easily be shipped out by rail or barge.

Here is a map of the waterway system during the time Sears was selling houses. Cairo is circled in red. Its prime location on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers meant Sears could ship houses by barge to cities like Omaha, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Houston, and Birmingham.

Barge deliveries were slower than rail deliveries, but the freight costs could be as much as seven times lower. 

1670 Whitcomb, Des Plaines. According to a former owner, this Sears house was "floated up the Des Plaines River by barge and then transported two blocks to the property." 
Sears Crescent.

The Final Word
Sears kit houses were delivered by rail, truck, and barge, with rail being the predominant way. Many Sears houses are located near rail lines, as are many houses that were built in the 1920's and 1930's. I don't believe there is a correlation between whether a Sears house delivered by rail was more likely to be very close to the railroad. We simply have too many instances where that was not the case. 

In general, living by the railroad was "the place to be" in that era, because that is where the commercial development was. Furthermore, in the Chicago area, many suburban residents worked downtown (like today) and they had to live near a railroad station. Whether they bought a Sears house had nothing to with it.


Architectural Observer said...

Thanks for shedding some light on this topic! Transport by barge is especially interesting and that mill in Cairo was certainly enormous! What a bustling city it must have been back then when its population was about seven times its present size. The shipping labels are also interesting; I'd guess that not many of them have survived.

Sears Homes of Chicagoland said...

The shipping labels are often found under the basement stairs and behind window trim.

Unknown said...

Hi where can I find the primary/secondary references used in this to identify how Sear homes were delivered by train?

Sears Homes of Chicagoland said...

Hi! Primary sources I used were newspaper advertising from the time and the Sears Modern Homes catalogs themselves. The Modern Homes catalogs mention train deliveries and many of those can be found at archive.org.

Additionally, there are shipping labels on some Sears houses that note that the materials were shipped via train. Here is one example:

Anonymous said...

I have an excellent Bungalow 1908 in Deadwood SD..It has a Gustav Stickley front door 4 feet wide marked, but it is not a kit house and has Stickley lighting but Sears pedicure and shower enclosure..has anyone else have a home with the Stickley marks?

Anonymous said...

Were the boxcars Sears homes shipped in labeled as Sears or “Honorbilt”. I’ve read the boxcars had a wax seal on the door but does anyone know if they had any signage on the boxcar?

Sears Homes of Chicagoland said...

The photos (two) I have seen of the boxcars were just generic train boxcars in each instance.

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