She speaks with the fervor of a woman possessed. In the cadence of a grange hall auctioneer, Laurie Flori jabs a finger at each house on her street, every one ordered from Sears, Roebuck & Co.
“That’s a Carlin,” she says. “That’s a Whitehall. That’s a Warrenton. That’s a Lebanon.”
Starting nearly a century ago, these stately names were bestowed upon a modest line of homes that could be purchased by mail. To Flori, they are verses in a hymn to working-class America, to a time when things were built better and cost less, when everything in the Sears catalog looked bigger and better than ordinary life.
For a while, the American dream shimmered on those pages, just as obtainable as a pair of work boots or dungarees.
A house of one’s own. Outhouse and plumbing extra. A great deal of assembly required.
Flori’s worship of these houses has been known to propel her right up the porch steps of people she’s never met to proclaim they have history in their joists and it’s their civic duty to preserve it.
Sometimes the folks at home are intrigued. Sometimes they have no idea what she’s going on about, and couldn’t care less.
At all times, this mile-a-minute talker is a woman obsessed: by houses that during a 32-year span could be sent away for and ordered on credit. Houses that arrived with precut lumber and parts numbered for easy assembly, with 750 pounds of nails and enough paint for two coats.
She is not alone in this self-appointed mission.
Across the country, otherwise ordinary people have been transformed by obsession into identifying and preserving the “kit houses” from Sears. They drive through unfamiliar neighborhoods armed with flashlights and fervor, searching for a telling detail of a specific model -- the gabled roof of the Warrenton, the dormer windows of the Medford.
They pound the doors of strangers, seeking admittance to their basements, searching for exposed beams with telltale Sears assembly numbers.
Yet they are as similar and dissimilar as the 447 floor plans that Sears delivered.
“It’s like King Tut and the Titanic,” said Marilyn Raschka, who used to cover the bedlam of Beirut as a foreign correspondent and now lives in Hartford, Wis. “It’s utterly fascinating.”
“It’s history,” said Rebecca Hunter, a historian who lectures on preservation and lives in Elgin, Ill. “It’s part of our heritage. And we have to do it ourselves because apparently Sears threw out everything.”
Flori, true to her nature, is a little more blunt.
“The only way I can explain it,” she says, and falls into laughter, “is that it’s like a cult.”
All are fighting to identify and preserve whatever is left of the estimated 100,000 houses sold by Sears. It is not easy. No one knows where all of them are because Sears, over the years, destroyed most of its sales records. So people such as Raschka, Hunter and Flori rely on their wits to seek out houses and authenticate them.
Other companies offered catalog homes -- Montgomery Ward, for example, and Michigan-based Aladdin Co. But it is Sears -- because of name recognition -- that gets the most attention.
The city of Carlinville is a special case. It encompasses nine blocks of nothing but Sears houses, the largest concentration in the country.
The homes constituted a huge order placed by Standard Oil of Indiana in 1918. The fuel giant purchased nearly 200 dwellings to house an influx of miners and managers for 400-foot-shafts it was sinking in southern Illinois.
They called this new neighborhood the Standard Addition. They built a park and schools nearby. The city extended its limits so water and sewer lines could greet new homeowners.
Young Carlinville was in love. Here were symbols of prosperity and security for a small Illinois town. Here was the promise of better times ahead, in the form of brand-new homes courtesy of the Sears catalog -- whose copies traveled their own journey, in-house to outhouse.
The American dream arrived in a box -- in scores and scores of boxes, crammed with doorknobs and oak doors, manhandled into boxcars, then pulled by steam engine across ribbons of railroad track pushing West.
They carried evocative names such as the Montrose, a seven-room, one-bath Eastern colonial with green shutters, flower boxes and a hooded gable entrance. “Justly considered a beautiful home in any community, no matter how exclusive,” the catalog said.
They were sold from 1926 to 1929 at prices ranging from $2,923 to $3,324. Sears estimated its prices were 30% to 40% lower than market rates.
Sears offered its own mortgages. Over time, it would offer mortgages for land as well, even though that was purchased separately. Regional lumber mills went up near transportation hubs to keep up with demand.
But then came the Great Depression, and there went the houses-by-mail boom. Working-class Americans defaulted on their Sears mortgages. Families went even farther West, to California, where it was said there were jobs picking crops.
So in 1940, Sears got out of the business of making life-size dollhouses.