Libby McKay is constantly on the lookout when traveling around Norfolk, hoping to solve a mystery.

The questions bedeviling McKay: How did a Milton – a two-story home ordered a century ago from a Sears & Roebuck Co. catalog – end up in this northeast Nebraska city? Is it still standing?

The Milton most certainly made it here. A 1916 Sears catalog stated it had been built in Fayette, Ohio, Somerville, New Jersey and Norfolk, Nebraska.

“There’s a story here, and I’d like to hear it,” said McKay, director of Norfolk’s Elkhorn Valley Museum.

“I want to find it … if it’s still here.”

From 1908 to 1940, Sears & Roebuck customers ordered as many as 70,000 homes. Lesser-known companies also offered homes from catalogs and sold comparable numbers. The houses, often called “kit homes,” were delivered by train and contained about 12,000 pieces of lumber and other materials, including 750 pounds of nails. 

An unknown number of the kit homes were constructed in Nebraska. But many of the ones that have been identified – a sometimes complicated process – hold an added cachet. Sears homes in particular carry credibility among architectural historians and home buyers looking for a well-made house with history. 

Rebecca Hunter should know. She’s an architectural historian from Elgin, Illinois, who has spent decades researching catalog homes. 

“The most intriguing oral history associated with a home, is perhaps, ‘This house came on the train,’” Hunter wrote in her book, “Mail-Order Homes: Sears Homes and other Kit Houses.”

Costs for Sears homes ranged from $146 in 1911 for a two-room cottage to $9,990 for a 10-room design in 1920, according to Hunter’s book. The cost of the lot, foundation and construction labor typically doubled the catalog price.

Early Sears versions were known solely by their design number, but later ones carried names, such as the Greenview, the Rosita and the Princeville. The Milton featured a living room, dining room, kitchen and reception hall on the first floor and four bedrooms, called chambers, on the second.

No matter the version, Sears homes were well-designed and made to last, Hunter said.

Jan Paulsen owns a Sears home, a Langston, in Cedar Bluffs. Her next-door neighbor told her shortly after she bought the home nearly 15 years ago that his house and hers were catalog homes built by two brothers. She liked that story and appreciated hearing that Hunter’s list of verified Sears homes included a Langston in Cedar Bluffs. 

“It’s rock solid,” she said of her home. “I believe if the winds would blow, it would stand.”

Just how many have survived remains a mystery, Hunter said. Sears’ records have been lost to time, which also complicates the authentication process.

Said Hunter, “50% of the people who do live in one have no idea, and 50% who think they live in one, don’t.”

The challenge for house hunters or historians looking to spot Sears catalog homes in their communities is they don’t stand out, said Ed Zimmer, an architectural historian in Lincoln. “The Sears homes blended in so well with other homes during this period, they now are hard to spot and difficult to verify.”

Kellie Knop knows exactly what she has: a Sears Paloma design built in the 1920s in Lincoln. She learned about her home’s history from its previous owner, Luann Wandsnider, who received the news from a newspaper reporter in the 1990s. 

The reporter was working on a story about a student who aspired to be a city planner and thought he had identified a catalog home in Lincoln. The student confirmed his suspicion by locating the home’s building permit, which listed Sears, Roebuck & Co. as the architect.

“I was pleasantly surprised. I had no idea,” Wandsnider recalled.

When it was time to sell, Wandsnider left a copy of the Lincoln Journal Star story with her real estate agent, who placed the clip on a table for would-be buyers to review when they toured the home.

Knop bought the house in the early 2000s because it was live-in ready. When she learned the story behind her two-story home, she recalled, “it was ‘Oh, cool. It has history.’”

Ben and Denise Benegas wanted something with a little age for their retirement home. Two years before their retirement in 2010 from the University of Iowa, the couple started hunting for an older home, with an eye on a kit one. They looked at 200 homes in Iowa and surrounding states.

They found their home in Stromsburg, and discovered it was a Sears Design No. 160, later called the Phoenix. 

On their first visit, Ben Benegas said, the couple realized just how much work it needed. “We said, ‘Oh my.’ It needed a roof. It needed a heating system. Some pipes had frozen. We called (the real estate agent) immediately. ‘This is the one.’”

Benegas said a neighbor told him it was a Sears catalog home and others in town confirmed it. The couple found a book of Sears homes and saw theirs was nearly a dead ringer. Their house later was included on a state-by-state list of Sears homes.

The two-story house, with its porch and two imposing pillars, often draws a crowd, especially because it’s on the parade route during Stromsburg’s annual Swedish Festival. 

“People stop by and tell me ‘that is quite a house you have,’” Ben Benegas said. Exactly, he tells himself – it’s one of the reasons they bought it.

Hunter and Zimmer caution those who believe they have a kit house: Matching your home with a design from a catalog page might not be enough. 

True proof often is found on the framing boards. Sears, for example, stamped solid numbers and letters near the ends of the boards – usually a capital letter followed by one or more numbers. (Knop’s father, while renovating her basement, found a faded example complete with a capital letter and three numbers. She didn’t allow him to paint over his discovery.)

Hunter’s book offers additional tips for verifying a catalog home:

  • Blueprints with a mail-order model name, number or company logo.
  • Title searches or tax records listing a mail-order company as the architect, buyer, seller, owner or payer of real estate taxes.
  • Documents, including correspondence, guarantees, instruction manuals or parts lists.
  • Mortgage records, in the case of companies that offered financing.

Hunter said testimonials from historians, previous owners and neighbors often pique a homeowner’s interest. 

Kelsey Shirk received a letter addressed to the “current owner” of her home on Garfield Street in Lincoln about a year after she moved in. The writer, a woman in her 90s living in Minnesota, wrote about how her parents had built the Sears Rodessa-design home that she lived in as a child. 

“I hope you are still enjoying your first home. I think it is the perfect size for one,” she wrote in a follow-up note. Shirk said she enjoys everything about her home, except possibly the front door, which is a bit off-center. 

Joe Rinaker said people often ask him if his Lincoln home is a Sears design. He’s confident it is, likely a Design No. 52. 

He and his wife, Linda, have a copy of an old real estate agent’s description, which states it has pocket doors, pine floors upstairs and a 6-by-7 book nook. It’s also, according to the listing, a Sears home featured in the company’s 1908 catalog. 

However, the opportunity to own a catalog home wasn’t what sealed the sale. 

“Joe just loved the front porch,” Linda Rinaker said.

Dan and Indi Goebel, who bought their home in Omaha’s historic Dundee district in 2021, were intrigued that their home looked strikingly similar to a Sears Preston design. 

“Even the closets are the same,” Indi Goebel said.

But Hunter expressed some doubt. The Goebel’s front entrance is different from the catalog design and the home’s dimensions don’t quite match. 

“I would need to see the stamping on framing boards,” Hunter said.

Dan Goebel said he was disappointed by Hunter’s assessment but understands. He has yet to uncover a stamp. “We’ll keep looking,” he said.

The reason for so many similar looking houses lies in the nature of the home design business. 

Sears wasn’t above taking popular designs, making slight revisions and later offering them to customers, Hunter said. And vice versa, Zimmer said. Those looking to build would provide their builder with a page torn from a Sears catalog with instructions to replicate it, he said.

Hunter has compiled a state-by-state list of verified Sears homes. Kelli Bacon with History Nebraska keeps her own list. Nebraskans with verified catalog homes can report them to Bacon.

In some situations, Hunter said, homeowners think their kit homes may be a particular version, only to find out they’re another. Sears didn’t have the catalog home market to itself. Among its competitors were Montgomery Ward, Gordon-Van Tine and Aladdin.

Brad and Kim Spady heard the talk: Their home on Wellington Street in Imperial was a Sears home. “People were constantly saying it,” Brad Spady said. The couple wanted to believe it. 

Now they know it is a kit home … but from Gordon-Van Tine, a company based in Davenport, Iowa, in the early 1900s. 

Kim Spady said she had her eye on the home, which had a kitchen added to the north side and a living room to the south, for years. The couple pounced when it became available in 2005. Since then, they had their home’s exterior stripped, resealed and hand-painted white. They also reroofed it with rough-cut shake shingles.

The Spadys viewed an advertisement for their home – and noticed just one major difference: theirs doesn’t have a bay window above the main entrance. Like others, they didn’t buy the house because it was a catalog home.

“We bought it because we love it,” Kim Spady said. “I was just tickled to find out what it was.”

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