Carlinville's Standard Addition:

$1 Million Worth of Sears Homes

© Rosemary Thornton

The following excerpts are reprinted with permission from The Houses That Sears Built by Rosemary Thornton, published 2004, Gentle Beam Publications, Alton, Illinois. Accompanying photos by R. Thornton.

 

In 1918, Standard Oil of Indiana made mail-order history when they placed a $1 million order with Sears Roebuck & Company for 192 Honor-Bilt® homes. It was purported to be the largest order in the history of the Sears Modern Homes department. Standard Oil purchased the houses for their workers in Carlinville, Wood River, and Schoper in southwestern Illinois. Of those 192 houses, 156 went to Carlinville, 12 were built in Schoper, and 24 were sent to Wood River. Throughout the 1920s, pictures of these homes were prominently featured in the front pages of the Sears Modern Homes catalogs.

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Sears Home illustration

It all began on October 17, 1917, with a small article on the front page of The Macoupin County Enquirer. The Enquirer reported that a local concern, the Carlinville Coal Company, had sold their mine (comprising several hundred acres and all improvements) to an unknown entity.

The following week the paper revealed that Standard Oil Company of Indiana had been identified as the purchaser of the Carlinville Mine.

The front page opined, “The Standard Oil Company is a mighty good concern to have with us. It has also been the policy of this company to cater to the general public and to encourage the goodwill of everyone having business with them.”

One week later, October 31, the Enquirer reported that the Schoper farm, a 500-acre tract of farmland about 8 miles northeast of Carlinville, had been sold. “Herman Schoper of Springfield, who formerly resided here (near Carlinville) sold his big farm in Shaw's Point. It is supposed the property is sold to the Standard Oil Company.”

The article continued, “What the purchase means no one knows, but a company like the Standard is not making such investments without developing them.”

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The Plan

Standard Oil needed great quantities of coal to fire the stills that would convert crude oil into gasoline. Because of shortages in labor and materials brought on by the war, coal supplies were capricious and expensive.

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Standard Oil was desperate to get their new mines up and running as soon as possible. Finding workers to mine coal 400 feet underground was also challenging. Many able-bodied men were overseas. In the state of Illinois, more than 351,000 men had gone to war. The labor shortage was acute.

In order to attract the highest quality workers, Standard Oil decided to build houses for them. At the time, Carlinville was a farming community of fewer than 4000 people. It didn't have adequate housing or facilities for the 2000 miners, workers, and other new residents that would soon arrive.

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Carlin house design
This design, originally called the Windsor, was re-named Carlin after the town.

On June 12, 1918, The Macoupin County Enquirer reported that Standard Oil had entered into a contract to purchase at least 150 houses for Carlinville miners. The article said that the houses would cost $3000 each and would be erected on 216 lots recently acquired on the Burton Tract (in Carlinville).

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Reading through American Builder magazines from 1918-1922, I learned that it was fairly common for large corporations to build housing for their workers. Modern and decent housing attracted a steady, reliable and skilled workforce.

[For example, i]n 1919, Perfection Tire and Rubber Company of Fort Madison, Iowa, built 100 homes for workers and then sold these “modern homes” on easy payment plans. General Motors Company built 950 houses for its workers in Flint, Michigan in 1920. The $3000-$7000 houses were then sold to employees on a “time payment plan,” most likely a corporate-held mortgage or contract for deed.

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The opening pages of the 1920s Sears Modern Homes catalogs featured a “bird's eye view” of other corporate Sears-built neighborhoods in Akron and Dayton, Ohio and Plymouth Meeting and Chester, Pennsylvania.

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The Buy

In these pre-OSHA times, I suspect that these corporations knew that they owed their faithful workers something more enduring and substantial than 60 cents an hour. (In 1919, the Macoupin County Enquirer stated that miners in Macoupin County earned, on average, about $6.00 per 10-hour day. Miners were actually paid by tonnage, not by the hour.)

Standard Oil wanted and needed a lot of houses in a hurry, so they ordered 192 Honor-Bilt®, Ready-cut homes from the Sears and Roebuck catalog.

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example of a Whitehall
A Whitehall model in Carlinville today.

According to the 1919 Sears Modern Homes catalog, the cost of the eight designs that would comprise the “Standard Addition” ranged from $1092 for the Lebanon to $1555 for the Roanoke, but those prices are a little misleading. In the 1922 Sears Modern Homes catalog, the total cost for the Roanoke was estimated to be $4600. This included the kit home, the furnace, electrical, plumbing, and all labor expenses. Sears estimated the Lebanon's finished cost would be about $3600.

Each kit also included paint and varnish, wood putty, roofing, windows, doors and trim mouldings. The only lumber that did not arrive precut was interior trim mouldings such as baseboard moulding. Nominal differences in the thickness of plaster walls could alter the dimensions of the rooms.

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An article in the Illinois State Journal (March 27, 1967) states that a rail line spur—leading directly into Carlinville's newest neighborhood—was built to expedite the unloading of the construction materials from the hundreds of boxcars. Children as young as 12 years old were hired to unload the box cars full of house parts. They worked 10 hours a day and were paid $1.50 for the day's work.

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A woman named Mrs. Spaulding supervised the massive building project. “The Lady on Horseback,” as she was called, would ride her horse from house to house and keep a close eye on the workmen. She kept the construction workers on their toes. Men she's hired in the early morning were sometimes fired by noon.

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Chicago Tribune reporter Oscar Hewitt took a ten-day tour of mining homes in Illinois and liked Carlinville's homes the best. John Black, a union official for the coal miners, went so far as to describe the 1000-1200 square foot houses as “mansions.”

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For the next few years, the community flourished. In June 1921, the Stanolind Record (a monthly employee magazine) reported that the Standard Addition would soon “come out of the mud.” This was a 1920s colloquialism meaning that hard (concrete or asphalt) streets, curbs and gutters would soon be installed.

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Decline

But the good times came to an end. As it turned out, none of the Carlinville miners paid off their homes under Standard Oil's generous installment plan.

By the mid-1920s, Carlinville's boom had busted. World War I had ended seven years earlier. The unpleasant memories of coal shortages had faded and it seemed as though the miners were either striking or threatening to strike. Standard Oil was tired of the labor woes and they were, after all, in the petroleum business—not in the mining business.

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By 1935, the houses of Standard Addition had fallen into terrible disrepair and Standard Addition was given the denigrating title of “Substandard Addition” and “The Phantom City.” All but five of the homes sat vacant.

It was the bottom of the Great Depression. Times were bad. Standard Oil was going to give the folks of Carlinville one more golden opportunity.

The five and six-room houses, formerly occupied by Standard Oil employees, would now be sold for $350 and $500. Even in the midst of the Great Depression, this was a tremendous value; houses selling for about a tenth of their original value ($3300-$4000 in 1919).

On November 27, 1935, the last warranty deed for a Standard Addition home was recorded in Macoupin County. Within three months, Standard Oil had sold and closed about 150 houses.

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Resurgence

the Roseberry
An example of the Roseberry model.

During the 1980s and 90s, writers and reporters representing an impressive array of national periodicals came to see these Sears homes. The neighborhood was featured, photographed and esteemed in newsprint and on the glossy pages of leading magazines. New folks moved into Standard Addition. Things got better.

In 1987, the Carlinville Chamber of Commerce scheduled its first historic homes tour through Standard Addition. Folds in Carlinville expected moderate interest in these houses, but to everyone's surprise, visitors and tourists came by the hundreds. The Sears homes were a hit. Despite recent challenges from other Illinois cities, Carlinville still holds title to a very special (though not the largest) collection of Sears catalog homes.

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Rosemary Thornton has been writing and lecturing about Sears homes for five years. She's also conducted surveys of Sears homes for several communities. As a result, Ms. Thornton found that she received frequent requests from people all over the country, asking for more information about these old catalog homes. Because of this, she decided it was time to combine her copious field notes with the tall stack of rare historical information she'd unearthed, and write a book: The Houses That Sears Built.