Today, the idea of building your own home is something of a dream for many people. But 100 years ago, James Beck Jr.’s ancestor made that dream a reality – although not in the way you might expect.
In May 2016, Beck used Reddit to share some images of his latest project. He had undertaken a full restoration of his great-grandfather’s home, which is a building the man had constructed himself in 1916.
It was perfect for Beck, who runs a hot sauce store in Houston, Texas, as he was searching for a way to preserve his family’s history for future generations. That opportunity presented itself in the form of the house in North Dakota, which was in a bad state of repair.
But the story of the house is a fascinating one. Back in 1907, Beck’s great-grandfather decided to occupy around 120 acres of land. Looking for a house to build on the property, he turned to what today seems like an unlikely source – Sears. Through a company known as Sears Catalog Homes, he ordered a kit that would allow him to construct a home.
The kit must have caused quite a stir when it arrived in town, carried by horse-drawn wagons. The wagons contained everything that Beck’s great-grandfather needed to build a home that would stand for generations.
By 1916, the house was complete, and for the next 100 years it would remain in the hands of the Beck family. But after a century of use, it wasn’t looking its best. Indeed, the untreated-wood exterior was beginning to show its age.
When Beck began his restoration project, however, he was surprised to find that the building itself was in good condition, structurally speaking. His first job, then, was to clad the outside of the house with durable HardiePlank siding to preserve the historic interior.
Beck’s plan was to restore the inside of his great-grandfather’s house as faithfully as possible, recreating what it would have been like back when his forebears lived within its walls. To this end, he began an epic project that is still ongoing today.
New storm windows were fitted in front of the original windows in order to protect them from the elements. A new roof was fitted to replace the old one, which was decayed and leaking water.
The next step was to begin restoring the interior of the house – a job that Beck is still working on. It was such a big undertaking that he had to build a new property to live in while he completed the work.
So far, Beck has restored some of the upstairs bedrooms, along with the living and dining rooms. In order to get them just right, he spoke with older family members and tried to find the right furniture to match their descriptions.
But although the house looks impressive, Beck has plenty more projects to work on. One of them will involve relocating a 1950s cast-iron oven – which somehow made its way into the basement – and restoring it to working order.
Once the interior is finished, however, Beck hopes to decorate the home with family heirlooms and photographs of his ancestors. “We will fill it with pictures and memories,” he wrote on Reddit. “So it can be a place where future generations of our family can learn not only about our genealogy, but our history.”
Beck’s Reddit post, which attracted thousands of comments in just 24 hours, has sparked a renewed interest in Sears Catalog Homes. Popular from 1908 until as late as the 1940s, these kits gave people of various incomes the chance to build a home of their own.
Over a 32-year period, 447 different styles of house were made available through Sears. Customers could choose anything from a simple cottage with an outdoor bathroom to elaborate Colonial-style mansions equipped with columns and verandas.
In total, Sears estimates that around 70,000 of its homes were sold across America. Much of their appeal came from their affordability and the fact that they could be custom-designed to suit individual needs and tastes.
Many innovations that are commonplace today but were novel in the first half of the 20th century were incorporated into Sears’ home designs. Indoor plumbing, central heating and electricity all offered a far higher level of comfort and convenience than had previously been enjoyed by many Americans.
Once a customer had decided on a design, a kit containing everything they needed to construct the home was shipped to them, usually by railroad car. Often, friends and neighbors would pitch in to help build the house, or local contractors would be brought in to complete the job.
In 1940, Sears ceased producing its catalog of modern homes. Many survive today, although the loss of Sears’ sales records in the 1940s makes it impossible to tell exactly how many.
For people such as Beck, who have inherited a Sears home, the constructions are a proud reminder of the achievements wrought by their ancestors. And with efforts like this being made to restore them, the chances are they will remain so for generations to come.