"Since the early records of the original customers who purchased Modern Homes were not kept, we do not have any information on particular houses."No sales records, no way to find houses other than searching for them house by house, right?
I used to believe this. Like many of my fellow kit house researchers, I would scour the Internet looking for leads on Sears houses. I would search real estate ads for references to Sears houses (too often those were incorrect). I would search old newspapers for articles about Sears houses. I would contact historical societies and museums looking for information about Sears houses. I spent hours "driving" in Google Streetview through cities across Michigan and around the country looking for Sears houses in neighborhoods full of houses from the 1920s and 1930s. Occasionally, one of those leads would pan out or I would come across a house or a handful of houses that I could add to the list. But it was lot of hours of looking for not a lot of houses.
There had to be a better way.
My first try at finding a better way was in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I already had a list of Sears houses for Ann Arbor but I had no way of knowing whether most of the houses that I was aware of were actually homes from Sears. I had read Rebecca Hunter's guide to authenticating Sears houses and was intrigued to read about how one could find and authenticate Sears houses through mortgage records. I tried contacting Washtenaw County to see about accessing the old mortgage records at the Register of Deeds. But I didn't get anywhere with that. Then I discovered that the records of the Washtenaw Abstract Company were in the archives of the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan. This company maintained the mortgage records for the County for more than 100 years including the time period of when kit house sales were at their peak. Over a number of weekends, I dutifully trekked down to the Bentley where I could pore through large bound volumes of hand-written entries for mortgages noting any that were associated with kit house companies.
It was a gold mine.
By the time I had finished going through the bound volumes, I had found more than 100 mortgages for Ann Arbor alone. These were not just mortgages for houses from Sears but also for homes from Montgomery Ward (Wardway) and McClure, a Michigan-based kit house company. The mortgages helped me authenticate many of the known kit houses in Ann Arbor and led us to dozens more that had not been previously identified. Outside of Ann Arbor, I found another 60 plus mortgages for Ypsilanti, where very few kit houses had been documented and even a handful of kit houses in other Washtenaw County communities.
It took quite a bit of time to look up the records and trace the property description for each mortgage to its current day location. I had check to see if there was still a house there and if it could be IDed as a kit house (good news - most of them could be!) But when the end result was an identifiable kit house, it was also an authenticated kit house. No need to question or guess whether the house was from Sears (or McClure or Wardway) - the mortgage record documented that fact.
Kent County, Michigan, I found only a handful of Sears houses. In Oakland County, Michigan, I found more than 300 Sears houses. Likewise, in Washington DC, I found more than 200 Sears houses. Along the way, the mortgages have helped me find all kinds of Sears houses including custom designs, models that are considered extremely rare and models once thought rare that are a bit more common that we believed.
Since I first started reviewing mortgages at the Bentley, I've been able to authenticate more than 800 Sears houses using mortgage and deed records from a variety of sources. That doesn't sound like much and in the grand scheme of the 65,000 Sears houses that were sold, it's not. But only a fraction of the thousands of houses that have been identified by kit house researchers over the years have been authenticated. Many of them that have been found and IDed as Sears houses likely are Sears houses.
But without authenticating them, how can we know for sure?
|Image courtesy of Archive.org|
One reason that people don't go this route may be the work involved. It often requires a lot of tedious work to review mortgage indexes and look up property descriptions to find houses. Another challenge is getting access to the records. Currently, very few communities have their old mortgage records online and some that do charge a fee to view them. Accessing most of the records requires a trip to the County courthouse or a similar location to review the mortgages in person. That may be more work than most researchers want to do. But is it more work than going into basements and attics of houses looking for stamped lumber or shipping labels?
|Excerpt of 1930s Sears Mortgage|
Image courtesy of the City of Washington DC