Saturday, February 6, 2016

The Great Sears Paper Trail

In a recent blog post, I touched on the efforts to create a nationwide database of Sears catalog and kit houses. This list was created, in part, to fill the void that exists from the lack of any documented sales records for Sears Roebuck's Modern Homes Department. While the sales records for Aladdin homes were rescued and archived at the Clarke Historical Library, Sears infamously purged their sales records after the Modern Homes Department was closed. The official Sears Archives confirms this by noting on a Question and Answer page:
"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.

Since then, I've been able to repeat my success to varying degrees in other communities. In 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?

What finally occurred to me in the process of reviewing mortgages is that while the sales records for the houses sold through the Modern Homes Department may be gone from the Sears headquarters in Chicago, the paper trail they left behind is not. For every house financed through Sears, there was a mortgage document that (generally) was filed at a government office somewhere in the United States. When that mortgage was paid off or transferred or a house was foreclosed for non-payment or when Sears issued a deed, another paper record was generated. Across the country, in dusty bound volumes or on rolls of microfilm or in sleek digitized databases on the Internet, are thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of records that document the sales of Sears houses to homeowners, contractors and developers. Each of them contains the path to a house that may still be standing, waiting to be identified or perhaps known but never authenticated as a Sears house.

Image courtesy of
We know that communities like Arlington County, Virginia and Cheverly, Maryland have used mortgage records to authenticate local kit houses (I found the McClure mortgages in Ann Arbor after reading about the McClure houses in Cheverly). But outside of the group of kit house researchers with whom I work, all of whom have authenticated houses using mortgages and deeds in cities like Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis, there seems to be very little interest in pursuing mortgage records as a way to find and authenticate Sears houses.

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
There's still a place for all the other methods that people use to search for houses (I still use them too!). But it seems that if we want to get serious about finding and authenticating Sears houses, we need to go where the records exist that would help us find and authenticate many of the houses that still remain. How much longer would that list of authenticated Sears houses be if more researchers started searching the Great Sears Paper Trail that exists across the country? The mortgages and the houses that go with them are waiting to be found. Who's going to find them first?

1 comment:

  1. Yes!
    The mortgage research is so satisfying, because there is no concern about clones or trying to contact homeowners to look for stamped lumber, or dealing with major renovations that make a house almost unrecognizable.
    Still... so few areas have their mortgage records accessible online, and once you've gone through your locally-accessible records, of course.... you're out of luck.
    Another researcher has been having great success with the Cincinnati newspaper, listing mortgages and foreclosures. Excellent work there. Again... very few newspapers online for that kind of research.

    But....everything we do with these resources... gives us AUTHENTICATED houses :)