Movie Stuntmen / We Wouldn’t Have the Old Western Films Without Them

Over the years of movie making, the old western movie genre came and went and then came again. The fact is that when the movie industry first began during the very early years of the 20th century, the western was king. Everyone wanted to make western movies and many did.

The Early Western Movies

The earliest well known old western movie produced was The Great Train Robbery. The Great Train Robbery was filmed in 1903. It was also filmed in Milltown New Jersey. This was the time that the east coast was the headquarters for the growing movie making industry.

the great train robbery movie

The Great Train Robbery

Actors included Broncho Billy Anderson, Justus D. Barnes and Alfred C. Abadie. As the industry of western movies began originating out of Hollywood California, the plots and sets grew. Location shooting was the order of the day. Old western towns were hastily put up on location. Thankfully for the producers of old westerns, the Los Angeles area in the early and mid 1900’s proved to be advantageous for shooting western films. At the beginning, most settings were very near to Los Angeles. Perhaps a few hours drive. This was before the population exploded and land values went up with them.

Where to Find All Those Extras?

It just so happened that at the time the old western movie craze took off, the ranching industry was in general decline. The open spaces were being fenced in at a fast rate and the population growth was moving westward. Unfortunately, for the real live cowboy who had spent his days working the range, he now might have found himself out of a job. There were not a great many occupations that you could segue into, aside from the rodeo, with the talents of knowing how to ride a fast horse, knowing how to rope a steer or even how to handle firearms. What some people might term progress was not a good omen for the professional cowboy.

As western movie production became more elaborate and with some scenes requiring the presence of many horsemen, the old cowboy found another calling. Think back to those westerns featuring a galloping cavalry, a band of Indians on horseback or a fast riding sheriff’s posse. All of those scenes required people with horsemanship skills. This time represented the birth of the western movie stuntman.

western star buck jones

Buck Jones

All of those scenes needed people who not only looked like genuine cowboys, but actually were. The western movie producers turned to a ready supply of talented riders, actual cowboys looking for work in Hollywood.

The Local Los Angeles Watering Hole

With a good many cowboys finding themselves out of a job, the lure of Hollywood didn’t sound so bad. It wasn’t the same thing as being a real cowboy, but taking part in movies and being paid for it wasn’t such a bad thing either. It was about as close as a real cowboy could get to being a cowboy. Making a job out of it appealed to many. The timing was good. Being a paid movie stuntman sounded pretty good.

The way it worked in Hollywood went like this. According to the book , Wild West Show, edited by Thomas W. Knowles and Joe R. Lansdale, the ex-cowboys would congregate at a Los Angeles speakeasy that was called the Waterhole. The cowboys would gather there and wait to hear from the movie studios. In that era, one never knew when a director would send an assistant over to the Waterhole for extras. These jobs were referred to as “riding extras“. Maybe the director needed riders for a cavalry shoot or for a band of Indians on horseback. If this was the case, then there was work. While it was work, nobody claimed to have become rich doing it. The pay was generally $10 per day plus a box lunch. The cowboys who were hired, and this was usually on a day to day basis, would show up the next morning bright and early at the studio wearing their cowboy clothes. For this pay, the riding extras would ride all over movie sets spread around Los Angeles, many to the north in the vicinity of the San Fernando Valley. Many locations where the old westerns were filmed are now covered by subdivisions.

cowboy actor tom mix

Tom Mix

Some cowboy riding extras and movie stuntmen had their own horses which were usually kept at a Los Angeles corral called the Sunset Corral. The next time you have a chance to watch one of these very early westerns, you’ll know where that large cavalry regiment came from… the Waterhole.

These western cowboy riding extras also knew how to fall off a horse if need be without killing themselves. This type of individual was in great demand. The old cowboys also knew how to rope. These were things that generally weren’t the strong suit of leading men actors. The most noted exception was Tom Mix who knew how to wrangle cattle. Mix knew how to rope and ride. Tom Mix made some 160 cowboy matinee movies during the 1920’s alone and is thought of by many as being the first matinee cowboy idol. Mix had previously worked in Oklahoma at the very large Miller Brothers 101 Ranch. He knew how to ride a fast horse, rope as good as anyone and was said to be pretty good with a six-shooter. Mix won the 1909 National Riding and Rodeo Championship. Not bad skills for a Hollywood actor during the days of the western.

Who Were the Cowboy Stuntmen?

There were obviously many cowboys who worked as western movie riding extras. Some names however stand out. Some became more than just movie extras. These include Hank Bell, Jack Montgomery, Bill Gillis and Jack Padjeon, just to name a few.

Padjeon was in many old western films during the 1920’s and 30’s. He turns up as early as 1923 as a stunt rider in the western film, Covered Wagon. Padjeon also played Wild Bill Hickok in The Iron Horse, directed by John Ford in 1924.

Hank Bell appeared in well over 300 films, mostly westerns, between 1920 and 1952. Some of Bell’s movies included The White Horseman in 1921, The Oregon Trail in 1923 and Tall in the Saddle in 1944.

Jack Montgomery got into the old western movie business when some of his ranch cowboys told him they were leaving and heading for Hollywood. It appears that Jack Montgomery decided to also. He worked for a time as a stand in and stuntman for Tom Mix. Actually, Mix preferred to do his own stunts but the director would urge him to use a stuntman because if he was injured it could hold up production for an indefinite time. Mix didn’t quite see it that way but finally agreed to the directors wishes. Regardless, Tom Mix made it a point not to publicize the fact that he used doubles. Maybe he thought it was bad for the rough and tumble cowboy image. Mix wanted to protect his image and the studio wanted to protect it’s investment. Some of Jack Montgomery’s films aside for doubling in Tom Mix movies included Courage of the West produced in 1937, The Dark Command made in 1940 and starred Walter Pidgeon and The Renegade in 1943 which featured Buster Crabbe.

universal studios western set

Western movie set at Universal Studios

Bill Gillis enjoyed a good career playing mostly villains in old westerns of the 1920s. Other Gillis films included a role as a cowhand in Sunset Range made in 1935 and starring Hoot Gibson. He worked in the 1940 Gary Cooper movie The Westerner. He also had a minor acting role in Winchester ’73 produced in 1950.

There of course were many more rider extras and stuntmen than are listed here, and who in some cases received acting credit during the heyday of the western motion picture. These early Hollywood cowboys highlighted above were part of what was known as The Gower Gulch Gang. They took this name simply because many of the small studios cranking out the westerns were located on Gower Avenue in Los Angeles. The Gower Gulch Gang in many cases helped make their living by playing roles in movies which often times portrayed exactly who they had been all along. It was a great way to earn money while the work lasted. If it wasn’t for the Gower Gulch Gang, we might not have been able to enjoy those dramatic scenes of cavalry and Indian fighters racing on horseback across the plains and desert.

old tucson studios

Main Street of Old Tucson Studios, Photo courtesy of James G. Howes

Two additional articles you’ll find interesting are Cattle Drives and Cowboys / What it Was Really Like and our story about Pawnee Bill and his Wild West Show.

Today, a terrific old western movie studio that receives many thousands of visitors annually is the Old Tucson Studios just a few miles west of Tucson Arizona. The Old Tucson Studios is both a theme park and movie location which is still being used today for both Hollywood and television productions.

(Old Tucson Studios photo courtesy of James G. Howes. All other photos are in the public domain)

New Mexico Missions / Mission Chapel of Our Lady of Light

Old New Mexico Missions chronicle the history of the region. They tell about the history of the region in many ways. Mission Chapel of Our Lady of Light was built in Lamy New Mexico in 1926. Lamy, located about 15 miles southeast of Santa Fe was in an active area of New Mexico Territory when first established. Lamy was the closest main line train depot to Santa Fe.

Old mission church Lamy, New mexico

For those wishing to leave or depart Santa Fe via train, and that meant the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, they had to pass through Lamy. While there was a spur line between the two towns, Lamy was the station on the AT & SF main line.

Essentially, Lamy lost population when railroad travel declined. To give you an idea of the railroad activity in and around Lamy before the decline, the town had a Fred Harvey dining room and hotel, the El Ortiz, adjacent and to the east of the train depot and Lamy had it’s own elementary school. When all of this came to a halt, Our Lady of Light lost parishioners when people left Lamy for jobs in Albuquerque or Santa Fe. Lamy is only one example of population decline due to lost railroad jobs. Texas has many examples of this along US Hwy 287 from Wichita Falls to Amarillo.

Our Lady of Light Bell Tower

Mission Chapel of Our Lady of Light in Lamy was deconsecrated in 1994. Two reasons for this was that there just were not enough parishioners to send a priest for Mass. The other reason was that by the mid 1990’s, the church was structurally unsafe.

The abandoned chapel is historically important to New Mexico for a few reasons. First, the architecture is Mission Revival which makes the structure quite rare for a mission church in northern New Mexico. Another reason is that this structure was the only church in the Lamy community ever. The current structure replaced one on or near today’s site that was built around 1889 and with the same name, Mission Chapel of Our Lady of Light. One story is that the old structure was washed away during a flood.

Due to the historic significance of the structure, the old Mission Church has been placed on the State Register of Cultural Properties. Additionally, the settlement of Lamy New Mexico (once called Galisteo Junction)  was named after Jean Baptiste Lamy, the first Archbishop of Santa Fe after the U.S. took control of New Mexico Territory. The old abandoned mission church serves as a connection with the historic Santa Fe Catholic diocese as well as the work of Archbishop Lamy and therefore is important to preserve and hopefully restore.

Historic foundations have become involved In an effort to restore the old mission. Having it place on the State cultural registry is a big step forward.

Stained glass windows in Our Lady of Light Mission Church

It’s been estimated by those involved that a full restoration of the church might cost around $300,000 to 500,000. The old church is owned today by the Our Lady of Light Historic Foundation. Thanks to volunteers, restoration work to date has involved a new roof and stabilizing the foundation. It appears that any restoration going forward will be dependent upon money raised by the foundation.

When visiting Lamy New Mexico you’ll notice that the Mission Revival architecture of the mission church is the same as the architecture of the train station. The razed El Ortiz Harvey House was also of the same design.

Related articles you’ll find interesting are Railroad Depots / Lamy New Mexico and The Southwest Chief.

If your New Mexico vacation or road trip takes you to the south of Santa Fe, I would definitely recommend a stop at Lamy. Lamy is easily reached off of US Hwy 285. The town and the abandoned New Mexico mission church is just a half mile east of Hwy 285 and about six miles south of Interstate 25. It makes an easy side trip when visiting Santa Fe.

(Photos from author’s private collection)

Mark Twain / A Young Journalist and a Virginia City Duel

The life and legend of Mark Twain and Mark Twain stories have more twists and turns than a mountain switchback road. The bio of Mark Twain includes the exploits of Samuel Langhorn Clemens, the young riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River and the dangers involved with that 1800’s occupation. In fact, the brother of Samuel Clemens died in the explosion of the steamboat Pennsylvania on June 21,1858 just a short time after Clemens himself left that profession.

A young Mark Twain

It was Samuel Clemens that helped his younger brother gain employment on a steamboat and the guilt was said to have stayed with him for the remainder of his life. Mark Twain adventures carried on after that early steamboat career, ended mostly because of the start of the Civil War, to a life in the wild west of Nevada and the gold mining towns of California.

The Birth of Mark Twain in Virginia City Nevada

Mark Twain adventures were aplenty. Mark Twain made the decision to head west when his older brother Orion accepted a job as secretary to James W. Nye, appointed governor for the Nevada Territory. The group traveled via stagecoach from Missouri to Virgina City Nevada, a two month journey. During this rather uncomfortable trip, Clemens made notes of the journey that would later be put into an interesting story.

After an unsuccessful try at the mining profession, In 1863, Samuel Clemens found himself employed as a journalist working for the territory’s first newspaper, the Territorial Enterprise. The paper was founded in 1858 and for the first two years published out of Genoa Nevada. In 1860, the newspaper relocated to the booming mining town of Virginia City. The younger Samuel Clemens had experience working for Orion’s newspaper as a typesetter and therefore knew a bit about the newspaper business. From his reporters job in Virginia City Nevada would grow many of the Mark Twain adventures we have come to know.

With Samuel Clemens new residence and employment, the rough and tumble atmosphere of a mining town offered quite a lot of subjects to observe and report on. The town was quite different to what Samuel Clemens had been used to. Being a little over twenty miles south of Reno Nevada and at an elevation of 6,100 feet, Virginia City was a booming town with all the characters a booming mining town would attract.

Virginia City Nevada, 1867

At the same time, Samuel Clemens himself was known for his cutting and to the point writing style. One tale is the time Clemens was allegedly mugged in November 1863 in Virginia City and years later reported on it in his publication “Roughing It”. Roughing It by Mark Twain was his first publication after his stint as newspaper reporter. The story of the mugging as I understand it is that the robbery was a joke put on by some of Clemens friends. The reason for the mugging was later said so to to give Clemens something more to write about. The newspaper in Virginia City apparently went along with the prank. When Clemens finally discovered the joke, he reportedly wasn’t amused but he did get back his money and valuables. It was in Virginia City Nevada that the pen name Mark Twain was adopted by Clemens after he used it as a byline on an article he had written. The name stuck and was used continually throughout his life.

The book by Mark Twain, “Roughing It”, is somewhat of an autobiography while he traveled the west in the 1860’s via stagecoach and afterward. The fake mugging incident in Nevada City was mentioned in this publication, still with little amusement on Twain’s part. The book even includes his observations of a trip to the then Kingdom of Hawaii. It was during this time in Virginia City and then later in California that the career of Mark Twain as a writer and humorist was born.

The Duel That Wasn’t in Virginia City

Why did Mark Twain leave Virginia City Nevada and move to San Francisco?

Mark Twain gained somewhat of a reputation in Virginia City for writing about whatever fancied him, including about things that didn’t actually fancy him. The tale about what hastened Twain’s rather speedy departure from Nevada Territory has a bit to do about writing an article after a few drinks. Probably never a good thing to do. Nothing good could come out of something like that. At the time, Twain apparently had been managing the Territorial Enterprise while his editor was out of town.

Hotel Angel, Angels Camp California

The article in question, written by Twain, had to do with charitable money being raised by some of Virginia City’s social elite for Civil War relief organizations and questioning what the money was really used for. At the same time, the somewhat liquored news story questioned whether the rival paper ,The Daily Union, was actually making it’s contribution to the cause. The tale of how the story itself actually made it into print is interesting. Mark Twain had apparently laid it on a desk in the newspaper office and while away it was picked up by the pressman and, thinking it was just waiting to be printed, set it on the press and the rest is history. At this point, like in several Mark Twain stories and tales of yore, there are a few conflicting versions of what occurred next.

The first version, which is detailed in the book, Wild West Shows, edited by Thomas W. Knowles and Joe R. Lansdale, is that the Daily Union’s owner, James L. Laird, was challenged to a duel by Twain. For the record, dueling was against the law in Nevada Territory. The first version according to the above mentioned book has Twain arriving at the dueling site chosen along with his second. The tale goes on to say that Twain couldn’t hit anything, including a barn door, with a sidearm and that his second demonstrated the gun to him by shooting a bird in mid flight. Twain’s second handed the gun back to him at just the same moment that Laird and his second appeared. Laird allegedly asked who it was that shot the bird and Twain’s second replied that it was the man who was then holding the gun. The story ends with Laird refusing to duel Mark Twain.

The second version is different in as much as it states that there was no duel to begin with. It states that James L. Laird never had any intention of dueling Twain and that a duel would not have taken place because it was strictly forbidden by law. and that Laird would not have been present.

1940 Mark Twain U.S. Postage Stamp

What story does fit both versions, and what was true, was that Mark Twain left Virginia City quite fast and relocated west to San Francisco California. Some say that he quit his job and left Nevada to avoid being arrested for proposing a duel. Others contend that he left to further his literary career in California which he surely did. It’s unclear which version is true or perhaps a bit of each is the real story. Again, what we do know is that Mark Twain bid good bye to Virginia City in a rather hasty manner.

The Aftermath

After Virginia City, Mark Twain journeyed to the Kingdom of Hawaii. Upon his return he wrote his book “Roughing It” which told the story of his western adventure. Everything from the stagecoach ride west from Missouri to his Virginia City exploits to his Hawaiian trip were put into this book. Mark Twain then heard a story, it’s said, about a mining camp gambler, while he was staying at the Hotel Angels in Angels Camp California. Mark Twain’s literary career took off not long after when a California publisher printed Twain’s short story, “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog“. This turned into the highly popular 1865 story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County“. All of this was believed to be inspired from the rumors he heard while at the Angels Camp hotel.

A Trip to Calaveras County California and Frogtown

Today, Calaveras County California, located in the old gold mining foothills of the Sierra Nevada range, celebrates an annual event at the Calaveras County Fairgrounds which features a frog jumping contest. In fact, the Fairgrounds are also referred to as “Frogtown“. The old Calaveras County gold mining town of Angels Camp honored Mark Twain with a statue of his likeness just north of the downtown area. The city of Angels Camp California holds a special place in the literary history of California and the literary career of Samuel Clemens, more often referred to as Mark Twain. Angels Camp is located south of Sacramento and about 130 miles east of San Francisco. It’s a beautiful and historic place to visit while vacationing in the California gold country. If you have the opportunity to make a trip to Calaveras County and the old gold mining town of Angels Camp, it’s well worth the time. The Angels camp hotel is still standing and the winners of the annual Jumping Frog contest have plaques embedded in the sidewalk in front of the hotel.

If your western road trip takes you near Virginia City Nevada, the Mark Twain Museum located in the old Territorial Enterprise newspaper building is another great addition to a Nevada trip planner.

(Photos from the public domain)

Passenger Railroads / The Rocket Trains

Anyone who has read about passenger rail service in the United States during the first half of the 1900’s knows that it was a very competitive business. Passenger railroads serviced towns and cities of all sizes. If you lived in a small town in the 1920’s or 1930’s there was a very good chance you had passenger rail service. One railroad in particular, the Rock Island and Pacific Railroad, remained very aggressive in an arena that included the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, the Union Pacific and the Southern Pacific Railroad.

E2 diesel locomotives

The streamlined EMC E2 locomotives

For those interested in the history of the Rock Island and Pacific Railroad and railroads in general, there is an excellent museum in Chillicothe Illinois in an old Rock Island depot. The depot was saved by the Chillicothe Historical Society when the depot was donated to them by the Rock Island in 1980. Because of the society’s hard work, today the museum, which opened it’s doors in 1987, is a first rate railroad museum. The Rock Island Depot Museum also has many exhibits on early 1900’s life in rural Illinois.

Passenger railroads had really two things to market to the traveling public. One was the comfort and convenience they could provide and the other was the speed of travel. The AT & SF did an outstanding job on the comfort factor offering the hospitality services of Fred Harvey and his famed Harvey Houses. The AT & SF also had a route that traversed the southwest and it’s pueblo Indian culture, not to mention the Grand Canyon, one of the more scenic and historic areas of the U.S. As far as speed went, there was always an effort to offer a fastest service, especially between Chicago and Los Angeles.

The Rock Island Railroad offered named trains called the “Rocket Trains“. The use of the term “rocket” as a train name may have originated with an invention from 1829 named “Stephenson’s Rocket”  which was an innovated steam locomotive design that set the standard for future steam engine construction for decades to come. Locomotives using Stephenson’s principals were used into the 1960’s by British locomotive builders. The term Rocket Train also suggests that the travel was fast, something many passengers wanted to hear. The Rocket Trains had routes all over the midwest. There was the Rockey Mountain Rocket, the Zephyr Rocket, the Corn Belt Rocket, the Twin Star Rocket, the Texas Rocket, the Des Moines Rocket and more.

rock island railroad transcontinental logo

The Rock Island and Southern Pacific transcontinental emblem

The Rock Island and Pacific Railroad’s Rocket Trains began in 1937 with the purchase of six lightweight and streamlined locomotives built by the Budd Company. These were the railroad’s very first diesel-electric locomotives.The trains had a great color combination of red, yellow, and white, and red, maroon, and silver.

One of the most interesting railroad stories is the tale of the “Golden State Limited” and the  “Golden Rocket“.

The Rock Island and Pacific Railroad did not have a proprietary route from Chicago to Los Angeles as did the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad.  The Union Pacific started running their new streamlined trains with it’s “City of Los Angeles” running a more central route from Chicago to L.A. To compete against the very popular AT & SF “Super Chief”, and the Union Pacific, the Rock Island entered an agreement with the Southern Pacific Railroad to operate the “Golden State Limited” beginning in 1902 as a partnership. The Rock Island had track down into Texas and to Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle. The Southern Pacific had trains operating to Los Angeles from the lower tier of the U.S., Houston, New Orleans, etc.

super chief train

AT & SF Super Chief in Albuquerque New Mexico 1943

The Rock Island’s route map showed just how bad they needed this kind of arrangement. Their national route map would include Minnesota to the north, Texas to the south, Memphis to the east and eastern New Mexico and Colorado to the west. While they were servicing some very big cities, they were boxed in to the extent that they couldn’t compete for transcontinental passenger traffic. At the start of the 1900’s, transcontinental rail passenger traffic was the big industry since travel alternatives were slim to none. The Rock island’s only option was to form an alliance with a larger carrier.

A railroad partnership, on this one route only, made a lot of sense if a railroad like the Rock Island wanted to compete for Chicago to Los Angeles traffic against the other big two lines. The “Golden State Limited” would travel a route out of Chicago not too different than the AT & SF route but somewhat to the south. The Golden State Limited would make it’s way southwest to Amarillo Texas and then on to Tucumcari New Mexico (where it would be picked up by the Southern Pacific) and continue southward to El Paso. From El Paso, the Golden State Limited would head west through southern New Mexico and Arizona into southern California. The Golden State Limited was operated by the two railroads until 1947 at which time it was just called “The Golden State“. Two advantages of this route that would be marketed to the public was it’s low elevation and better weather than the more northern routes and also that the route would traverse cities like Tucson and Phoenix, both growing resort areas. Probably the only real disadvantage of this route is that it ran through some of the least scenic parts of the U.S., at least in direct comparison to the Union Pacific and the AT & SF.

rock island golden rocket advertisement

Promotional ad for the Rock Island "Golden Rocket"

Right after the end of World War Two, the Rock Island and the Southern Pacific discussed plans to create a new named train, the “Golden Rocket” which would be used to compete directly against the popular “Super Chief” mostly on a time basis. The Golden Rocket project was agreed upon by both railroads. Equipment was ordered by the Rock Island and Pacific Railroad as well as the Southern Pacific. The Rock island received their rail cars at about the time that the Southern Pacific backed out of the Golden Rocket project entirely. As far as the reason, most articles written on the subject contend that the Southern Pacific just decided not to spend the money required to update the rail route. The Interstate Commerce Commission had recently mandated that the maximum speed for a passenger train would not be more than 79 MPH  on rail track not equipped with special signaling equipment. As far as the Southern Pacific was concerned, updating the tracks would cost significant money and the decision was made to drop the Golden Rocket. Why was speed so important? The route of the Golden State was some 115 miles longer than that of the AT & SF Super Chief. To try to compete against the Super Chief, the Golden Rocket would have had to have some segments requiring 100 MPH speeds and that meant a lot of spending on new signal equipment. Supposedly, the Rock Island didn’t have the necessary funds to spend and while the Southern Pacific did, they decided not to. The main reason for the Golden Rocket project in the first place was to match the Super Chief’s time schedule and when this proved to be too costly, the Southern Pacific pulled out.rock island and pacific golden rocket

 

The halt of the Golden Rocket train project came suddenly and after a lot of publicity and advertising had already taken place. While this was quite a shock and embarrassment, the Golden State continued to operate on it’s transcontinental route until 1967. This was surely the final years of private transcontinental railroads with the establishment of Amtrak in 1971. During the 1950’s with the building of the Interstate highway system and early 1960’s the automobile and increased airline competition slowly but surely eroded railroad passenger traffic. The Rock Island and Pacific was not in a envious financial position and parts of the railroad were sold off to the Union pacific, the Santa Fe and the Southern Pacific railroads. In 1975, the railroad entered it’s third bankruptcy. As the Rock Island strained to survive as a grain carrier to the Port of Galveston Texas, financial pressures continued to mount.

Please see our related articles about Amtrak’s Southwest Chief and The Railroad Post Office Cars.

A federal judge ordered the Rock Island Railroad to be shutdown in 1980 and it’s assets were ordered  liquidated. On March 31, 1980, the final liquidation of the great Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad occurred.

(Photos and images are from the public domain)

 

Sears Houses

There was a time in our history when Sears houses were a fast selling item. The Sears and Roebuck Company, thanks to the build up of rail routes across the United States, did a brisk business in selling kit homes. The house kits, marketed as Sears Modern Homes along with a seventy-five page instruction manual,  were shipped by rail, usually requiring about three boxcars to ship everything, and over about three decades during the early 1900’s Sears and Roebuck made about 100,000 sales.

sears home catalog

Sears Modern Homes catalog listing from the public domain

A shipment might have a total weight of 25 tons and over 30,000 different parts. Amazingly, Sears offered over about 400 style of homes with a price range from about $1,800 to well over $5,000. The lowest price range for a house at one time was actually between $650 and $2,000 depending on rooms and options. The buyer had a large range to choose from that fit just about any budget.

It’s an interesting story about how the Sears Modern Homes idea came about. Sears and Roebuck had offered in their catalog building materials that was stored in their Chicago warehouse. That business was slow and the materials were piling up. A man by the name of Frank Kushel who was in charge of the Sears building materials department approached Richard Sears with the concept of offering the kit homes. Selling kit homes would certainly use up much of the current stockpile. Kit homes had been offered for sale a few years earlier by a Michigan company but didn’t possess the marketing clout held by Sears. Richard Sears agreed and the first home kits were included in the company’s 1908 catalog. There were twenty-two different house plans in the first catalog with prices starting out at $650 up to $2,000. Designs offered increased as the years went by.

The lumber was supplied to Sears from a local Chicago lumber yard before the company eventually bought a facility in Cairo Illinois. The Sears Modern Home came without plumbing, electrical and heating units but the company also offered these for sale separately. In addition, beginning in about 1915, Sears offered financing usually with mortgages of five to ten year duration. As mentioned above, while there were a few other companies involved in the house kit business, Sears had a decided advantage having over 3 million people of their catalogs mailing list. This supplied an immediate marketplace for the house kits.They also had the advantage of mass producing the materials.

sears modern home

Sears Home in Belen, New Mexico

Sears Modern Homes were also quite popular for people who happened to live in areas without an abundance of natural building materials nearby. If you happened to live in a desert area with a rail line in place such as Belen New Mexico, a Sears Modern Home was a good alternative if your budget allowed. The buyer would of course need to secure the lot and put in a foundation. Sears didn’t actually design homes but offered the more popular home designs of the time. The customer had many options within the design chosen such as the number of bedrooms desired, etc. The Sears home in Belen New Mexico, which is listed on the town’s “walking tour” brochure for tourists, was constructed around 1910, about the same time as the AT & SF Railroad built it’s train depot and adjacent Harvey House dining room.

The largest single sale of Sears Modern Homes was a $1 million dollar transaction in 1918 between Sears and Standard Oil whereby the oil company purchased an entire neighborhood to house their workers at the Standard Oil operation in Carlinville Illinois. )ne hundred and fifty six of the Sears Modern Homes were shipped to Carlinville and another thirty-six were shipped to nearby towns. At this time, the Standard Oil order represented the largest mail order transaction to date. As a marketing tool, Sears used photos of several of the Carlinville homes on the front page of their catalogs. The neighborhood of Sears Modern Homes in Carlinville Illinois represent the largest single grouping of these kit homes and an excellent place to view them. Today, you can find Sears Modern Homes all around the U.S. from Virginia to California. As an example there are several Sears Homes in Newton Falls New York, Bucksport Maine and Hopewell Virgina among other sites.

sears mosern homes in belen new mexico

Sears Modern Home

Ironically, aside from the Standard Oil purchase in 1918, the largest sales year for Sears Modern Homes was in 1929, just on the eve of the Great Depression. Sales were growing to the extent that Sears opened regional sales and shipping offices. Although Sears did sell homes through the depression years, they were hit by mortgage defaults since they were the main finance arm for their house kits. In some cases they had to take back homes and try to rent them out. The Great Depression coupled with World War Two and the onset of tract housing all combined to cause sales declines for Sears Modern Homes. Tract housing is where a developer takes a large piece of land, build similar type homes on that property and then subdivides the lots for sale. In a way, what Standard Oil did in 1918 in Carlinville Illinois with over fifty Sears Homes was tract housing. The only real difference was that they did it with Sears Modern Homes kits. In addition to the factors mentioned above, local construction codes which were changing added to the sales decline. Sales of the Sears Modern Home came to an end in 1940.

Sears Modern Homes also had upgrades during the years they were sold. Drywall eventually replaced plaster and fittings were improved. Using drywall helped make the construction much easier. Indoor plumbing and central heating were just two things introduced by Sears. The Sears home buyer had the option of these improvements along with several others. The legacy of the Sears Home was that they did put out a quality product at an affordable price. By large scale production they were able to keep costs down while still selling quality materials. You may also find our article on Victorian Homes interesting on our WesternTrips site.

(Belen New Mexico home photos are from author’s private collection)