How “kit homes” and buildings helped early residents settle here

By MARY WEAVER

RIPPEY, Iowa, Aug. 23, 2017 — I have long been interested in identifying a “Sears” home that could be featured in my “Hearth & Home” column for the Greene County Historical Society. Several different elders were approached, and I finally identified one just three miles south of my home, the residence of Ben and Midge Vannatta. Their home was built in 1910.

I have learned much more about “kit homes,” also known as “mail-order homes.”

Mary Weaver ProfileThey were not all from Sears, Roebuck & Company. Aladdin, Montgomery Ward, and up to 10 other companies sold homes nationally, and the research indicated some were produced locally and stayed locally.

The kit homes came on the scene at the turn of the 20th century and were being sold and built until the early 1950s, but the boom time was 1910-’20s. The advertising announces, “Avoid the middle man mark-up, save on labor (a hired contractor estimated cost $450), and avoid wasted lumber!”

Copies of catalogs found on the internet, promised, “A man of average ability could assemble a home in 90 days.” A 75-page manual, along with blueprints and up to 750 pounds of nails, accompanied the order.

The homes were sent by railroad box car, and one of the ads shows a horse-drawn buckboard picking up the lumber at the depot. Dependent upon house size, there could be between 10,000 and 30,000 pieces of wood. The lumber was numbered sometimes with a grease pen, sometimes with a stamp, but all cut and packaged together for windows, doorways, rafters and other components.

The Vannatta home was a “Gordon-Van Tine” home. That was a Davenport, Iowa-based company, which began in 1865 as a lumber mill along the Mississippi River, as logs from the north could be transported easily via the river. As railroads were developed, the availability of the Rock Island Railroad allowed the pre-cut wood for homes to be transported both to the East and West.

In 1907, Gordon-Van Tine became a subsidiary of the U.N. Roberts Company, a millwork manufacturing company in Davenport. At one time, Gordon-Van Tine (named after its founding partners) employed 350 persons, selling an estimated 54,000 homes under its own name and 20,000 as a sub-contractor for Montgomery Ward. In 1946 the Gordon-Van Tine Company was sold to a Cincinnati salvage company that liquidated the firm.

The Vannatta home was originally purchased by John Kenney in 1910, at a cost of $926. The ad which is inserted into this article states, “we agree to furnish all materials to build this house, including lumber, lath, shingles, finishing lumber, doors, windows, frames, interior doors and finish, nails, tinwork and complete painting materials. Fire King Furnace complete with all pipes and fittings and ready to install is an extra $94.”

An advertisement in a Gordon-Van Tine Co. publication for the style of home that the Vannattas have today.

Ten years later, the home was purchased by George and Sarah Vannatta, the grandparents of Ben. The house was designed to use gas lighting, but Grandfather George replaced that with a Delco battery system.

Ben’s daughter Jeannie Vanatta Kotta pointed to her bedroom on a copy of the blueprints from House Model 127 of the Gordon-Van Tine catalog. She and her siblings shared the three bedrooms upstairs (listed as chambers) while the downstairs chamber was used by her parents. You will notice on the blueprint there is a sitting room as well as a parlor. Jeannie said indoor plumbing was installed in the attic.

The house plans for the home that the Vannattas now have.

In the interview with Jeannie, she further explained she believes the chickenhouse in the barnyard of her childhood home may have also been from the Gordon-Van Tine Company. Research for this article indicates that beginning in 1920, the company created a catalog making farm outbuildings available including chickenhouses, barns and corn cribs.

Could your home be a “mail-order house”? Look for blueprints, or warranties that came with the house. Check for stamped lumber on exposed beams, or for shipping labels on millwork. Check the abstract for information.

My next research project about “kit buildings” is the barn of Dan and Sue Tronchetti, of rural Jefferson. Dan states his barn is a “kit barn,” and I’ll have the story about it in a future column here.

The Vannatta home in 2005.

You can comment on this story in the space below here, or write directly to the columnist by email at mweaver235@gmail.com. The author, who lives outside Rippey, is an active member of the Greene County Historical Society.

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