I have a longstanding interest in catalogue houses. In fact, I’ve written a book with the same title as this column (see below for details).
My interest in mail order houses comes honestly. Seven sisters and I were raised in a large 2-½ storey square house much like many of the catalogue houses of that era. Ours was built in 1917 — hot and cold running water, flush toilet, electric lights. The running water was pressured by a hand pump in the basement. When Mother turned on the tap and the flow was weak I knew the next command. “Les, get down there and pump up the pressure.”
It also boasted central hot water heating with a big coal and wood furnace in the basement and cast iron registers in each room — toasty if you porked in the coal. The only wood at Milden was scrap lumber and railroad ties cut to size by a buzz saw driven by a tractor with flat belt pulley. The buzz saw was a dangerous beast that injured or killed a few folks, but none in our area.
The total bill for the house was $5,000, a princely sum in those days. But wheat was $30/bu. (in 2015 dollars) so it was no trouble to pay for such luxury.
Most big houses were built in 1917 or 1918. If Captain John Palliser could have flown over the famous Palliser Triangle in 1917, he would have had to eat his words of 1857. But the glory years did not last. In the 1930s the batteries for the 32 volt light plant wore out. There was no money to replace them, so it was back to the coal oil lamps. The sewer had a field drain that plugged up, so back to the bucket.
The mail order companies
There were several companies in the mail order house business.
Aladdin: Aladdin was huge all over North America and shipped overseas as well.
United Grain Grower: United Grain Growers (UGG) was also in the mail order house business until its mill at Hutton B.C. burned down in 1926. Some older folk will remember UGG as a farmer-owned grain company. Grainews was started by UGG in 1975 as a free publication for its members.
Sears: Sears was big in the U.S.
Western Retail Lumberman’s Association: The Western Retail Lumberman’s Association also did mail order business. The WRLA still exists and holds an annual convention in Saskatoon each January.
T. Eaton Co. Ltd.
But, the most famous Mail Order House Company was the T. Eaton Co. Ltd.
The business was centered at its Winnipeg branch. Eaton Houses were made for Western Canada, and most of the houses are found on farms.
They had dozens of different models but the most popular was the Earlsfield — a 1-½ storey house with a double Gambrel (we say hip) roof. The barn-like roof made for very efficient use of lumber to provide a lot of living space.
The materials cost for the Earlsfield in Fall and Winter 1917-18 was listed at $1,193 (that’s $16,482 in 2015 dollars). Inflation was rampant in the teens so they quit posting prices in 1919.
Lumber was shipped by rail from mills in BC and millwork from Winnipeg.
To fill a boxcar you had to order a big house. Many bought a house and a barn, or neighbours went together and ordered two houses.
The Kevin McGrath home near Fielding, Sask., was built by his parents Martin and Katie in 1916. The materials cost was $880.50 ($16,458 in 2015 dollars). Kevin passed on a few years ago but his niece and nephew have all of the original paperwork — some of it is reproduced in Catalogue Houses.
Kevin was a kind and gentle person. We tried to see the house moved to the Western Development Museum in North Battleford or Saskatoon but costs were prohibitive. The WDM in Saskatoon does have the façade of an Earlsfield from Rockhaven, Sask., displayed proudly in its “Winning the Prairie Gamble” exhibit at Saskatoon. It is worth the visit if you come to Saskatoon.
My book is really about the people and stories behind the building of the houses, and the big wheat/flax/oat crop or inheritance that allowed folks to upgrade to a fine new home. Most of the contacts I had for writing the book have now gone to their eternal harvest. We did it just in time.
If readers have a house they would like to know the pedigree of I am always delighted to help if I can. Mail or email ([email protected]) photos of the exterior of the house from at least two sides and a sketch or description of the original floor plan and I will make a match if I can. There are great stories to tell about the “matchmaking.” When a match happens it is great excitement for all. But, I must warn you that many do not find a match.
J.L.(Les) Henry is a former professor and extension specialist at the University of Saskatchewan. He farms at Dundurn, Sask. His book “Catalogue Houses; Eaton’s and Others” is now in 3rd Printing. It makes a great gift for someone who has everything. If you would like a copy simply send a cheque for $45 to Henry Perspectives, 143 Tucker Cres, Saskatoon, Sask., S7H 3H7, and he will dispatch a signed book. For Grainews readers we cover shipping and tax.