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Catalogue houses: the Foursquare house

Ordered by mail and delivered by train, catalogue houses helped settle the Prairies

When our ancestors broke the prairie sod in the Palliser triangle there was no local wood for building houses. Timothy Eaton and his T. Eaton Co. Ltd. to the rescue. The T. Eaton Catalogue was the shopping center for isolated Prairie farms.

In 1910 the T. Eaton Co. Ltd. Winnipeg Catalogue provided the first offering of a complete house with all the trimmings. It was ordered from the catalogue or special Modern Home Catalogues and shipped by rail to the nearest station. The lumber came from mills in B.C., but doors, windows, etc., came from Winnipeg. They were not pre-fab or even pre-cut. They sent everything needed, but a carpenter was hired to build the house.

In Canada, T. Eaton houses were only in the West, the houses were not on offer in the Toronto or Moncton catalogues. There were several companies in the business but T. Eaton was the generic name. Many so-called ‘Eaton’ houses actually came from another company.

The Foursquare House

A Foursquare is simply a two or two-and-a-half storey square house with four rooms to a floor. The Foursquare house I was raised in was what sparked my interest in catalogue houses. Our house was built in 1917 and sported all the modern conveniences of the day: central heat, hot and cold running water, electric lights and a flush toilet. With a 1917 wheat price of more than $30/bu. in 2018 dollars, it was easy for Grandfather Jerome to cut the cheques to build that house.

When I went off to university and ended up pounding lots of pavement doing soil surveys, etc., I found many more Foursquare houses scattered around the countryside. When asking older folk about the Foursquare houses the common answer was: “those were Eaton houses, ordered from the catalogue.” With academic rigour I proceeded to see what that meant. By the time I had the answers there was enough information and examples to write and self publish Catalogue Houses: Eaton’s and Others. Not a nickel of government money was involved in the publication of this book.

The Eastonborough Foursquare

The Eastonborough Foursquare house from the 1920 Plan Book of Ideal Homes by the T. Eaton Co. Ltd. had a kitchen, dining room, den and parlor on the first floor and four bedrooms plus a small bathroom on the second floor.

This Eastonborough Foursquare house in the photo was built on the Dafoe, Sask., area farm of Alexander and Mabel Blyth in 1922. Son David Blyth (1922 – 2000) raised his family in this house. He provided me with a copy of the original T. Eaton blueprints. The house has a brick veneer which would have been sourced locally.

Note that this house has two dormers when the Plan Book shows only one. Such minor differences are common with Eaton houses. They were not pre-cut so they sent an excess of lumber to deal with inefficiencies of on-site cutting. Carpenters often made changes as construction took place.

The house sat empty on the Dafoe farm for many years. In about 2007 Grant Jones purchased the house, moved it to his farm north of Watrous, Sask., and brought it back to its original glory.

Read all about it

If you’re hungry for more information about the fascinating topic of complete houses ordered by mail and delivered by train, the book noted below will answer many of your questions. There were many more actors than T. Eaton and countless Canadian Prairie farm homes were ordered by mail. The story of many of them are in my book. It will make a unique Christmas gift.

Just in time

The information that made the book possible came in the form of handwritten letters from folks (mostly women) that had been raised in mail order houses. The letters were in response to a piece I wrote in Western People in 1985. Almost all of those that kindly wrote me have now gone to their great reward. As in many ventures, a lot of luck was involved in the timing.


Sears-Roebuck and the Iowa Connection

Sears-Roebuck was big in the mail order house business in the U.S. from 1908 to 1940. Norman Borlaug, the famous Nobel Prize winner and Father of the Green Revolution, was raised in a Foursquare house on a farm near Cresco, Iowa. It was Sears- Roebuck Modern Home No. 209, built in 1922 when Norman was eight years old. When he received the Nobel Prize he bought the house and gave it to his sisters.

Thanks to our fearless editor Leeann who sent me the book The Wizard and the Profit by Charles C. Mann. It was the source of the information about Norman Borlaug and the house he was raised in. Sears-Roebuck dealt not only with the houses but the financing as well. In the depression years of the 1930s the large file of unpaid mortgages put them under.

About the author

Columnist

J.L.(Les) Henry is a former professor and extension specialist at the University of Saskatchewan. He farms at Dundurn, Sask. He recently finished a second printing of “Henry’s Handbook of Soil and Water,” a book that mixes the basics and practical aspects of soil, fertilizer and farming. Les will cover the shipping and GST for “Grainews” readers. Simply send a cheque for $50 to Henry Perspectives, 143 Tucker Cres., Saskatoon, Sask., S7H 3H7, and he will dispatch a signed book.

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Comments

  • Kathy Waite

    We live in one of these built 1919 north of Regina SK on the Quapelle Valley. I love it but wish people has taken better care of it over the years. The sash windows were taken out and replaced with metal horizontal ones. The lather and plaster partly covered in drywall. The shingles badly done so the frame rotted. I wish we could renovate as the stone basement is lovely. Looks like we will build a new smaller home and knock this down salvaging what we can for the new home and barn reno