Ray City’s Mail Order House

In the early 1900s rural consumers found they could purchase almost anything from mail-order catalogs, including homes.  About 1917, one Ray City couple did just that.

The Avondale, Sears mail-order home ordered by Mollie and Bill Lee, of Ray City, GA in 1917.

The Avondale, Sears mail-order home ordered by Mollie and Bill Lee, of Ray City, GA in 1917.

 Sears Catalog Homes (sold as Sears Modern Homes) were ready-to-assemble houses sold through mail order by Sears Roebuck and Company. Over 70,000 of these kit homes were sold in North America between 1908 and 1940. Shipped via railroad boxcars, the kit included all the materials needed to build a house.  Many were assembled by do-it-yourself homeowners with the help of friends, relatives, and neighbors, in a fashion similar to the traditional barn-raisings of farming families.

As an add-on, Sears offered the latest technology available to house buyers in the early part of the twentieth century. Central heating, indoor plumbing, and electricity were all new developments in-house design that “Modern Homes” incorporated, although not all the houses were designed with these conveniences. Central heating, for example, not only improved the livability of houses with little insulation but also improved fire safety, a worry in an era when open flames threatened houses and even entire cities, as in the Great Chicago Fire (1871).

As demand decreased, Sears expanded the product line to feature houses that varied in cost to meet the budgets of various buyers. Sears began offering financing plans in 1916. However, the company experienced steadily rising payment defaults throughout the Great Depression, resulting in increasing strain for the catalog house program. More than 370 designs of Sears Homes were offered during the program’s 32-year history. The mortgage portion of the program was discontinued in 1934 after Sears was forced to liquidate $11 million in defaulted debt. Sears closed their Modern Homes department in 1940. A few years later, all sales records were destroyed during a corporate house cleaning. The only way to find these houses today is literally one by one.

One Sears mail-order home was purchased by Mollie and  Bill Lee of Ray City, GA.

Mollie  Bell Clements and William David  “Bill” Lee both grew up near Ray City, GA.  Mollie was a daughter of  Martha J. Baskin and David C. Clements. Bill was a son of Moses C. Lee and Amanda Clements.  He was educated at the Green Bay School near Ray City, where he was a member of the Advanced Literary Society.

Mollie and Bill were married February 22, 1905 in Berrien County, Georgia. As newlyweds, they made their home in a two-room log cabin.  The Census of 1910 shows William and Mollie living  in Georgia Militia District 1144, the Rays Mill District, with their two young children, Vivian  Lee and Fannie Lee.  Bill was farming on his own account. By 1917, the Lees had four more children,  Ruth Amanda Lee, Willie E. Lee, Mary E. Lee, and Moses Clements Lee.  Clearly, it was time for a bigger house.

About 1917,  Bill and Mollie ordered a “Modern Home,”  The Avondale, No. 151, from the Sears Modern Homes Mail Order Catalog.  The materials were probably shipped via the Georgia and Florida Railroad to Ray City, then carried by wagon to the construction site.  The Lees purchased additional interior components to complete the house from the Sears & Roebuck store in Valdosta, Ga.  The home would have been assembled completely by manual labor, as electric power was not yet available in Ray City in 1917. The house had seven rooms, and the common features of the time, like 12 foot ceilings, plaster walls, wood floors, and bay windows.  Over the years the Lees modified the original floor plan of their Sears home, adding on to the back of the house to enlarge the kitchen and rear bedrooms, and adding a sun room off the master bedroom.

Nearly 100 years later, the house still stands near Ray City.

Houseplans for The Avondale, mail-order house sold by Sears & Roebuck.

House plans for The Avondale, mail-order house sold by Sears, Roebuck & Co.

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  1. April 14, 2011 at 9:55 pm

    […] daughter of  William D. “Bill” Lee and Mollie Bell Clements, subjects of the previous post, was Mary E. Lee.  She was born February 6, 1915 in Berrien […]

  2. Sparky said,

    December 18, 2014 at 7:52 pm

    Such wonderful history. I never knew about the Mail Order houses. Since I live not too far from Ray City, my husband and I plan to go look at it. I’m glad it’s been preserved. Thank you for sharing this with all of us. Merry Christmas!

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