Posts Tagged ‘dupont and penniman’

Another “Sears House” Featured on HGTV, Part II

July 22nd, 2017 Sears Homes 9 comments

In my prior blog, I mentioned that HGTV’s House Hunters featured a “kit house” that was in Nashville. A Facebook friend and fellow Sears House lover shared some additional information on the program, enabling me to figure out what exactly HGVT was talking about.

Let me start off with this:  It was not a kit house. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Then again, the motto of too many of these remodeling shows is, “Why let details get in the way of a good story?”

In fact, the house shown on House Hunters is located in Old Hickory, near Nashville, TN, which happens to be the site of a World War One munitions plant built by DuPont. You can learn more about Old Hickory here.

When America became involved in The Great War in April 1917, there was an urgent need for more munitions for the “boys overseas.” DuPont responded to this by building or modifying several plants around the country to make munitions. Old Hickory was built from scratch and was a phenomenal logistical effort, in every way imaginable. To learn more about this, you can read my book, which has much informtion on the build-up at Old Hickory.

Penniman, Virginia was also the site of a DuPont-built World War One munitions plant, and the houses at Penniman were the same models as the houses built within the Old Hickory community. These houses were the work product of DuPont. The lumber came from a variety of sources, but the designs were created by DuPont Engineering, and these models can now be found in many World War One company towns, such as DuPont, Washington; Ramsey, Montana; Hopewell, Virginia; Carney’s Point, New Jersey; Old Hickory, Tennessee; Sandston, Virginia; and Penniman.

Penniman was a city of 15,000 people that was born in 1916 and was gone by 1921, and the 200+ houses within Penniman were moved to other sites, including Norfolk and Williamsburg. In fact, I’ve written a book about this amazing place, located less than seven miles from Colonial Williamsburg.

The city that DuPont built at Old Hickory fared better. It still exists, and many of the 600+ houses that were built by DuPont are still in their same spot. These houses from DuPont were not kits, but they were based on plans that DuPont used at several other World War One munition plants around the country.

The house featured on House Hunters was known as The Florence, and was a darling cottage with many windows and something few of these plant houses had: A real masonry fireplace (see pictures below).

To summarize, the house featured on HGTV as “a kit house” was not a kit house. It was one of many houses designed by DuPont Engineering and built at several munition plants around the country.

If HGTV wants to be considered a credible source of information, they need to spend five or six minutes on Google chasing down some of these stories.

If not, I’ll keep writing blogs about them which is also pretty entertaining.

To read the prior blog about this program, click here.

To read more about the Penniman houses that landed in Norfolk, click here.

Thanks to Linda Ramsey, Robin Hurowitz, and Rachel Shoemaker for contributing to this blog!


Old Nashville

Thanks to Robin Hurowitz for supplying a few screen shots of the show on HGTV. I'm not going to show the other shots from this episode because it's too depressing for words.



My #1 partner in crime, Rachel Shoemaker, found the original listing of this house on Zillow, which provides some wonderful details not otherwise available. The name of this model was The Florence.



There are several "Florences" within Old Hickory. Prior to the convergence of the construction crew, the house was in delightfully original condition. I'm not sure what all happened inside the house. Don't want to know.



The colors, the many tall windows, the size (just under 800 square feet) all make this the perfect house for a young couple. When built, there was a small transom spanning that front door, which is one of the distinguishing features of the Florence.


Cute front

And there's that masonry fireplace, sitting at an angle in the living room.



These framing and flooring of these homes is probably Southern Yellow Pine, probably harvested from Mississippi (but that's a guess, based on what I know about the houses in Penniman). I do know that these are pine floors.



Here's the floorplan for The Florence. The house in Old Hickory is "flipped" so that it's a mirror image of this house (shown above). When built, this house had several walls, which are now gone.


The rear of the home shows that it was also a perfect match to this model.

The rear of the home is also largely original, and shows that it was also a perfect match to this Florence catalog image.


Kitchen went bye

The kitchen was one of my favorite features of this house (as built). That right there is my dream kitchen. Absolutely, my dream. Oh, to find a house with that kitchen. It also went bye-bye in the remodel.



The Florence, as shown in an old catalog showcasing the DuPont models.



And here's a Florence with its original front door in Williamsburg, Virginia. This was originally located at Penniman, and moved after the war (along with 200+ houses). Williamsburg has a handful of Penniman houses.



It's a beautiful house and in very good condition. I haven't had the heart to watch the entire episode, but I'm pretty confident that the home's exterior was undamaged by the "remodeling."



NOT a kit Old Hick

The Florence is not a kit home, but it did come from DuPont.


And amazingly it circles back to the story of Penniman

And amazingly, this whole thing circles back to the story of Penniman, a village outside of Williamsburg with more than 15,000 inhabitants at its peak (in late 1918). Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.


Whisnant in front of Florence

The Whisnant family stands in front of a Florence on the streets of Penniman (1918). Image is courtesy of the Whisnant family, and is reproduced with their permission.


HGVT really needs to do a little research before spreading this information. However, if they don’t, I’ll keep writing blogs about them which is also pretty entertaining.

To read more about the Penniman houses that landed in Norfolk, click here.


If You Believe in the Power of Prayer…

July 1st, 2017 Sears Homes 9 comments

I sure could use them now.

For reasons I don’t fully understand, I’m back in a valley and struggling to rise to my feet again. Part of the challenge is that the shock is wearing off, and so many memories are returning. Some are good memories but many are bad memories of conversations with Wayne. Conversations that I didn’t understand at the time, but I understand them now.

My prayer-warrior friend Tracie tells me that sometimes, we need to focus our prayers. And right now, I need “the peace of God that passes all understanding.”

I also need to find a home in a beautiful place. My worldly possessions are scattered hither and yon in storage units. I’m living - camped out really - in a rental unit that was supposed to be temporary. Unfortunately, I’ve been here almost a year now.

Why am I stuck? I don’t know. Should I keep hoping for the best or “embrace the suck”?

I always believed in the power of visualization and setting goals. I believed that God answers prayers in a way that brings the maximum blessing. I believed that the universe was a friendly place.

All three of those beliefs have been shattered into a billion pieces.

I don’t know what to believe.

Never in a million years did I think my husband would commit suicide. Never in a million years did I think I’d be a renter at the age of 58, with my favorite things stuffed in storage units. Never in a million years did I think that my much-loved husband would do some of the things that he did, designed to create maximum confusion and despair after his death.

Never in a million years.

My daughter said that *that* should be our new mantra - “Never in a million years.”

So here I sit on the first day of July, pouring my heart out on a blog, trying to find my way out of limbo and into The New Normal™.

I’ve prayed until I’m blue in the knees, so I ask my friends for your prayers.

With much gratitude,

Rosemary and Teddy.



This image speaks to me, and I'm not sure why. There's desolation but there's also hope. For some time, I've felt trapped in a sort of limbo, and I need to find the way out. The image is from "What Dreams May Come."


To read about Rose’s new book, click here.


Only Two More Weeks: “Penniman: Virginia’s Own Ghost City.”

June 8th, 2017 Sears Homes 21 comments

In about two weeks, the long-awaited book on Penniman will be arriving at my home. That’s the very good news.

As dear friends and faithful readers know, there’s a lot more to this story. If you’re interested in reading the back story, continue on.  If you’re here to read about the Sears Homes, click here.

If you’d like to pre-order a copy of “Penniman, Virginia’s Own Ghost City,” click on the Paypal button at the bottom of the page. This first printing will be only 200 copies, each of which will be signed by the author.*


Almost 14 months ago, on April 10, 2016, my husband and I met with the editor that I’d hired to do the final edit on my manuscript on Penniman. It was a Sunday afternoon. The editor was confident that the completed manuscript would be returned to me in about two weeks. After that, it wouldn’t take long to incorporate the changes and send the book off for printing.

Five years of research and study and digging and effort was finally coming to a close. The book was finished. During those long days, when completing this comprehensive tome looked impossible, I’d close my eyes and imagine the finished product resting in my hands. In my vivid imagination, I’d caress its beautiful cover, pull it open to a center page and listen to the soft sibilant sound of the book’s spine being unfurled for the very first time. Next, I’d plunge my face into its bright-white pages and take in the aroma of that fresh-off-the-press smell.

There were many times that I got so overwhelmed by the enormity of the research that I started to think that this was an impossible task.

In August 2015, I kicked it into high gear and boldly announced to my husband that I was going to sequester myself and finish this book. “This means,” I told him, “that I won’t be much company for a time. I’ll be working morning, noon and night, literally, until this is done.”

“You shouldn’t work so hard,” he said half-heartedly. At the time, I assumed the “half-hearted” part was due to his knowing that once I set my mind on something, it was done and done.

I was wrong.

On April 11th, my husband came home from work and after I gave him a big hug, I posed him in front of all the research materials, filed, organized and boxed up, ready for storage.

“Look erudite,” I told him with a big smile, as I stroked his silver hair and kissed his cheek. He struck a delightful pose and I took many pictures of my beloved, and posted the best one on Facebook.

Looking “erudite” was no problem for him. He had an IQ well north of 160, and a flawless eidectic memory. I was in awe of his intellectual prowess. As a person with a natural love of learning, I thoroughly enjoyed just listening to him talk.

And he knew it.


Through the years, Wayne had been an integral part of the Penniman book. He’d been the preliminary editor on every bit of it, and many an evening we spent an hour or two reviewing a page or a chapter, discussing phrasing, word choices, and historical accuracy. He read every chapter and I was excited to read his edits and commentary. It was just one more place where his shockingly high IQ shined through.

“You’re a ten-talent man,” I’d frequently tell him (a reference to Matthew 25). “You’re brilliant, gifted, discerning, charming and beautiful. God has blessed you with so many gifts and abilities.”

Wayne always responded the same: “It’s good that you think that.”

Wayne’s “fingerprints” were all over that book. And unfortunately, because of that, every paragraph, every sentence and every word within its pages would become a painful memory of my husband.

My husband. The man with whom I intended to grow old. The man to whom I entrusted my extremely sensitive and delicate heart.

On April 18th, 2016, one week after he “looked erudite,” Chief Deputy City Attorney Wayne Ringer left City Hall and ended his life. If I live to be 112, my life will always be divided into two compartments: Before April 18th and After April 18th. The old Rosemary died that day, eviscerated by the holocaust of a spousal suicide. The new Rosemary is now, and will be for some time, a work in progress, but is still largely an emerging, amorphous form, and most notably, chronically dehydrated. I’ve yet to experience a single 24-hour period without soul-wracking crying jags.


I don’t remember the date, but a few days after Wayne’s suicide, the editor contacted me to let me know that the manuscript was completed. In those early days, I was in deep shock. It was ugly and hellish. I don’t remember details, but I know that the blue notebook - which contained the editor’s marked-up copy - ended up in the trunk of my Camry and remained there for many months.

For at least five months, I lived out of my car and spent the nights at a friend’s house about an hour from Norfolk. Each morning, I’d drive back to my home in Norfolk, pick up clean clothes, and then run around during the day, visiting doctors, lawyers, bankers, or friends, trying to sort out the surfeit of legal, financial, medical and mental problems that I now faced.

I kept granola bars, Boost (liquid supplement), Funyuns and Gatorade in the trunk, along with a Bible, some inspirational books and spare clothes, together with a manila envelope which contained the important papers that I needed constantly. During this time, I was losing weight and suffered from fainting spells. If I stood up too fast, I’d sink right back down.

When I would open that trunk, the very sight of the word Penniman made me nauseous. I kept hoping that repeated exposure would make it easier. It didn’t. In time, I covered the notebook with a beige towel and buried it in a box in the hinterlands of the trunk.

Every few weeks, I’d carry the notebook into my friend’s house (in a canvas bag) and try to read through the edits. Still, I couldn’t do it. Back into the trunk went that tired blue notebook.

In January 2017, a caring friend invited me to join him at dinner. He asked many questions about the book. By now, I had given up on the manuscript and decided it was a dead project. My mental health was more valuable than a book on regional history. As far as I was concerned, the manuscript died with Wayne. I just hadn’t buried it yet. I made a plan to donate all the research materials and the unfinished manuscript to a local library.

I knew what my friend was doing. He was trying to re-invigorate me, and re-ignite the passion I’d once felt for this topic. But now, I had no passion for anything in any direction. I was the walking dead, slogging through the moments and the days, eating enough to stay alive and not much more. Two simple thoughts dominated my waking hours, which were, “Why did Wayne do this?” and secondly, “Why does everyone keep trying to save me?”

That dinner with my friend was such a blessing. He showed me “no little kindness” and when I looked in his eyes, I saw love looking back at me. I was loved. Maybe I really was lovable. Maybe I was worthy of love. Maybe my husband’s last text - blaming me for his death - wasn’t a burden that I should carry for the rest of my life.


Even the people at the periphery of my life were showering me with love. Today, the very memory of that love stirs my soul and lifts my spirits.


A few weeks after Wayne’s suicide, my eldest daughter gave me a shake and told me, through tears, “Mom, the only way we’re going to survive this hell is by focusing on light and love. This darkness is so horrid and the truth is so awful that this trauma could easily destroy us. I need you to stick around and I need you to stay focused on the good. Promise me you’ll focus on light and love. Promise me.”

I promised my little girl that I’d try.


That night, the dinner with my friend, I felt the love. It was as though I was being given a mental hug, and it fed my hungry soul. The love in his heart and the warmth in his eyes was a laser-beam of light that pierced the heavy blanket of psyche ache that had engulfed me. His kind words and the love behind them reached right into my heart. I felt something stir inside of me. The next day, I pulled the blue notebook out of the trunk and plopped it down on the desk beside my computer. I told myself, “Just do one page. Just one page. And if you can’t do one page, do one paragraph. And if that’s too much, just do one sentence.”

Opening the book, the dizziness and nausea returned. I paused, closed my eyes and said the simplest of prayers. I kept my eyes closed for a couple minutes. I decided that maybe one sentence would be plenty for the first day. And then I did that first sentence. And then another and another, and then one page was finished but then I hit a bad bump, and an intense memory of a discussion with Wayne washed over me and dragged me down under the waves. I slapped the book shut, closed out the computer screen and flopped on the nearby couch to commence the daily crying jag.

The next day, I made it to the end of the first chapter. When the tears came, I took a deep breath and said, “One more page. Just do one more page.”

And so it went, day after day. Getting through those pages was an act of divine grace and sheer willpower.

In about three weeks, I had incorporated all of the editor’s corrections. After that, three friends gave of their time and brilliance to help me finish up all the “dog work” of incorporating photographs, creating captions, and putting it all together. Next, I had to read the manuscript from beginning to end.

Again, many tears flowed. I was so weary.

That was several weeks ago.

Now, June 8, 2017, we’re drawing mighty close to the finish line. As of June 2nd, the Penniman manuscript is in production, 14 months later than expected. When I chastise myself for the delays, I remember, it’s a miracle of grace that this book will even see the light of day. It may not be exactly how I wanted it to be, but it is finished.

In about 10 days, the “new baby” will be born. And as fast as freight can move those boxes, they’ll come to my home in Southeastern Virginia. At some point in the not-too-distant future, I’ll have the final product resting in my hands, where I’ll caress its beautiful cover, pull it open to a center page and listen to the soft sibilant sound of the book’s spine being unfurled for the very first time. Next, I’ll plunge my face into its bright-white pages and take in the aroma of that fresh-off-the-press smell.

And then, I’ll put it back in the box, and turn the box label side to the wall, so I don’t have to see the word “Penniman,” and hope and pray that one day, the pain associated with that lovely name will ebb a bit, and that this unknown story will garner much interest, and will bring a blessing to every reader and to the community and to the country.

As my friend George said, “Sometimes the biggest ugliest dogs are guarding the loveliest of treasures.”

In other words, sometimes the greatest blessings are lurking right behind the greatest sufferings.


In 1875, 54-year-old Mary B. Eddy wrote her seminal work (”Science and Health”), a book that was prefatory to creating the first church in America founded by a woman. In 1908, a congregant lovingly returned one of those early books to Eddy. According to Eddy’s secretary, Eddy carefully took the small book, examined it, and handed it back to the secretary and said, “Put it away, Mr. Dickey. No one will ever know what it cost me to write that book.”

Every book comes at a cost to its author, but sometimes the cost far exceeds what the author was intending to pay.


Less than nine months before his death, Wayne and I had picked out a “dream appliance” - a fancy side-by-side refrigerator with all manner of bells and whistles. It was a fine thing. We’d spent the prior three years planning this purchase. There was much discussion about options and colors and features and prices. And then one day, we went to Sears and made our selection. It was a happy day.

“How is it,” I thought to myself recently, “that we spent three years discussing a major appliance purchase, and yet he never said one word about his final exit plan? How could he think it was okay to destroy our marriage and destroy his wife and destroy our family with a nuclear detonation, without any discussion? How could my husband, an officer of the court and brilliant communicator, take a gun and murder my best friend without even a clue being proffered?”

It is a question that still plagues me, and yet it’s an intractable question. Like so many other aspects of this nightmare, the answer died with him.


Several months before his death, the veneer of civility began to peel away from his persona (which is Latin for “mask”). While struggling to write a single paragraph explaining the composition of a WW1 155-mm artillery shell, I frequently turned to him for help. It’s hard to believe that any historian at any college or museum could possibly know more of early 20th century military history, munitions and armaments than he did. His eidectic memory and brilliance shown in this arena, too.

After my 9th attempt to write a simple explanation of this shell, I handed him the freshly printed text and said, “Does this sound right to you?”

With his eyes glancing down through his bifocals, he read the paper. He shook his head in disgust as he thrust the papers back at me.

“What kind of dumb-ass doesn’t understand the difference between a shell-casing and a cartridge? How many times must I explain this to you? I don’t have any interest in writing this book for you.”

And with that, he stomped out of the room.

More than a year before his death, we sat at breakfast and chattered away as we did every morning. He mentioned a female colleague, and went on and on about his great admiration for her intellect and mental acuity.

“Wayne, I think I’m just as intelligent as she is, and perhaps even a smidge more.”

He replied, “You write these little history books. She’s a lawyer with seven years of schooling. It’s okay though. You’re smart when it comes to Sears Homes.”

It was a slice that cut me to the marrow. Throughout our marriage, he’d never been able to tell me that I was beautiful. And now he couldn’t even offer reassurances as to his pride in my intelligence.

In January 2016, after proofreading my preface he said, “This isn’t a good preface. It’s more like a first chapter.” He then urged me to try again. I brought him a pen and paper and said, “You just read my very best effort and that was the result of 12 months of writing. I’ve given it all I can. Why don’t you write a preface for me?”

Surprisingly, he agreed and for the next 60 minutes, he sat at the dining room table and wrote a four-page preface. He summoned me when he had finished and said, “This is a good preface for the book. It will explain your background.”

Eagerly, I sat down to read his writing. Below is a snippet.

I know relatively little about World War One. I’ve seen “The Blue Max,” part of “Gallipoli,” and part of “Sergeant York.” I’ve never read “All Quiet on the Western Front” or seen the movie, but I know they’re out there. I’ve seen “Downton Abbey” and its treatment of Matthew, Thomas, William and Archie. Efficient 20th century warfare required artillery, great guns that would hurl great shells great distances, and would explode doing great damage…

After reading this, I looked at him and said, “Are you serious?”

He sternly replied, “Yes, quite. You need to explain to the reader that you have no academic background or specific expertise.”

“You’re right, Wayne. I have no academic background or specific expertise, but I’d be willing to make a bet that I know more about early 20th century munitions than 99.9% of the people in the United States. In the last five years, I’ve now studied more than 25 books on the munitions of World War One, and that doesn’t include the many other World War One books on more generalized topics. And I think we’re going to have some trouble finding a vet from The Great War that can offer ’specific expertise.’”

The conversation did not end well. I retreated to my room and wept. I loved him dearly, but I was beginning to wonder if he was preparing to leave me. Something was off, and at the time, I had no idea what was going on.

About six months after Wayne’s death, I sat down and read through a dream journal that I had kept for several years. In the 12 months before his death, I had a recurring dream that he died suddenly, and I had to move out of my beautiful home into a depressing rental home. I’d often awaken from that dream with tears still flowing. More than once, after this recurring dream, I’d awaken Wayne and wrap my arms around him and say, “Wayne, I had this horrible dream that you died. It was terrifying. I don’t think I can live without you.”

He would hug me back and say flatly, “I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere.”

“Promise me?” I’d say, still feeling very emotional.

“Yes, I promise.”

We had this conversation several times. The last time was less than a week before his death.


In the last seven years, two of my dearest friends collapsed and died in the blink of an eye. In 2001, my mother passed suddenly as well. Every morning, as Wayne left for work, I gave him a proper hug. I’d hold him for at least a minute, and during that time, I asked God and His angels to surround him with love, to keep watch over him, bless him, and protect him, and keep him well, strong and healthy. And then I’d visualize the very angels of heaven surrounding Wayne in every action and in every moment. I’d always close with, “God, please bring him back home to me, safe and sound, at the end of this day.” Nine hours later, when I saw his green truck pull into the driveway in the evening, I’d always whisper, “Thank you, God.”

For reasons that should be obvious, his suicide has been a very hard slap down of my once-strong faith. It’s hard to imagine that any 63-year-old man was the recipient of more prayers than Wayne, and yet, it ended so horribly.


When I sequestered myself in August 2015 to finish the Penniman book, I had no idea that those were to be the last months of my husband’s life. “Come snuggle with me,” he’d often say as the sun set in the western sky, and most nights (thank God), I’d reply, “Okay, give me three minutes to finish up a paragraph,” and then I’d save my work, arise from the chair and spend time with him. Thank God for that.

But now that’s another painful memory. The Penniman manuscript took up much space in my life and my mind and my heart. I convinced myself that telling the story of the “Canaries” at Penniman was God’s will for me, a utilization of my best talents, life experiences and passion for telling a story forgotten by the rest of the world. But was that correct? It doesn’t feel like it today. Perhaps in a few years or decades, the reception and success of this book will help me sort it out.

I do know that - if I let it in - this devotion of my energies to a book in the last months of his life, could be another source of crushing guilt. Those were the last breakfasts, lunches and dinners I’d ever have with Wayne, and I spent many of them buried in a manuscript.

“You need to turn off that computer and come pay attention to me,” he’d say frequently. Was that one of the clues that I missed? Looking back, how did I miss that? And more important, how do I forgive myself now?

And there was the more haunting comment - almost a mantra in those last weeks: “I’m old, and I’m going to be dead one day and you’re going to regret spending so much time on a book.”

I’d grab him and say, “Please don’t say such things. Not a day goes by that I don’t pray my best prayers for you. You are the beloved of God, and you’re going to live a very long time.”

“You’ll find someone else,” he’d say, as though he hadn’t heard a word. “You won’t be alone for long. Someone will snatch you up.”

“Wayne, I don’t want anyone else. You’re the love of my life. Please - don’t say such things. We’re going to grow old together.”

If I permitted it, the review and rehearsal of those excruciating conversations could lead me to insanity.

When I find myself circling that mountain again, I use every iota of willpower to “focus on the light and love.” It’s an act of great will, and I tell myself, “It only takes 12 repetitions to form a habit. Focus on good thoughts. Stop thinking about the horror of this.”


I’m so very grateful that the Penniman book is done. If it had been left wholly to me, the unfinished manuscript would have been tossed into a bin and carted off to a local history room at the closest library. But thanks to so many dear friends, that did not happen. And today, I’m actually feeling a little joy and hope, looking forward to sharing the story of Penniman with the rest of the world.

The book that cost me so much may well be one more thing that helps to lift me out of the mire. I find myself earnestly hoping that this book is well received, and accomplishes its purpose of showcasing the amazing sacrifice of the men and women who gave so much to help win The Great War. Their story has been largely forgotten by time. This new book of mine will correct that gaping hole in local, state and national history, and for that, I’m truly grateful.

In the following weeks or months, I’ll go out into the world and give a few lectures and sell a few books. That will be very good for me. And focusing on future happy thoughts rather than depressing past events helps promote the healing of my shattered heart.

When my quivering hand struggles valiantly to write out a daily gratitude list, some iteration of this comment appears every day: “The Penniman book is done. Thanks be to God for that.”

It’s a good book, and it’s an important book, and hopefully, it will bring many blessings to its readers.

Please leave a comment below, or you can contact Rose directly at


To pre-order a copy of “Penniman, Virginia’s Own Ghost City,” click on the Paypal button below. Price is $29.95 plus $6.00 shipping. This first printing will be only 200 copies, each of which will be signed by the author.



Did I miss something

This photo was taken seven days before his death. I've often studied this photo and wondered, did I miss something?



I knew those eyes better than anyone, yet I had no inkling that he had a plan.



Front cover of the Penniman book.



The rear cover - just as it will appear.


This Penniman worker has traversed a great distance to buy the new book.

This Penniman worker has traversed a great distance to buy the new book.


To pre-order a copy of “Penniman, Virginia’s Own Ghost City,” click on the Paypal button below. Price is $29.95 plus $6.00 shipping. This first printing will be only 200 copies, each of which will be signed by the author.




Need to Find a Graphic Artist to Help Finish the Penniman Manuscript

January 7th, 2017 Sears Homes 13 comments

On April 18, 2016, I left my home at 4:00 am to catch a 5:30 am flight for Boston, Massachusetts, where I’d visit my daughter and her son. After four years of intense research and work, the manuscript on Penniman was finally 98% complete, and now it was time for a graphic artist to assemble the artwork and prepare the book for a printer.

An impressive history-loving group in Colonial Williamsburg had asked me to give my first public talk on Penniman on April 24th.

The morning of the 18th, I was running around the house getting ready for my trip to Boston when my husband asked, “Do you have a coat? It’s going to be cold in Boston.” When I said no, he handed me my favorite beige winter coat and said, “I don’t want you to get cold.” I gave him a big kiss and a hug and said, “Have I told you lately that I love you?”

He dropped me off at the airport and I gave him another big, long hug and then grabbed him and said, “In four days, we’ll be happy again.” He smiled and said, “Yes, in four days, we’ll be happy again.”

For several weeks, Attorney Ringer had been preparing for an upcoming trial involving the non-fatal shooting of a woman by a Norfolk cop. As the Chief Deputy City Attorney, it was his case, and he felt responsible for its successful outcome. The trial started on April 19th (Tuesday), and I kept reassuring him, “This will end, and we’ll be happy again and then you’ll retire 30 days later. It’s been a long road but we’re on the home stretch.” I shortened this refrain by saying, “In four days, we’ll be happy again.”

When he seemed especially tuned out, I’d sit down beside him with my laptop and show him pictures of other trips we’d taken. I told him, “We’ll go back there after you retire and I’ll teach you the fine art of traveling cheap and we’ll have a good time.” He said flatly, “I’m looking forward to that.”

As soon as he’d found out that I’d landed in Boston, he left his office at City Hall and committed suicide. Within an hour of landing in Boston, I received a phone call that my husband was dead, by his own hand. The day of my “big talk” in Willliamsburg turned out to be the day of my 63-year-old husband’s funeral.

Since then, I haven’t been able to look at the Penniman manuscript. Even now, it’s hard to look at these photos, but I know - after talking with other “suicide widows” (as we’re known) - that there comes a day when you have to push past the agonizing emotional and physical and spiritual pain and try to do one small thing. And yes, there is agonizing physical pain. I suffer from unrelenting and at times, crippling chest pain. It’s my constant companion.

Writing this blog and asking for help is my “one small thing” today.

This morning, after talking with “Leslie,” (a fellow writer and suicide widow), I realized it was time for me to climb back into Penniman and get this book finished. And that’s where I need some help. I’m in need of a graphic artist that can help me assemble the manuscript (22 chapters and 37 photos) into a print-ready document.

If you know of anyone who’s willing to help with this project, please leave a comment below.

Thanks so much.

To read more about Penniman, click here.


The story of Penniman is an amazing one. Penniman was a boom town about six miles from Williamsburg (Virginia), where TNT was loaded into shells for The Great War.

The story of Penniman is an amazing one. Penniman was a boom town about six miles from Williamsburg (Virginia), where TNT was loaded into shells for The Great War. This is a picture of one of the shell-loading lines, courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.


One of the little bungalows at Penniman, named The DuPont. This very model is what drew me into this story of Penniman. After Penniman closed, 18 of these houses were taken to Norfolk by barge.

The little bungalows at Penniman were built at several DuPont sites, and were named "The DuPont." These hipped-roof bungalows sat near the York River (not far from where Cornwallis surrendered). This very model is what drew me into this story of Penniman. After Penniman closed, 18 of these houses were taken to Norfolk by barge. Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.


This photo is from the Norfolk tax assessors office. It is from 1949, and shows The DuPont in largely original condition.

This photo is from the Norfolk tax assessor's office. It is from 1949, and shows "The DuPont" in largely original condition.


The people of Penniman are part of what make the story so compelling. There was a 312-man army detachment at Penniman known as The Shell Inspectors. It was their job to make sure that, at every point and turn, the shells were correctly loaded and stored.

The people of Penniman are part of what make the story so compelling. There was a 312-man army detachment at Penniman known as The Shell Inspectors. It was their job to make sure that, at every point and turn, the shells were correctly loaded and stored.


It is the people of Penniman that make the story come alive.

It is the people of Penniman that make the story come alive. More than 50% of the civilian employees at Penniman were women. They're shown here at the train depot within Penniman, where shells were shipped out on their way to the front. Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.


A woman worker loads explosive charges into a shell.

Dr. John Henderson (far right) sits with other medical personnel at the Penniman Hospital. Photo is courtesy of the Henderson Family. The names of the other workers are lost to history.



More than 900 wheelbarrows were purchased for the building of Penniman, and a large number of African-Americans were employed in its construction and day-to-day production. Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.



Those double doors require only a push to open, and on the other side is a long chute, leading to the ground.


See those long chutes?

See those long chutes? Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.



Melvin Wayne Ringer, 1953 - 2016


To read more about Penniman, click here.


Oh Dear Ethel, What Were You Thinking…

February 15th, 2016 Sears Homes No comments

According to newspaper accounts, Ethel didn’t die easy. For 10 days in November 1918, she lingered in a Richmond hospital before succumbing to her injuries, caused by two bullet wounds through her left lung.

In the last days of her life, between labored breaths and unimaginable pain, Ethel dictated her will to her mother and bequeathed “many pieces of diamond jewelry” to her mother, Carrie Grace Schneittacher. Carrie had come down from Girard, Pennsylvania so that Ethel Mae wouldn’t die alone.

Ten days earlier, Ethel Mae Brown had stepped off a train in downtown Richmond to meet her lover, Ralph E. Walker. It was a Wednesday night, about 7:00 o’clock, on a typical November night with temps in the mid-40s. Ethel and Ralph had met at Penniman, a World War One munitions plant on the York River. Ralph did the same work at Penniman as he’d done back home in Chattanooga: He managed the livestock at the plant. Ethel was a foreman, probably in the shell-loading area.

Both Ralph and Ethel were married, but not to each other.

Eyewitnesses later told police that there was an argument between the two as they stood on the sidewalk at 14th and Main Street. Ralph (55) pulled a pistol from his pocket and shot Ethel Mae (38) twice in the left chest at close range. She fell to the ground immediately. He then pointed the pistol at his own chest, and fired two shots before collapsing on the sidewalk.

Splayed on the sidewalk, bleeding out from two wounds, Ralph managed to prop himself up on one elbow, point the pistol at Ethel and fire two more bullets at her, with one bullet grazing her head.

Ralph then collapsed.

Richmond Patrolman Walter M. Angel had just passed the couple moments earlier. Upon hearing the gun shots, he rushed back to the corner, and saw the horrid scene. Using a citizen’s vehicle, Ethel was rushed to Virginia Hospital, about one mile away. Another patrolman rushed Ralph to the hospital, where he died less than 30 minutes later.

It was November 13, 1918. The Great War had ended two days earlier. While the entire world celebrated, Ralph fretted. Soon, he’d be separated from his sweetheart.

It’s my opinion that Ralph had decided sometime earlier that he’d either sweep Ethel away to a new life, or take both of their lives. Either way, Ralph had no intention of returning home. Shortly before meeting Ethel at the train, Ralph had checked into Rueger’s Hotel signing the register as “F. H. Armstrong of Birmingham, Alabama.”

Back in Chattanooga, Ralph had a wife and six children, one of whom (Ralph, Jr., age 28) had become an invalid after a terrible street-car accident. Ralph, Sr. came from a prominent Chattanooga family, and was the youngest son of Judge Dawson Walker, and the brother of Judge Seth Walker.  Ralph’s work had always centered around buying, selling and managing livestock.


Despite Ethel’s suffering, she consistently refused to provide details of the tragedy to the police or medical staff.  When admitted to the hospital, she used the name, “Mrs. N. E. Brown.” Eventually, she told the staff that her name was Ethel Mae Brown. The newspaper articles explained that she wished to keep her identity a secret, because her husband was “a prominent physician in Pennsylvania.”

Ethel would only tell the police that Ralph “had been despondent for some time,” and that he had a terrible temper. Ethel told the police that Ralph had shot her “in a fit of anger…following a quarrel.”

In the wee hours of November 22, 1918, Ethel breathed her last, “with the secrets of this [story] still locked in her heart” (Richmond Times-Dispatch, November 23, 1918). Her body was prepared by Henry W. Woody Funeral Home of Richmond and shipped to Girard later that day.


Until a couple days ago, that’s a summary of everything we knew about Ralph and Ethel. Thanks to Genealogist Extraordinaire Milton Crum and Ohio Historian Ashley Armstrong-Zwart, we now know quite a bit more about Ethel.

Ethel and her mother misrepresented Ethel’s age on several legal documents, but we now have a confirmed birth date of October 23, 1880. Her father was Wilford Joseph Schneittacher and her mother was Carrie Grace Young Schneittacher. Carrie was born in 1865, and she was only 15 when Ethel was born.

On June 3, 1905, Ethel married Dr. Sydney R. Titsworth in Manhattan. The two had met at J. Hood Wright Hospital (also in Manhattan). Sydney didn’t tell his poor blind mama about his marriage for more than a year. When he went home to Plainfield, New Jersey, he sprung the news on everyone. The story of the young doctor who returned home with “a diploma and a bride” was a headline in the New York Times (June 14, 1906).

As the inimitable Milton Crum said yesterday, “There’s a reason you don’t tell your own mother about marrying a certain ‘type’ of girl, and it’s not a good reason.”

The newspapers said that Ethel made a statement to the police, informing them that her husband was “a prominent physician in Pennsylvania.” Milton and I thought Ethel was talking about Sydney R. Titsworth. We were wrong.

And we also assumed that Ethel had created the pseudonym of “Mrs. Brown” in order to hide her true identify. We were wrong about that too.

Our big break came when Milton discovered that Ethel was enumerated twice in the 1910 census. She was enumerated in early April, living with her physician husband in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and then ten days later she was enumerated again, this time as a boarder in Manhattan, and working as a manicurist.

In other words, there was trouble in paradise. Sometime between those two enumerations, Ethel grabbed her diamond jewelry and left Dr. Sydney R. Titsworth, landing in Manhattan at a rooming house. In 1911, the good doctor sued his soon-to-be-ex for divorce. Seems that Ethel was a friend of the drink, and to hear Sydney tell the story, she was a mean drunk.

By 1912, Ethel was back in Pennsylvania, working in Erie as a corset dealer at 924 State Street. In December 1915, Ethel married Frank Arthur Brown, and lied about her age on the marriage certificate. Most likely, Ethel headed off to Penniman in the Summer of 1918, about 2-1/2 years after marrying Frank. The 1910 census shows that Frank was a laborer, and his 1917 draft card showed he was a laborer at American Fork and Hoe Company.

On May 26, 1918, Frank became something else: Part of Pershing’s American Expeditionary Force. Private Frank Brown survived one of the worst battles of World War One: The Meuse-Argonne Offensive. It raged from September 26, 1918 until the end of the war, November 11, 1918. More than 26,000 Americans died and 95,000 were wounded. Frank survived with no permanent physical injuries.

While Frank was serving his country and trying to stay alive in the mud-filled trenches on the Western Front, Ethel was serving in the second-line trenches at Penniman, and in her spare time, she was playing “who’s got a secret” with the guy in the stable.

Ralph Walker, the man with a wife and six children in Chattanooga, told several people that he had a “sweetheart” at the plant. He also told the lady who ran his rooming house that she shouldn’t be surprised if she came into the room one morning and found that he had killed himself.

When Ethel got off that train in Richmond on Wednesday night, she was probably returning to Penniman to pack up her things and go home. The previous few days, she’d been on a short vacation in Girard, visiting the folks back home. The war was over. Perhaps Ethel decided that it was time to end the affair and go back home to Pennsylvania and get on with her life. Frank would be coming home soon, and she could forget all this ever happened.

Instead, standing on a sidewalk in Richmond, still wearing an expensive diamond brooch and “handsome diamond ring,” she was mortally wounded when an angry lover pressed a gun to her chest and pulled the trigger - twice.

In death, Ethel didn’t fare much better. The story of her very bad ending was kept out of the papers in and around Girard. Her hometown paper, The Cosmopolite Herald, which detailed every citizen’s runny nose, sprained ankle and wandering chicken, had almost nothing to say about Ethel’s death. In a newspaper where even an infant’s death merits a front-page 200-word obituary, how did Ethel get overlooked? It must have been intentional and/or a gentleman’s agreement with Mr. and Mrs. Schneittacher.

Ethel Mae Schneittacher Titsworth Brown was buried in Girard Cemetery with the simplest of markers. The only child of Carrie Grace and Wilford Joseph Schneittacher rests alone in the cold ground. Cemetery records show that three plots were purchased for the three Schneittachers, but only Ethel’s plot was used. The remnant of the Schneittacher family lies in Gustavus Cemetery, more than 50 miles south of Ethel’s grave site.

Some may ask, is this really a story about Penniman? Yes, I’d say it is. It provides a thumbnail sketch about what happens in war time when people are put under difficult circumstances and endure grievous dangers and hardship. In short, it’s a story about the people of Penniman, and that’s what makes history so enchanting.

Thanks to Milton Crum, Ashley Armstrong-Zwart and Anne Hallerman for their help and brilliant research work!

To read an earlier article about Ralph and Ethel, click here.

Learn more about Penniman here.



Ralph (from Chattanooga) and Ethel (from Erie) met one another at Penniman, Virginia, a World War One munitions plant and village, built by DuPont. At its peak, more than 15,000 people inhabited the 6,000-acre site on the York River. Penniman was established in Spring 1916, and by 1921, it was a ghost town.



Ralph and Ethel were only two of the 6,000 workers employed at Penniman. After the war, Penniman was disassembled and in 1942, the land was purchased for use by the Navy (Cheatham Annex).


Ethel Nove 16

Ethel's story appeared in "The Chattanooga News" on November 16, 1918.



In early 1911, Dr. Titsworth sought a divorce from Ethel.



And the divorce was granted a short time later.


In 1912

The 1912 directory shows that Ethel is a "corset dealer" in Erie.


Even after the divorce

Even after the divorce, Ethel kept the name.



On December 15, 1915, Ethel married Frank Arthur Brown.



Ethel's father died on March 30, 1923 from cirrhosis of the liver. Did he become an alcoholic after his little girl's death or was that a contributing factor to Ethel's many problems?


In a town where every sniffle makes the news, its hard to believe that this was the only mention of Ethels death.

In a town where every sniffle makes the news, it's hard to believe that this was the only mention of Ethel's death.



Ethel Mae Schneittacher Brown rests alone in the Girard Cemetery, with her grave marked with the simplest of headstones, offering only the barest facts as to her life and death.


To read an earlier article about Ralph and Ethel, click here.

Learn more about Penniman here.


September 25th + Richmond + Sears Homes + Rose = A LOT OF FUN!

September 15th, 2014 Sears Homes 1 comment

Full house at our talk on September 25th!

And a good time was had by all!

If you’re new to this site, you may be wondering, what is a Sears Home?

Sears Homes were 12,000-piece kit houses, and each kit came with a a 75-page instruction book. Sears promised that “a man of average abilities” could have it assembled in 90 days.

The instruction book offered this somber warning: “Do not take anyone’s advice on how this house should be assembled.” The framing members were marked with a letter and a three-digit-number to facilitate construction. 

Today, these marks can help authenticate a house as a kit home.

Searching for these homes is like hunting for hidden treasure. From 1908-1940, about 70,000 Sears Homes were sold, but in the 1940s, during a corporate housecleaning, Sears destroyed all sales records. The only way to find these homes is literally one-by-one.

And I’ve found a whole caboodle of kit homes in Richmond!

If you’ve always wanted to learn more about this fascinating topic, here’s your best chance! I give fewer than five lectures a year now, so this might be the last!

Below are just a few of the many unique (and even rare) kit homes I’ve found in Richmond.

Please share this link with your friends and/or on your Facebook page.

To learn more about the talk and obtain tickets, click here.


One of the many ways to identify Sears Homes begins with slogging down to the basement (or crawlspace) and looking for marked lumber! This mark, together with a 75-page instruction book, helped homeowners figure out how to put together those 12,000 pieces of house.

One of the many ways to identify Sears Homes begins with slogging down to the basement (or crawlspace) and looking for marked lumber! This mark, together with a 75-page instruction book, helped homeowners figure out how to put together those 12,000 pieces of house.


Sometimes, the markings found on lumber arent what you might expect!

Sometimes, the markings found on lumber aren't what you might expect! This was found in the basement of an Illinois Sears home, and was a remnant from the original wooden shipping crate. "Bongard, ILLS" was the name of the train depot where the house arrived. I've often found shipping crate lumber repurposed ror shelving or coal bins.


The blueprints were specifically designed for the neophyte, and included great detail, such as how far apart to space nails! BTW, your Sears House came with 75 pounds of nails!

The blueprints were specifically designed for the neophyte, and included great detail, such as how far apart to space nails! The typical 1920s Sears House came with 750 pounds of nails!


One of my favorite finds in Richmond is the Sears Strathmore.

One of my favorite finds in Richmond is the Sears Strathmore (1936 catalog).


Oh my, whats not to love!

Oh my, what's not to love! Beautiful house with a Buckingham slate roof and original windows. Be still my heart!


This was Sears Modern Home #190, offered in the early 1910s.

This was Sears Modern Home #190, offered in the early 1910 (1912 catalog).


Perfect in every way!

Perfect in every way!


The Sears Avalon is one of my favorite houses, and Richmond has several. I would love to know the back story on this. The Avalon wasnt that big a hit for Sears, and yet Ive found five in Richmond.

The Sears Avalon is one of my favorite houses, and Richmond has several. I would love to know the back story on this. The Avalon wasn't that big a hit for Sears, and yet I've found five in Richmond. I've seen ten of these in the United States, and five of those ten are in Richmond.



And it's just a spot-on match to the catalog picture. Notice the small window in the front gable? And the three vents on the side gable? Picture is copyright 2014 Melissa Burgess and may not be used or reproduded without written permission. So there.


Another Avalon in Richmond, also in beautiful shape.

Another Avalon in Richmond, also in beautiful shape. This one has the original railings. All of these Avalons have that distinctive arched pattern and faux belt course on the brick chimney.


My favorite Avalon. Oh, what a beauty!

My favorite Avalon. Oh, what a beauty!



Close-up of that arched inset and belt on the Avalon in Richmond.


In addition to Sears, there were other companies selling kit homes on a national basis, and Gordon Van Tine was one of the larger ones. Total sales were probably a bit more than 50,000, compared to Sears total sales of less than 75,000. The Sussex was one of the Gordon Van Tine models that I found in Richmond.

In addition to Sears, there were other companies selling kit homes on a national basis, and Gordon Van Tine was one of the larger ones. Total sales were probably a bit more than 50,000, compared to Sears total sales of 70,000. The Sussex was one of the Gordon Van Tine models that I found in Richmond.



Picture perfect, this Gordon Van Tine "Sussex" still retains many of its original features.


This classic Craftsman Style bungalow was a popular model for Gordon Van Tine.

This classic "Craftsman Style" bungalow was a popular model for Gordon Van Tine.


And heres a fine-looking example of Model #507. Photo is copyright 2012 Taber Andrew Bain and may not be used or reproduced without written permission.

And here's a fine-looking example of Model #507. The photo was taken from a side that does not replicate the angle in the catalog , but it's clearly a GVT #507. Photo is copyright 2012 Taber Andrew Bain and may not be used or reproduced without written permission.


One of my favorite finds was the Gordon Van Tine #124.

One of my favorite finds in Richmond was the Gordon Van Tine #124.


Although next time Im in town, I need to bring my chain saw so I can get a better photo.

Next time I'm in town, I need to bring my chain saw so I can get a better photo. Nonetheless, I'm confident it's the real deal, as I found the original testimonial in a 1913 GVT catalog.


Aladdin was another major contender in the kit home business. In fact, they were larger than Sears. Aladdin had a mill in WIlmington, NC which explains why - typically - Ive found more Aladdin homes in Virginia than Sears Homes.

Aladdin was another major contender in the kit home business. In fact, they were larger than Sears. Aladdin had a mill in WIlmington, NC which explains why - typically - in Virginia, I've found more Aladdin homes than Sears Homes. Shown above is The Ardmore from the 1922 Aladdin catalog.


Ive never seen an Ardmore. I suspect its a fairly rare kit home. Is this house in Richmond an Aladdin Ardmore?

I've never seen an Ardmore. I suspect it's a fairly rare kit home. Is this house in Richmond an Aladdin Ardmore? The distinctive bracketing on that front porch roof sure suggests it might be, together with that unusual arched porch on the side. It's bigger than the Ardmore, but we know that 30-50% of kit homes were customized when built. So is it an Aladdin or not? Only her builder knows for sure.


In addition to Sears, Gordon Van Tine and Aladdin, there was another national kit home company: Harris Brothers. They were based in Bay City (as was Aladdin), but Ive found a few Harris Brothers homes in Virginia.

In addition to Sears, Gordon Van Tine and Aladdin, there was another national kit home company: Harris Brothers. They were based in Chicago , but I've found a few Harris Brothers' homes in Virginia. When HB started business, they were known as The Chicago House-Wrecking Company. One hundred years ago, "wrecking" was another word for the careful disassembly of a house. "Wrecked houses" were typically moved and rebuilt at a new site.


Heres a fine example of

Here's a fine example of HB-1017N. And it's for sale! The side windows flanking the front door are distinctive, as are the tops of those porch columns. The stucco is in good shape, too.


Heres another example of a Harris Brothers house.

Here's another example of a Harris Brothers' house (Model 1513).


Oh yeah, baby. Thats what Im talking about!

Oh yeah, baby. That's what I'm talking about! Another perfect match!


Another Harris Brothers

Another Harris Brothers' #1513, from a different side. That's two of these sweet things in Richmond.



The Sears Osborn is another beautiful bungalow (1928).



And here's another beautiful example of The Osborn in Richmond. Wow.


There are also pattern book houses in Richmond. Pattern book homes were different from kit homes, because these houses didnt come with building materials. Youd browse the pages of the catalog, select a home and then youd receive full blueprints and a list of all building materials necessary to build the house. Shown here is

There are also pattern book houses in Richmond. Pattern book homes were different from kit homes, because these houses didn't come with building materials. You'd browse the pages of the catalog, select a home and then you'd receive full blueprints and a list of all building materials necessary to build the house. The image above came from the Harris, McHenry and Baker Company catalog, but these plan book houses were offered by many regional lumber companies.



Love the stucco pattern! I've never seen this pattern before, but I suspect there's a name for it.


Shown above is but a smattering of the kit homes we’ve discovered in Richmond. To learn more, come to the talk on Thursday night (the 25th), and meet Rose!

It’ll be a fun evening, and informative, too!

To learn more about the talk and obtain tickets, click here.

Thanks to Rachel for sharing her images from the 1913 Gordon Van Tine catalog.

Thanks to Melissa for the wonderful picture of the Sears Avalon!

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One Word for Sandston: Oopsie

June 9th, 2014 Sears Homes 3 comments

When you drive into Sandston (Virginia), you might see this historic marker (shown below) which states that Sandston (a WW1-era DuPont munitions site) had “230 Aladdin houses, that were erected for plant workers.”

That’s the “oopsie.”

Yes, they were built for plant workers, and yes, they are houses, but they’re not Aladdin houses.

For some time now, I’ve been researching Penniman, Virginia (another WW1 DuPont munitions plant) and that’s how I came to learn about Sandston. (Sandston was renamed in 1921. Prior to that, it was known as “Seven Pines.”)

In June 1918, DuPont signed a contract with the US Government to supply smokeless powder for the guns of The Great War. By later Summer 1918, thousands of women were employed at The Seven Pines Bag-Loading Plant. The women, all members of Virginia’s Women’s Munition Reserve, were charged with sewing silk bags and filling them with smokeless powder. The silk bags of propellant were for use in large caliber guns on ships and on the battlefield.

Seven Pines is located about seven miles from Richmond. The location was not considered ideal because the cigarette factories in Richmond provided stiff competition for attracting quality workers (which would be predominantly women). As an enticement, DuPont decided to build a village with 230 modest bungalows, some shops, churches, and more. The little houses would be rented out to the employees.

DuPont turned to a Grand Rapids contractor to build 230 darling bungalows in one big hurry. The contractor “Owen-Ames-Kimball” turned to North American Construction Company to supply the lumber for the houses. In 1918, North American Construction Company (based in Bay City) was also known by another name: Aladdin Homes.

According to my dear friend and architectural historian Dale Wolicki, it’s most likely that Aladdin provided the building materials in pre-cut lengths. Dale surmises this is most likely because, during WW1, boxcars were in short supply. And the US Government had done a full-court press to get the Seven Pines plant up and operational immediately. Pre-cut lumber would expedite the construction process. And we know that DuPont and Aladdin had a corporate relationship.

But the houses in Sandston were built based on DuPont designs. These same designs were built at other DuPont plants, such as Carney’s Point, New Jersey, Hopewell, Virginia, Penniman, Virginia, Old Hickory, Tennessee, and more.

It’s my opinion that, for a house to be a true “kit house,” both building materials and the architectural design must come from the kit home company; in this case, that’d be Aladdin.

As you scroll through the photos below, you’ll see that the houses in Sandston are unquestionably DuPont designs.

In short, the houses in Sandston are not Aladdin kit homes.

Sorry about that, Sandston.

Perhaps you can get that sign fixed now!



Perhaps they could put a piece of black electrical tape over the part where it says, "Aladdin" and save the expense of redoing the entire sign. Photo is copyright 2010, Leon Reed.


Drove through and found many DuPont Houses, but only two Aladdins - and they were iffy!

In November 2013, my buddy Milton and I went all through Sandston and I found only two Aladdin kit homes! However, I did find a surfeit of DuPont designs, such as this "Denver."


You may notice the pretty blue house shown above looks just like the DuPont Denver model.

You may notice the pretty blue house shown above looks just like the "DuPont Denver" model. (House above is a mirror image of the model shown in the vintage catalog.)


Another example the Arlington

Another example of a "DuPont Model" is the Arlington (shown above).


Arlington Dupont

This is one of several fine-looking Arlingtons in Sandston.


The Ketcham

The Ketchum was a fine spacious house, but it did not have plastered walls; rather, it had an "interior finished with beaverboard" (an early 20th Century compressed wood-pulp product).



There are several Ketchums in Sandston.


Aladdin Contract 2b

And here's where it gets really interesting. This paperwork (supplied by Clarke Historical Library at Central Michigan University) shows that Owen-Ames-Kimball Company turned to Aladdin to supply them with building materials for "75 DuPont Houses" and "51 Painter Houses." Oops (again). Is it possible that the 230 number is also wrong? Hmmm... (Image is courtesy Clarke Historical Library, Central Michigan University).


Contract 2aaaa

Seven Pines was still gearing up when Armistice ended the war. It's likely that the contract for these houses was canceled, which is why many of the "painter houses" were never completed. BTW, what is a "painter house"? That question plagued me for some time. (Image is courtesy Clarke Historical Library, Central Michigan University).


Contract 3a

Page 2 of this agreement shows that 149 of those painter houses were not built. (Image is courtesy Clarke Historical Library, Central Michigan University).



So what is a "painter house"? This map helped me figure that out. In 1918, the government asked DuPont to provide a detailed map of Penniman. This map shows the layout of the village and the plant. In the image above, you'll see that there's a section of houses in the village that's labeled "plastered houses." If you look at the description of the modest homes offered by DuPont for their workers, you'll see it states that many of the models had interior walls finished with "beaverboard." This was, in short, a cheap wall covering made of compressed wood pulp. Its best feature was that it was very "economical." The better-class homes (probably for supervisors) had plastered walls. Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.


Hagley two

Close-up of the 1918 map of Penniman shows that this section in the village features "plastered houses." So there were "plastered houses" and "beaverboard houses." Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.



This inventory of Penniman houses, done by the US Army after the war had ended (1919), provided another clue to "painter houses." The houses are broken down into two groups: Ruberoid houses (tar-paper siding) and painted houses (with wooden siding). If you're not a big architecture buff, and you're assigned with the task of inventorying houses, the houses in these DuPont villages had two categorizations: Ruberoid Houses and Painted Houses. Made it simple and sweet.


Contract 2aaaa

The DuPont Houses were - probably - the Ruberoid Houses with tar-paper siding. The "Painter Houses" were the houses "of a more permanent nature" with wooden siding. (Image is courtesy Clarke Historical Library, Central Michigan University).


The DuPont Houses and Painter Houses erected at Seven Pines were built with lumber supplied by Aladdin, but in that these were DuPont designs, they can not accurately be described as Aladdin Homes.

So, who has some black electrical tape for that sign?


To read more about what got me started on DuPont’s villages, click here.


You can read an earlier blog about Sandston (with many more photos) here.

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Girl Scouts Hunt German Spies

April 18th, 2014 Sears Homes 1 comment

In the Summer of 1918, the Great War was very much on everyone’s mind.

In reading through Ladies’ Home Journal and McCalls‘ magazines, I’ve found a plethora of articles about women’s’ war work, and what ladies could do - at home - to help defeat Kaiser Wilhelm.

But one of the most memorable articles I found was in the July 1918 McCalls’ Magazine. A short story featured a division of 35 Florida Girl Scouts, who walked a ten-mile patrol each night along the St. John’s River - with rifles slung over their shoulders - on the hunt for German spies.

“They have been trained in marksmanship,” the article said, adding, “They are afraid of nothing and ready for anything.”

Last year, I read a book called, Unintended Consequences.

It was a fascinating, well-written book and rich with history, but its most memorable point was that a mere 100 years ago, Americans were comfortable with firearms, and in the early 1900s, most Americans grew up on farms, and we knew how to  handle shotguns and rifles. (Contrast that with today’s nuttiness, where a student was suspended last week when he brought a bright yellow water gun to school.)

Can you imagine what would happen today if we armed 13 to 16-year-old girls with rifles, and asked them to patrol a stretch of coastline, prepared to shoot enemy combatants?

Oh MY!

To read more about why I’m reading 100-year-old women’s magazines, click here.

To learn about kit homes, click here.

Girlie Scouts

"The few, the proud, the girlie scouts!"


To read more about why I’m reading 100-year-old women’s magazines, click here.

To learn about kit homes, click here.

Want to purchase “Unintended Consequences”? Click here.

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Richmond, Virginia Continues to Amaze

April 5th, 2014 Sears Homes 7 comments

UPDATE! Rose will be giving a talk in Richmond on September 25th at the Virginia Center of Architecture! Click here for more details!

April 4th of this year, I had a delightful time riding around Richmond in a Lexus SUV filled with several knowledgeable, intelligent and interesting women, who also happened to be history buffs and old house lovers.

It was purely enjoyable.

We began our adventure with a single-minded purpose: Looking for kit homes.

On my previous two trips to Richmond, I’d driven myself around town, finding a few treasures here and there, but searching for kit houses is tough when you’re the driver and the watcher.

There were several fun discoveries yesterday, but my #1 favorite was a rare pre-WW1 kit house that I had never seen before. It was a Gordon Van Tine Model #124, and it was on a main drag through town.

And better yet, once I pulled out my books at home and did a little research, I learned that this house in Richmond was featured in a 1913 Gordon Van Tine catalog! Scroll on down to learn more!

Thanks so much to Barb, Melissa, Anne and Jessica for making Friday such a fun day, and thanks especially to Molly for her deft navigation of Richmond’s old neighborhoods!

To read about our other finds in Richmond, click here.

And thanks to Rachel for sending me a copy of her very rare 1913 Gordon Van Tine catalog! You can find Rachel’s blog here!

To learn more about Gordon Van Tine, click here.

1913 Gordon

Many folks have heard of Sears kit homes, but not too many have heard of Gordon Van Tine. This was another national kit home company that - like Sears - sold entire kit homes through mail order. The company was based in Iowa, but we've found several GVT homes in Richmond. Shown above is a 1913 Gordon Van Tine catalog.


house 1913 124

GVT Model 124 was called "A Beautiful Stucco Home" (1913 catalog).


let me not be put to shame

Stucco "gives an air of distinction and an artistic effect..." (1913 catalog).



Number 124 had spacious rooms, lots of windows and a built-in window seats in the living room!


houdr house

Not sure about the lavendar paint and green roof, but it is a fine-looking house.


Its well hidden by the verdant landscape, butthe greenery,

It's well hidden by the lush greenery, but there's little doubt that this house is a Gordon Van Tine #124. Of all the fun things we discovered on Friday, this was my #1 favorite discovery. But it gets better...


house hvirginia

Seems that a fellow named Mr. Farley built a #124 in Virginia.



Mr. Farley says his house was "modified," but the only difference I can readily see is this half-timber effect on the porch gable. I didn't see that on the other images in this catalog.


And yet, here it is in the house in Richmond.

And yet, if you can peek around the flying flag, you can see this half-timber effect within that porch gable. Could it be? Is this Mr. Farley's house that was featured in the 1913 catalog?



According to the Richmond City Directory, Ernest W. Farley, Jr. and his wife Lucille were living at this address in 1944. Ernest Watson Farley Sr. married Maude Starke on April 12, 1911, and their son (Junior) was born in Feburary 1912. Given that this testimonial appeared in the 1913 catalog, it's likely that E. W. Farley built this house for Maude soon after their wedding, and then deeded the house to his son in later years.


What an unexpected delight!

What an unexpected delight to find *the* house featured in a 100-year-old testimonial! And there's a brass plaque on the front of Mr. Farley's home. If anyone knows what's inscribed on it, please let me know.


To learn more about kit houses in Richmond, click here.

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To contact Rose, please leave a comment below.

Update! Thanks to Anne, I have a little more information on the Farley Family. The first name of both father and son was Ernst (not Ernest, as it appears in the city directory), and Ernst Watson Farley, Jr. was a member of the Virginia House of Delegates from 1968-1971. Delegate E. W. Farley was born in February 1912, and it seems likely that he was born in the GVT #124.

Father (Ernst Watson Farley Sr.) was born in 1879, and was the founder of RECO Industrial Pressure Vessels (in 1914), which was originally located on Brook Street. I wonder if Father started the new business in his new home?


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“Perhaps You’d Like to See Our Tombstone Catalog…”

March 27th, 2014 Sears Homes 4 comments

According to “Sears, Roebuck, USA: The Great American Catalog Store and How It Grew,” a Sears customer wrote the Chicago Mail-order giant and asked if she could return several bottles of patent medicine that she’d purchased the month before.

In her letter, she explained that the medicine had been intended for her husband and after ingesting the first bottle, he’d quickly passed on.

The clerk who received the inquiry responded quickly, with an assurance that certainly, she could return the unopened bottles, and by the way, would she like to see a copy of Sears’ Tombstone Catalog?

Funny story, but the sobering fact is, traditional, elaborate Victorian funerals were expensive. Tradition dictated that certain rituals and procedures be done, and a middle-class family might endure shame and scorn if they couldn’t afford a decent marker for their loved one. And what about the poor? Often, they had to quietly and stoically endure the humiliation of seeing their loved one placed in a pauper’s grave.

(An aside:  There’s a 1920s pauper’s grave in Williamsburg where 35+ bodies (many of whom are children) are buried. The only “markers” at the site were small granite stones - the remnants of tombstones - that were provided by the undertaker. These markers outlined the individual graves. With the passage of time, those graves were forgotten and now  there’s a condo built on top of part of that cemetery.)

After Aunt Addie’s exhumation made the headlines, several people shared “old family legends” about a time when a young child died, and the family - unable to afford a real burial and/or pay burial fees - surreptitiously stole into the city graveyard in the dark of night, and buried their little one in a make-shift coffin.

By contrast, such stories make a pauper’s grave seem like a mercy.

I have no pictures of Sears tombstones, but with all these testimonials, they shouldn’t be too hard to find. Plus, they were made from Vermont Slate, which as a distinctive color and veining.

If you look up Sears Tombstones on the internet, you’ll find there are folks claiming that Sears tombstones were hollow, zinc markers (metal) but this is one of those apocryphal stories. Not sure where it started, but it’s not true.

To learn more about Victorian burial customs, click here.

To read about early 1900s burial rituals, click here.

To learn more about Addie, click here.

Verse 1904 Thomb

The Tombstone Catalog from 1904.


people loved them

Does anyone in Plain City, Ohio want to get me a picture of the Frazell tombstone? I would love to see one of these. And there's the Chitty tombstone in Rapid City, SD. That's also a fairly unusual name.


freight costs might seem

You'd think freight costs would be prohibitive, but Sears had it all worked out.



Inscription cost six cents per letter, unless it's a verse, and then its 2-1/2 cents per letter, unless it's on the upper base and then it's 15 cents per two-inch letter.


here lies mary

Mark Hardin observed that most of these images in the 1904 catalog depict young people. In the late 1800s, one out of five children passed on before they reached adulthood. In early 1900s America, there would have been very few families whose lives hadn't been touched by the death of a child.


Mary again

When I was researching the life and death of my Aunt Addie (died in 1901), I came across one story in the 1893 Lake Mills Leader that I will never forget. It was the height of a diphtheria epidemic, and the diphtheria was present in many counties in Wisconsin. In southern Wisconsin, a family had lost seven of their eight children to that single epidemic. The paper reported that the "eighth child had also contracted the diphtheria" and was not doing well. The article said that the children apparently had "weak blood." Today, we'd call it a genetic predisposition .


another one

The epitaphs mostly depict a young child.


house tombstone

When my beloved mother died suddenly in 2002, she was cremated and her ashes were scattered. In retrospect, I now more fully understand the comfort that a marker such as this can provide to greiving families.



For a poor family desperate to have their loved one remembered, the economical "Sears option" may have been a God-send. It provided an option to an unmarked pauper's grave.



"Verse inscription ideas - at no extra cost to you, our loyal customer."



I sincerely hope that no one chose this verse.



This is not a Sears Tombstone, but I find the last line quite interesting. My daughter Crystal found this in an old graveyard near Hartwell, Georgia. Photo is copyright 2010 Crystal Thornton and may not be used or reproduced without written permission.


To read about Penniman’s poor flu victims that were buried in a forgotten grave, click here.

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