Some stories are so compelling and inspiring that they stay with you for a lifetime.
The story of Henry and Ethel Mohr is one such story.
In 1928, 12-year-old Muriel Mohr returned home from school to find the charred remnants of the Mohr family homestead. It must have been devastating. However, I suspect that Muriel - like most young people - was watching her parents to see how they responded to such an unthinkable tragedy. And I suspect that Henry and Ethel Mohr knew that this experience was a teachable moment. They were teaching their young daughter - by their own example - how to keep going forward when life deals you an unfair blow.
Despite the fact that they lost their house and most of its furnishings, Henry and Ethel did not throw in the towel and give up on their piece of the American dream. These second-generation Americans were not about to walk away from the plot of ground they’d spent years nurturing and cultivating and farming. They weren’t about to give up on the 160-acre Illinois homestead that Henry’s parents - Frederick and Wilhelmina Mohr - had homesteaded when they immigrated from Germany. By 1928, Henry and Ethel and Frederick and Wilhelmina had 74 years invested in this patch of fertile Midwestern farmland.
In 1928, the Henry Mohrs turned to Sears Roebuck to transform their burden into a blessing, and that blessing took the shape of a beautiful little red and white bungalow that’d endure for generations to come.
Building that house for his family, I’m confident that Henry and his brother-in-law Frank paid close attention to each and every detail in that 75-page instruction book, and the accompanying blueprints. I’d bet money that when the Mohrs built their Sears Obsorn, they knew it’d be a house that’d outlive them, and their children.
When Muriel Mohr married Dean Riggs in 1939, they took their vows in the Osborn’s living room. After the war, Muriel and Dean moved into a little house on the edge of the Mohr’s farmstead. Muriel and Dean’s two children (Dennis and Linda) grew up in that little house. Dennis and Linda had only to scurry through a grove of fruit trees to visit Grandma and Grandpa’s house. In 1975, Ethel passed on and exactly two months later, Henry followed her. Muriel inherited The Osborn, and in 1978, she and her husband moved into the house her father built.
The architectural historian in me thinks back to 1928, where I can imagine Muriel’s father putting the finishing touches on their fine, new modern home. I can picture Henry Mohr pausing from his work to explain the import of this house to his little girl. Maybe he took her 12-year-old hands in his wizened, calloused hands, looked into her eyes and said, “I built this house for you, and for your children, and for their children. Always remember, if you could see a father’s love, it’d look like just this house: Strong, true and enduring.”
Since 2002, I’ve been interviewed hundreds of times by hundreds of reporters in too many cities to count. After the story appears in print or on television, reporters consistently tell me that their piece on Sears homes generated more viewer/reader response than any story they’ve ever done. There’s a reason for that, and the Riggs’ story helped me better understand the reason.
There’s so much more to this story than kit homes sold out of a mail-order catalog. Each and every home is a piece of the tapestry that is the fabric of America and her people and her success. Homesteaders and city dwellers alike worked and struggled and strived to improve their lot in life and to create a better life for themselves and their children and their children’s children. They were willing to give up a year’s wages to secure a piece of land, and they were willing to place an order for 12,000 pieces of building material from a large mail-order company in Chicago, Illinois, and then - working nights and weekends - assemble those pieces into something that resembled a house.
The Riggs’ family story, multiplied thousands of times, gives a thumbnail sketch of the story of Illinois and the story of our country. In the first years of the 20th Century, magazines and newspapers of the day consistently promoted this message: It’s your patriotic duty to become a homeowner. The early Sears Modern Homes catalogues stated this basic philosophy in different ways, but there was an elementary core truth therein: Homeowners have a vested interest in their community and communities with a large percentage of homeowners will enjoy a greater proportion of prosperity, stability and peace.
In one of my favorite movies, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George Bailey gets to see what his town, Bedford Falls, would have looked like if he’d never been born. Without George’s positive influence and his struggling Building and Loan, the modern subdivision of Bailey Park would never have been developed and countless citizens would never have had the opportunity to become homeowners.
Without the Bailey Building and Loan, George finds that Bedford Falls is full of substandard rental properties. And because there are so many rental properties, there is less stability in the family structure and in a broader context, there is less stability in the whole community. In this alternate sans-George world, Ernie the cab driver does not live with his family in their own “nice little home in Bailey Park,” but instead, his home is a decrepit shack in Pottersville and it’s implied that this hardship is partly to blame for the fact that Ernie’s wife “ran off three years ago and took the kid.”
The streets of this alternate-Bedford Falls (now named Pottersville) are lined with liquor stores, night clubs, pawnbrokers, striptease shows and pool halls. Gaudy neon signs flash “girls, girls, girls” and illumine the night-time corridors of Main Street. Citizens are neither calm nor law-abiding and brusque policemen struggle to keep peace and order.
George’s revelation that he really had a “wonderful life” stemmed in part from the realization that his meager efforts to give people the chance to become homeowners gave them a feeling of accomplishment, prosperity, security and pride. By extension, the whole community benefited in important, significant and enduring ways.
Perhaps Sears was to Illinois what George Bailey was to Bedford Falls. Sears empowered and enabled tens of thousands of working-class and immigrant families to build their own home. What would countless Midwestern towns have become without Sears homes? How many towns in the Midwest were spared the fate of becoming a Pottersville? Probably many.
Sears Modern Homes made a significant difference in many communities throughout Illinois and the Midwest. I’m sure of that. (The story above and photos are an excerpt from The Sears Homes of Illinois The History Press, 2010), and may not be reprinted or reproduced without written permission. To buy a copy of that book, click here.
And did you know that the best (and most wholesome) ice cream in America is located within minutes of this Osborn? Learn more about the Dairy Barn in Sidney, IL by clicking here. It really is the World’s Best Ice cream!
To learn more about the Sears Homes of Illinois, click here.
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