Remembering when homes and tractors came in kits

Folks in rural areas once looked forward to the arrival of catalogues, where one could order houses, barns or even tractors in kits, Mychal Wilmes says.

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Mychal Wilmes

The arrival of the Sears, Roebuck and Company, and Montgomery Wards catalogues were much anticipated when farmsteads were isolated from city centers.

Catalogue pages were replete with products that offered new conveniences, which were a delightful mix of reality and fantasy. New homes could be ordered from the companies.

Sears, Montgomery Wards and Minneapolis-based Forest’s Portable Houses marketed kit homes, which provided pre-measured boards and easy-to-follow directions. Some advertisements claimed that three men working four days could finish a new house. Another unbashful kit maker said its kits provided “the cheapest, strongest and warmest houses on the market.’’

Basement digging aside, Sears and Roebuck and others provided all heating, electrical and plumbing material. Depending on footage and fancy style, a home building kit cost between $600 and $6,000. In the late 1920s, the average cost to building a conventional home was $6,296.

More than 100,000 hit houses were built pre-World War II before interest in them waned. However, kit sales continue to this day. Companies, sensing that there might be untapped markets, expanded to outbuildings.


Sears, Montgomery Wards, Van Tine, and Aladdin also sold kits for barn, shed, and chicken coop construction. Through its popular catalog, Sears offered paint choices that included oxide red, dark gray, yellow, and maroon.

The cost of a barn kit was approximately $1,600 (about $28,000 in current dollars). If money was tight, Sears could provide loans at reasonable terms.

Many farmers, who saw profits wane following the end of World War I, needed to find bargains where they could. Hard times presented an opportunity for Montgomery Wards and others with build-your-town tractor kits. Assembly was needed, as was an engine. Many pirated engines from their family car to net more horsepower at less cost.

In the 1930s, Sears sold the Economy and Graham line of row crop tractors. Approximately 500 Economy tractors were manufactured and powered by rebuilt Ford engines. The tractor sold for a reasonable $495, which amounted to $7,600 in today’s dollars.

An advertisement from the time said such tractors enabled farmers to get a two-bottom plow tractor for the price of one-bottom power.

By the 1940s, Montgomery Wards sold its own branded tractor, which were manufactured by Custom Manufacturing Company and another firm until the Wards tractor ended production in 1954.

Main line and odd-ball tractors spark great interest at antique tractor and threshing shows across the Midwest. Attendees marvel at the old-timers’ ability to make do. A tractor may take a half-acre to turnaround in a field and might have been awkward, but got the job done.

I try to take in the antique power show near Le Center, Minnesota, because it is near where our home farm was. The event started small and blossomed into a big show that has a big economic impact on nearby communities.


Green, orange, red or blue — tractor color does not matter. That is not quite true. Some tractors have been recast in pink to increase awareness about the toll breast cancer takes. AGCO and Ziegler teamed up to produce a pink Challenger a few years back to highlight the disease and other manufacturers followed suit. Pink antique tractors also appear during slow-moving rides to help people deal with medical bills.

A pink John Deere B turned heads a few years ago at the Le Center show. One farmer said that he would not be caught dead driving a pink tractor. Pink, he said, is for girls.

Pink was once a boy’s color. In the early 20 th century, a baby boy’s room was painted pink because it was thought to be a stronger color than blue. It was not until 1918 that a popular magazine opined that blue was for boys because it is a “stronger’’ color than pink.

To read more of Mychal Wilmes' Farm Boy Memories, click here.

Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minn., with his wife, Kathy.

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