Peter Shelton

A Home in 30,000 Pieces, Delivered

Posted in Road Trips West by pshelton on June 29, 2013

Sears, Roebuck and Company “Modern Homes” get most of the ink. But Montgomery Ward, Sears’ Chicago-based competitor and predecessor, actually, in the mail-order catalogue business, sold kit homes, too, something like 25,000 of them between the years 1909 and 1932.

I found one a couple of miles out the Dry Creek Valley east of Ridgway, a four-gable, white clapboard place at the edge of the irrigated hay fields. It’s been occupied since 1977 by Ralph and Karen Walchle and, before they left home, their two boys. The Walchles met in eastern Colorado and moved to the Western Slope in 1976, when they were 30 years old. “We both fell for this place,” Karen said, pulling a tray of cinnamon rolls out of the oven. Done moving the cows, Ralph brewed up a pot of coffee; he always has coffee with his cinnamon roll.

Karen, a retired third-grade teacher, is quick and petite. Ralph is rangy and tall, even without his cowboy hat.

The Walchles learned the story of their house from members of the Perotti family, Albert and Jerald, and most especially Jerald’s wife, Gertrude. The brothers’ grandfather, Joseph Perotti, came over from Italy to work the mines in Ouray, and homesteaded the place on Dry Creek. The family had sold it by the time the kit home was built, but Albert, who lived in town, in Ridgway, helped put it together.

It’s a Wardway Home, from 1930. Wardway was Montgomery Ward’s kit-home franchise. Karen found a dated photo of the house, a tiny black-and-white, at the assessor’s office, “without so much as a front step.” No trees, no porch, no fences. Just the four gables and three chimneys at the roof peak: one for the fireplace, one for the cook stove, and one for the furnace in the half-basement.

All 30,000 pieces of the house came pre-cut, by rail car, from Montgomery Ward’s nearest factory in the Pacific Northwest. Doors, windows, framing, siding, roofing, plumbing, cabinets, hardware, nails – it all came by train to Ridgway then up Dry Creek by wagon. Each piece was stamped with an identifying number that corresponded with the book-length set of plans included.

Wards, like Sears, promoted the low cost and zero waste of their machine-produced homes in an era when automobile use was exploding and Americans were moving out of the cities and into the suburbs. From a catalogue of the time: “The satisfaction to be derived from having all the uncertainties and possibilities of errors eliminated in building your home is thoroughly appreciated by those who have built by Wardway methods.”

Wards promised its customers complete satisfaction, and “nothing extra.” Indeed, Albert told the Walchles, they even told you how many nails to put in each board. “Don’t bend ‘em, or you’ll be one nail short!” he said.

The Walchles don’t know the model name of the home, or how much it cost in 1930. (The catalogue from 1925, the closest I could find online, featured 42 different models ranging in price form $995 to $2,698. Heating systems – steam or “warm air pipe” or hot water – cost an additional $109-$404. Plumbing would run you $165-$294, depending on the model. Wiring was about $20 extra. For $450 more, Wardway would send out a “certified contractor” who would put all the pieces of the house together for you.)

By doing it yourself, of course, you saved serious money. Albert did a good job, Ralph told me. “This house is totally plumb and level. And square. There’s been no movement” in 83 years.

The house was small, though, for a growing family. So, in 1994, the Walchles remodeled. In the process Ralph found, tucked in the eves of the unfinished attic, a mouse-chewed Montgomery Ward catalogue. It’s a two-brick tome of more than 860 pages (they’ve still got it), but it didn’t have what they’d hoped for – a page depicting their model home, with a finely wrought ink drawing of The Ardmore, say, or The Franklin, or The Carlyle, with specs and prices. The catalogue date is 1938-39, six years after Wards stopped selling kit homes. (Sears kept at it until 1940, by which time the company had shipped about 75,000 homes to every state in the Lower 48. Some of the best preserved sell today for many hundreds of thousands of dollars.)

Ralph wanted to ask Albert Perotti about the catalogue in the rafters, but he couldn’t: “I wish I could have asked him more.” Albert accidentally shot himself in the head pulling his 30-30 out from behind the pickup seat. He was trying to shoot a coyote up on Owl Creek.

Albert’s brother’s wife, Gertrude Perotti told the Walchles tales of the old homestead. One of them involved their grandmother, a tough ranch hand if ever there was one. As Gertrude recalled it, she delivered one of her babies by herself, out in the field while she was clearing sagebrush. It was a hot day. She tied off the umbilical cord with a piece of string, wrapped the baby in a scrap of cloth and left it in the shade under a pile of sage. When she was done working at dusk she listened for the baby’s cry to identify which pile was the one harboring her child. Gertrude, who participated every year in the Ridgway School talent show, singing and playing her mouth harp, died in 2012, at 95.

The remodel added much needed space to the kitchen, doubled the size of the bathroom downstairs, and nudged the ceilings higher in the now-finished upstairs. Before, Ralph was always hitting his head. I asked if he could tell what kind of wood was used in the framing, and Ralph said he wasn’t sure; might have been Douglas fir. In any case it was so hard “you’d break a hammer trying to pull a bent nail out of it . . . That lumber was straight and square. If it had a knot in it, they didn’t use it. Unlike lumber today.”

As part of the remo, the Walchles built a bay window for the kitchen table, where we ate our cinnamon rolls and watched hummingbirds at a feeder. An old, longhaired cat strolled slowly up the gravel county road. There are big cottonwoods along the ditch now and blue spruce, 60 feet tall, at either corner of the house.

Time is written on the land, but seems not to have touched the house. On the contrary, Ralph said, very little of what you see, inside, is original. The antique-looking wallpaper, the wood trim, the oak floor, is all new. In the living room, only the bricks of the old fireplace are original. The bones are the same, but the skin, inside and out, has had a facelift.

The Home Comfort wood-burning cook stove came from his mother out in the sand hills of extreme northeastern Colorado. The French doors opening onto the parlor are new, although Gertrude told them there had been French doors there originally, before a previous owner walled the room in to use it as a bedroom.

They added a sliding glass door and a deck out the upstairs room on the north side. This is Ralph’s office, for both Walchle Cattle Company and his real estate business, Lone Eagle Land Brokerage. There’s a picture of Roy Rogers and Trigger on one wall. Ronald Reagan gazes out from another. And there is at least one photo of Karen and Ralph posing with President George W. Bush.

Ralph likes to step out on the deck and listen to the quiet. “Sometimes when the wind is right, you can hear the highway. But, other times, like now . . .” He gazed north and east, over the utilitarian sheds and corrals, across the well-tended fields toward Owl Creek and the Cimarron Range beyond.

“For 36 years, I’ve never gotten used to this view,” he said. “It’s been just a wonderful place to raise the boys.”

Plumb and square: there’s nothing indicating the Walchles couldn’t be here for another 36 years.

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