It’s Summer (at last!), an all too short season with too many tasks demanding attention, including the perennial home renovations. When fixing up the old homestead, you may find your thoughts turning to the origins of the house itself.

For families who pioneered on Canada’s prairies, the construction of their first ‘real’ house was a major milestone, a turning point in their relationship with their land. They went from scraping a meager existence out of the soil to being established farmers, from living in ‘soddies’ and shacks to residing in respectable houses. Sometimes home construction had to wait until a proper barn for the animals had been built. Such was the case in my family’s past. The barn was built in 1912 and the family had to wait four more years before they could afford a new abode.

Our family legend tells of the house, at least, being ordered from the Eaton’s catalogue. (Barns could also be bought from the company, and I suspect that was the case for my family.) The building materials were transported by sleigh during the winter from the nearby city and the house constructed the following summer (1916).

Eaton’s produced Home Plan Books, separate from their main catalogue, specifically for the prairie region. The detailed house blueprint (proclaimed to be a $25 – $75 value!) was provided for a small fee ($1), which was reimbursed when the supplies for the construction of the house were ordered. Eaton’s also offered a Special Plan service, where they would turn a customer’s sketch into a materials list and when the order was placed, the custom blueprints would be provided. There were actually several different companies offering home kits by mail; these came with pre-cut and numbered pieces. Eaton’s, on the other hand, provided the required lumber uncut; therefore, extra wood was sometimes left over for the construction of other small buildings.

The methods of home construction were different in that era from the ones used today. Houses, such as my family’s, that were two and a half storeys tall were built using balloon construction. (No, actual balloons were not used, so ban thoughts of water balloon fights from your mind; it’s just the July heat getting to you.) This means that the studs ran the height of the house, with lengths of 16, 18 or 20 feet, an inconceivable thought in today’s world of exploited forests. The modern platform construction method uses a shorter stud length, necessitated by the reduction in available tree size. Eaton’s boasted of using Douglas Fir trees of a minimum seven-foot diameter, that did not have branches (and thus knots) below a 200 foot height. Can you imagine knot free lumber?!

Depending on printing schedules, my family’s house would have been ordered from the 1915 or 1916 Plan Book. Despite heavy distribution of Eaton’s Home Plan Books, they are extremely rare today; perhaps they suffered the fate of reuse in the outhouse that so many other catalogues did in the paper-starved past. There are only a couple examples in the Calgary Public Library, the Glenbow Archives, and the Western Development Museum Archives but none are of the right date for me. There is one important reference book to Eaton’s homes: Catalogue Homes – Eatons and Others by Les Henry. It provides background information and some examples from otherwise inaccessible plan books, but still I could not find plans of the correct vintage to compare to my family’s home.

I have not been able to confirm that my family’s house was ordered from the Eaton’s catalogue: I lack the hard evidence of a matching blue-print. However, I have not found evidence to refute the claim either. No numbers have been found on the lumber hiding in the walls that were exposed during relatively recent renos. It may be that this house was built from a customized design that never appeared in a catalogue. So, we will have to stick with the family legend for now…unless someone out there has an unused 1915/16 Home Plan book gathering dust in their obsolete outhouse?

Note: A film based on Les Henry’s book is available on YouTube as a four part series. Part One can be found here.

This article was originally printed in the Bergen News and is being reprinted with permission.


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