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A mail-order dream house

Berger Jergenson’s dream was to own a big white house on a hill. In the 1880s, this young Norwegian caught the “fever” to move to America, land of opportunity, telling everyone that he would leave the homeland, buy a farm and build a big white house on a hill.

Ingri and Berger Jergenson settled in Minnesota near Swift Falls in 1887. This picture is believed to have been taken in 1916 or 1917, perhaps on the occasion of their 40th wedding anniversary. Contributed photo

In 1887, he and his wife, Ingri, and five children, including a 2-week-old baby, left Norway aboard a big wooden freighter bound for America. Fifteen weeks later, the family arrived in Benson, Minnesota. by train. They walked the final 12 miles of their journey to the Swift Falls area, and the search began for farm land and a suitable building site.

During those early years in Minnesota, Berger and Ingri did whatever they could to earn a living and save for the future. Berger grubbed out huge oak trees on the prairies of Swift and Pope counties for 50 cents a day and found employment with the railroad for a time. Ingri sold her handmade items to help the family survive in this new land, and she served area women as a midwife. After living in a rented cabin, they built a sod hut. Later, Berger bought some railroad ties and fashioned a small two-room log structure for his growing family, which eventually would include 11 children.

In 1898, Berger was able to purchase 120 acres of land in Rolling Forks Township in Pope County for $1,000. It was good farm land, and there was a spot on a hill for their building site. Twenty-two years later, a big white house stood on that hill. It was a fine two-story dwelling that had been ordered through the Sears, Roebuck and Company mail order catalog for a total cost of $1,500. Some assembly required, of course!

The Jergensons weren’t the only family to put up a Sears house. Between 1908 and 1940, Sears sold nearly 70,000 home kits in the U.S. through their mail-order program. Eventually, 370 floorplans became available, including the one Berger and Ingri chose for their dream home.

Berger and his team of horses made several trips to the Sedan rail yard where their Sears house kit had been delivered. With only manual labor, they unloaded everything from a boxcar. It’s estimated that the kit contained between 10,000 and 30,000 pieces, including barrels of nails and screws, paint, shingles, windows, doors, woodwork, a staircase and a 75-page instruction book. Old House Journal Magazine explains that in 1914, Sears began offering pre-cut, factory-fitted lumber that was labeled for ease of construction. Prior to that, lumber had to be cut to fit at the building site.

The original home was ordered from a Sears mail order catalog, and the kit was assembled on a hill on the Berger Jergenson farm in 1920. Contributed photo

Since Berger’s house kit arrived in the fall of 1919, every piece was unloaded into a shed on the farm site and stored until the following summer when a concrete foundation could be prepared. Unfortunately, the pieces that were needed first during construction were stored in the back of the building, making for an challenge for the crew. It isn’t known who actually put the pieces of this house kit together. Most likely, Berger had help from neighbors and friends, as was the custom in those days.

Years later, a family member found a small translation booklet in the attic. It was a publication meant to help Norwegian-speaking individuals understand English. Perhaps it belonged to one of the men assisting with the construction project who needed to make sense of the written instructions for building the house.

When completed, the Sears home had four bedrooms, a sitting area, dining room and a good-sized kitchen. Electricity and plumbing were not commonplace in the United States until the 1930s, so homes built from early kits needed to be upgraded when electricity and running water became available. The windows in the Sears house were fitted with weights, ropes and pulleys that allowed them to be opened using a counter balance system instead of having to be propped. The Jergenson house kit came with a water collection system that gathered rain water from the roof and transported it through a series of troughs and spouts to an underground reservoir. There any particles present in the water could settle to the bottom. In the kitchen was a hand pump that pulled water from that cistern for handwashing, dishes and cooking. After living in a sod hut and a very small log cabin, imagine the joy Ingri must have felt as she pumped that first splash of clean, soft water in the kitchen of her new mail-order dream house.

A professional building mover brought the 98-year-old house to its new location less than five miles away. Contributed photo

As time went on, the house underwent many changes, and new generations of Jergensons called it home. One of Berger and Ingri’s sons, George, took over the farm in 1934. George’s son, Glen, who was born in the house, purchased the farm in 1959 and lived there until 2015. Glen and his wife, Jean, raised a family of five in the house – two boys and three girls. Their son, Brian, began farming with his parents in 1984, but he and his wife, Laura, never lived in the house. Today, they live in the neighborhood and still farm the land. In 2017, Glen’s other son, Kim, and his wife, Kimberly, retired and moved back to the area but decided not to remodel the original Sears house. Instead, they built a new home on the farm site right beside the old two-story structure.

But that wasn’t the end of the line for the big white house on the hill. A neighbor heard that the old structure was available to be moved, and an agreement was reached with the Jergensons. Kevin and Bridget Gallagher were gifted the 1920 Sears house, and in August 2018, they moved it to their site less than five miles away. The owner of the moving company stated that the Sears house was one of the straightest buildings he had ever moved.

“It was bittersweet to see the house leave the home farm,” said Brian, Berger’s great-grandson. “But the family is extremely happy that it’s staying in the neighborhood and not being torn down. We hope it can stand for another hundred years.”

Floor joists under the Sears mail order house still carry the handwritten markings that were needed to properly assemble the house. This label appears to say “Joist J 14” and can be seen in the basement of the home. Contributed photo

Today, the Gallaghers are living in the house and tackling projects as time allows. They plan to maintain the building’s original footprint while restoring some of the house’s original character, like the wide woodwork and the 9 ½ foot ceilings. They won’t be removing any walls but will reconfigure the kitchen, uncover a hidden window upstairs and enlarge the main floor bathroom, which had been added to the original house.

Bridget is no stranger to do-it-yourself projects. “My mom was a real estate agent,” she explained, “and when she couldn’t sell a house, she’d buy it herself, fix it up and resell it.” As a youngster, Bridget remembers spending Saturdays and Sundays working on various house projects with her family.

When the Gallaghers decided to take on the project of moving and renovating the Jergenson house, they tore down their 1905 home. Even though that house wasn’t well built, it had some features worth saving. They removed the tongue-and-groove beadboard on the ceilings and plan to use that either as wainscoting on some walls or perhaps they’ll reinstall it on a ceiling. Bridget and Kevin were happy to see that some of the original trim remained intact on the second level of the old Sears house and will reproduce that look in the rest of the home. As the work has progressed, Kevin and Bridget have seen handwritten letters and numbers that they believe to be the original Sears markings, placed on the individual pieces to help the building crews put the Sears kit together. “The markings are written in cursive and very faded so it’s hard to read, but it’s there,” said Kevin. “So far we’ve found them on the floor joists in the basement, and we’re hoping to find more this summer when we start opening the walls to replace insulation.”

“I really like this house,” said Bridget. “It has such a comfy, cozy feel to it.” This winter the new furnace has been running almost steadily, but the couple looks forward to the day when projects are complete and they can relax and enjoy a home that they’ve restored to its former glory. “We’ve always dreamed of restoring an old, well-built house to make it our own,” said Bridget, “and that’s what we’re doing now.”

Today, Berger Jergenson’s mail-order house sits on a new hill and has become someone else’s dream.

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