Tumwater family sold kits for ready-cut homes

Hundreds of homes in the older neighborhoods of Olympia and Tumwater represent a bygone era when homeowners assembled their houses from kits of pre-cut lumber manufactured at Tumwater Lumber Mills Co. Inc.

The brains and brawn behind the ready-cut homes were seven of the nine children born at the end of the 19th century to Anton and Matilda Anderson of Ursviken, Sweden. They migrated to Tumwater in the early 20th century and over the next few decades made a lasting mark on the timber, lumber, and pulp and paper industry in the Puget Sound region.

One of the family ventures was the Tumwater Lumber Mills sawmill south of the upper Tumwater Falls on the Deschutes River, which started production in 1918. It is there that they first churned out ready-cut homes in 1921, moving the factory to its West Bay Drive operations in 1925. Also known as kit, mail or catalog homes, they were popular in the United States and Canada between World War I and World War II.

Olympia historian Shanna Stevenson told the story of the Anderson family and their ready-cut homes last week at the Schmidt House History Talk Series in Tumwater. The history talks, free to the public at noon the third Thursday of each month, have struck a chord with South Sound history buffs. The former home of Olympia Brewery founder Leopold Schmidt was packed with an overflow crowd of 66.

A 1920s company catalog listed more than 30 designs for homes and barns ranging in price from $860 to $2,560, plus shipping costs. The lumber packages included paint, windows, hardware — everything a homeowner needed to build a home, except a foundation. The company even provided a construction foreman for up to 30 days, if homeowners decided to hire a crew to construct the home, rather than build the homes themselves.

The company took pride in the fact that a ready-cut house eliminated waste at the mill and on the job site. Instead of lumber hand-cut by carpenters, the 10,000 to 30,000 pieces of lumber that went into a typical kit home were numbered and delivered as one package, ready for assembly.

Stevenson became aware of the preponderance of Anderson ready-cut homes in 1986 while preparing one of the early inventories of historical properties in the community. During her talk, she showed photos of ready-cut homes in Tumwater, the South Capitol and East Olympia neighborhoods and Olympia’s west side. The Anderson family also marketed their kit homes in Europe and across the nation, competing with Sears, Roebuck & Co. and other companies.

“Our sawmill produces several million board-feet of lumber each year for all kinds of construction, and it is owing to the large output in all grades of lumber that we are able to select the best material for our Ready-Cut Factory, and thus give our customers an absolute guaranteed product...” the company catalog proclaimed. “Do not confuse our house with the portable variety,” company officials went on to say. “The homes described in this catalog as well as all that we manufacture are as strong, durable and warm as correct design and the best of material will produce.”

At least two people at the lecture said they lived in Anderson ready-cut homes, including Carla Jonientz, who lives in one of at least two ready-cut homes on Governor Stevens Avenue in Olympia.

“I didn’t know about it when I bought the home in 1986,” she said. “It had been remodeled a number of times.” After finding some old gate hinges in a compost pile behind the house, she had a friend rebuild a small gate that bears a striking resemble to the original.

Also in the audience were six members of the Anderson clan, who came from Hoquiam, Bainbridge Island and other locales to learn more about their family history.

An April 2, 1931, article in the Daily Olympian called Tumwater Lumber Mills the single greatest contributor to residential construction growth in the community, estimating the local inventory of ready-cut homes at 500.

More than 100,000 kit homes were built in the United States between 1908 and 1940, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Stevenson said several factors combined to derail the ready-cut home industry: The onset of World War II, variations in local building codes, increases in land and home financing costs, opposition from crafts unions and the trend toward subdivisions.

Nevertheless, South Sound still bears witness to homes from the ready-cut era.

“The one thing you can say: They endured,” Stevenson said.