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A Sears store in Columbus is about to become history.
Some of the company’s connections to the city will have a much longer shelf life — Cummins Inc. and a few houses, for instance.
Earlier this month Sears officials announced plans to close the downtown Columbus retail operation in March or April. The store had been an anchor of The Commons since its opening in 1973. Longtime Columbus residents will recall Sears’ former location on Washington Street in the Basset building, a presence that began in the 1920s.
While for most residents Sears has been a place to shop, it actually had a much wider impact. In fact, it can be said that Sears was directly responsible for getting Cummins Engine Co. off the ground. Ironically, it must also take partial responsibility for the engine maker’s near collapse two years later.
On a personal level it also put roofs over the heads of several Columbus residents, including former Mayor Bob Stewart.
The Sears/Cummins connection dated almost to the beginning of the engine manufacturer in 1919. That was the year the company was incorporated, and co-founders Clessie Cummins and W.G. Irwin almost immediately launched a sales effort tied to the Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog.
The Sears catalog was the dream book of just about every 20th-century American. It was bigger than most metropolitan phone books, and customers could order just about anything from their homes, even diesel engines.
That, of course, was the Cummins product, but in the first 10 months of the company’s existence, only a handful of engines had been produced.
Just when things looked the darkest, help arrived when Sears offered Cummins a contract to build 3,500 oil engines that would be offered for sale through the Sears catalog.
Overnight, Cummins was transformed from a Ma-and-Pa-like organization into a thriving industry. Capitalization was increased from $50,000 to $100,000, and the workforce was increased from nine to 85, according to the late John Rowell, the company historian through much of the mid-20th century.
Sears went all out on its promotion effort, offering through the catalog terms that included $10 down, a free 30-day trial and 10 months to pay. Farmers were big customers and quickly learned how to improve on what was already a good bargain.
That came at the expense of Sears and Cummins. Just as both companies were experiencing the glow that comes with a successful sales effort, Cummins workers noticed a trend. Customers who had purchased the engines on the free trial offer were returning them 30 days later.
“Farmers quickly figured out that they could order an engine, use it for 30 days and have their down payment refunded,” Rowell explained several years ago. “Cummins employees remembered that most of the returned engines would run like new ones.”
Sears caught on and changed the policy to requiring cash with the order, but the damage was already done, especially to the Columbus business. The workforce that had grown to 85 was cut back to 12 by 1921.
That was the bad news. The good news was that thousands of customers had become familiar with the Cummins-made engines and were willing to buy more in the future.
Sears’ other connections to Columbus are much closer to home — literally. Our city still has a number of houses constructed in the early 20th century, structures that their original owners ordered from the aforementioned Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog. Former Mayor Stewart was born in one of them.
Bob’s birthplace was purchased out of the catalog by his father, Lynn, in the early 1930s and was situated on the Stewart property on County Road 650E near the Meshberger stone quarry. The older Stewart not only purchased the plans for the structure but all the materials as well. Each piece was cut to order and numbered so as to make life a lot easier for contractors.
The mail-order house business was highly successful. From 1908 to 1937 Sears sold plans to more than 100,000 customers. Apparently the materials were not of the here today-fallen down tomorrow standard.
Bob’s birthplace is still standing. So is a Sears house in the 2100 block of Franklin Street that was built in 1933 by Clessie Cummins for his father, Frank. Several years later Clessie’s brother, DeLoss, built a house in the 2000 block of Lafayette Avenue. Looks like Clessie’s company had recovered from the 30-day free trial engine episode by then.
Many of the Sears homes in Columbus were built by Taylor Brothers Construction Co. That there are at least three Sears homes still standing in Bartholomew County 80 or so years later is a pretty good testament to their durability.
In fact, I was born and raised in a Sears house in Bardstown, Ky., which today is serving as home to another family.
It just goes to show that Sears in Columbus might be gone, but some of the products it sold are still getting good use.
Harry McCawley is the former associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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