The Stories We Choose to Tell: Samuel B. Cobb and the Kit Home Movement


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Samuel B. Cobb arrived in Portland in the 1880s and became the epitome of the self-made man and pillar of the Portland community. So why did he never talk about the kit home company he helped found during WWI? A recent NARA accession sheds light on a new chapter in the life of Samuel Cobb, whose sprawling 1911 Craftsman home is on the National Register of Historic Places.

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The Stories We Choose to Tell: Samuel B. Cobb and the Kit Home Movement

  1. 1. Archives Month 2011 | Pecha Kucha in Bellingham, WA Jill Nagy Anderson e Stories We Choose to Tell: Samuel B. Cobb and the Kit Home Movement On a clear night1 in November 1882, a young millworker and erstwhile miner arrived byboat on the Ash Street docks in Portland, Oregon, just a month shy of his 23rd birthday. Withhim were his earthly belongings in a small pack, a mining partner who had traveled with him,and the dollar-fifty the two had between them. Born in Searsmont, Maine, Samuel BedlingtonCobb had hearkened to Horace Greeley’s call to ‘go west, young man,’ taking up whatever oddjobs presented themselves across the Midwest, before landing in Portland to ply his carpentryskills. By 1880, Portland was a burgeoning and muddy city of nearly 18,000 people. Woodensidewalks lined dirt roadways. Anti-Chinese sentiment was increasing. Sewers had not long beena part of daily life, and clean water was often at the whim of the currents of the Willamette. Notten years earlier, a fire had destroyed 20 city blocks, but Portland was on the rise as a major portto the Pacific and the Transcontinental Railroad was on its way. e next few decades wouldmean rapid industrial and economic growth for Portland, as well as population growth thatswelled the city to over 200,000. Opportunities abounded for those - largely white men - whowere willing to take chances, invest, and fully embrace capitalism on the farthest edges of theAmerican frontier. In the industrialized new century, manufacturing took on the trappings of being“scientifically” managed. Even something as fundamental and expertly crafted as the family homecould be ordered via catalogue, cut to specifications in a factory, shipped on a railroad boxcar, andput together by Dad. e irony of the kit home is that many of them were designed asCraftsman-style homes, based on the premise that simplifying, rationalizing, and harmonizing1 “October in Oregon,” Willamette Farmer, 3 November 1882, 1.
  2. 2. Archives Month 2011 | Pecha Kucha in Bellingham, WA Jill Nagy Andersonproduction would engender a more Progressive ideal for society - yet these homes were made infactories on the backs of low-skilled workers, not by knowledgeable, well-compensatedcraftsmen. e first company to pioneer the kit home, Aladdin, even enjoined its potential buyersto “hire an ordinary man to put it up.” Sears, Roebuck & Co. followed a few years later with their Modern Homes series and, bythe teens, kit home companies had sprung up around the country, including here in the PacificNorthwest - Hewitt-Lea-Funck Company of Seattle and Fenner Factory Cut Homes ofPortland among them. Magazines like Popular Mechanics and Good Housekeeping were filled withads that promised a home of one’s own, affordable and easy to assemble. e ads focused on thebenefits to the family domain - that a man could not only afford to provide a home for his wifeand children, but would erect it with his own hands (and the help of friends, male relatives, or alocally-hired contractor). During my internship this summer at the National Archives and Records Administrationin Seattle, I was able to assist in the processing of a series of exhibits from District Court inTacoma, originally totaling about 180 cubic feet. Heavy weeding became necessary, as many ofthe documents or objects couldn’t be tied to specific case files in our holdings. In some instances,a particular wide-eyed intern, who shall remain nameless, made impassioned arguments forsaving exhibits that otherwise were destined for witness disposal. One such victory for this internwas an disorganized pile of filthy, oversized envelopes and assorted other smaller documents.Inside each envelope was a set of plans for a kit home produced by the National Home BuildingCo. of Vancouver, Washington, 85 sets in all. Each one was a detailed set of plans, with front,rear, and side elevations, framing diagrams, floorplans, and detailed specs. Miscellaneous itemsincluded plans for a “Cotillion Hall” for Portland, detailed diagrams of architectural flourishes forthe homes, such as fireplaces and columned bookshelves, and scraps of receipts for kits sold. esignature that united all of them read simply and tantalizingly, S. B. Cobb.
  3. 3. Archives Month 2011 | Pecha Kucha in Bellingham, WA Jill Nagy Anderson By 1916, Samuel Bedlington Cobb had married, started a family, and built himself into apillar of the Portland community. Working his way up in the lumber business, he and a long-timefriend eventually took over the Standard Box & Lumber Company and made it successful,expanding one plant, only to watch it burn to the ground two years later, moving operations to anew site. (At the scene of the fire, Cobb had watched with characteristic calm, praised thefirefighters’ efforts, and chalked it up to “spontaneous combustion.”2 ) In 1911, using pattern and plan books,3 he designed and had built a house for his familyat 1314 SE 55th Ave. in the Mt. Tabor neighborhood of Portland - an eight-bedroom,Craftsman-style home that is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Cobb and hiswife, Florence, raised their children in this house and Cobb died here in 1951, at the age of 91,having outlived his wife and three of his children. But in 1916, Cobb was in the prime of his life. He owned land, was successful in business,and provided a good life for his wife and six children. He was a prominent member of thePortland community, was chosen for various civic committees, and had served as a staterepresentative twice, in 1902 and 1914. Always a businessman with an eye for opportunities, hejoined his son, Earl, in the creation of the National Home Building Co., a kit home companybased in nearby Vancouver, Washington. e 25-year-old Earl Cobb incorporated and managedthe company, but his father soon became the largest shareholder, due in large part to the 75unique sets of plans the lumberman designed himself and sold to the company in exchange forthousands of shares of stock. Newspapers lauded the creation of the new company and its initialsales, crowing that “Anything from a chicken house to a mansion can be made here.” A year after2“Fire Leaps High. Spectacular Blaze Destroys Box Factory. Damage about $35,000. Flames Spread with MarvelousRapidity. Adjacent Blocks in Danger. Standard Mill is Completely Destroyed, with Docks - Neighboring BuildingsPartially Saved - Lack of Fireboat Felt.” e Morning Oregonian, 2 Nov 1903, Page 12, Historic Oregon Newspapers,University of Oregon Libraries. Fulton, “National Register of Historic Places Registration Form: Cobb, Samuel and Florence, House (1911),”National Park Service, November 1998, pg. 2.
  4. 4. Archives Month 2011 | Pecha Kucha in Bellingham, WA Jill Nagy Andersonincorporation, the Oregonian declared that “ e demand is greater than the company can supply”and that the plant was being expanded to double capacity. Indeed, the series at NARA showsthat several homes were produced and shipped out to diverse parts of the country, including onemodified to a customer’s specifications. At least two NHB homes were built in the city ofPortland.4 But only a year-and-a-half after the expansion, in October 1918, Cobb lost his son toinfluenza and by December, the Clark County sheriff had sold the assets of NHB. e companyfiled for bankruptcy, and claims by creditors snowballed. In 1923, the bankruptcy trustee suedSamuel Cobb over the plans Cobb had used to buy stock in the company, claiming that he hadovervalued the plans, to the detriment of the company’s creditors seeking remuneration. Cobblost.5 In an autobiography Cobb wrote for Camp Namanu, a Camp Fire Girls site located onland the lumberman donated, not a word is dedicated to the kit home company he started withhis son. Perhaps Cobb kept silent about this period of his life because it didn’t fit the narrative ofthe successful Portland businessman; perhaps it was because he associated it with the early deathof his son, Earl. Maybe the explanation is far simpler: in a life as adventurous as his, maybe the90-year-old Samuel Bedlington Cobb had largely forgotten about the few years that he spent inthe kit home business. And so had the documentary evidence - until decades’ worth of smoke-riddled court exhibits arrived at NARA Seattle to be processed by an archivist and two lowlyinterns. At the end of his autobiography, Samuel Cobb left for posterity two poems of his owncreation, a stanza of which could as easily call to archivists to be mindful of the task before them:4“Activity is Shown in Realty Dealing. Good-Sized Transactions Are Closed and Others Reported NearingConsummation. War Influence Not Felt. Building Programme Includes Two School Structures in Portland for$170,000, One in Corvallis and Six Elevators,” e Oregonian, 29 April 1917, pg. 23.5 C. W. Ryan, Trustee of the National Home Building Co. vs. S. B. Cobb, United States District Court, Western Districtof Washington, Southern Division, Case #2856, 1918. Exhibits and case file in the holdings of the National Archivesand Records Administration in Seattle, WA: RG 21, USDC, WDW, SD, Tacoma, Exhibits, 1887-1965, Boxes 77-82for plans and 82 for these images; Box 88 for Minute Book for National Home Building Co.
  5. 5. Archives Month 2011 | Pecha Kucha in Bellingham, WA Jill Nagy Anderson“ en, let’s be up and doing / ough sometime the hour be late, / Still keep working, working, /Let not labor ever wait.”66Samuel Bedlington Cobb, “Memoirs of S. B. Cobb, 1859-1950,” Camp Namanu Alumni Association.