Uncovering the Hidden History of Hopewell Homes
By Tamara Eastman, Historian
Mar 29, 2017, 14:25
Contributed Photo: An example of one of the prefabricated homes manufactured by Sears and assembled in Hopewell to provide housing for the workers of industrial giant DuPont.
Hello, and welcome to my first column in The Hopewell News! My name is Tamara Eastman and I’m a regional historian in this area.
Over the next few months I’ll be discussing the history of this nearly 400 year old city, covering such topics as the early settlement of “Bermuda City” by Sir Thomas Dale, the Governor of Henricus, the second permanent English settlement in Virginia; the history of tobacco in the city; the American Revolution’s and Civil War’s roles in Hopewell; the early 19th century city, including the City Point Railroad; the industrial history of the city; disasters and crimes that have occurred in Hopewell; World War I and World War II history in the city; the school system’s history in Hopewell; and some of the famous and infamous citizens.
I have a very personal connection to the City of Hopewell, being that my mother, the former Shirley Auen, was born in Hopewell and raised in the city. She graduated from Hopewell High School in 1957, which is now the Malonee Junior High School building. Many of my mother’s relatives still live in the city, including the retired Chief of the Fire Department, Steve Brown, and numerous cousins. I have always had a soft spot in my heart for this magnificent city.
Unfortunately, the retail giant, “Sears,” has announced it will be shuttering numerous stores across the U.S. this year. For this reason, I will devote my first column to the “Sears Catalog Homes” of Hopewell.
In 1911 the DuPont Chemical Company developed part of the Eppes’ plantation land at the confluence of the Appomattox and James Rivers and opened the E. I. DuPont de Nemours and Company, which later became known simply as DuPont, when the onset of World War I created a huge demand for “smokeless gunpowder” and the chemicals needed to create dynamite.
A huge influx of workers arrived in Hopewell to take jobs in the city, which created an immediate need for housing for the workers and their families. The DuPont company did not have the time to seek bids and wade through a huge list of contractors, and they needed homes to be built almost overnight. And that is why they chose to order “Sears Catalog Homes” and a few “Aladdin Kit Homes” to be built for the workers. Once a home was ordered through the Sears catalog, the 10,000 – 30,000 pieces were shipped by boxcar along with a 75 page instruction book for assembling the home. Framing numbers were marked to help facilitate the construction. The DuPont neighborhoods became known as “A Village” and “B Village” and by 1913 the city had the largest number of prefabricated homes in the country! Today, several of the Sears Catalog Homes are still standing in Hopewell, and down in the basements of these homes, or sometimes behind a stairwell, you will often find Sears shipping labels still affixed. Plumbing fixtures are also stamped with the letters “R” or “SR” or stamps appear on beams, rafters, and joists in the attics and crawl spaces of these homes. There are only a few of the Aladdin Kit Homes still in existence in Hopewell, today.
My uncle and aunt, John & Victoria Auen, lived in one of the Sears homes at 207 N. 5th Avenue. Uncle Johnny died back in the 1980’s and my Aunt Vic died in the early 1990’s. The home is owned by somebody else now
After WWI ended, DuPont moved out of Hopewell, and it seemed to be the beginning of the end for this great city. The once thriving city nearly became a ghost town as people left in search of jobs elsewhere. Then the Tubize Artificial Silk Company opened on Randolph Road, and Tubize purchased not only the DuPont plant, but also bought the A and B Villages for their employees to rent, as well as The DuPont Club on Allen Street. Many of the “South B Apartments” were razed in order to make room to build the new rayon plant, and Tubize made some general improvements to the homes in A and B Villages, including adding new siding to many of the tarpaper sided homes, built sidewalks through the villages, and planted trees in the A and B villages. In those days, an employee paid around $12 per month in rent for one of the homes in the villages.
When Tubize left, the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company bought the plant and became the major employer in Hopewell for decades. Parts of the old DuPont plant site were also bought by Allied Chemical and the Hercules Chemical Company. By the end of WWII, the quality of life had greatly improved in Hopewell as it began to enjoy it’s second “boom era!”
Tamara Eastman is a military historian for the Department of Defense at Fort Lee. She is also a regional historian for this area, as well as the author of The Great Fire of Petersburg, Virginia and director of the upcoming feature film, Insurrection. She lives in Dinwiddie, Virginia.