The recent news that a developer wants to put a large complex on the extensive Searstown property at U.S. 1 and Sunrise Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale would be a welcome event. Twenty years ago. Today, it is appalling that anybody would think of adding more people to downtown Fort Lauderdale, with the sewage system exploding in our streets and thousands of new residential units already underway and yet to be occupied. The community is reacting accordingly, wondering how the infrastructure was allowed to decay at the same time such massive overbuilding was permitted. It would be good to see this prime property put to a use that would enhance the community, but given the circumstances any high-density development is unthinkable. No responsible, or honest, government officials can approve the present plan.
The situation was extensively reported on recently by Doreen Christensen in the Sun-Sentinel. She included an excellent history of the once-thriving Searstown, and in that connection gave us a call. She knew that we came to Fort Lauderdale when Sears was still going strong, and with a young family, it was likely our first stop for general household needs. This was before Walmart, Target, Home Depot, Lowe’s. Best Buy and a half dozen other chains, each competing for pieces of Sears’ business.
What Ms. Christensen did not know was that Sears played a major part in our family history going back 100 years. It is not an entirely happy story. It begins when Sears, then known as Sears and Roebuck, based in Chicago and going strong for two decades, needed an east coast facility. It chose Philadelphia. A massive nine-story building with a 14-story tower opened in the city’s northeast section in 1920. The building, which housed both manufacturing and its booming catalog business, looked like a state capitol and it quickly grew its employment to thousands of people. One of them was my mother, fresh out of high school. A few years later she met my father, who also worked there.
By the 1930s dad had a responsible job. He had become a plumbing and heating specialist and was working in Sears pre-fab housing unit, located at Port Newark, New Jersey. We never knew exactly what he did and attempts to contact Sears to find out in recent years have been futile. Records had been destroyed and the company had bigger things to worry about. Anyway, our guess is that dad helped plan the plumbing and heating for a variety of Sears houses, which ranged from modest cottages to large 10-room structures with expensive touches such as oak floors. Sears called them “kit homes” and big or small, the units arrived, usually by train, as a complete package with all plumbing and electrical fixtures. They were marketed through its catalog. The company was years ahead of its time, and over a 32-year span, Sears sold more than 70,000 homes. A handyman, often with help from neighbors, could build his own house. Many did in rural parts of the country. In some sections, those still standing have become tourist attractions.
In all ended in the late 1930s. Records today are hard to come by, but apparently the housing unit was not making money. The country was emerging from the depression, but the housing market was still soft. Sears decided to exit the business. In 1939 dad managed to be transferred to Elmira, New York, where he managed the plumbing and heating department of the Sears store. Elmira in those days was a pleasant little town, and we had a good life there. Mother had me taking riding lessons at age four, but that ended when a horse, not knowing a little person was on his back, nearly rolled over on me. But after a few years, our mother was homesick for her family in Philadelphia. At her urging, dad managed a transfer back to the big Sears facility in Philly. It was early 1942, and World War Two was changing everything. Dad no sooner arrived back in Philadelphia than he got fired. It seems Sears figured the war would hurt business and was cutting back. It turned out to be a bad calculation, for its young men were leaving for the service. Anyway, a man dad had worked with years before was tasked with the job of cutting middle-management jobs.
“I never liked the guy,” dad recalled, “and I never bothered to conceal it. He got me back.”
At 46, with three young kids, dad was on the street. He took a menial job for a year, collecting payments for an ice company. A lot of ordinary people still had ice boxes and did their wash by hand. He then got into the insurance business and stayed in it for 25 years. But we always thought he never got over leaving Sears and a company to whom he had given the best 21 years of his life. However, we continued to buy our stuff from Sears over the years.
Dad died shortly after our move to Florida but we still patronized Sears. We bought at least one refrigerator (iceboxes were history) and whatever tools we needed came from Sears fine Craftsman line. We also continued to buy Christmas gifts from its popular catalog. It made shopping for the kids easy. Sears offered a lot of toys. At one time it sold the famous Lionel Train sets, items built exclusively for its stores. Until one year – It was about 1973 – Peg got nervous when the stuff did not arrive the week of Christmas. She called Sears and was assured the toys were on the way. But when they did not arrive by late on Christmas Eve a certain panic set in. Aside from what had been ordered, there was almost nothing for the kids.
Smith Drugs on Sunrise Boulevard in the Gateway shopping center, owned by the late Shelby Smith, came to the rescue. It was open after dinner and in about an hour’s frantic time, we managed to buy a ton of stuff, not all toys, that kids would like. We got some things we never would have thought of. Some of it already came in Christmas packaging, so there was no late wrapping session. The kids never knew the difference.
But we sure did. We had lost confidence in Sears. It was the first sign that the great retail empire was going the way of all empires. How could any company that fired the best man I knew and damn near ruined a Christmas, possibly survive?