SOUTHERN MEMORIES: Was most magnificent home in Como a Sears & Roebuck mail-order mansion?

By Judd Hambrick / Special to the Daily Journal

Como, Miss., May 5, 1950: As rumors of a Korean conflict move quickly throughout the world, there is another type of rumor that began zipping throughout our own local world, way down here in Como this week. This local rumor darts from one citizen’s ear to another. Spoken as fact; defended as rumor. So, is this rumor heretical hearsay or historical honesty? Hard to verify. The ears in our town are evenly split over the matter.
This controversy began way back in 1919. One of this area’s successful farmers, Mr. John E. Maddux, 42, and his wife, Willie Mae, had to make a major decision in their lives. They had a small home on their plantation about two miles east of town, between here and Sardis. Willie Mae wanted a new house, and their daughters needed to go to school. The roads into town were almost impassable when it rained. Hard to get to school. So, since he was closer to Como than Sardis, Mr. Maddux, who was originally from Sardis, decided to build his new plantation home right in the center of Como rather than out on the plantation. His daughters – Catherine, Willie Mae (named after her mother), and Fanelle (who was born in the house) – eventually went to school here, as they lived in, clearly, one of the most beautiful mansions anywhere in the Delta.
But, here’s the controversy: To the residents of Como, the Maddux home has two names: It is called the Maddux House by those who believe this home was designed and built by Mr. W.C Lester, an architect from Memphis. But it is called “that Sears & Roebuck house” by those who do not believe the Maddux family and laughingly snicker that the whole house was delivered by train in a kit from Sears & Roebuck in Chicago in early 1919. Sears & Roebuck sold homes by the kit from a catalogue between 1908 and 1940. So, are all these rumors triggered simply by small-town envy over a home most cannot afford or by a proud family protecting a part of its hard-earned heritage?
Some facts are actually clear: Materials for the house were unloaded from many railroad cars right in front of the lot where the house stands today, across the street from the railroad tracks. Everyone in Como watched for months as this magnificent house majestically rose from basement to roof. The question is: Did the building material come from Memphis or Chicago?
Mr. Maddux only lived in his new home for three years after it was completed. He died at age 45 in 1922 from kidney problems. His wife and daughters lived in the house until 1929. Then they moved to Memphis, where his wife and three daughters currently reside.
Mrs. Maddux maintains these “false” rumors likely started when she told a friend of hers recently she originally got the idea for the house from a picture she saw on a Sears catalog. She sent the Sears picture to her chosen builder in Memphis back in 1918 with instructions to create a home similar to this picture. Mrs. Maddux says that picture is as close as she ever came to a Sears & Roebuck building kit.
However, many disbelievers here locally counter that they were on hand when the building material arrived on the train and watched as it was removed to the building lot. They insist they saw with their own eyes Sears & Roebuck insignias.
Hopefully, these rumors of conflict in Korea and our own local mail order mansion rumor will subside quickly and simply fade silently into history, as painlessly as possible.

2011 update
Neither of these rumors faded quickly or otherwise. A three-year war was fought in Korea from the summer of 1950 to 1953 with war tensions continuing to this day. And in Como, the Sears & Roebuck house rumors continue here in January 2011, just as they did when they first started some 60 years ago, and the town is still divided. As I researched this story, I spoke with Fanelle Maddux, one of John and Willie Mae’s daughters, who is now 91 years old and still lives in Memphis. She feels the entire controversy is somewhat ridiculous and wishes the family “had not lost Mr. W.C. Lester’s original blueprints for the house that were printed on beautiful linen paper.”
The current owners of the house, Craig and Pam Martins, are in the construction business. They say many of the joists in the house are numbered and cut exactly the same, indicating some type of kit was used in construction. They contacted Sears Archives in Chicago and were told a kit for the best house in Sears Honor Bilt Modern Homes catalog, called the Magnolia, was shipped to Como in 1919.
So, it is quite possible all sides are right. Mr. W.C. Lester, the builder, could have used the Sears kit but added his own creative touches to build a beautiful home – now called Four Oaks – that has definitely withstood the ravages of time and is a gorgeous part of all our Southern Memories.