Resident grew up in a Sears-built house in Rivercliff: Shares memories of days gone by

Jeanette Miller didn’t know the house she grew up in was built from a Sears kit until she saw an article and a photo in the Milford Mirror in June.

Marie Cavaliere-Gloates and Joe Gloates live in the Rivercliff house that they discovered was built from a Sears kit in 1927.

The house isn’t quite like many of the surrounding capes and capes-turned-colonials in the Rivercliff area.

Their two-bedroom 1,200-square-foot home, with stucco and now-modern-day wood-look siding, is more of a California-type bungalow, with nine-foot ceilings and plaster interior walls.

She and Joe bought the house in 1996. A year later a neighbor chanced upon a picture in a Sears & Roebuck book, detailing house kits that were sold through the catalogue years ago, and spotted a picture of the Gloateses’ house.

Jeanette, 90, was only four when she and her parents, Tilly and Frank Bortnick, moved into the house.

Jeanette didn’t know the house was built from a kit: She knew that her father helped design it and she had to wait until it was built before she and her mother could move in. That was about 1927.

She remembers her mother sponge-painting the plaster, a process Jeanette called “stippling.”

“We had an electric dishwasher,” she recalled. “Dad was into new things.”

A ladder in the hallway led to the attic; the oil furnace often ran out of oil because money was tight, and she remembers her father kept a gun case in the house that she “didn’t dare to go near.”

Even as a little girl she knew the house was special: It was different, and she and her mother loved it.

Outside in the Rivercliff area in the 1920s was a kids’ paradise, she said. She and the many other children growing up there swam in the river in the summer. “The water was so clean,” she said. They sledded down “Daisy Hill” on wooden sleds with runners, and played in and around the houses that were starting to crop up in the still sparsely developed Rivercliff area.

“In the winter, we used to jump on the ice cakes in the river,” she said, noting that they enjoyed that kind of adventure when there were no adult eyes watching.

Talk about underground caves and hidden passageways at the nearby Hubbell mansion — a stately house built in 1864 — had the children often scouting the area. They would try to sneak inside, but Jeanette said they never did get in.

She remembers walking to the old Devon Grammar School, and picking flowers on the way and drinking water from the stream.

She loved her Rivercliff childhood.

The family lived in the house nine years before they lost it during the Depression. That, she said, was the end of her carefree childhood, when she had to leave her friends, and her mother had to leave the roses she’d grown in the back yard and all the loving improvements she’d put into the house.

They moved back to Stratford, where they had lived before coming to Milford, and Jeanette finished growing up there. There was dancing at Pleasure Beach and rollerskating in her later teen years, but she missed her Rivercliff home.

Later, she married John Miller, and they moved to Anderson Avenue in Milford to raise their three children. Today, Jeanette lives with her daughter, Barbara, off Forest Road.

She said it was a surprise to see her childhood home pictured in her hometown newspaper. She read with interest that it had been built from a Sears kit.

Between 1908 and 1940, thousands of Sears homes were built around the country, according to Katherine Holler Stevenson’s Houses by Mail.

Sears house kits were typically delivered by rail, taking up three box cars. The boxes contained 20,000 to 30,000 pieces, and a 75-page how-to instruction book. People either assembled the houses themselves, or more likely hired a contractor to do the work.

The Gloateses are the third owners of the Rivercliff house. The land was purchased in 1916 by a woman named Dorothy Fandrella, according to city records they found.

City records do not reflect that the house was a Sears catalogue purchase, but there are clues for people who believe they may be living in one. First, there are the books that contain pictures and plan summaries. Also, stamped numbers on basement beams give away the secret.

Their particular house is called the Osborn.

Jeanette said her mother would be thrilled to know that the current owners love the house as much as she did. Jeanette is happy about that too.

“I’m so glad they love that house,” she said.