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From a different era: Hermantown family’s water heater is dependability incarnate

Craig Simonson and sister Karyn Danielson examine the water heater in the Hermantown home they were raised in. The heater is decades old. Steve Kuchera /

Brady Slater

Duluth News Tribune

A glass-lined Sears, Roebuck & Co. water heater that worked for upwards of 70 years finally came out of its home in Hermantown on Wednesday. And while it wasn't like saying goodbye to a family member, it brought up a lot of memories for two of the eight siblings who grew up in the home.

"I used to come down here and see piles of laundry," said Karyn Danielson, the youngest daughter to the late Lyle and Florayne Simonson, before turning to the water heater in question — a near-mint-looking 50-gallon tank atop a heavy steel base.

Danielson, her husband Steve Danielson and her older brother Craig Simonson met a reporter at the home on Wednesday, where a new Rheem Performance model water heater stood alongside the relic in the basement, ready for installation.

The Sears Homart model was likely the second one in the house — one of the more than 80 Depression-era Jackson Project homes that are scattered throughout the neighborhood and notable for their two-story brick construction.

While there's a serial number but no assembly date on the water heater, the family figures it was installed between 1946 and 1952. All of the Jackson homes — part of a New Deal program that helped place struggling urban families in low-cost homesteads — were built in 1937.

Simple research on the internet revealed the average age of a tank-style water heater to be 10 to 20 years (according to the Florida-based McGarry and Madsen Home Inspection blog).

"I've never had a hot water heater last more than seven years," Steve said. "This is amazing."

Craig Simonson said the unusual lifespan of the Sears product could not have been the result of meticulous maintenance. He didn't recall his father ever cleaning out the mineral sediment that typically builds up in the tanks and leads to their demise.

"As far as I know it's never been drained," he said.

The family is completing the process of selling the home in the wake of their mother's death at 95 this year. The buyers are a military family, Karyn explained, and the husband will be deploying after they move in. He didn't want any issues while he was gone and requested the new water heater as part of the sale.

"We had an open house and there were people saying, 'Are you kidding me?' when they saw the water heater," Steve said.

Lyle and Florayne Simonson met and married before World War II and started their family after he'd returned home from England, where he'd been stationed as an aircraft mechanic. He went on to drive trucks, toting loads of fabricated steel around the Northland and into Michigan's Upper Peninsula. She was a freelance writer for multiple church and religious publications, and as devout as a mother could be — in addition to cooking, cleaning, laundering and generally giving the hot water heater a workout every day.

"I didn't go out to eat in a restaurant until I was 12," Craig said of the family's self-sufficiency. "It was a different era."

Asked, oddly enough, if they could recall the hotness of the water, Karyn said there was never any trouble on that front.

"It was always hot," she said.

Lyle and Florayne paid off their mortgage in $19 monthly installments, turned the barn into a garage and added onto the home in 1950 as the family swelled.

The water heater outlasted a gigantic coal-burning furnace that nearly took up the basement, with so many ducts that Craig described it as an octopus.

The Sears water heater figured to be "a beast" itself, he said, for the professionals who had to haul it out of the basement. Calls around to historical societies and such found no willing takers for the water heater, said the family, but they were hoping somebody might read about it and value its uniqueness as an antique.

"It's quite impressive," Karyn said.

With all due respect to Rheem, it's unlikely the new one will see 2087.