History of the Carefree Home

Robert Gilmore “R.G.” LeTourneau was an industrialist at the beginning of the 20th century; he is best remembered for producing revolutionary earthmoving equipment. While his education was not academic, it was achieved through real-world experience. His early experiences as a moldmaker, lead pourer, landclearer and auto mechanic established his philosophy towards craft. While he held over 300 patents, his interest was not in the patents themselves, but in making technology faster and more efficient.

He was often quoted as saying “work faster, not harder." Experimentation and invention were constant with LeTourneau and he was not afraid of failure; only a small percentage of his machines worked as intended, but the ones that did work, worked very well. Ultimately, his manufacturing knowledge and design skills to create innovative technology that helped establish communities across America—extending beyond machinery to advanced concepts for housing.

LeTourneau’s ideas on how to create new techniques for production and new forms of housing constantly evolved from the mid-1930s until the mid-1960s and now serve as a point of reflection for architects to consider how this machine-crafted home might provide hope for future prefabricated communities.

 R.G. LeTourneau’s first steel housing system and community design was in Peoria, Illinois, in 1936. Embossed pressed steel panels were welded together to form the structural skin. Panels were used as the inner and outer skin to form the walls, roof and floor; these panels were held apart with cross bracing and filled with insulation.

A proposed community was described as the “All Steel Colony,” a worker housing development to be named LeTourneau Court. The 23 three- to four-room houses would be air-conditioned. This proposed housing development was romantically described as “The Garden City of Tomorrow.” The architect who worked with LeTourneau designed the houses with steel floors, corner windows and flat, usable roof decks. There were plans to exhibit the “compact five-room for speedy age” house at the Golden Gate exposition in San Francisco, although the plans never came to fruition.

R.G. LeTourneau, 'the Dean of Earthmoving'

  • In 1920 at age 32, purchased a Holt tractor and began a business as a grading contractor
  • In 1929, he incorporated a business of building scrapers as R. G. LeTourneau, Inc.
  • In 1935, Caterpillar Tractor Co. convinced him to move his business to Peoria

The Depression had created a shortage of housing for LeTourneau’s workers, so he conceived and built small, low maintenance all steel homes. LeTourneau’s Carefree Homes were built at his factory, then transported to sites in Peoria Heights, East Peoria and Peoria. Homes came in three-, four- and five-room configurations.

More than 20 Carefree Homes still exist in the Peoria area today, with a significant cluster near the Peoria Heights water tower. Most of the existing homes have been modified over the years, including a version with a two-story addition and a pitched roof, shown below.

  • Original Design

  • With Wooden Siding

  • With 2-Story Addition