News & Politics » Feature

House Movers

For the Davis family, now in the business through five generations, the three most important words in real estate are relocation, relocation, and relocation.



The man driving the red Honda Accord was near McHenry when he saw a police officer directing him off the road. Some cars were waiting in front of him--something clearly was going on--but nothing immediately told the man what.

Soon, though, he had his answer, because coming down the middle of the road was a house--a two-bedroom, two-bath, fir-sided ranch. The entire structure--resting on steel girders, which in turn lay on dollies--was being pulled down the road by a Mack cab. The man joined the other drivers on the shoulder, who were all staring. "Jeez, how far you takin' that thing?" he asked one of the house-moving crew as the truck crawled past.

The answer was seven miles, from a lakefront plot in McHenry County to a subdivision in the city of McHenry. The seller had unloaded the house so he could build a better place by the lake. The buyer, who bought the house cheap, planned to relocate it, upgrade it, and turn a profit. The house-moving concern, Dell-Mar, was merely negotiating another journey for a 40-ton passenger.

Observers, even partisan ones, are quick to say that house moving is a moribund business. The reasons for its demise are many--from fewer disposable houses being available to stricter regulations being imposed by municipalities--but the industry has indeed shrunk. A generation ago Chicago supported some 30 house-moving and shoring concerns; now a handful of companies fight for customers.

One of these is Dell-Mar. The outfit is owned by Delmar Davis, a slender dark-haired man who represents the fifth generation of his family to make house moving a profession. Dell is only 27 years old, yet he's been soaking up the trade since he was a boy--and he demonstrates skills, both with people and with machinery, that far exceed his years.

Dell is the firm's leader and technician, but the salesman is his younger brother Jim, a big man who is 24 and as brash as Dell is soft-spoken. Jim believes fervently that for most of us a house move can deliver that dream home at a markedly reduced price--and if you have any doubts take his card, please. The reality may sometimes fall short of expectations, but Jim's enthusiasm remains undiminished. Pete Friesen, a legendary Chicago house mover whose assets Dell bought when the master retired, once told his protege, "Dell, I think you guys will go someplace, the way you work and the way Jim bullshits."

The Davis brothers, with help from a crew that's full of other family members, have managed to make their mark. In 1989 Dell-Mar was credited with moving the largest building in the United States that year. The company's revenues are booming, and enthusiasm is high. "I love my work," says Dell. "I wouldn't want to do anything else."

The McHenry County house was erected 25 years ago on a beautiful third of an acre fronting Pistakee Lake. The former owner, Mike Cataldo, renovated it and was proud of its features, which included triple-glazed casement windows, plush carpeting throughout, and an open hearth. The ceilings were stuccoed, the walls well insulated.

"But the house was sinking for years," says Cataldo. "I kept jacking it up--but the pilings underneath had rotted, and it did no good." Cataldo decided he would unload the house and build a bigger one. So last spring he advertised the house in the newspaper, asking $20,000. The way he figured it, a buyer could acquire the house and move it to a new site and onto a new foundation--all for about $40,000. If the buyer then turned around and sold the house for $70,000 or more--given that it was located in a nice neighborhood--the buyer could nearly double his or her investment.

But Cataldo, a mobile-home dealer, didn't realize that the general public is fairly ignorant about the profits to be gained by moving a house. "When I told people who called that they could make a buck at this, they just stared at me," says Cataldo. "People felt my home was sharp, but they couldn't comprehend the moving bit. It scared 'em."

Cataldo kept lowering the sale price as buyers either stumbled over their financing or found it hard to buy property. A woman who operates a farm was willing to pay $9,000, but her boss, the co-owner of the farm, got cold feet. One prospective buyer brought Cataldo in contact with Dell, and through him he got in touch with Bob Mitchell.

A retired engine-parts salesman, Mitchell happens to be Dell's ex-wife's father (on the day of the move everyone was friendly; Dell and his ex-wife had reconciled, though they have since split up again). Dell had gotten Mitchell excited about the profits to be made moving a house--indeed, Mitchell was in the process of making a bundle on a similar deal. He offered Cataldo $5,000 for the house by the lake.

"I didn't like the offer at all," says Cataldo, who nonetheless took it because no one else was knocking at his door. Moreover he figured it would cost almost as much to tear the house down and get the debris removed.

Mitchell proceeded to pick up a grassy lot in a McHenry subdivision for $29,000. But he didn't count on having to enlarge the house so it would meet the requirements of the city of McHenry. In addition to having to lay a new foundation at a cost of $12,000 and paying $3,000 for new sewer and water hookups, Mitchell suddenly found himself having to convert the garage to a family room as well as add a garage and other improvements--for another $25,000. Dell priced the move at $12,000 ("Relative or no relative, I had to charge Bob," he says). Mitchell was facing the prospect of being unable to sell the house at a profit.

"Bob has a reasonable amount of pension money and time on his hands," explains Dell. "He enjoys this. It's a learn-as-you-go mission. He'll be lucky if he makes money on this house, but he knows that."

One morning in mid-July a four-man Dell-Mar crew arrived at the McHenry house to prepare it for transport. The boiler and hot-water heater had already been disconnected. The water was off, and the electric company had promised to shut off the power soon. The Dell-Mar workers first used a jackhammer to punch three holes on either side of the foundation.

Other jobs then intervened, but a week later Dell-Mar returned to continue the prepping. The crew inserted steel cross beams under the house through the holes in the foundation. Next a system of hydraulic jacks was used to raise the cross beams, while pieces of cribbing--wood sections half the length of railroad ties--were substituted for the jacks.

People usually think that houses are rigidly fixed on their foundations, but that is seldom so. While the house by the lake was attached by a few bolts, its 40-ton weight basically held it down. The system of jacks, which can exert up to 10,000 pounds per square inch, had no trouble lifting the house up.

The structure now rested on the stacks of cribbing, as the crew used a front-end loader to push two 50-foot steel beams under its length. After another jacking, four single-axle dollies were slid beneath the main beams, putting the house on a sort of trailer.

At that point the house stood four feet off the ground. It appeared to be in pretty good shape, although the siding was jagged along the bottom on one side, where Cataldo had been forced to cut the siding to fit the sinking foundation.

Meanwhile, Dell had busied himself lining up the necessary permits and personnel the move would require. The city had to issue occupancy and building permits for the new site. Dell had to draw moving permits from three jurisdictions--the city of McHenry, McHenry County, and McHenry Township--as well as line up police to guide the house down the road on moving day. The officers cost around $30 an hour, an expense the customer (in this case Mitchell) absorbs.

Utility wires are supposed to be 18 feet or more above the road. If a house could come close to hitting one, the owner must hire a utility-company employee to monitor the move. The cost of that for a tall house can run $15,000 or more if staff people from Commonwealth Edison, Illinois Bell, and the cable-TV and electric companies have to go along for the entire journey. Luckily for Mitchell, his house was single-story and short. A survey of the route determined that some cable wires were hanging below the 18-foot limit, and so a cable truck had to accompany the move. But because the problem wasn't Mitchell's, he didn't have to pay.

Occasionally ordinances require that a person get permission to move a house from residents on the block where it will wind up. A prime example is Chicago, where you must collect signatures from 66 percent of the home owners on your new block. "They don't want you to piss off the taxpayers," says Dell. There's no such restriction in McHenry, and Mitchell didn't plan to live in the house as it was remodeled, yet he made a point of introducing himself to the neighbors and of telling them a house was coming.

At 9 AM on July 23 the McHenry house stood propped on dollies in Cataldo's yard, the garage jutting out over his garden. A bar called a bolster, which can apply ten tons of pressure, clamped the load to a plate on the tail of a 1965 Mack truck. "Oversized load," read the large yellow banner draped across the truck's grille.

Dell occupied the driver's seat. "OK guys, let's go," he said.

His crew of six started laying planks in front of the dolly wheels as the truck pulled the load across the grass. They soon had to stop when an electrical box (dead, it was said) blocked the route. Dell jumped from the cab and wiggled the box this way and that until he managed to squeeze it partway to the ground. But when the house moved again, it was clear that the box was still too high. "Damn," said Dell, ordering another crew member to drive and then muscling the electrical box over some more. The house passed onto the driveway.

Before the move Dell and Jim had measured the space between the beech and the willow that bordered the driveway and had determined that the house could fit through. But they had miscalculated the turn onto the street. When Dell tried to make the turn, the top edge of the house wedged up tight against the beech.

Dell first tried to free the house by using a truck with a winch on the back to pull the beech back. But when he moved the truck forward, the house stayed wedged against the tree. Then Scott "Scooter" Sizemore, a Dell-Mar foreman who is known for his finesse, tried sawing a limb off the willow to make more room on the other side. But the house was still stuck.

A McHenry County sheriff's deputy, hired to guide the house to the city limits, cocked a skeptical eye toward the house. "This is going to be an all-day project," he said.

The next strategy was to keep shifting the house until it cleared the trees. The tool was a bar of Fels-Naptha soap. First jacks raised the house, and long pieces of cribbing were placed perpendicular to the main beams. Soap, without water, was then rubbed onto the cribbing. The house was then lowered onto the soapy cribbing, and the jacks, now positioned at angles to the main beams, gave a push. The house slid across on the cribbing--closer to clearing the beech, yet not close enough. The process was repeated several times.

Cataldo and Mitchell watched the process intently. Cataldo was finally bidding good-bye to his house, but its exit might cost him a beloved tree. And it might cost Mitchell the side of his house.

Finally Mitchell approached Dell. "Are we going to make it?" he asked warily.

"We don't know," said the harried Dell.

But within minutes the truck pulled again, and the house squeezed past the beech, denting a section of gutter.

"Bob, I'll buy you some gutter," Dell said to Mitchell, who replied lamely that it was the siding he had been worried about.

The procession conducting Mitchell's house to its new location left the driveway at 11:45. The slow parade was led by the sheriff's car, lights flashing. Next came a cable-company truck, its driver prepared to move any low wires. Third in line was a Dell-Mar pickup. Jim and Scott Sizemore trotted along on the road just in front of the house. Jim's hands made motions like those of a symphony conductor to tell Dell to turn or straighten his wheels. On the roof of the house rode two other Dell-Mar employees, including the Davises' uncle Ed, who held a piece of wood that he occasionally used to raise a wire and let the house pass underneath. Behind the house came a truck carrying cribbing and equipment. A second sheriff's car took up the rear.

After power lines, the second major threat to a moving house is tree limbs. Dell regularly veered this way and that to avoid them, and no limb scored a hit.

Dell had scouted the route well in advance and knew, rightly, that the house would get comfortably over the Fox River on the Johnsburg bridge. At 12:30, as the house crossed the McHenry city limits, the sheriff's deputy traded places with a municipal cop.

The house startled shoppers at the McHenry Commons mall, then turned and entered a subdivision. As it turned, a set of dolly wheels sank into the grass of a median strip that was squishy from a weekend rain. Dell and Jim scratched their heads. The damage had already been done to the median. The question was how to bring the house forward without forcing the wheels to sink further. "Go for it," Jim finally advised his brother. Dell got back in the cab, revved the engine, and proceeded. The wheels ripped out a little more grass, but the house moved back onto the street. Then a tree relieved the house of its chimney, which Sizemore retrieved from the pavement.

Frequently a moving house totals a roadside mailbox or two, and this house was no exception. When the house came perilously close to one box, its owner, a woman in a hair net who was watching with her children, made a nasty gesture. Sizemore started to bend mailboxes back in their holes and lifted one out altogether. Yet just as he did, another box got pulverized. Dell made a mental note to replace it.

At 1:30 the house stood at the lip of 1917 Oak Drive, a grass-filled half-acre with a sycamore tree in the back corner. "This is going to be a wet dream getting in here," said Dell. The ground was soaked.

Then Ed Davis, who hadn't ridden on a roof in years, decided he was afraid to come down. He tried to place a foot on the latticework below the edge of the roof without success. And when Jim put his hands up as a cradle for Ed's foot, his uncle still balked.

"He's just being a chickenshit," Dell kidded him. "Come on, Ed, put your leg down."

In the end a neighbor who had been watching the spectacle lent the crew a ladder. With Dell cajoling from the ground ("Goddamnit, Ed, I'm not holding this ladder all day"), Ed at last descended.

The final obstacle was the grass--it was wet enough that the dolly wheels threatened to ruin it. Dell ordered the crew to unload cribbing and lay it down in front of the wheels to prevent any damage. To get the house 100 feet to the rear of the lot took nearly 45 minutes. Mitchell and his wife, Betty, spent the time making friends with their new neighbors.

Being friendly was a wise investment, for plenty of work--much of it noisy--still had to be done on the house before it would be ready for occupancy. Jim says movers prefer to set a house on only a half-completed foundation, with just the footings in. That way the house can be hauled over its new roost and then adjusted to fit snugly later on. But Mitchell had yet to order any foundation work, so his house would rest on cribbing until a cellar was dug and poured. Then he would have to renovate the structure, tack on a garage, put in a driveway, and add a culvert to the property.

Yet gazing upon his house, Mitchell seemed happy. Then his wife pointed out that the move had also cost him an iron carriage lamp. "Oh shit," he said.

The two Davises were pleased. As testimony to how well they thought the job had gone, they pointed to the flange of a cross beam underneath the house, where a hammer that a worker had happened to set down before the move still lay. The move had gone smoothly enough that it hadn't budged.

"I knew the house would go out the driveway and that we'd get it to the new lot," Dell says, driving the truck back through McHenry. "Problems are normal in the construction trades--a cement man always knows he's going to have to remove more dirt than he thought. It's the same with us."

He parked the cab in front of the McHenry city hall. He wanted to check on replacing the section of sod he had sliced away. "If you don't leave 'em happy, they won't issue you a permit when you come back the next time." Later he would spend $20 to buy a new mailbox for Mitchell's neighbor.

Much of Dell-Mar's business comes in over the phone to its warehouse in Elburn, Illinois, which lies 15 minutes northwest of Aurora. People find out about the company through the Yellow Pages or word of mouth (the Davises have kept the phone number of their predecessor, Advance Moving Contractors).

Dell-Mar does some shoring, lifting up buildings so that a new foundation can be poured. "We did lots of 'raising' last year for this developer on the north side," says Dell. "The guy'd buy these dumps on Greenview or Lill, tear out the foundation, and begin a total rehab." In November Dell-Mar is going to raise the River Forest Public Library five feet so a new basement can be installed.

But most of the company's business is moving. "People want to move a house for various reasons," says Jim. "Some find out they can buy a place dirt cheap from a developer who has just acquired a parcel of land. Or a house is sitting in the middle of some property, and the owner wants to sell off one side of the land and move the house to the other side. Sometimes the state tells a home owner that the tollway's coming through. You're gone, the state'll say, but you can take your house with you. Then too people fall in love with their homes but don't like the location--so they decide to change location but not the house. In line with that, an owner may want to save a house with historical value by moving it."

Once a prospective customer is interested, Jim will set up an appointment and go out to give his spiel. He's been doing the company's selling for just over a year and declares he's done famously. "Of ten jobs I'd look at, I'd land seven of 'em," he says. "I have an enthusiasm about house moving and a good personal approach. I try to be on time. I tell people moving makes sense--it costs $85 a square foot to build new, but $65 and $70 to move and rehab. And often you can do better than that."

Jim is quick to assure you that your house will incur no substantial damage on the road. "The worst things are a few cracks in the plaster," he promises. And if you want to leave your furniture in place, that's perfectly OK. "It'll be fine. As a matter of fact, you can put a glass of water on the table, and you won't lose a drop."

When people have misgivings, given the Davises' youth, Jim says, "Sure we're young, but we have the most modern equipment. Would you rather go to a 70-year-old dentist and trust his old methods, or try a younger dentist who knows the new methods?"

Costs for a move are computed in advance on a square-footage basis. You pay more for having a brick building carted than you do for frame. Preparing brick requires more cross beams as bolstering, and the lowest brickwork must be wrapped in metal banding to prevent individual blocks from loosening. A second story also adds to the bill, and a house that's going more than ten miles will also run you more. The average move, excluding utility-company charges, costs $15,000 to $20,000.

Most customers hire Dell-Mar because they see the money to be made putting their houses on the road. In the summer of 1989, for instance, Panasonic bought an 18-acre tract west of Elgin. One day a commercial pilot named Larry Koppie drove by the site and noticed that three homes occupied the property. One house--a three-bedroom, cedar-sided ranch--appealed to him, and he inquired and found out that the owner was willing to sell it. Koppie bought the house for a song--$2,000--and hired the Davises to truck it to the property where he lived.

In total Koppie will have sunk only $50,000 into the home he moved, including the purchase price, moving costs, utility fees, new foundation, and sewer and water hookups. The house is now appraised at $130,000. Koppie has put his old house on the market, expecting to reap a tidy gain.

Jerry Pilcher, an insurance agent in Gurnee, loved his garage, a large unattached affair in which he stored antique cars. When he relocated to a new house in town, he decided to take his garage with him. "I had my reasons," he says. "It would have cost me at least $10,000 to build a new garage, and that's only if I did the work myself." Pilcher paid $2,000 for a slab, and Dell-Mar shipped the old garage the three miles for $2,000.

Bob Mitchell's first purchase was a mansion in Mukwonago, Wisconsin, where he and his wife live. The mansion and nearby garage constituted the centerpiece of a 25-acre estate that Wal-Mart had acquired for a development. Mitchell got the house--which has three bedrooms, four baths, a handsome library, and a screened-in porch--for next to nothing. He had it, along with the garage, trucked one and a half miles to a piece of land he owned, which cost him $45,000. Once the place has been refurbished, says Dell, Mitchell could clear up to $80,000--if he sells it. "Betty and I may move into it," says Mitchell, who now lives in a house on a lake. "Our intent was to save a very beautiful house, though half of why we did it was for the economic advantage."

Sentiment alone occasionally compels people to move a house. Bob Spence, a Du Page County assistant state's attorney who lived in a two-flat in west suburban Geneva, found his family needed more room. For years Spence had driven by a dilapidated Victorian house sitting on what had been a farm, and he had always thought it would be great to own it. When he decided to move, he approached the absentee owners about selling. They eventually said he could have the old house for $1 if he cleaned up the debris left behind. So one balmy day last December Dell-Mar hauled the 125-year-old house four miles to a new site in a swank subdivision.

The residents of the subdivision haven't been exactly thrilled. "They've been very polite, and let's leave it at that," says Spence, who, as general contractor, has pumped almost $100,000 into renovations and an addition. "And that's not counting sweat equity." His total investment is at least $25,000 less than a sale would draw. But, he says, "we didn't do this for the money; we wanted to save this particular building."

LeVon Poquet, an 85-year-old schoolteacher, was less intent on saving a historic house than on just preserving a little Hinsdale cottage she owned but rented out. Two years ago a development firm, Highland Partners, bought 60 homes from Hinsdale Hospital and slated them for eventual demolition. Poquet was the only one on her block who refused to sell. "The mortgage was all paid off, and I saw no reason to let them destroy the house," she says. "I'm frugal in that way--I hate to throw things out. Also, there are a lot of people who need to rent a small place."

"She just wouldn't agree to the concept of tearing down that little house," says Dave Pequet, co-owner of Highland Partners. Several conversations with Poquet didn't budge her, so an exasperated Pequet finally agreed to a deal: he would pay for the house, have Dell-Mar relocate it to Clarendon Hills, and even help lay a new foundation. And he would pay "top dollar" for the privilege. Poquet won't be specific on the price, saying only, "I was very pleased with the financial arrangements."

The move that made Dell-Mar famous was not of a house but of an 85-year-old shopping center. In late 1988, shortly after Dell had purchased his business, a developer and architect named R. Donald Johnson called with a job proposal. Johnson owned a 15,000-square-foot mall at Armitage and Kostner that had parking in back. "Women won't park in the back, especially in that neighborhood," says Johnson, who had latched onto the idea of shifting the mall back to create parking in front.

Dell wasn't sure he could manage such a feat. But Pete Friesen, who had just sold Davis his company and is something of a miracle man, volunteered to act as a consultant. Friesen had, after all, lifted the Widow Clarke House, the oldest structure in Chicago, over the el tracks in 1977.

Preparation for the move commenced in December of 1988 and took five months. The base of the building, which was brick, was secured with steel banding, while nine steel cross beams were installed underneath the mall at a slight angle. Channels were welded on top of the cross beams, and smaller, wide-flanged beams that had plastic sheeting on the bottom were slid into them. Above the wide flanges rested other beams that ran the length of the mall.

For the move, which took place over two days in April of '89, Dell and his workers applied Fels-Naptha and two forms of grease to the plastic sheeting. A system of jacks then pushed the wide flanges, and the shopping center rode the soap and grease back 60 feet and up two feet.

What amazed Dell was the attention the job drew--house movers came from all over the country to witness the event. "To me it was just another move," he says. "But everybody else kept saying, 'You got the record.'" Sure enough, the shopping-center shove was judged the biggest move in the U.S. for 1989 by the 200-member International Association of Structural Movers. At the IASM convention, held in Fort Worth in February, Dell received an award for the accomplishment, but he insisted that Friesen share the honor.

Johnson was satisfied. "It cost me $9 a square foot to move the building, where it would have run $40 a square foot to rebuild on the site." The shopping center, Armitage Plaza, now has a bigger basement as well as new electrical and air-conditioning systems. Johnson has leased most of the space--to a laundromat, a currency exchange, and a fruit and vegetable purveyor--and will reopen the shopping center in a few months.

"We're the oldest ones in the recycling business," says Carl Tuxill, executive secretary of IASM and a retired mover based near Syracuse, New York. "The same things were being done when they built the pyramids and Stonehenge."

In the 1800s house moving became commonplace, at least in the United States. Practitioners relied on various methods of transport, among them logs, wooden rollers, and what was called a "horse sweep," which consisted of a horse winching on a rope around a capstan. In the move of the century, executed in 1888 at Coney Island, New York, six railroad engines pulled the 5,000-ton, wood-frame Brighton Beach Hotel--which had been set on flatbed railroad cars--600 feet back from the encroaching ocean.

Jim and Delmar Davis's great-great-grandfather entered the moving business in 1884 in the area around Port Huron, Michigan, beginning the family tradition. "I started working for my dad the summer between eighth and ninth grade," says Jim Davis Sr., Dell and Jim's father. "My dad died in 1964, and I took his business over."

The interest was passed on early. "When Dell was a little tyke, he would walk around underneath the houses, his head clipping the joists as he went," recalls his father. Like many boys, Dell loved playing with Lego blocks. But once he constructed a toy building, he would take empty thread spools and shuttle it around. In his grandmother's backyard stood a small gazebo. "One day I looked out, and there Dell was, jacking it up just for fun," says his father. Dell was no more than ten years old.

"When I got serious about it, I was about 16," says Dell. "Rather than playing extracurricular activities after school, I'd go to work with my dad. If I wasn't partying, I was working. I was never made to do it. Fact is, my dad always tried to shy me away from moving. Moving's all bull work, and my dad said there were easier ways to make a living, with less headache." Jim Sr. worried that moving would wreck his son's back, as it had wrecked his.

Dell's back held up, though as a teenager he fell victim to Crohn's disease, a congenital illness that causes inflammation in the intestines. At 18 he underwent surgery, and he still sometimes has problems. He got married, had the first of his two children, and saw his father's business turn sour. The downturn persuaded him to move to Dallas, where he toiled for a moving company for five years, learning the particulars of unified hydraulic lifting. When the Texas economy crumbled in the mid-80s, Dell returned to Port Huron.

This time Dell and his father functioned more as partners than as father and son. While Jim Sr. minded the paperwork, Dell supervised the operations. "God blessed my son with a talent in seeing new ideas and giving them a try," says Jim Sr. Until then the top-grossing year had yielded $120,000 in revenues; Dell managed to kick annual sales up to $163,000.

But by 1988, says Dell, "things were drying up in Michigan." When Pete Friesen called and asked him to help move an old hotel in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Dell jumped at the chance. When the hotel job fell through, Friesen asked Dell to work for the pharmacist to whom he had just sold his business. Dell agreed out of respect for Friesen.

Friesen, a native of Canada, had pioneered unified hydraulic jacking in the late 50s, becoming adept at handling brick construction as easily as frame. In 1971 he migrated to Chicago, where he soon had his own firm and a burgeoning reputation.

The year 1975 saw Friesen dragging the Highland Park fire station--which was to be converted into a youth center--500 feet. Two years later Liebermann's Jewelers in Joliet, with all its valuables still inside, was repositioned across the street from its old location. "He claimed he could move a china shop without breaking a plate," says store controller Carl Liebermann. "And he did."

In 1985 Friesen executed a landmark job in San Antonio, Texas. He schlepped the 1,600-ton, 36-room Fairmount Hotel, built in 1906, six blocks across the San Antonio River. The accomplishment qualified in the Guinness Book of World Records as "the largest building ever moved in one piece on wheels" (rubber wheels, not steel wheels, which carried the heavier Brighton Beach Hotel a century before).

The other job for which Friesen is famous was in Chicago. The Widow Clarke House, which had stood at 45th and Wabash since 1836, ranked as the city's oldest structure. Ownership passed to the city in 1977, and officials soon decided to move the two-story dwelling to the Prairie Avenue Historic District on 18th Street, a distance of 32 blocks--across the el tracks. The only solution was to lift the Clarke House (minus its Italianate cupola) over the tracks.

Advance Moving lacked the insurance necessary to guarantee the 12-day job, so the city called in Belding Engineering. Belding, primarily a machine mover, hired Friesen as a consultant.

Under Friesen's direction, jacks hoisted the house 27 feet above the ground at 44th and Calumet, where it rested on pilings. At midnight one cold December Sunday, the CTA killed the electricity to the el--the only time the el had been shut down in its history, Friesen says. The house was then winched across to the other side on rollers. Crossing the el tracks alone took one hour and ten minutes. Was Friesen nervous? "I've never been nervous about any job," he says.

Yet Friesen's finances gradually worsened. Advance Moving had been racking up nearly $1 million in annual sales in the late 70s, but the firm went bankrupt in the mid-80s. Friesen, who's now 68, says a pending sale fell through, a big job went bad, and "the management wasn't good--I was getting along in years." When Dell arrived at Advance's West Chicago warehouse in 1988, he was distraught by what he found. "Here was Pete, the godfather of house movers, and he left behind a boneyard." The equipment was either broken or in disrepair, Dell says, and the help was "for shit." The only employee Dell kept was Harold "Mickey" Thomas, whom he describes as "a cigar-chewing little old bastard who knows moving as well as any of us."

The new owner, pharmacist Dennis Fruin, deferred to Dell in resurrecting Advance's field operations. "We ran the company hard, and made Dennis a fair wage," says Dell, who was furious when Fruin announced that August that he was closing the firm. "You're just not a hands-on guy," Dell fumed. "We just can't let this thing die." For $12,000 Dell and a coworker, Tom Marsh, bought "a name, a phone, and the existing advertisement in the Yellow Pages."

Dell and Marsh changed the company name to Dell-Mar, but soon Marsh sold out to Dell. Dell imported Jim from Michigan to handle sales, and off the brothers went. Jim is still just an employee, and Dell-Mar, which has been a sole proprietorship, only recently moved to incorporate.

To succeed, Dell-Mar has had to overcome many obstacles, not the least of which is that house moving seems to have passed its prime. "It's a dying trade," says Friesen. The profession's heyday was in the 1950s, when the construction of superhighways produced an abundance of houses to relocate. Now developers create the greatest percentage of houses, but the volume doesn't compare with the old days. And there is far less vacant property to move houses to, according to Gerald Grant, of Grant Raising and Moving in Addison.

Internal costs are also up. "The equipment is much more modern now, but then you have to make a bigger investment in it," says Carl Tuxill of the IASM. Harold Muehlfelt, of Muehlfelt & Sons house movers in Wheaton, says, "The cost of insurance is just unbelievable. We have never had an accident, but it doesn't mean a damn thing to the insurance companies--we're just a number to them. A couple years ago we thought we would have to close because of it." It's been tricky finding coverage for Dell-Mar because there are so few carriers; the company currently pays $18,000 a year for a general-liability policy, plus $14,000 for auto indemnity.

Moves are also now subject to regulations unknown when Friesen started out. You can't hit utility cables or tree limbs, and you have to get the neighbors' approval. Building codes require that any house that's moved comply with today's requirements, not those of the era when it was erected. "They treat a moved house as new construction," says Dell. "They want new plumbing and electrical--hell, in some areas they want new windows and doors. It's nit-picking. They are dollaring you to death."

House moving has traditionally been a family trade, and for good reason, insist movers. "You're better off if you can keep this in the family," says Friesen. "Hard times come, and family hangs together."

Dell and his crew are all close friends. Five of the nine have some sort of blood tie. Everyone vacations together. "If I die tomorrow," says Dell, "I know exactly who my pallbearers are going to be." Dell-Mar fields a softball team in the summer, but the squad invariably loses because the men either don't show up or arrive too exhausted to perform well. "We work better in the working world than we do in the playing world," Dell explains.

But Friesen thinks it's getting harder and harder to persuade blood relatives to consider house moving. If the shaky finances don't scare them off, the perils may. Dell-Mar's first full-fledged job was carting a two-story house a distance of one and two-tenths miles through south-suburban Harvey. Dell's first mistake was to rely on a set of dollies that belonged to his grandfather. His second mistake was to begin driving. Minutes after starting off, a piece of cribbing got stuck in the rear dolly, and the front dolly jumped the curb. "It ended up I couldn't go forward, and I couldn't go back. Traffic was backed up for three miles down Route 6, leading to a bunch of pissed-off truckers, let me tell you."

Finally Dell freed the rear dolly. But as he picked up speed and prepared to cross the I-294 overpass, a front tire blew. Dell stuck his truck in low gear, revved the engine, and managed to get the load to the top of the overpass, where another tire blew. Then a third one went. "I was rolling on my rims," he says. When a fourth tire exploded, Dell thought he'd never make it, but he landed the house without further incident.

Those horrors have not been repeated, but Dell admits that each move has mishaps. The Davises routinely destroy mailboxes and nip trees. This spring they didn't adequately measure the width of a road, and wound up sacrificing several freshly planted maple saplings. The saplings belonged to the city of Aurora, and the Dell-Mar client had to assume the expense of replacing them. A tree also brushed against the side of the house, making a hole the size of a sardine can, and some hydraulic oil sprayed against the siding. Relations with that customer, Dell admits, became "chilly."

Sometimes clients are angry for reasons that have nothing to do with Dell-Mar. Last year a surgeon named Keith Wurtz acquired Charlotte's Pizza, a restaurant near Barrington slated for the wrecker's ball. He made vague noises about renovating the eatery, and in July 1989 had Dell-Mar carry Charlotte's to a site outside Palatine.

"Wurtz put money down for the property, but he couldn't clear the deed to the land," says Jim. "Meanwhile, Charlotte's Pizza sat on cribs on top of steel, and the guy who owns the land wanted the doctor to pay him $25 a day in rent for the equipment." The doctor and the property owner ultimately met in court, and according to Dell the resulting settlement awarded Charlotte's Pizza to the property owner.

If Dell-Mar has managed to stay aloft, it's due in no small measure to Dell's belief in his own abilities. "If it's man-made, I'll move it," he says, and then describes a fiddle-shaped swimming pool he once carted to a new location in Texas. Dell wedged the pool away from its foundation, then poured in water and literally floated the pool out of its hole.

Many customers will vouch for Dell's skills. In January Dell-Mar inched the house of the Reverend Joe Oliver, a Baptist minister in Algonquin, up a steep, icy grade. The process took days. "They used a series of winches and pulleys stretched to trees," says Oliver. "We had a thaw in the interim, but that made it worse because the street turned muddy. This was quite an achievement, and I was very impressed." The March move of veterinarian Peggy Chamberlain's Crystal Lake house went so well that after the move a bunch of pencils sitting on a dresser were exactly where they had been when the move started.

Last year Dell-Mar grossed $500,000 in revenues, and despite pumping lots of money into replacing equipment Dell managed to reap a small profit.

"Honestly, nothing really bad has ever happened to me. So far I've been lucky. But if something really bad ever happens, I'm done--I'd lose all confidence in myself. You aren't allowed disastrous mistakes in this line of work. You have to mind your finances too. Two bad years, and we'd go under. I have to go full tilt until the snow flies. Your overhead doesn't change, so you have to have a nut stored for the winter.

"There's nothing more satisfying, at least for me. I get a taste of all lines of work--plumbing, pipe fitting, electrical, truck driving, and operating machinery. Plus I get to work outdoors every day. What could be better than that?"

Dell-Mar should soon have another plum job. Insurance tycoon Patrick Ryan, who had planned to demolish a Winnetka mansion credited to renowned architect David Adler, recently agreed to donate the place to the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois. The council offered to find a new owner, who would acquire the 1937 house for the price of the move.

"David Adler meant nothing to me," says Jim. But the challenge of hefting the place and the fee involved were enticing. Dell-Mar is now negotiating with the family that lives across the street from the Adler house. The family wants to tear down its own house to make way for the Adler. "We're talking about lifting 900 tons and taking it 200 yards," says Jim. "It should cost 'em $160,000, minimum. A lot of money--but nothing else can do it like us."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kathy Richland.

Comments (2)

Showing 1-2 of 2

Add a comment

Add a comment