Huwe the House Mover

Kevin Huwe was tagging along with his father and grandfather in the house-moving business long before he was big enough to see over the steering wheel of the company semi-trucks that he now drives.

As fourth-generation owner of Huwe the House Mover in Minot, he carries on a family business that has roots going back about a century. The company remains as busy as ever in an industry that sees fewer moving companies but just as much demand for moving as in the past.

“It seems like we are a month out most of the time,” Huwe said of job scheduling. Winter slows the activity but doesn’t stop it.

“There some things we can do in the winter if it’s closer to Minot,” he said.

Although the majority of the moving jobs are in western North Dakota, the company has moved buildings and other structures over a region that includes Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Montana, South Dakota and Minnesota.

Huwe’s great-grandfather, Richard Huwe, was a house-mover in the Noonan area, where he worked with as many as 32 horses to move buildings. Richard Huwe also worked for a time with his son, Roy, who started his own house-moving company in Minot in the early 1930s.

Roy Huwe had five sons who helped in the business. Kenneth Huwe took over the company from his father in 1960, moving the business from its location on Maple Street to its present location on 13th Street Southeast, south of U.S. Highway 2. Kevin Huwe, 55, assumed the business about 10 years ago.

Large moving projects have a tendency to capture the public’s attention, and House the House Mover has turned heads at times.

Some of the more unusual jobs have included moving a large tank in 1975 that originally was used to store by-products from a lignite processing plant in Minot. In 1984, Huwe the House Mover moved two 30-ton water tanks, 60 feet in diameter, from Burlington Northern property in Minot. The company hauled the former Minot State College president’s house from the college to north of the city in 1985.

In addition to having moved a number of grain elevators, Huwe the House Mover has relocated 45-ton boilers, a 110-ton dragline bucket, electrical transformers and a Viking ship replica on loan to Norsk Hostfest from a Moorhead, Minn., museum.

Huwe said his company can move nearly anything. It’s cost that usually determines what can’t be moved.

He said one of his most challenging jobs was moving a cabin with a loft that sat in about a foot of very cold water about 25 feet into an expanded Devils Lake.

“We actually had to float wood beams out and put them on,” he said.

Huwe said the moves that he would call routine are often the ones that fascinate the public, such as moving houses up or down Broadway. A recent attention-getter was the moving of an F-15 jet fighter from Minot Air Force Base to Dakota Territory Air Museum in Minot in October.

“That was easy. It was fairly uneventful for us,” Huwe said.

A bigger deal this year was moving a 60-foot by 100-foot building near Devils Lake for the North Dakota Game & Fish Department. The building was carried in an atypical manner, surrounding three sides of the truck, cab and all, as it moved down the road. That’s an experience they don’t get often in the moving business, Huwe said.

Every job is unique, though, he added. Each requires a specific plan to determine the blocks and beams and other equipment that will be necessary, and a route must be identified and contact made with utility companies and permitting agencies. A utility representative often comes along during the move to help ensure that power lines are avoided or lifted.

Power lines are the major concern, but there also can be mailboxes, signs or other structures that need to come down and then be re-installed.

Huwe remembers when a lead vehicle and a follow-up vehicle were all that would be necessary to escort the moving equipment. Now two to three vehicles often run ahead to keep the road clear and alert motorists.

“You have to be watching for everything all the time. Just from years of doing it, you kind of know what cars aren’t paying attention. You have to be ready for that,” Huwe said.

He recalls one oblivious driver, engaged in texting, who passed the two pilot cars and looked up only as Huwe, driving the moving truck, was getting ready to take evasive action.

“If there’s anything that’s changed down through the years, it’s cell phones. Half the people will pull out their phone and they are taking pictures, especially if you have something that’s a little unique,” Huwe said.

A year ago, HGTV’s “Massive Moves” filmed Huwe the House Mover moving a large house from Douglas to the radar base south of Minot. The show segment has yet to air, Huwe said.

The company also moved two homes for ABC’s “Extreme Home Makeover.” One house was moved from Minot to Surrey in 2006 to make room for construction of a new house, and the other project was in Moorhead, Minn., in 2010. Huwe said the move in Moorhead tied up traffic at an intersection for about a half hour while the show filmed a segment with its cast.

A typical job without all the show biz might take a day and half. Larger moving projects have taken as long as three days, Huwe said.

The company saw demand for services increase due to the Souris River flood in 2011. Huwe was in the process of moving a mobile home when Minot sounded its evcuation sirens. The company also jacked up equipment at Lowe’s Printing, later moving the equipment to its shop for storage until the flood passed and the equipment could be moved back in.

After the flood, a number of homes in the buyout zone were moved, and Huwe expects those moves to continue as more buyouts take place. In addition, some homes were shored up after the flood. Along with moving houses, Huwe the House Mover jacks up buildings for people who need buildings raised or want to replace basements.

The demand for housing in the region has increased the interest in modular homes, which, again, require movers. Huwe does that work for some of the local suppliers. Moving homes into western North Dakota has become more challenging because of the oil-related traffic. Huwe said their moving permits sometimes have required moving houses on Sundays when fewer vehicles are on the roads.

Huwe appreciates North Dakota’s uniform permitting system for counties and the streamlined state process after working with a 13-page Montana permit application that involved environmental study, lists of mile markers where traffic would need to pull over and calls to inform the mayors of towns along the route. It’s in contrast to working in Minot, where just letting the police know when a move is scheduled is all that it takes.

“We are really spoiled in Minot. They know us,” Huwe said. “We try not to take that for granted either, but we have tried to do a good job.”

The company has built its reputation over many years as a family business. Family currently involved include Huwe’s cousin, Brad Huwe, and nephew, Travis Griffin, who heads Huwe’s second crew. Two of Huwe’s sons-in-law have helped out at times as have some of his other cousins. His wife, Eve, also assists with certain aspects of the business.

As equipment has become bigger, the number of workers needed to move a house has declined, Huwe said. The company currently employs about 10 people.

Huwe said the work is easier today than in his grandfather’s day because of the improved equipment, including hydraulic jacks that began replacing manual jacks in the 1970s.

“Now we can get a lot more work done,” he said, although he added, “You just hustle all the time in other ways because your production is so much higher.”

This past year was a difficult year because the wet weather kept heavy equipment off the roads and delayed construction work, which pushed back moving projects.

“We had so many roads get washed out or that were under water,” he said. “Every job, I had to run out and look at the roads. A lot of times, we were forced to take different routes.”

Huwe has become a student of the roads. Leisure time might consist of a drive in the country to scout potential house-moving routes. Eve Huwe said her husband will point out the houses that he’s moved and can recall details of the routes.

“It’s amazing how much he remembers. It’s not just the roads but knowing the power companies and where the lines are,” she said.

Huwe explains that running a moving crew for 38 years creates a familiarity with the territory. He worked many years alongside his father, who helped out even after handing over the reins.

Kevin Huwe has three daughters and nine grandchildren, including a five-year-old grandson who likes to hang around the shop and takes notice of the roadside power-line placement when traveling with family.

While the next generation remains in training, Huwe continues to run the company from the cab of a truck as he tows houses down the road.

“I do the pulling myself,” he said. “It’s the part I still enjoy the most.”