2019 Fall / WinterFeatured

The Man Who Surfed a House Down Mound Street

Jim Peters Moved an Entire House in 1956

In 1956, Jim Peters moved a house one mile down Mound Street in Circleville, Ohio. He accomplished this feat with the help from many, but mostly through youthful ambition and tenacity. He faced certain defeat at every stage of the move, but he tells you about each blocker and how the crew overcame them. This is the story of when Jim Peters surfed a house down Mound Street.

Jim Peters, standing at the corner of Brown and East Mound Street. Jim said Brown Street wasn’t there when he put the house in and that he helped grade the ground at one point so that Brown Street could be built.

Jim is now 89 years old. His mind is sharp and he moves like someone much younger. He’s eager to tell his story. He controls the conversation, adding detail after detail. He listens intently if you ask him a question, but he doesn’t always answer it right away. He finishes his thought, then builds his way up to the answer. He narrates the story, telling you what each person said, how he replied. He remembers certain phrasing and wording and makes sure to point out the colorful phrases. Even though the events of this story happened over 60 years ago, he tells it like it was yesterday.

Jim Peters out at his house telling the story of the move.

When you look at Brown Memorial from Mound Street, you can see that there’s an original building and an expansion. There used to be a house where the expansion is, at the corner of Pickaway and Mound Street. Jim moved into that house with his family in 1943. He was 12 years old. Nobody knew at the time that Jim’s dad, Edwin Peters, would pass away 5 years later. His mother, Ethel Mae Peters then took over the management of the house.

The corner of Pickaway and Mound where Brown Memorial how sits. You can see the original part of the building on the left and the large expansion that takes up the corner where Peter’s house used to sit.
Brown memorial from the front. The original building is on the left and the expansion on the right.

Between 1948 and 1955, Jim and his mom attempted to create an apartment in the house as a way of paying the mortgage. A long story short, that plan failed and left his mom more in the hole and without a way to make the house payment. They were forced to sell and find another place to live. Circleville Home and Hospital bought the property to expand their facility. Jim convinced them to let him have the house. Initially he intended to tear it down and use the materials to build a new home. Jim said, “After I got to thinking about it, if I tore it down all I was going to have was a big pile of kindling.” Jim decided he was going to try to move the building.

Jim was 25. His painting business hadn’t taken off yet. He was married and a new dad. He was broke, and he thought getting a free house was a great bargain for his new family. He wasn’t necessarily driven by the sentimental value of his childhood home. He was just trying to hold onto a place for his family to live.

The home also had historic value. Besides being a grocery store and saloon, some have told Jim that it may have been one of the original post offices for Circleville in the 1800’s. The saloon sold cold beer in gallon barrels. It had an ice house in the back to keep the beer cold. On the other side of the street was a Lutheran church. The Lutherans were mostly of German descent and were known to enjoy their beer.

It wasn’t a crazy idea to move a house. This was 1955. A lot of new schools had been built or were being built in Circleville on Atwater, Mound, and Corwin Street. Some of the houses that stood on those properties had been moved, so Jim knew it was possible. He set out to find the man that moved those houses. This was before the internet and cell phones. So Jim and his brother-in-law headed down to Portsmouth to find Bill Linton, the house-mover.

Franklin Street school is on the left, Mound Street School is being built in the middle and Jim’s house is in the background.
Jim’s house is passing Mound Street School which is being constructed in the right of the photo. Pictured: Bill Hoffman, Bill VanFossen, Bill Blankeship

Jim said of Bill, “He wasn’t very tall. He was probably five foot four maybe. But he was old so he was kind of stooped a little bit. But he could crawl under a house, and he did.” Jim described Bill as a man of few words, “When he said something, he meant it.” Bill lived in a shanty near Darbyville when he wasn’t moving houses. When he was working, he stayed in the house he was moving, frequenting local watering holes and restaurants. Jim said he gave him money when he asked for it to pay for his incidentals, like food and beer. During the house move, you could often find him at Mary’s or Snyder’s (which is now Shifty’s).

Jim said he couldn’t remember if it was 1954 or 1955 when he got started. He referenced a Circleville Herald article, “They said it was 1956 when we moved it. It might have been. I don’t remember.” In one of the pictures, you can see Franklin Street School on the left, Jim’s house moving down Mound Street in the background, and between them, you can see Mound Street School in the midst of construction. This would suggest the move started in 1955 and completed in 1956 when Mound Street School was built.

Jim said he asked Bill how much he would charge him to move his house. Bill just said, “I’ll treat you right.” Jim added, “That’s the way it was. He never did tell me how much he was going to charge me. I forget the total, but it seems like it was less than $2000 to move the house.” It was an interesting arrangement, where Bill would treat Jim like a client sometimes; sometimes, he would treat him like an employee. Jim said Bill gave him the job of bringing up some of the materials for the job from Portsmouth in the late summer and fall of 1955.

Bill and Jim got started on the house in late October. They knew they weren’t going to get very far before winter set in, so they did what they could without exposing the house to the elements and potential break-ins over the winter. Bill knocked out holes in the foundation to insert steel beams, and they made other preparations. When it got too cold and started snowing, Jim drove Bill to his shanty in Darbyville to spend the winter. In March Jim picked Bill up and they started to work on jacking the house up.

Jim was trying to build his painting business at the time. He started helping his dad paint when he was 15. Between painting jobs, he would go to the house and find a way to help.

Jim ran a painting company, and you can see his work vehicle with the words “J.E. Peters” on the side in the foreground. Dave Greeno is pictured on the left, a neighbor on Pickaway Street.

During one of his breaks from work, Jim went to the house and asked for a job. Bill told him, “I want you to give them jacks a quarter turn each. You go to the next one, keep going around the house and turn each a quarter of a turn.” Jim said he did about 10 trips around the house that way, turning each of the 40 jacks a quarter turn. Jim admitted, “That house hadn’t even moved off the foundation and so I started cranking them till they got tight.”

A few days went by and Bill came to check on the work. Bill said, “How many times have you been turning those jacks?” Jim confessed that he’d been turning them until they got tight. Bill scolded Jim, “I told you to turn a quarter of a turn, and that’s what I meant! And when I say something, that’s what I mean!”

Jim said, “He gave me hell.”

Bill had to even out the house, counting each thread on the jacks to get them the same. He came back to Jim and gave him the instructions again. Remember, Bill is the contractor and Jim is the client. Bill said, “I’m gonna tell you one more time. Do one quarter turn all the way around the house, and you just keep turning it that way. Don’t do one and a half turns or don’t do two quarters, just one quarter.” So finally, that’s what Jim did.

After they got the house up, it was time to place the steel i-beams and h-beams under the house. The holes had been created in the foundation the winter before. Jim asked how Bill planned to move the heavy steel into place without a crane. Bill said, “I’m going to do it myself. Just watch me.”

Whenever Jim would say, “You can’t do that,” Bill would reply, “That’s boy-talk.”

Bill then proceeded to use a series of improvised levers to lift the beams onto some metal pipes. He’d then roll the beam on the pipes, using a sledge hammer to change the beam’s direction. Jim said it took them half a day to move the first beam into place. The next one took a few hours. They used hydraulic jacks to rest the beams on a series of dollies.

“It was just amazing to see such a huge thing move off of that foundation,” Jim said. “I thought he would take it straight out, off that corner and get it into Mound Street.” Jim said that they didn’t have curbs and gutters back then, but ditches for water to run off and it was really uneven. Bill directed the house to move at an angle into the intersection of Mound and Pickaway.

Once they got it into the intersection, one of the steel beams twisted and collapsed. Jim said, “It looked just like you rang out a wash rag. It didn’t drop far, but it looked awful. I thought, my God, what are we going to do now?”

Jim asked Bill, “What are you going to do now?” 

Bill replied, “I’m going to get inside there and get me a beer.” He did just that. The house was sitting in the middle of the intersection, leaning to one side with a collapsed steel beam under it. He climbed into the house and drank his beer like it was the most obvious thing to do. Jim said, “He was not in a hurry about anything. Nothing excited him. He just took everything for granted.”

The next day, Bill sent Jim off to find some oak timbers. Jim protested at first, “Oak timbers won’t be a strong as that h-beam.” Bill replied, “Oak timbers don’t break like that.” Jim found a contractor that would lend him two 40 foot oak timbers. Meanwhile, the house sat in the intersection for over a week, closing both roads at that point. Jim said no cops come by. Nobody said anything to him about it.

Jim Peters on roof.
Bill Blankenship, worker of Bill Linton.

They got the oak timbers in and started moving the house. As they started down the street, tree limbs would scrape the top of the house, ripping off wood shingles. Jim started asking residents along the path if they would let him cut their limbs. Some let him, and some didn’t. Jim setup a 2×4 contraption that would allow the limbs to slide across the house without tearing off the shingles. He stood on the roof, like a surfer catching a California wave, cutting off limbs and directing others out of harm’s way.

When they got about half way through their trip, the Circleville fire chief came to visit. This was before they had fire hydrants. Instead, they created cisterns (large tanks of water) along the street that would hold water in case there was a fire. The fire trucks were still horse drawn, and they would put the hose down in the cistern and pump water out to fight fires. There was one of these cisterns about 50 feet from where the house sat. It came out into the road a little bit. The fire chief was concerned that the house would run into the cistern, crushing it.

The house is right at the alley where Mound Street School sits. The construction site for the school is hidden behind the truck. This is about the time Jim and crew were trying to avoid the cistern, which would be immediately to the photographer’s left.
Pictured: Bill Hoffman (Jim’s brother-in-law), Bill Blankenship, Bill VanFossen.

They start directing the house to the other side of the street. There wasn’t any more room for the house on the other side. Jim said they missed the entrance of the cistern by a few inches. He said a few years later, they filled in all the cisterns and replaced them with modern fire hydrants.

A few days after passing the cistern, they made it to Mound and Mingo Street. Mound Street was pretty flat up until this point. But east of Mingo Street, the road started to rise a bit with a slight grade. Instead of a paved road, it became a much softer gravel and tar road. The truck they were using was no longer able to move the house up the grade. They tried attaching a second truck to the first, but they couldn’t move the house with both trucks tethered together.

Jim Peters on roof.
Jim Peters, unidentified worker, Bill VanFossen
Bill Blankenship

To get the house to move, they started attaching the winches to utility poles and trees. They would have 2-3 lines out at a time, and finally, they were able to move the house again. Jim said his job was to let them know if he heard a crack. Jim asked,  “What does that mean if it makes a sound? They said it means we’re cracking the pole. He said we have to stop right away or we jerk the pole right out of the ground. And so that’s what we did.” Jim said he did hear a few cracks, and he had to stop the work while they found something else to attach the lines to.

As they went along, they city would come out and block the roads. The electric company would raise the power lines. The phone company came out and raise their lines, too. Jim said he’s not sure who called them, if anyone did. He said neither he nor Bill called anyone. They just showed up when they needed to. Jim hadn’t even bothered to get insurance for the move, much to the chagrin of the city engineer. On the soft tar and gravel East of Mingo, the road didn’t stand a chance against the weight of the house.

When they were 50 feet or so from the rail line, the railman came out and asked what Jim intended to do. Jim said, “I just figured when there wasn’t a train coming, we’d go across.”

The railman said, “Well, you’ve never got permission from us. You have to have permission.”

Jim said, “Well, I’m asking you right now. I need permission.”

The railman said, “Well, that could take a long while.”

Jim replied, “Well, we’re going to be sitting right there waiting until you give us permission.”

Electric workers trying to move a power line to make way for the house. Jim Peters in white painter’s overalls. Jim Craycraft on pole and unnamed electric company worker on ground.

After a few days, the railroad called and told Jim he had permission to cross the rail under a few conditions. The first was that he had to move the house within a 4 hour period. Second, no dolly could ever touch the rail. They didn’t want the rails getting out of line and causing a derailment. Finally, Jim had to agree to not turn the house until they got 50 feet passed the rail line. Jim said okay to all of that and told Bill what he had been told.

The railroad held their trains in Zanesville. The men set out to move the house across the railroad. The only problem was, they HAD to turn the house as soon as they got over the rail. Fifty feet would have put them a block away from where they needed to be. So that’s what they did. Instead of the 4 hours allotted, it took them all day. Jim said, “They really gave me the heck for that. They told me they would send me a bill and all of it for holding up a train crew and being behind on the deliveries and stuff like that. I said do what you have to do. But I never heard no more from them at all. No letters, no nothing.”

They finally got the house pushed back onto the lot. But their troubles were not over yet. When they pushed the house back, it rested up against some high-power electric lines that had been turned off for the move. It began to rain, and the lot became a muddy mess. The house wasn’t moving, and the lines were set to come on that night. A man Jim knew from high school that everybody called “Spike” was there from the power company.

Bill Clark, 2nd husband of Jim Peter’s mom (Ethel Mae).

Spike said, “When that electric comes on at dark there’ll be 440 thousand volts going through them lines. With this rain, that roof wet, that house will burn down.” Jim replied, “It will just have to burn because we can’t move it.” Jim eventually talked Spike into adding some insulation between the lines and the roof, and the house made it through the night without burning down. The move had taken all summer, and it was snowing already. Bill who had refused to work in the snow the year prior put in a few days to get the house on the lot, but he didn’t stick around to set the house down. He said he’d be back in the spring for that.

Jim said, “He just kept putting me off. Finally, I started letting the house down myself. I let it down and the last ones, I took out, I was letting down fast. He told me you were supposed to let it down just the way you put it up in the air. One half quarter turn each.” Jim said, “The last area, I let down, boy, it started cracking. The timbers started cracking, and the corner fell at least three inches. I had cribbing so it wasn’t going to crush me or anything. I was underneath it alone.” Jim said Bill came by a few days later, “Boy, he gave me hell again.”

Jim concluded, “You couldn’t get by with that today.”

David Kline, Jim’s father-in-law.
Electric company workers and lineman Jay Craycraft on extension ladder at stop light.
The house as it sits today on Mound Street. This would have been in the back of the house as it sat on Pickaway Street. They didn’t have enough room with the railroad to turn the house, so it was set in backwards.
This side of the house faced used to face Mound Street.
This face of the house would have sat on Pickaway Street. The building on the right was added to the house after it was moved in. This side of the house was modified so that it didn’t look like the front in the years after it was moved.

The photos of the move are Copyright of Jim Peters. They have been digitally enhanced for use in this publication, and the enhancements are Copyright 2019 of The Circleville Guide. All other photos are Copyright 2019 of The Circleville Guide. All rights are reserved by their respective copyright holders.

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