I’ve heard from several people that the old house on our farm wasn’t built in its present location, but was moved there. We recently toured a historic building in Hillsborough that was moved several miles in the 19th century, to its current location.

I had an understanding of how structures are moved today: they’re lifted with hydraulic jacks then positioned beneath a large trailer hitched to a truck. But how were they moved back before hydraulics and trucks?

Here’s a description of how a church in Michigan was moved in 1891 (taken from HERE):

By employing jacks, the church was first lifted off its foundation; heavy beams, greased and with pointed ends, were secured to the underside, which would act like runners on a sled. A temporary wooden track made of flat planks and cross ties (similar to railroad tracks) were laid on the roadway, and the structure was pulled across the track on the greased beams. Once part of the track was cleared, workers would move and install the track at the front of the structure, and the job continued.

Capstan and horse used to pull the Church along, 1891.
Capstan and horse used to pull the Church along, 1891.  Image courtesy of Traverse Area District Library Local History Collection.

A capstan was necessary to apply enough force to move the church, as a lone horse wouldn’t be strong enough on its own. This capstan operated much like the ones seen on ships to raise anchor. In the photograph, you can see the capstan was moored in the roadway with large posts driven into the ground and attached with chains.  The horse would rotate the axle by walking in a circle and would pull the structure along the temporary track. As the picture was taken while the horse was resting, the chains mooring the capstan to the ground are slack.

I’m continually amazed at what our predecessors were able to accomplish without the machinery we take for granted today.


8 comments on “Moving

  1. shoreacres says:

    Just think: after the Storm of 1900, Galveston raised up the entire city that way, by as much as 17 feet. While the process was going on, residents made there way from here to there by walking on raised scaffolding. It was amazing. We think we’re awfully smart, but those forebears of ours were perhaps even more clever and productive in some ways.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Laurie Graves says:

    As the old Maine farmers would say, “Yesah, by God.”


  3. Dee Ready says:

    Dear Bill, thanks so much for this information. It reminds me of a series that ran on PBS a few years ago in which scientists worked to learn how the Egyptians built the Pyramids and the Europeans the longbow, and the early settlers of Britain constructed Stonehenge. Always humans have been endlessly inventive. Peace.


  4. Where there’s a will!


  5. It’s amazing to me how much common sense they had and how strong they were in their convictions. No apps for everything back then. 🙂


  6. NebraskaDave says:

    Bill, our ancestors were not afraid of hard labor some times for years to accomplish building something. I’m amazed at the old structures and fences that have been built out of stone. It must have taken a life time for some. My small garden projects are minuscule compared to what they did back without the help of machines. No wonder life was short. They did 70 years of work in 30 years. I’m kind of glad that labor isn’t connected to survival for me. If I had to live on what I grew in my garden, I’d be in big trouble.

    Have a great day in the garden and hoop house.


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