Nampa's Western States Movers creates public spectacles

zkyle@idahostatesman.comMay 24, 2014 

Western States Movers' specialty is moving structures - and creating public spectacles.

Hundreds of curious Boiseans fought the cold last January to snap phone photos and watch as the Nampa company slowly towed the two-story, 2,165-square-foot historic Knudsen House a block and a half to its new location on West Franklin Street.

The 200,000-pound home, made heavier by its sandstone footing, rolled at head level past bystanders who exchanged "ya don't see that every day" sentiments and took pictures with their phones.

Wearing an orange helmet and a fluorescent vest, owner Kenny Pfeifer was on the move all day, checking on the house as its 64-wheel hydraulic cradle crawled down the street.

He pulled a parking sign aside as the cradle squeezed past. Pfeifer signaled to his 39-year-old daughter and truck driver, Tami Larrondo, when the truck needed to inch a little to the right or left. His son Shawn Pfeifer, 41, directed the truck's sharp turn from the street and onto the wood bridge over the hole that had been dug for the home's new basement.

Moving the house was familiar work for Kenny Pfeifer, who at 66 has moved houses for nearly a half century.

He says he thinks about retiring, especially on days when he has to cut through red tape to line up arrangements with utilities, city and county governments, and highway districts. He said he might turn the company over to his two children, who each own minority stakes.

But he still likes moving big, heavy stuff.

"One of the reasons I keep moving houses is the challenge, because everything's different each time," he said. "That, and I get to work with the kids."

Pfeifer learned from his late father, Merl, who owned and operated Pfeifer House Movers in Parma from 1950 until he died in 1996. Kenny Pfeifer wanted to develop his own hydraulic jacks to replace the hand-cranked jacks his father used. He split away from his father's company and formed Western States Movers in 1972.

Since then he's invested in lathes, mills and other heavy machining equipment to build hydraulics to lift and transport homes. He created many of the designs for the company's blue-painted equipment.

Like their father, Shawn Pfeifer and Larrondo remember running around moving sites at ages 5 or 6. Both went to work for their father after college.

Larrondo was competitive with her male co-workers. She remembers taking a bet: She'd win $50 if she completed 50 swings of a 20-pound sledgehammer the crew used to bust up foundations. Western States has since replaced the sledgehammer with hydraulics.

She won the bet but was jelly the rest of the day. "Just trying to keep up with the boys," she said.

Shawn Pfeifer has taken over most of the moving operations. Kenny Pfeifer said his children don't need him around anymore to keep things running smoothly.

"When I got to a certain age, I had to realize that I didn't have to tell them everything," he said. "That's what I've done, to step back and say, 'If you've got a problem, call me.' "

Merl Pfeifer took it hard when his son opened a competing business, leading to years during which the two didn't see or speak to each other. While his father never completely forgave him, Kenny Pfeifer said his father started coming around again after eight years "like nothing had happened" because he wanted to see his grandchildren.

Business has slowed since before the recession, when the company averaged about 60 moves a year and the Pfeifers had about 12 employees working on two or three moves at a time. The company has just two employees now. It moved six houses in 2013.

To offset the decline in work, Pfeifer started a new business, Bighorn Machines, to use the company machining equipment to keep cash flowing. Kenny Pfeifer machines parts for a range of metalwork, ranging from artsy mailbox posts to industrial rock crushers.

Pfeifer declined to disclose his companies' revenues, but said the machine work brought in more money than house moving last year. But with 12 moves completed this year, the house moving business could regain its role as the family's top money-earner.

The owner of the Knudsen House, Burr Boynton, is renovating it and hopes to rent the space to business tenants in July. Boynton, who watched the home inch down the street with the rest of the crowd, said he picked Western States for the $80,000 move instead of another mover that would have had to dismantle the building's sandstone footing.

"They were great to work with," Boynton said. "To be able to develop all that (equipment), to invest in what they've got in that shop, took a lot of foresight, a lot of ambition."

Zach Kyle: 377-6464, @IDS_zachkyle

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