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Les Sinton - nearly 50 years in the house removal business

Wherever Tairua man, Les Sinton Junior, drives around the North Island, he is likely to spot a house that he moved. Some got there on huge trailers, some by barge and some were sawed into transportable sizes before their journey. Les has a lot of photos and memories of nearly 50 years in the house removal business, starting as a teenager working for his dad and later running his own company.

When soldier, Les Sinton Senior, returned from World War II, he got a job spraying DDT (insecticide banned in NZ since 1989) around the Coromandel. He liked Tairua and planned to return.

Les Senior started a house removal business in the early 50s, based in Tauranga. Some of the removals were personal. One was the front part of an old railway house, being one room and a cute porch with fretwork. This became the family bach on Manaia Road in Tairua. One wall was missing, so he built a replacement, as you do. Eventually, a second room was moved on site to be a bedroom. “Few houses were moved on the Coromandel then as the roads were such a mission to negotiate,” says Les Junior, as he flicks through photo albums of hundreds of buildings he has moved, including churches, a petrol station and huge milk silos.

In the early days of house removals in New Zealand, they were shifted with bullocks. During WWII, a lot of prefabricated defence force buildings were moved. By the 1960s, towns were being established around dams in places like Turangi. Sometimes, when a project finished, all the houses were taken elsewhere. As populations moved, school rolls also changed and this brought the need to transport more classrooms on site.

After a couple of years working for his dad, Les Junior got a job with a bigger company in Tauranga, eventually becoming co-owner of the business, Saxton and Sinton Limited. He recalls early house removal trailers were very basic, some almost home built, with the horsepower of the trucks “very marginal”.

Since then, there were many changes. Engineering firms started specialising in building transport trailers for the industry. “But the biggest change was the introduction of hydraulics and trailers that steered independently,” says Les. “Along with hydraulic trailers came lifting jacks. Most trailers lift around 3m. Before hydraulics, it was very heavy manual work and places like the Pepe Bridge, with its high sides, would have to have planks down. Then the horsepower of the towing units increased dramatically and the comfort of drivers also improved.”

Another major change was introduced when wide loads had to be piloted by a member of the Ministry of Transport and later the Police. Eventually the accreditation of wide load pilots became law, so this job could be done “in house”. The scenario of queues of frustrated drivers behind crawling house trucks is less likely now that removals are mostly done at night. While allowed on the road during daytime in quieter areas, in many regions they cannot be on the road until 10:30pm and off by 7:00am.

With every job Les Junior did, buildings were measured and assessed with regional transport regulations taken into account. Some had to be cut, sometimes into three, and a two-storied house might have required at least four cuts. Routes had to be carefully planned.

On one job, Les’s company drove a house that was 11m wide across the tarmac of Tauranga Airport. “At the time, the rules did not allow a building that wide to be transported more than 5km, so we took a short cut, with permission, to solve this problem,” grins Les.

One of the most challenging jobs on the Coromandel was a house transported from Whangaparoa to Whangamatā by barge. There were two cottages on the barge, one for Whangamatā and one for Ohiwa. “The jobs I remember most are the logistical challenges such as a school house going from Kaingaroa to Auckland and then barged to Colville,” says Les.

Occasionally there was a job with a difference, like the Police request to prop up a house that had been hit by a car. There was also salvage work - in Edgecumbe after the earthquake or after weather bombs. When a big storm eroded Waihi Beach in the late 1960s, some houses were shifted further back on their sections, away from the sea.

Les recalls one house at Katikati being swept away in floods. “One time my opposition moved a house onto a new subdivision, then discovered it was placed on the wrong section,” he says. “He asked me to give him a hand as he was running out of time to relocate it, which I did. We covered a big area and every job and every place was different. Moving in the rain was the worst, because you are in and out of the truck a lot and the wind is a problem if you are craning a building or taking off the roof.

“You do need a strong back in this job and it helps if you are easy going. Also, you don’t want the guy who is the main driver to be a show off. My drivers had real pride and they would get upset if they caused any damage. But accidents can happen. It had to be a team effort, otherwise it could be very dangerous. I’m proud that there were no serious injuries in my business, but the potential for harm is always there and there have been fatalities in the industry. Now you have radio communication between the team, which makes it all much safer.”

Les admits some jobs could be nerve-wracking. “Sometimes I was partway through a job and wondering why on earth I was doing it,” he says. “But there were also times at the end of the week when I would have a beer in the workshop with the gang, after completing a challenging job and knowing the customer was happy, and I’d have a nice feeling of satisfaction.

“Men who enjoyed the work stayed in the industry for years and others did not last past lunch time on their first day.”

A big part of Les’s work was in the Bay of Plenty as lifestyle blocks became popular. This coincided with very good beach homes becoming available for relocation. Another side of the business was re-piling houses. “In the 50s and 60s, there were a lot of houses with wooden piles that were shot and a big part of the business was replacing them, many around Thames and the Coromandel,” recalls Les. “I feel a particular satisfaction when driving past historic Athenree House, near Waihi. This was a big challenge because it was in a very poor state and near collapse. We had to carefully secure the building before we could even start re-piling it, prior to its renovation.”

Les’ biggest Tairua job was moving the building that became St Francis House from a paddock by Red Bridge Road south of town to its current site by St Francis Church (on the main road). It was a very high building involving the cutting of power lines.

Les and his wife, Lori, have a new house on the site of the family’s old bach. Their kitchen splash-back features a charming old photo of the tiny bach that was once a railway house. It’s a reminder of how buildings that were moved from one site to another can bring new life and appreciation to new families. However, Les says matter-of-factly, as he closes his photo albums, “It was just a way to make a living. There are better ways and there are worse.”

Pictured is Les Sinton with his photo albums that him remind of all the buildings he has transported around the North Island.

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