A builder’s challenges in creating an equine paradise on Mackinac Island

by Sue Marquette Poremba for Rural Builder magazine

Every construction project has challenges and obstacles – exceptionally rainy weather, zoning issues, clients who change their mind frequently. But those seem like a walk in the park compared to the challenges Jim Groat of Mystic Meadow Construction, an authorized Wick Buildings contractor, faced when he was asked to construct a community horse barn for Mackinac Island.

wick building mackinac island

The island sits in Lake Huron, between the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of Michigan, and there are two ways to get to the island – by ferry or by small plane. Primarily a summer tourist destination, there are full-time residents who live on the island.

One of the things that sets Mackinac Island apart from the other Great Lake islands is its restrictions on motor vehicles. Other than a few emergency vehicles, there are no cars or trucks allowed on the island. If you want to get from one end to the other, your choices are to walk, ride a bike, or use four-legged horse power. Need something hauled? You hitch up draft horses to a wagon. Horses are essential to the lifestyle on the island.

About five years ago, the Mackinac Horsemen Association realized they needed a new horse barn and began to raise money to fund it. “The previous facility was near the downtown area and didn’t have nearly enough room to hold events or having riding lessons,” Groat explains. The purpose of the facility is for youth involved in 4-H and learning about horse training, as well as for locals who own horses but don’t have room on their property to board them. Visitors are also welcome to bring their own horses to board them during their vacation.

Wick buildings horse barn

Groat met with the people behind the planning in late 2010. “I was able to show them that building the barn as a post-frame building would save them 30 to 40 percent of what they originally planned to spend.” That savings turned out to be vital as construction moved on.

Groat redesigned the original plans, got them approved, and then faced his first challenge – a frozen lake. The ferries don’t run in the winter months when the lake is frozen, so Groat couldn’t begin the building project until the ice began to break. (He got some help from the Coast Guard ice-cutting boats.)

“We started the project the second week of April,” Groat says. Then came a real rush against the clock. He needed some heavy machinery for excavating and building. He got special permits to allow the equipment on the island and to transport to the jobsite. “But we had to have the heavy equipment off the island by Memorial Day, which was a seven- or eight-week window to begin the project and get the building built,” he explains. Everything had to be transported to the island by freight ferry and they could use semi-trucks to haul material in those early days.

“There is one state road on the island that we needed to cross,” he says. “And whenever we were on the road, we needed a police escort. You aren’t allowed to move equipment or use motorized equipment on the island when the kids are going to and from school.” The police escort, he adds, was to make sure that the vehicles went from point A to point B without any side trips. It was also to make sure there were no incidents with the public or the horses, which aren’t accustomed to motorized vehicles.

After Memorial Day, the materials Groat’s crew needed was delivered by horse-drawn wagons and had to be unloaded by hand at the jobsite. “We always had to think and plan for about three days ahead,” he says. “If you wanted something on site by Monday morning, you had to make sure it was on the island by Sunday.”

Wick buildings Mackinac Island

Groat’s crew lived on the island during the construction, and he laughs as he remembers them riding bikes to and from the hotel to the jobsite outside of town in weather that was often bitter cold. “But there was no other way to get there, besides walking or horses,” he says.

If ice on the lake and transportation restrictions weren’t enough, Groat had one other challenge looming – a deadline in June. “The building was complete and occupied in nine weeks,” he says. “We had an open house on June 10, and I was working up until the last minute.”

The facility consists of a 40 x 96 foot multi-purpose room with two wings of 48 x 56 foot horse stalls. The whole building is a little over 9,200 square feet. The stall areas have beech wood plank floors that sit on a subterranean support system. “The beech wood is rough sawed,” he says. “A few weeks before they were installed in the stables, those trees were still standing in the forest.” The wood floors also ended up being a money saver in the long run. Because the horses can only pull a limited amount of weight, transporting concrete would have been a lengthy and expensive process. The beech wood floors, while more expensive in price than concrete, save money in transportation and unloading costs.

There are eight standing stalls and five box stalls, plus ten more box stalls yet to be installed. (The facility does have some finishing touches that will need to wait until more funds are raised, including the extra stalls and some additions to the multi-purpose room.)

“The stall wings are 48 feet wide and the stalls are mounted on the floor but five feet away from the outer walls,” Groat says. “This is a public building and anyone is welcome to come in. So the stalls were designed this way so people could walk around the perimeter of the stalls and not be in the perimeter where the horses are.” The stalls are all grilled so children can see the horses.

The multi-purpose room is for meetings and educational purposes. It also includes offices and a tack room.

The property for the horse facility was provided by the state park system. Even that presented its own challenge. Because of Mackinac Island’s history, before any building could begin, the area required an archeological dig to make sure the site was not the location of Indian burial grounds or there were no artifacts being disturbed.

On the other hand, the site also had one advantage. The island is largely a solid rock foundation, but on this particular location the earth was sandy above the rock layer. “Normally, we have to bore through rock, but for this project, we ended up moving 200,000 yards of sand,” says Groat.

Despite the challenges – and there were plenty more that Groat faced, including weather problems that ended in a lost week – Groat is pleased with the end result.

“It certainly wasn’t an easy project to complete,” he says. “After all, it wasn’t like we could run to the local building supply store whenever we needed something.” – Rural Builder magazine

Mackinac Island horse barn


Rural Builder May 2011 cover

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