Barn Stormer: 60 block-an-hour mason rebuilds farm after devastating fire

-By Sharon Thatcher for Rural Builder

A cinder block barn is nothing unusual. But when one man, and one man alone, lays 9,600 block in a month-and-half, and builds, by himself, four barns in the span of a few months, well, now you have an unusual story.

Mike Arndt with one of his four new barns.

Mike Arndt with one of his four new barns.

The story belongs to Mike Arndt, a union mason by trade from Fredonia, Wisconsin. On November 28, 2012, he was in the old two-story timber frame barn feeding hay to the horses when the fire started, either caused by an electrical problem or spontaneous combustion. He got the horses out, and “by the time I got around to get the pigs out the whole thing was totally engulfed,” Arndt said.

It was a very cold day and 17 fire departments helped battle the blaze, which was kept fed by 89 bales of hay and the old wood from the barn. Arndt’s girlfriend, Mary, could see the fire from three miles away in Boltonville where she worked. “My daughter called and said ‘Mom, our barn is on fire’. And I walked out and I could see it all red in the sky.”

Four hunting dogs died in the fire and the remaining barn animals—chickens, hogs and horses—were delegated to makeshift quarters as winter closed in.
“People don’t realize how devastating it is to lose a barn,” Mary said. “I realize that a house is more important, but when you lose a barn and you have animals, it’s hard.”

Before he could begin rebuilding the physical property, Arndt had to overcome his mental shock. “The night of the fire, I just couldn’t believe what was going on,” he said. “‘The only positive I can see out of this’, he told himself, ‘is now I have a job.’ Because the economy was so bad, I was only working four to five months of the year.”

Over the course the next few months, Arndt cleared the wreckage of his barn and prepared for rebuilding. The following August 2013 the work began, the plans concealed in his carefully laid-out thoughts. “He doesn’t do blueprints,” said Mary. “He just figures out what he wants and where he wants it.”

This view shows a portion of all three barns. The cement block in the foreground was for a woodshed that has since been built.

This view shows a portion of all four barns. The cement block in the foreground was for a woodshed that has since been built.

His first thought was a pole barn, but for materials alone a 100×60 foot barn was going to cost $44,000. With more time than money on his hands, he opted for block. People told him: ‘Oh, you’ll never build a masonry barn cheaper than a pole barn.’ But he’s here to tell you today: “Well, I did. I built four.”

In basic style, they match his house, which was also largely self-made. The house was a project that began in 1983 with the purchase of the old farmhouse when he was just 18 years old. It has been transformed twice, growing from 1,400 square feet to its current 4,500 square feet. Its current transformation utilizes 22,600 reclaimed brick. “That I did in six months,” he said of the brick project.

But back to the barns. First came the pig barn, 44x36x8 feet. Then, on the old foundation, he built the main barn, 140x60x16 feet. Nearby, he built a horse barn, 65x36x10 feet; then a shop, 40x36x14 feet. All were made from personally hand-hoisted and hand-laid 2-foot Northfield mason block.

A closer view of the concrete work on the horse barn

A closer view of the concrete work on the horse barn

In the main barn, Arndt kept one sidewall from the old barn that had held firm through the fire. Though a visitor might think it a symbolic gesture to the fire and Arndt’s own determination against it, in fact it was a utilitarian decision to keep it. “It’s a perfectly good wall. Everybody said ‘it’s shot, it’s shot, you had a barn fire, the mortar is falling out.’ But I’m a mason. I fix walls like that all the time. The old mortar was lime mortar and you just fix it with regular concrete mortar,” he said.

He worked night and day, seven days a week. “I would never be able to figure it out,” he said of the number of hours. “It was seven days a week, sometimes eight hours a day, sometimes 16 hours a day. I had to get it done before the snow flies.

“Every day we had a semi load of block coming here,” he continued. “On the weekends, on a Friday, I’d have them bring two semi loads. And they couldn’t believe it before they started doing it. They said: ‘you can’t use this much in a month!’”

One person who noticed the amazing progress was David Bohnhoff, PhD, a professor of ag structures engineering at University of Wisconsin-Madison. On trips passed the farm he saw the story unfold, and one day decided to stop. “The first time I passed Mike’s place I wasn’t sure what I was looking at,” he said. “I have never seen a farm building with a concrete block wall effectively two stories high. I’ve definitely seen my share of old two-story dairy barns with concrete block on the lower level. However, a block wall with the eave height of Mike’s is generally only common to commercial and instructional buildings that require higher fire resistive ratings in building construction.

The horse arena. The roofing on this barn was the work of RDK Constuction of Campbellsport, Wisconsin.

The horse arena. The roofing on this barn was the work of RDK Constuction of Campbellsport, Wisconsin.

“To tell the truth, I was not surprised to find out that Mike had laid up the block himself,” Bohnhoff continued. “I was somewhat expecting this to be the case because the building was so unique for its function. However, what did surprise me is the speed at which he accomplished the task. To this end, one thing I learned about Mike is that you don’t ever want to bet against him. He’s likely to blow away any challenge you put in front of him…I have such tremendous respect for people that have the creativity, knowledge, skills and work ethic that Mike possesses.”

Mary, who witnessed daily the progress of the barns, marveled at Mike’s determination. “I sat here on the deck and watched him do this one,” she said, pointing to the main barn. “He had scaffold and he’d have four or five gallons of mud and put that on the scaffold and then he’d go to the next level and lift those four or five gallons of mud up to that level, plus all the block. That’s a 48-year-old doing that, and doing it all by himself, it’s amazing.”
On the job Arndt is known as a 60 block-an-hour man. “That’s why my back is the way it is,” he admitted.

After a month-and-a-half of laying and mortaring 9,600 blocks, Arndt continued to work into the winter of 2013-2014, even though it was one of the coldest and snowiest in recent history.

A portion of the original stonework from the old barn was incorporated by Arndt into the new storage shed and hog barn.

A portion of the original stonework from the old barn was incorporated by Arndt into the new storage shed and hog barn.

For the horse barn, 76 yards of concrete were poured for the footings alone. For the pilasters, “there were pallets full of Portland mortar I mixed by hand. Every 9 feet I have pilasters rodded 2 feet into the footings,” he said.

The horse stalls Arndt made using a purchased stall side panel as a sample for welding the total of seven stalls. The doors, however, he did purchase all new. “All the fronts I bought, because there’s too much involved with the rollers,” he said.

For optimum natural light in the horse barn, he used 32 Pro Rib Skylights and 160 glass blocks. For low-light conditions there are 12 Canadian-made LED lights.

The horse barn is set to be a primary focus in the future as he and Mary plan to board horses and host pleasure and competition rides at the facility. As required, Arndt said the barn was built to meet code standards for public use.

On all the barns, Arndt installed the metal roofing himself, except on the horse barn. For the horse barn he hired RDK Construction, Campbellsport, Wisconsin, who had the equipment to handle the larger barn and who also came in with a better price and quality of metal roofing than Arndt was able to find.

Although all four barns are up and in use, Arndt is always working on new projects. When Rural Builder checked in with him in March, he had also built a new woodshed for his firewood, using block, of course. He was waiting for the steel to arrive for completion.
For the workshop he was planning to install PEX infloor heating. The horse barn stalls were all done and he was working on the door installation.

“I hope to be done with the main project completely by [June]” he said of the main work.”
Never one to be totally satisfied, however, he added, “I’ll be working on this for I don’t know how many years.” RB

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