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A Life Built Brick by Brick

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December 10, 2011 by Terry Ropp

Bricklayer 2

WEST FORK — Ronnie Coker of West Fork labels himself a brick mason. When he was very young, Ronnie talked to an old stone mason who said, “I like to lay rock because you got to pick out the right one to make it fit.” The idea captured Ronnie’s mind, and he had a career.


He began by pushing a wheelbarrow when he was 13 and started laying brick at 18 as a cub. “Everybody wants a straight brick laid in a strong wall cheaply,” Ronnie explained. “Early on when I was a kid and learning, my boss said, ‘Quick is the trick.’ Then my foreman told me to try to lay the next brick better than I laid the last one, and I have always tried to do those two things. They have become my philosophy.”

The Vietnam War intervened, and Ronnie was drafted at 19, serving as a construction engineer with heavy equipment.

“My friends were working heavy equipment and my commanding officer asked if I wanted to do bricks or heavy construction,” Ronnie said. “I knew I had to say the right thing or I would be separated from them, so I chose to operate a crane.”

When Ronnie returned from the war, he went back to bricklaying as a journeyman. In 1969, he bought his first 136 acres of land in West Fork though he was working in Tulsa. The truckers went on strike because of fuel prices, and he found himself suddenly out of a job because the company he was working for couldn’t get supplies for the apartment buildings they were constructing.

“I went to talk to a guy in West Fork about laying brick in the morning, had a job by sundown, and started the next morning,” said Ronnie.
Supplies were not an issue in West Fork because they were building homes and using local products.

“When I started work in West Fork, I worked for a week at $4.00 an hour. My boss liked my work and offered me a partnership,” Ronnie said. The decision wasn’t a hard one because he discovered he could make as much in a day as some made in a week.

“I knew right away I wanted to work for myself not only because the money is better but also because I am more independent,” said Ronnie.

Because almost every house Ronnie worked on had a fireplace, and generally the best layer does the fireplace, Ronnie learned his favorite part of masonry.

“I like doing fireplaces because they are more challenging,” said Ronnie. Then he added, “I like stone and building rock as surfaces the best, but only if they have a good laying edge.”

Ronnie almost always works with a mud man who builds scaffolds, mixes ​concrete, and carries brick. His job is to keep the layer going so no time is wasted.

“A good mud man is worth his weight in gold, and in James McAdoo I have an excellent mud man,” said Ronnie.

The industry has changed over the years. Mortar now comes in a variety of colors. “Charcoal colored mortar looks really good with natural stone,” said Ronnie. New cements, caulking, and glues have also been developed. One of the newer additions is Petra Stone, a manmade surfacing product.

“In the beginning I wouldn’t touch the stuff, but now if it is good quality I like laying it,” said Ronnie.

Looking toward the future, Ronnie laughed and said, “I have no intention of retiring right now but that could change before daylight! I hope the cow prices stay high. One of my favorite things to do is drive through the country and showing my grandchildren the houses I have worked on.”

Terry Ropp

Terry Ropp is a freelance writer for several publications, including the Washington County Observer, and a semi-retired educator of almost forty years. She moved to Arkansas in 2005, feels at home for the first time in her life, and enjoys writing about her new state. You may e-mail her at terrymerrill@hotmail.com.

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