For These St. Louis Masons, Bricklaying Is An Art — And A Sport | St. Louis Public Radio

For These St. Louis Masons, Bricklaying Is An Art — And A Sport

Sep 13, 2019

Building a brick wall isn’t typically considered a competitive sport — but try telling that to Terry Daniel.

Wiping sweat from his eyes, the Wentzville mason spreads a thick layer of mortar with his trowel and slaps a brick on top, working as fast as he can. 

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” said Daniel, who competed Thursday in the regional Spec Mix Bricklayer 500 in Bridgeton, Missouri. 

Nathan Milster maintains a frantic pace during the fourth annual regional Bricklayer 500, while mason tender Adrian Enriquez helps prepare bricks and mortar.
Credit David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio

The goal is deceptively simple: build the largest brick wall in an hour. 

But in this competition, only the walls with the fewest possible errors have a chance of winning. Even a small mistake, like a crooked brick, translates to points lost. 

"It's not something that just comes easy," Daniel said. "There's a lot of skill in it."

A few feet away, J.T. and Jake Payne of Cape Girardeau work in synchrony, urged on by the cheers of their friends and family. 

Masons scramble to finish building their walls during the fourth annual Bricklayer 500 competition. Teams of two worked to build the largest wall with the fewest possible errors in an hour.
Credit David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio

The two brothers have been practicing every week for the past month in hopes of defending their title. Last year, they took first place in the regional competition and won the craftsmanship award — a special recognition for the team that lays down at least 500 bricks without any errors.

As the tender, Jake Payne stacks the bricks and scoops the mortar, while his brother builds the wall. Their grandfather and fellow mason, Kenny Foeste, watches closely as J.T. flicks away a dab of excess mortar.

“I can tell he’s nervous because his trowel is shaking a little bit,” said Foeste, who was inducted into the Masonry Hall of Fame earlier this year. 

Jake Payne, left, stacks a pile of bricks while mason J.T. Payne rushes to build their 26-foot-long wall during the Spec Mix Bricklayer 500 competition in Bridgeton, Missouri.
Credit David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio

The brothers’ pace begins to lag in the 95-degree heat of the Kirchner-Midwest Block and Brick parking lot. 

Foeste shouts encouragement at his grandsons, squinting into the sun: “The more you lay, the longer you stay!”

Annie Harvey, 17, sits in the shade of a nearby tent. She’s the first in her family to work in the industry, she says — and almost always the only woman on any job site.

“Everybody you work with watches over you,” said Harvey, who trained with Mingo Job Corps and now works as a construction apprentice with Foeste Masonry in Cape Girardeau. “It makes it a lot easier, being a girl out there.”

Mason Terry Daniel competes for the third time in the Spec Mix Bricklayer 500. Daniel said he hopes to encourage more young people to get into the industry.
Credit David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio

Attracting more young people like Harvey to the industry is the goal of the bricklaying competition, said program organizer and Spec Mix employee Craig Kasten. 

“Bricklaying is an old trade,” Kasten said. “[We’re] trying to get the young blood in there — and the people who have been here all these years, trying to show off their skills.”

There are more than 1,400 masons in Missouri, according to the most recent data available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

J.T. Payne smoothes a layer of mortar during the Spec Mix Bricklayer 500 competition. Teams lose points for specific errors, including crooked walls or chipped bricks.
Credit David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio

Masons in Missouri rank sixth in the nation for pay, earning about $65,000 on average. 

“There’s money to be made out here, and there’s a shortage of people,” said Daniel, whose team took second place in this year’s Bricklayer 500. “If these young people realize that, they can be an asset to our community and help us rebuild St. Louis.”

The Payne brothers landed in first place in the Bricklayer 500 competition Thursday afternoon, edging out Daniel for the second year in a row. They laid more than 700 bricks — an average pace of about 11 bricks per minute.

The Paynes will now compete for the title of "World's Best Bricklayer" in the 2020 Spec Mix Bricklayer World Championship in Las Vegas.

Jake and J.T. Payne hug after winning first place in the regional Bricklayer 500 competition for the second year in a row.
Credit David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio

J.T. Payne calls masons “a dying breed” — but he says he truly enjoys the work.

“I’ve been around it ever since I was a little kid,” he said. “I wanted to be part of the family business because it’s just something I like to do.”

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