Ingenuity, nerves of steel and a little bit of luck

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
Orvil Krueger, known as The Building Doctor, learned many of his skills repairing and reconstructing damaged structures while working under his father and at other jobs.

Agriculture ranks among the most hazardous industries. And those who assist farmers are also susceptible to those risks. 

Orvil Krueger, a man who says he can fix anything still standing, says he learned much of his trade trailing after his father, who labored building barns and houses in the early 1900s.

"My father always told me, 'take the work nobody else wants, and you will always have a job'. He was right," Krueger said.

The 91-year-old said he learned his strong work ethic watching his father, A.C. Krueger, who grew up on a farm near Marion, Wisconsin. With the farm unable to support A.C. and his wife, he began working on construction crews around the area. He was so good at his job, soon he was running his own crews repairing and rebuilding farm structures in 1903.

"There was 11 of us kids, and he had to find some way to make a living," Krueger said. 

By the age of 7, Orvil and his brother began carrying water for his dad's construction crew. As he got older, he was given more responsibilities.

In 1933, A.C. Krueger, left, and his crew construct a new foundation under this barn in Shawano County. Standing next to A.C. is his son, Harvey. Orvil Krueger says he started working for his father as soon as he was old enough to carry water for the crew.

Through the years, Orvil became a jack-of-all-trades: farming, selling farm equipment, building four-wheel drive trucks and working as a carpenter for several contractors. Later he would work with his brother Hank, who advised insurance companies on repairing damaged farm buildings.

Soon he was able to accurately determine the extent of damage and what it would take to repair them. He wanted to do more than estimate costs; he wanted to be involved in repairing them, supervising the work himself.

Before he hung out his shingle as The Building Doctor in the 1970s, Krueger was called upon to do many jobs for farmers near and far. Throughout the years, his line of work required ingenuity, nerves of steel and sometimes a little bit of luck.

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While some people prefer to keep their feet solidly on the ground, Krueger never hesitated to attack problems head on and had no qualms about scurrying up a silo. 

Krueger recalls receiving a call from Clarence Barnick to replace a piece missing on top of a newly poured concrete silo in the town of Dupont in Waupaca County.

Borrowing a rope from a nearby lumberyard, Krueger tied one end to the roof part and the other to his belt and proceeded climb up the outside of the 70-foot silo, using the C-shaped metal rungs.

"The ladder on the roof of the silo was just 10 inches wide, and I needed both hands to pull up the piece on the other end of the rope," he said. "So, with that ladder clenched between my knees, I pulled up that piece, flipped it over and fastened it with the bolts. It took me about an hour to finish."

Letting the rope fall to the ground, Krueger climbed back down to find Barnick and his son (who worked at the nearby lumberyard) standing nearby, watching in amazement.

"The son said, 'You'd never get me to go up there!' and his dad replied, 'That's what separates the men from the boys!' I had a good laugh at that," Krueger said.

Early in his career, Orvil Krueger scaled many silos to repair damaged roofs.

No laughing matter

While most of the jobs Krueger performed over the years were routine, one such incident still leaves him wondering all these years later.

"Do you believe in angels?" he asked me recently.

Krueger recalls the incident that occurred about 50 years ago, when he was contacted by an insurance company to fix the the center roof piece on the steel cap of a Madison stave silo owned by farmer Leonard Gruenwald.

"Leonard said it would be an easy job, as he had filled the silo three years ago and hadn't fed any out," Krueger said.

Arriving at the farm near Caroline, Wisconsin, Krueger and his helper decided on a plan: The helper would climb up the outside of the 50-foot silo while Krueger would send up the necessary pieces from inside the structure via a rope. 

Everything was going according to plan until a silo loader frame blocked access to the area needing repair. Looking for a second option, Krueger climbed up the inside of the shroud of the silo and looked over the top of the last door. From his vantage point, Krueger noticed that the silage had settled to about 18 feet from the top.

He drove to a nearby implement dealership to borrow a ladder. When he returned, he pulled up the ladder along with some planks that he would place across the silage. Propping the ladder on top of a plank, Krueger proceeded to hand the needed materials to his helper outside the silo.

The job went without a hitch, and before climbing down, Krueger noticed several pigeon nests sitting atop the old silage.

"I walked around stepping on about 30 of those nests to help cut down on the number of pigeons," he said.

Krueger climbed down, loaded up his gear and headed home.

A week later Gruenwald called Krueger and asked if he wanted the old silo. Confused, Krueger asked him why.

"He told me after I left he was going to climb up and clean off the spoiled silage and then start feeding the rest out. As he started to climb up the chute, Leonard said, all the doors fell in ... the silo was empty," Krueger said. "I'm 6' 2" and 220 pounds, a much bigger man than he was. What kept me from breaking through that crust of silage and falling down that silo? I've wondered about that all these years later."

The silo is no longer standing. With no takers, Gruenwald loosened the old hoops, attached a cable to the silo and pulled it over with his International tractor. 

Thankfully Krueger is still standing a half century later.

"I never went into a partially fed out silo again," he said.