Giants of the Plains: Slowly Fading Away
"Giants of the Plains: Slowly Fading Away." Ashley Tribune, Spring 2002, sec. 1B & 3B.
The elevator in Lehr, North
From the beginning of time almost nothing on the great North American
Prairies grew higher than its native grasses. Then came the railroads,
stretching across this land in the middle of the 19th century and
changing it forever. The railroads brought settlers who plowed the
prairie sod and planted wheat. This brought onto the landscape tall,
stately structures, the likes of which had never been seen before
and which quickly became the new symbol of this great and productive
land...the country elevator.
Simple but elegant in design country elevators stood as lonely
sentinels over an otherwise flat landscape. Reaching skyward like
church spires, they were poetically referred to as "prairie
cathedrals." For nearly a century and a half they provided
local farmers with grain storage along the railroads that moved
their produce to distant markets.
Early railroad companies built towns along their lines, in part
to assure they would always have a supply of fuel and water to keep
their great steam engines running. The railroads knew the towns
would thrive if crops produced there could easily and quickly be
shipped to be sold in distant markets. So the railroads actually
financed some of the first country elevators.
By the 1870s railroad companies were restricted by law from directly
financing elevators. Instead, they offered incentives such as nominal
lease rates, spur lines, no time limits for loading and unloading
cars, and special rate arrangements. This encouraged the formation
of new grain companies and grower cooperatives.
Elevators quickly appeared in every small town that had a railroad.
With an elevator nearby, a farmer could deliver his harvest by team
and wagon and return home the same day. His grain was in demand
back East, and elevators were there to receive, weigh, store and
transfer it for him.
Country Elevators: The Railroads giveth, the railroads taketh
The basic structure of country elevators included storage bins
for 25,000 to 30,000 bushels of grain, a drive shed to protect the
unloading of grain in wet weather and a scale room where weights
and grades were recorded. A combined office and engine shed was
connected to the elevator by a walkway, which also served as a cover
for the drive shaft belt that ran from the engine to the bucket
elevator that both loaded and unloaded grain. These areas were separated
intentionally to help prevent explosions and fires that could be
ignited by the engines.
Country elevators were commonly constructed of wood. Some were
cribbed, a technique in which wood planks were arranged horizontally
with corners that interlocked cabin style. Beginning at the base
with 2x8 or 2x6 boards and decreasing in size to 2x4s as the wall
rose, the structure was held together with 20-penny nails. This
construction was widely used in the northern states and Canada where
wood was more readily available.
Other elevators were built using stud or frame construction which
was less expensive than cribbing. Horizontal wood bands placed on
the upright studs every four feet from bottom to top secured the
perimeter of the structure. The bins were interlaced with a maze
of tie steel rods extending through the bands to hold the building
together under the pressure of the grain's weight. This construction
was more common in the southern plains states of Kansas, Nebraska,
Colorado, and Oklahoma.
This lonesome elevator stands
in Danzig, North Dakota.
Both types of elevators were usually sided with metal of asbestos
to make them a bit more fireproof. Brick and tile elevators were
also built as fireproof alternatives to wood. They were more expensive
to build and lacked the strength necessary to withstand the pressure
exerted by the stored grain. About the turn of the 20th century,
the invention of the slip-form made practical use of concrete which
became the preferred alternative method of construction for elevators.
The country elevator was beautiful in its simplicity of function.
A farm wagon arriving with a load of grain would be weighed and
the grain then dumped into a receiving pit. From there bucket elevators
lifted the grain to the top of the structure for cleaning and distribution
to holding bins.
Local grain elevators constructed of wood were expected to last
about 40 years, but fire was such a threat the average life of one
was actually much less. Still, they served the marketing needs of
local farmers for nearly 150 years. A casualty of change, the small
elevators could not meet local storage needs as the green revolution
of the 20th century produced massive amounts of grain that could
be harvested quickly by high-volume self-propelled combines.
The very railroads that brought the first country elevators into
existence, have in recent years streamlined their own operations
and abandoned many of the trunk lines along which the elevators
were originally built. Grain is now trucked to regional or terminal
facilities that have storage capacities in the millions of bushels.
To local farmers who gathered at their country elevator for morning
coffee, it was a place to meet friends, tell stories and spin yarns,
share laughter and understand tears. To the communities they served,
country elevators were vital commercial hubs...to employers, customers
and suppliers. It was not unusual to find an elevator that sold
fertilizer, feed seed, coal, lumber and other commodities. In reality
it was the local farm community's international connection.
Authentic country elevators are rapidly going the way of all wooden
structures. Unless community historic groups intervene to restore
and preserve them, they all will soon be a fond memory of a time
when life was less complex and when people in a community need each
other but a time to which we can never return.
Reprinted with permission of the Ashley Tribune.