Hazen's Occident Elevator around 1920, with Fred Haas, manager, barely visible in the driveway.
Birth of the Prairie Skyscrapers

Froeschle, Fred. "Birth of the Prairie Skyscrapers." Hazen Star, 30 October 1986.

They knew how to build grain elevators back in 1913.

That year, in the Nov. 14 issue, the Mercer County Star reported:

"The Occident Elevator Co., who were granted the third elevator site in Hazen, has received some materials for their building and are preparing to build at once."

In the Dec. 5 issue, three weeks later, this item appeared:

"The Occident Elevator is nearing completion; the Powers elevator is well under construction, and the Knife River Lumber and Grain Co.'s elevator has just been started."

Then on Dec. 26:

"The Powers elevator is finished. Both the Powers elevator and Occident elevator started taking grain on Monday and it is expected the Knife River elevator will within a few days."

Those construction marvels were accomplished with hand tools, without weather shelters or electricity. It was December, so the days were short and probably cold. Yet, in just six short weeks, Hazen's first three grain elevators were built and two were taking grain. The town itself was only three months old. (Try and match that, you contractors with your electric tools, power hammers, mobile cranes, warm-up shelters and catered coffee break.)

In the fall of 1915 the miracle was repeated. Several hundred farmers gathered at the Keeley Opera House at Central and Main to organize a cooperative elevator. Two months later the Farmers Elevator of Hazen was buying grain.

Not only was construction different in those days. So was buying grain.

Farmers delivered grain in sacks, two-bushel bags piled in horse-drawn wagons. Filling those sacks and loading the wagons was pure muscle work, a two-man job. One person would hold the sack while the other scooped the grain. Then the sack-holder would whip some twine around the top to the bag, completing the movement with a special slip knot designed for quick opening at the elevator. Although sacks weighted around 120 pounds, many sack bearers boasted they could carry a sack on each shoulder and then proved it.

At the elevator a one-pound sample was cleaned with hand-shaken screened pans. The difference in weight between the original sample and the cleaned sample represented to percentage of dockage - foreign matter for which the grower did not get paid. The clean grain would be carefully metered in a little brass bucket to determine the test weight, to see if it graded No. 1 (60 pounds or more pounds per bushel of wheat), No. 2 or No. 3 or worse. Grade was one factor that determined price after dockage was deducted.

In later years it became possible to test for moisture, an important measurement after combines replaced threshing machines. Combined grain tended to be moister, and moisture could cause spontaneous combustion and elevator fires.

After World War I, the grain sack was phased out; farmers began shoveling grain directly from the granary into their wagons. For a time that meant shoveling grain out of wagons at the elevator, but soon wagon dumpers came along, hand-power tilting devices that lifted the front of a wagon and lowered the back so grain would run out through an open end-gate. Elevator work became a little easier.

Elevators had - and still have - a pit in which the grain was dumped through a grill in the elevator floor. The pit sloped into a "boot" at the bottom of a "leg" that reached to the top of the elevator. Inside the leg was a continuous belt on which small trapezoidal buckets were fastened, designed to carry grain to the elevator cupola where it was distributed to assigned bins through a spout operated by a manual guidance system in the driveway.

Motive power was furnished by big, single-cylinder gasoline engines, located beneath or behind the elevator offices, a safe distance from the grain dusts that could be so easily ignited by flame or sparks. Power from the engines was transmitted to the top of the elevator by a complicated arrangement of belts, pulleys, ropes and weights.

Grain remained in elevator storage until a farmer decided to sell, usually influenced by market prices, often by a need for cash.

Once the elevator was ready to make a shipment, the grain would be released from its bin, and again would move through pit, boot, leg and spouts into a boxcar destined for markets in the Twin Cities or Duluth.

In horse-drawn wagon days, delivering grain to the elevator combined a respite from hard work with something of a social event.

Riding, seated on the grain with legs dangling over the front of the wagon, was a pleasant way to spend a nice morning, and many farmers like to time their arrival at the elevator around noon. They might bring a lunch of summer sausage and crackers, which they consumed while perching on the driveway rail or office step, visiting with their fellow grain haulers.

Sometimes 20 or 30 wagons might be waiting in line, reins from each team tied to the wagon ahead. When the leading wagon moved, they all moved. Every elevator had a watering trough and a hitching rail so that once a wagon was unloaded the team could be refreshed and rested while the farmer check the grain prices and decided whether to store or sell his load.

But sometimes the horses reached a decision of their own, leading to an occasional runaway team, spooked by an unusual slight or sound, once the wagon was empty. Then a desperate farmer could be seen standing in the wagon box, pulling on the reins, and trying to bring the stampeding team under control. Sometimes, when the elevator doors didn't open fast enough, parts or all of the doors would be carried away, one reason why driveway exit doors tended to look newer than the entrance doors.

During the harvest season the elevator was quite busy, taking grain from sun-up until after dark, but during most of the year it was quiet. Elevators had not yet become farm stores. There might be coal bins and a flour shed, but most of the time the elevator office was a good place to drowse after spring work until harvest time.

Business during the quiet months consisted largely of elderly folk who came on foot to buy bags of chicken feed. Many Hazenites had chickens; all retired farmers seemed to. Twenty-five cents worth of feed was about as much as a person cared to carry.

Then there might be a small flurry of elevator activity on Saturday nights when farm lads would bring in a sack or two of grain, loaded into the trunk of a Model-T, possibly without dad's knowledge. A couple of bushels could finance a dance ticket and a half-pint hip flask from one of the local suppliers -usually.

Around 1930, two important things happened to the elevators. The one-cylinder gasoline engines, with their huge flywheels, were phased out in favor of electric motors, installed in the top of the elevator where the power was needed. And farms trucks began replacing horses and wagons.

Later, mechanical and electrical technology took over at the elevators - those that survived. The Depression closed the Powers elevator; fire later destroyed the Hazen Grain elevator, successor to the Knife River Grain Co.

Computers now print scale tickets; dockage percentages, test weight and moisture content are measured electronically. Big trucks deliver grain, and even bigger trucks haul it away, competing with the railroad on whose property the elevators are situated.

The coal sheds are gone. Flour businesses came and went. Feeds, seeds, farm chemicals and other supplies are now major components in an elevator's marketing mix.

It's a much bigger business now; a lot more efficient. But it can't be as much fun and it certainly isn't as sociable as it was in those old wagon days.

Reprinted with permission of the Hazen Star.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller