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 Dakota

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 away

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 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.

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