The American Grain Elevator: Form & Function
By Linda Laird
(Grain Elevator Press, 120 pages, $23)
Because men with shovels weren’t quite up to the task of unloading farmer’s wagons and filling rail cars with wheat or corn, grain elevators became prevalent after railroads pushed through the American grain belt in the 1870s. A line elevator, each with a mechanical leg that lifted the grain for distribution, was put up on nearly every rail spur on the prairies and plains.
In those days, elevators were made of wood in studded or crib-style construction. Although many of those buildings were clad with galvanized steel, they remained vulnerable to the prodigious quantities of sparks thrown off by visiting locomotives.
Seeking reliably fireproof structures, some buildings tried brick but found it “not a satisfactory solution,” reports Linda Laird in The American Grain Elevator: Form & Function. (Order here.) The book published earlier this year supplies useful perspective on trends as well as carefully detailing how a grain elevators works.
Ceramic tiles strengthened by steel bands have been used in building elevators, and iron and steel structures stand here and there in defiance of rust. In the latter case, several good examples from Kansas are shown by Ms. Laird, who has a background in historic preservation and devoted herself to photographing 1200 elevators in the Sunflower State.
But as she notes in her deftly written book, from the time of Peavy’s Folly, an 1899 experimental elevator near Minneapolis, the solution was at hand and “it was just a matter of time before the use of concrete would revolutionize the grain storage business in America.” Concrete was costly, but lower insurance rates helped in the recovery of costs. Much to the dismay of insects and rodents, which were always a problem at wooden elevators, the editors of influential periodicals like Grain Dealers Journal encouraged the new material’s use. Low-cost government financing later became available.
Specialized crews skilled in the slip-form technique began to create towering silos topped by fantastic cupolas, or headhouses, of varying heights. Farmers’ co-op elevators were modest jobs. Others were epic affairs like the half-mile-long, 18.3-million-bushel terminal in Hutchinson, Kan., where Ms. Laird lives.
Frank photos and helpful drawings make the results vivid, but historic images documenting the rise of Chalmers & Borton’s massive annex at Topeka, Kan.–an exercise that took just seven days in 1955–are the coup de grace.
Thanks to Ms. Laird’s splendid work, it’s easier now to understand what our own grandfathers accomplished, and how they did it. From heaps of lumber and steel on flat ground by the tracks, they ascended skyward, leaving behind functional, impermeable buildings that are also enduring monuments to enterprise and bounty.
— Ronald Ahrens
- Mid Kansas and Farmers Co-op employees enjoy their jobs (ourgrandfathersgrainelevators.com)
- Tillotson Construction’s classic elevator makes a good neighbor in Clifton, Kansas (ourgrandfathersgrainelevators.com)