In the 1800s, Buffalo grew as a steam-powered grain-transfer center

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By Ronald Ahrens

Early in the 19th century, surplus grain could be a problem, whether for the farmer or grain traders. It was better to turn it into hooch rather than let it rot.

The advent of grain elevators changed all that, as we learn from Henry H. Baxter’s essay explaining how Buffalo, N.Y., became one of the world’s leading grain storage and processing centers.

Baxter’s essay, published by the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society, explains that the Erie Canal changed everything when it opened in 1825. “Thus, grain had to be unloaded from lake boats and transferred to canal boats at Buffalo,” Baxter writes.

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Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society

By 1842, Joseph Dart had figured out how to build a steam-powered bucket elevator to raise grain from lake boats to storage bins. There the grain stayed until it was needed for milling, malting, or moving to another location.

“Dart, I am sorry for you,” one skeptic said. “It won’t do. Remember what I say–Irishmen’s backs are the cheapest elevators ever built.”

Within just 15 years, Buffalo’s harbor had 10 wooden elevators with capacity of more than 1.5 million bushels.

Years later, Dart credited Oliver Evans with devising the mechanical operation for that first 55,000-bushel elevator.

Elevators solved problems in keeping grain “dry, cool, free from vermin, and safe from pilferage,” Baxter writes. “Moreover, elevators make it possible to weigh and sample grain to determine the quality, quantity, and grade as a basis of payment. Elevator-stored grain can be improved by drying, cleaning, grading, and blending.”

By 1865 Buffalo could boast some 29 elevators, including two “floaters”–elevators that “could travel to a lake boat in the outer harbor or in the Erie Basin.” They would unload the lake boat’s cargo into the string of canal boats that followed behind.

The next big innovation would come around 1900 when electric power replaced steam. And soon, slipformed elevators of reinforced concrete would start to replace the wooden grain houses.

Book report, Part One: Cargill’s first elevators and the blind-horse phenomenon

By Ronald Ahrens

Good fortune has led to my acquiring a copy of Cargill: Trading the World’s Grain, by Wayne G. Broehl, Jr., published in 1992. I got a like-new copy on Amazon for (he goes to the closet to consult credit card records) $7.99—a screamin’ deal.

The massive, 1,007-page book is just part one of Prof. Broehl’s ambitious and masterful history of Cargill—the company let him look at everything, and the reader is left with a detailed account that’s also based on public sources as specific as records on local water wells.

Reading this behemoth will be like skinning a whale with a pocket knife, but as I progress you can look for periodic posts showing what I’ve learned.

Cargill 01In this volume Prof. Broehl starts with Will Cargill’s reaching his majority after the Civil War. As a young man, Cargill showed a disposition for trading grain. It led to a few elevators but also many “flathouses.” These single-story warehouses proliferated along the railroad tracks in northeastern Iowa and southern Minnesota, where Cargill got his start; they could hold a lot of grain but of course they were subject to fire.

Not only could a flathouse burn down in an instant, but other misfortunes could strike.

“This particular spring of 1874 produced a string of bad luck for Will Cargill; in May, his Albert Lea [Minn.] warehouse collapsed, spilling some 2000 bushels of grain,” the professor tells us.

If that had been the season’s lone calamity, Cargill would have gotten off easy. “It had hardly been cleaned up when reports reached Will that another warehouse, at Ridgeway, Iowa, had burned to the ground, ‘the only piece of property which he had neglected to insure…”

Near Austin, Minn., Cargill lost another flathouse “after a couple of years by overloading.” He built an 18,000-bushel elevator with an eight-horsepower steam engine providing the power.

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Screen shot from the Northwestern Miller. Wikimedia Commons say, “The Northwestern Miller (1880–1973) was a periodical founded by the Miller Publishing Company of Minneapolis, Minnesota. A trade publication for the grain and flour industry, it also published short fiction.”

Yes, besides flathouses, we learn of “elevator[s] with power machinery for elevating grain, like the large Cresco [Iowa] operation of Beadle & Slee. “By this time, however, elevating mechanisms were more widespread, sometimes simple ‘cup and belt’ devices run by a horse led in a circle, a ‘blind horse’ elevator, so-called. An old-timer recounted how one elevator ‘had a whip attached above the horse, and there was a hole in the wall where the men … could holler down and the horse … and a string attached to the whip so they could pull and hit the horse.”

Seeking more information about blind-horse elevators I went online and found this passage from the Northwestern Miller as reported in Volume 47, published May 24, 1899:

“By some happy, or otherwise, chance, it was discovered that a blind horse will keep on in his circular path, never seeming to know that he isn’t going anywhere, nor can he tell when the man in charge is out of sight. The poor brute will follow his halter around his little circle from noon till night, thinking all the time that he is getting along in the world.

“This set the elevator men thinking with the result that the blind-horse market immediately began to pick up. Poor old blind nags in the Dakotas, Minnesota, and Iowa were surprised to find themselves in demand. Instead of being allowed to die peacefully in pastures and their bones to be forgotten, they were sought after with an eagerness that made them feel there was really some distinction in being blind. It was not unusual, a few years ago, for an elevator company to buy up a carload of blind horses in Iowa and ship them into Minnesota or the Dakotas. But that time has passed and the day of the blind horse is nearly over. Even now, in the odor of gasoline he can smell, if he can’t see, his finish.”

Blind horses happily acceded this odious role to power machinery. Steam engines producing up to 10 horsepower were used to drive the machinery, and they allowed for construction of larger elevators. In 1873—the year of a financial panic as well as a grasshopper plague—Cargill “decided to increase his operations along the McGregor Western tracks and contracted for a large elevator at Cresco. Its total cost eventually came to over $12,000.”

Anyone who wants to read along will find passages of the book online, thanks to Google Books.