Early grain-storage leader Buffalo experienced the boom in full

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By Ronald Ahrens

“Silent crowd watches through the long night hours as workers search mill ruins for more missing bodies,” the Buffalo Times blared in 1913.

As an early leader in grain storage and milling, Buffalo, N.Y., was also a test site (of sorts) for elevator mishaps.

This report, culled from a firefighting blog, shows how the explosion even hit a passing train: 

An explosion devastated a grain elevator, killing at least 17 men and injuring 60 more. The elevator, located at the Husted Milling and Elevating Co. at Elk and Peabody streets, was left in flames after the dust explosion. The engineer of a passing train was killed by the blast that shattered windows, injuring many passengers. A dozen boxcars loaded with grain were also destroyed. Every ambulance in the city responded, but there were so many injuries that the flatbed section of the damaged train was used to transport many of the wounded grain elevator workers. Firemen poured tons of water on the volatile remains all day and into the night, hoping to cool things enough to allow a complete search. Losses were estimated at a half-million dollars.

Grain dust is explosive. After the electrification of elevator mechanisms in the late-1890s, it took a while to figure out that electric motors should be shielded to suppress sparks.

Static electricity can build up around conveyor belts.

Machinery can overheat.

And of course, there’s a reason “No Smoking” warnings are now everywhere in an elevator.

Tillotson Construction Company’s first reinforced concrete elevator, which was built in 1939 at Goltry, Okla., had a dust collection system. Notes in the company records say, “3 H.P. fan, 42″ collector dust bin.”

We lack any more details but are striving to increase our knowledge of dust collection inside elevators.

 

 

 

 

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.

Looking to Greenwood from I-80, we see it, twice as tall as the trees

Co-op from Greenwood from I80 overpass IIII

In this photo, our friend Kim David Cooper shows the same refined sense of composition as in his oil paintings. “A different view of your Greenwood elevator,” he says.

The photo’s slug line notes the shot was taken from an overpass on Interstate 80.

Standing at least twice the height of the tallest tree, doesn’t the elevator make a handsome addition to the landscape?

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.

Screen shot 2018-08-06 at 10.49.59 AM

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.

A glimpse of Firth makes us go forth with speculations and an investigation

Firth, NE Cemetery 2012 II

By Ronald Ahrens

As with yesterday’s post, we’re working from a photo sent by Kim Cooper, a friend of this blog who happens to have grain elevators in his heritage, too. He likes to incorporate them into his superb, plein air landscape paintings.

Sometimes Cooper sends pictures.

“Here’s one from Firth, Nebraska,” he said. “Looks like a rounded top.”

Indeed, the rounded headhouse was the signature on Tillotson Construction Co.’s elevators after about 1950.

But other builders could have used this style. We see no mention of Firth in Tillotson’s records. We see Minatare (1941), Rushville (1947), Polk and Richland (1948), Hordville (1949), Bellwood (1950), Cedar Bluffs (1950), Aurora and Omaha and Wahoo (1950), Greenwood and David City and York (1951), Fairfield (1952), Bellwood (340,000 bushels of storage in 1954), and Waverly (1955).

That’s 15 locations. Tillotson built far more elevators in Iowa and Oklahoma than in the company’s home state of Nebraska. But 15 isn’t bad. Based on anecdotal information we also suspect a couple of other locations. 

But after calling up Dennis Kenning, we’ve ruled out Firth as an unrecorded job by Tillotson. Kenning is sales and marketing manager for Farmers Cooperative, which has headquarters in Dorchester, Neb. and dozens of elevators throughout southeastern Nebraska.

Kenning expressed curiosity, looked into the matter, and emailed his findings:

“Here’s what we found out,” he wrote.

  • Constructed sometime in the ’60s
  • Roberts Const Co.
  • Hutchinson Foundry & Steel
  • Sabetha, Kansas

We found Roberts Construction Co. located in Axtell but were unable to reach them. The question arises about Roberts’ design source–were there any Tillotson connections?

An elevator in Minden, Neb., offers few clues and one gangling oddity

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By Ronald Ahrens

Our friend Kim Cooper sent this photo of an elevator in Minden, Neb. We see no mention of Minden in the records of Tillotson Construction Co., of Omaha. One dependable characteristic is that Tillotson built a with center driveway. This elevator has a side driveway.

Although we don’t know how many elevators were constructed by Mayer-Osborn Co., of Denver, or where they were built, an educated guess says this isn’t one of their jobs either. Mayer-Osborn had developed a stepped-headhouse design with rounded corners. Here, there is a step, but nothing like the proportions we have seen at an Mayer-Osborn elevator–the one in Follett, Texas, for example.

So we called up Minden and spoke to Brent, who runs the location. He confirmed that the freestanding tall structure on the elevator’s left in this photo is an outdoor leg and is used to load trains.

And Brent said the elevator was built by Sampson Construction. “I want to say 1960s for the original house,” he said.

 

Even more views of Buffalo’s terminals and more grain-trade history, Part 3

By Ronald Ahrens

As seen in two previous posts, Kristen was in Buffalo the other day and took photos of the terminal elevators. Here’s the third in the series of three we’re doing with our own commentary as well as some lines from Cargill: Trading the World’s Grain, by Wayne G. Broehl, Jr. These lines show how central Buffalo was to the grain trade.

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“This place has an ADM sign on it but it was deserted over the weekend except for a flock of geese and one of pigeons,” Kristen reported. “It looks pretty worn down too.”

“Quite a headhouse,” I said. “Originally a Cargill elevator?”

* * *

June 7, 1932: “May people connected with Montreal shipping felt quite threatened by the new Albany deep-water port. So too did other communities along the water route to the St. Lawrence, particularly Buffalo.” — p. 536

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“The other side taken from the drawbridge,” Kristen said.

“I do not normally associate kayakers with grain elevators,” I said.

* * *

“Another frequently used routing for Canadian grain was through a Lake Erie port, typically Buffalo, where it might be milled into flour. If the flour was for United States consumption, a duty of 42 cents per bushel of wheat had to be paid. If it was for international sale it could be reloaded under ‘milling-in-transit’ privileges and escape duty.” — p. 541

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“Its neighbor across the water is just as big,” Kristen said. “It also looks quite old.”

“It could use some sprucing up, but that’s not our department,” I said. “Oh, and try this historical view

* * *

1941: “So Cargill too moved once more to increase its own storage capacity … The capacities at Buffalo had been vastly expanded–an addition to the Electric Elevator there increased this one terminal from 1.75 million to over 5.2 million bushels; with the Great Eastern and the Superior, the Company now had over 12.4 million bushels just at that one location.” — p. 582