Around 1900, electricity and concrete were advances for Buffalo’s elevators

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Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society

By Ronald Ahrens

Yesterday we looked at the rise of Buffalo, N.Y., as a grain storage and processing center, one that developed after the the Erie Canal opened in 1825. Buffalo was the port where grain was unloaded from lake boats to canal boats. A bevy of steam-powered bucket elevators sprang up.

Today we consider the advances made in Buffalo after the introduction of electricity and electric motors to replace coal and steam engines. We also look at the rise of slipformed concrete to replace wooden elevator houses.

In his essay on the history of Buffalo’s elevators, Henry H. Baxter notes that inexpensive electric power permitted the electrification of elevators. It also encouraged grain processing: the milling of cereal, flour, and animal feed.

Buffalo 05The first electric elevator–a retrofitting, we assume–was soon after a large-capacity generating station started up in 1895. Two years later, the Electric and  Great Northern elevators were built solely around compact electric motors.

“In this way they eliminated steam boilers, engines, chimneys, numerous workers, and the necessity of bringing fuel to the elevator or mill site,” Baxter explains.

Nevertheless, grain scoopers were still needed, and the Irish from South Buffalo dominated the International Longshoremen’s Association Grain Shovelers Union Local 109 as late as 1940. During Buffalo’s heyday as many as 3,000 men were employed scooping grain from the holds of lake carriers. By 1996, the Buffalo News reported only 80 scoopers remained, the last of their kind in the United States.

A Facebook page offers revealing photos of scoopers at work.

The corresponding advance was the use of reinforced concrete. Baxter explains: “At first, bins were built of wood and usually lined with iron. After 1890 steel bins were built in a number of different arrangements. Since that time reinforced concrete has been used.

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Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society

To get up to the headhouse, workers used a man lift. “This is an endless moving belt stretching from basement to the top with 12-inch square platforms attached every 25 feet or so. To go up or down a worker has only to step on a wooden platform going in his direction and hold on.”

Baxter does not specify what a worker might hold for security. Of course, a worker could  fall–that’s why enclosed cages replaced the more primitive method.

A reinforced-concrete elevator was built at Buffalo in 1907. Baxter’s understated description of the method is worth quoting at length:

At the beginning, a form usually four feet high was built on the foundation slab. Screw jacks placed at intervals of about seven feet were used to raise the form. Workers operated the jacks at a rate calculated to raise the form about six inches an hour. This rate gave concrete time to set at the bottom before being exposed by the slowly rising form.

Using this method it took about ten days for the Standard Elevator to reach the height of 125 feet. This was the average height of the bins. After completion of the bins, the workhouse was slipformed up until the structure reached a height of about 200 feet.

The top or deck of a grain elevator under construction was an extremely busy place. Placement of steel rods, pouring of concrete, and jacking of the form were continuous processes. Generally, each jack man had twelve jacks to tend to. A whistle sounded as a signal for each man to make one turn on each jack. Raising the form six inches required 24 whistle signals each hour. During that time a jack man would make 288 turns–almost five a minute–on his jack. Understandably a jack man occasionally got tired enough to miss a few turns. This caused his section of the form to be lower than the rest, resulting in a considerable stress on the form. Such an imbalance brought distress to the job superintendent.

 

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.

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?

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

In another oil painting, Kim Cooper shares his subtle vision of Nebraskaland

October Nebraska 16x20, oil on canvas Sold to Don and Lois Fick, Wahoo, NE

Today is the second of three straight days featuring oil paintings by Kim David Cooper. Here he shares with us a 16 x 20-inch oil depicting an elevator from … he can’t say for sure.

“I don’t even remember where it was from–possibly around Mead, Nebraska,” Cooper commented. “Didn’t write it down, and I’m getting forgetful!” 

In an email he called the work “October, Nebraska.” It was sold to collectors in Wahoo, Neb. (home of a Tillotson elevator).

Often when we see photography or landscape paintings by Nebraska artists we’re stunned by their ability to discern the subtleties (although nothing about a grain elevator is subtle).

This fine landscape hows just how beautiful Nebraskaland can be.

From Elkhorn, Neb., another of Kim Cooper’s wonders of oil on canvas

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Our friend Kim David Cooper has shared more of his work with Our Grandfathers’ Grain Elevators.

Cooper favors the plein air technique, which refers to scenes painted outdoors with the emphasis on spontaneity and seeking to capture the fleeting effects of light and atmosphere.

Here you see his vigorous brushwork and deft use of perspective, which makes the office portion of the building jump at the viewer.

Elevator 1“No cement here,” Cooper wrote in an email. “Painted on site, plein air. Buildings still there in Elkhorn, Neb.”

He also provides a photograph from the same point of view. We see how he captured the scene’s essence, adding life and spirit that simply isn’t found in the photo.

This 9 x 12-inch painting has already been sold. To inquire about commissions, call Cooper Studio & Gallery, located at 1526 Silver St. in Ashland, Neb. Phone: 402. 944.2022.  

 

How a fire 30 miles away threatened the historic mill in Downey, Idaho

 

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Preston conflagration photos from 2012 courtesy of Ryan Day.

By Ronald Ahrens

In Franklin County, Idaho, the towns of Downey and Preston are about 30 miles apart on U.S. 91. Downey is small, Preston is large. More than 5,000 people live in Preston. It’s the county seat.

As Ryan Day expresses it, “Downey is the black sheep of the family nobody wants to talk about.” 

Ryan, a follower of Our Grandfather’s Grain Elevators, runs the historic mill and elevator complex in Downey, which is a unit of Valley Wide Cooperative. Competing against the operation in Preston was tough. Preston had 24- and 36-inch rollers for barley, and a board member claimed no one could roll barley as well as they did. Preston flaked corn with the same proficiency that Sammy Cahn churned out timeless romantic songs. Preston could even apply molasses to the feed it produced.

This mill in the metropolis was fancy-schmancy.

“They were always the enemy,” Ryan says. 

 

Jene Day, who operated Downey for about 50 years, finally lured his son back in 2012 to become his successor. A month before Ryan’s first day on the job, the big mill in Preston caught fire and burned down.

“When I started, the building was still smoking,” he says.

The black cloud that had billowed over Preston had a silver lining, though.

“They had just merged with Valley Wide. Luckily, they were insured and able to build a new state-of-the-art mill.”

In 2014 The Capital Press–“The West’s Ag Weekly Since 1928”–celebrated the reconstituted mill’s opening and extolled its efficiency and convenience. The $3-million facility had everything producers and feeders could want: exotic mixes and the quick loading and unloading of trucks, for example.

Such a powerful allure caused a crisis of faith with some of the organic dairymen who had depended on Downey.

According to the the Capital Press, “Mike Geddes a local organic dairy owner [sic], said about a dozen regional organic dairies who now use a dilapidated mill in Downey have asked Valley Wide to process their feed.”

Dilapidated? A black eye for the black sheep!

Preston may be more efficient, but it’s just another unprepossessing steel building with some small steel bins. It lacks any visual distinction whatsoever. In fact, in the photos we’ve seen, it’s darn near invisible.

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Kristen Cart’s photo captures Downey’s Oz-like quality. L. Frank Baum’s Oz books were contemporaneous with much of Downey’s construction.

As stated in an earlier post, Downey’s buildings belong to Oz. The installation should be in our National Register of Historic Places. For that matter it should be registered in Oz, too.

Four years have passed since Preston re-opened. To find out if anything has been done about its going organic, I called up and spoke to feed manager Shaun Parkinson.

“The only reason that we’d do anything is if something happened to Downey,” he said.

In other words Downey has its niche and is in good hands with Ryan Day.

Nothing had better happen.

 

Shots rang out at the Downey, Idaho, elevator complex in 1964

By Ronald Ahrens

If you think this blog is all about grain dust and elevator specifications, get ready for a murder mystery.

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Ryan Day.

Ryan Day, a reader who manages the mill and elevator complex in Downey, Idaho, tells us what happened in an exchange of gunfire there in 1964.

“My mom and dad used to live in a house right next door north to the place,” Ryan says. “They had come home from shopping–it was late at night.

“Dad had been at the elevator for a few months. He noticed a light like a flashlight. He walked over, and it was a body.

“A local deputy lay dead in the middle of the yard. It was Deputy Woodruff, the first officer in [Franklin] County to die in the line of duty.” 

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“Dad surmised somebody was breaking into the office, so he hustles up and sees a gas trail on the ground from a car that was parked there.

“Deputy Woodruff had put a couple slugs into their gas tank. And they put a couple of slugs into him.” 

Ryan’s parents called authorities.

From Downey, the chase began. It continued about 75 miles through the mountains to Montpelier, in the very southeastern corner of the state.

Downey5“They cornered three fellows and a gal from Chicago going through the states doing a robbery spree,” Ryan said.

The spree ended before the marauders got to Dingle, the last town before Wyoming.

This is how Downey gained lasting fame.

Embellishing his tale, Ryan says, “A detective mag from 1970s had that story.” 

We hope to find a copy somewhere, somehow.

A new belt for the leg, and the Downey, Idaho, plant is good to go

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Photo by Kristen Cart.

By Ronald Ahrens

Ryan Day, a reader of this blog, shared some details about the mill and elevator complex he manages in Downey, Idaho, for Valley Wide Cooperative.

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A selfie by Ryan Day.

“I do not have any info on the wooden crib at all,” Ryan says but notes a 1901 casting date on the iron housing of the 24-inch barley roller

He is quite sure about the rest of it, though. 

The six silos–the 50-footers made of riveted steel plates–preceded 1915, he reckons. They hold 11,293 bushels apiece. 

The two 80-foot silos each hold “23,000 bushels and change.” The middle has an overhead bin with capacity of 1800 bushels. 

“Trucks dump right there in the east side of the elevator,” he said. He has a roll-up garage door on south and a slider on north.

Companyjalopy

“Moving rolled barley around the plant in my company jalopy,” Ryan says. “The mill is in the background with the main entrance visible to the left. The Ford is a ’72. We call her Purple.”

He uses a 32-foot scale with balance beam, a device that always makes the Idaho state inspector marvel. It measures loads up to 60,000 pounds and can scale a tractor, which then pulls ahead in order to weigh the tandems. Then the driver backs up and dumps into the pit. 

Up top in the headhouse, a massive 40-horse motor runs the head pulley. “I’m sure it’s original.” 

Updating the leg, the cooperative had a new belt installed last spring. At 132 feet long it spans the distance between head and boot pulleys; it’s made of multi-ply rubber with fabric cordage. He said it’s not as thick as the old belt. Halverson Co., of Salt Lake City, installed it. 

The tall narrow building has a leg; the stepped pit inside has been converted to a corn grinder. 

The wooden crib still bears the faint marking Globe Elevator Co. No. 6. He points out that Globe was responsible for the largest wooden-crib elevator in the States, built in the 1880s at Superior, Wisc. Use this link to view photos from the Library of Congress. The History Channel documented its dismantling in 2013.