Peering into ancient grain storage practices from Tell Edfu to Ribchester

By Kristen Cart

As long as agriculture has existed, food storage has been essential to human survival. Grains could be stored without substantial spoilage more easily than other foods, so societies engineered grain storage very early, which enabled people to congregate in cities. In the book of Genesis in the Bible, the story of Joseph relates how he helped Egypt store grain against periods of famine. It was a successful strategy.

Genesis 41:48-49:

48 During those seven years, Joseph collected all the excess food in the land of Egypt and stored it in the cities. In every city he laid up the food from the fields around it. 49 So Joseph stored up grain in such abundance, like the sand of the sea, that he stopped keeping track of it; for it was beyond measure.

The practice of grain storage that was credited to Joseph in the Bible was indeed part of the long-standing economic system in Egypt.

Surviving ancient Egyptian city sites, while fairly rare, have drawn renewed interest as archaeologists explore how urban societies developed. A prominent feature of Tell Edfu, an Egyptian city studied by the University of Chicago, is a courtyard containing seven circular mud-brick silos, built together to store surplus grain. Each silo measures 5.5-6.5 meters across. The 3500 year-old site was built beside an administrative center, a feature that points to a period of prosperity measured in grain, which was the currency of the time.

Archaeologists find silos and administration center from early Egyptian city

Another example of early grain storage was discovered in Lancashire, England, in Ribchester. This location was an early Roman outpost where a garrison was stationed. Stored grain was needed to provide for the soldiers and their livestock. When the Roman soldiers abandoned the fort, evidence shows that the remaining stores were burned and the storage site destroyed.

Ribchester Roman Granaries

Every grain operation has to contend with temperature, humidity, and spoilage when storing grain. The Romans found ingenious solutions to the same problems we encounter. Their granaries had thick walls with column-supported floors, leaving void areas underneath, and drainage gutters to keep rain diverted away. These measures kept the grain cool and dry. Building the granaries above ground level also helped keep rats and mice out.

All that remains at the Ribchester site are the thick wall bases, outlining the footprint of two rectangular bins, and the support columns that held the old flagstone floors above the ground. Signs of burned grain and broken flagstones tell the story of the abandonment of the outpost.

I was curious whether ancient Greece used similar storage. Accounts I read pointed out that they used amphorae, or large pottery jars, to transport commodities including grain. They imported their grain supply across the Mediterranean Sea using these vessels, while prohibiting grain exports, to ensure their food security. Amphorae were convenient because they could be stored, but they were also portable. They were an ideal solution for foodstuffs moving through a major trading center. I wonder if consumption kept up with supply to the point that large-scale permanent storage was not needed. It is a good topic for further exploration.

Grain is such an ordinary part of life for us that it goes mostly ignored, though the history of grain is compelling. I am forever curious. Perhaps more of this remarkable history will be uncovered. I will share whatever I find.

Tillotson Construction Co. summons workers to Fremont, Neb. job in 1942

“Workers Needed,” proclaimed the ad in the Oct. 29, 1942 edition of the Fremont (Neb.) Tribune. “Wage, 60¢ Per. Hour. Duration two to three months.”

Workers Needed

Tillotson Construction Co. was summoning prospects to report at the Updike Grain Corp. Elevator, 1st and Broad Streets, in Fremont.

Company records show no construction of reinforced-concrete elevators during 1942 and 1943, so it seems reasonable to surmise that in this period of wartime scarcity the Tillotsons were returning to their tradition of building and repairing wooden elevators.

An illuminating post on the blog Lost America Found describes Updike Grain Corp. in the following terms:

“The Updike Grain Co. was a large grain storage and trading company, headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska, and which operated grain elevators throughout the mid-west. Nelson Blackwell Updike (b. Dec. 2, 1871 Pennington N.J.) first bought a grain elevator in Eldorado Neb. shortly after his marriage in 1895. With the success of that elevator, he began to purchase more country elevators, and built terminal elevators in Omaha.”

Additionally:

“It’s hard to determine when the Updike name disappeared. After 1932, it was no longer needed by FNGC [Farmers National Grain Corp.] to trade on the exchange, but how long it continued to be used at the local level with the various grain elevators is not clear.”

We see from this ad that the Updike name continued in use at least until 1942.

Thank you to Suzassippi, a follower of Our Grandfathers’ Grain Elevators, for supplying this clipping and others to follow.

 

 

 

The story behind the WSJ’s story of a cast-off elevator in Burlington, Colo.

Burlington 01

By Ronald Ahrens

From reading Wayne G. Broehl, Jr.’s huge history of Cargill, I’ve become alert to other news about the grain-trading behemoth. So a Wall Street Journal article, titled “Growers’ New Clout Tilts Farm Economy,” caught my eye on Aug. 16 

“Powerful farmers push Cargill, ADM for better prices, and may soon compete,” the sub-headline reads.

According to Jacob Bunge’s story, several factors have risen in importance to give large farmers more leverage.

One is that farmers have more storage capacity for their grain. They don’t have to sell soon after harvest, going to the local elevator and accepting the current price.

A second factor is more options for direct sale of crops to stock feeders or ethanol plants.

And like everything else, there’s a digital aspect. “Venture capital-backed startups are developing services that scan a wider range of grain buyers or connect farmers directly with food makers,” Bunge reports.

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Bunge’s story in the Journal tells of a Cargill grain buyer who “said his job got harder still after Cargill in 2016 sold the Burlington, Colo., grain elevator–and later, nearby cattle feedlots that were reliable destinations for the grain grown by many of [the buyer’s] contacts.”

Here we skidded to a stop. Burlington, Colo., is in the records of Tillotson Construction Co. My uncle, Charles J. Tillotson, worked on Burlington and recalls a 1950 incident there involving a train and cement mixer. The locomotive derailed, but no one was injured.

The 300,000-bushel Burlington elevator had eight tanks of 20 feet in diameter and 115 feet in height. It was a twin-leg elevator with a pit 19 feet deep. The cupola measured 23 feet wide, 63.75 feet long, and 44 feet high. Pulley centers were 168 feet apart.

Could this be the same elevator Cargill sold two years ago? The big company has “divested itself of some far-flung grain elevators that aren’t near a railroad or river.”

And Bunge recounts another marvel: the anecdote concerns an Illinois farmer–one who tills 9,000 acres and rents out 5,000 more–who partnered with another farmer to buy a 750,000-bushel Cargill elevator. 

If they don’t find it too expensive to operate and insure, dispatching large quantities of grain when and where they want will be a challenge for Cargill and ADM to face.

 

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

More views of Buffalo’s terminals and some related grain-trade history, Part 2

 By Ronald Ahrens

As mentioned in the previous post, Kristen was in Buffalo the other day and took photos of the terminal elevators. Today’s post is the second in a 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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“It’s the face of Gold Medal flour,” Kristen said.

“It’s a winking face,” I said.

* * *

“The Farm Board created further consternation by its avowed aim to hold its March wheat contracts until the contract terminated, then take actual grain. Thus, physical grain had to be delivered to Chicago by the shorts to fulfill these contracts. Most of these short contracts were held by private-sector grain traders, but a substantial amount of their physical stock of grain already had been moved forward in the pipeline to eastern terminals. Cargill, its Midwest storage already glutted, had shipped large amounts of grain through the Lakes to the Buffalo and Ogdensburg, New York terminals, paying transportation costs to get it there. If this eastern grain had to be used to fulfill the short contracts, either by physical movement back to Chicago or some compensating trade, the grain traders wanted to recover the transportation costs they had already expended on it. The Farm Board refused to allow this … John [MacMillan] Sr., outraged, fired off missives to everyone in Washington about the Farm Board ‘squeeze.'” — p. 349

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“You can smell the cereal from across the canal,” Kristen said.

“If only it were a scratch-and-sniff photo,” I said.

* * *

“In June 1930, Cecil C. Boden from the Omaha office was assigned to a newly opened Cargill branch in Rotterdam, Holland. John [MacMillan] Jr. told him: ‘While ultimately we expect to have you doing a very large business for us … we wish caution to be the keynote.’ He also reiterated the long-standing company credo relating to ethical conduct: ‘We wish particularly to stress the fact that our future success abroad will depend entirely on our standing in the trade. The motto of our Buffalo office ‘We deliver what we sell’ is an excellent one to remember.'”

 

 

 

Views of Buffalo’s terminals and some related grain-trade history, Part 1

By Ronald Ahrens

Kristen was in Buffalo the other day and sent photos of the terminal elevators there. In a short series over the next three days we’re going to post them 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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“Terminal elevators, Buffalo, New York,” Kristen said.

“The white elevator has a funny face,” I said.

“It’s the face of Gold Medal flour.

* * *

“Cargill’s most common route for export wheat was by lake-shipping to Buffalo (from either Milwaukee or Green Bay), then by rail through to New York City, where the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad maintained two huge waterside terminals, one holding 2 million bushels, the other 1 1/2 million.” — p. 47

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“Floating tiki bar!” Kristen said.

“Floating tiki in Buffalo–who knew?” I said.

* * *

“[Arthur M.] Prime [“self-styled barley king of Duluth”] and J.B. Cooper, Cargill’s Minneapolis barley trader, continued to dovetail barley purchases from the two locations as well as with the office at Green Bay, and all three offices dealt with an agent from Buffalo, Dudley Irwin.” — p. 110

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“They had a zip line set up between the Labatt’s elevator and the big one. A destroyed elevator foundation is under the zip line. You can see it on Google Earth,” Kristen said.

* * *

“John Sr. and Lindahl began to consider the purchase of a terminal elevator in Buffalo, which would have led to a trading office in that important city. In early 1909 a terminal building came available, but MacMillan turned it down because it was not fireproof…” — p. 144

“As Cargill’s barley went forward to the Buffalo markets, Irwin said he had difficulty in selling it, writing Prime, “We are losing our trade every day just as I told you we would, and for the simple reason that we are shipping dirty barley … It is all right to say you will ship your barley in the dirt and sell it for feed … that is your own business, but if you are going to sell to maltsters you have got to ship them barley as clean as our competitors will furnish them, or fall down.” — p 144

 

 

 

 

Kingfisher Co-op history, Part 3: Further expansion and maturity

Here are the final pages of the 11-page history published in 1984 by Kingfisher Cooperative Elevator Association.

In 1955, after notifying contractors to send in bids, the co-op added a 320,000-bushel elevator. This supplemented the 240,000-bushel elevator built by Tillotson Construction Co., of Omaha, in 1946.

“A new skyscraper had been added to the landscape, and the farmers took pride in the contribution they had made to their community’s appearance and prosperity,” the history says.

You will find the Tillotson elevator on the left in the aerial view of the 1955 skyline (p. 8).

Co-op Way 08

Co-op Way 09

Co-op Way 10

Co-op Way 11