A last farewell to a wooden elevator at Ryegate, Montana

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Story and photos by Kristen Cart

The search for our grandfathers’ elevators has led us to many small towns and many grain operations. Among our discoveries have been ancient wooden elevators, now quaint relics among their larger concrete cousins. In some towns, wooden elevators still have jobs to do, but their time is short.

Charles H. Tillotson built wooden elevators long before his children took up the slip-formed concrete building technique, and at one time, every Midwestern town with a rail line had a row of them serving the local farmers. Now it is increasingly rare to find a town with more than one wooden elevator in service, or for that matter, still standing.

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The Ryegate, Mont., elevator is flanked by its replacement fertilizer plant.

In the last year or two, in several towns, locals have told me that their wooden elevators were no longer used and would shortly be destroyed. I made an extra effort to document those elevators. This week, I almost missed one. In Ryegate, Mont., a new fertilizer plant was put into operation last year, and the elevator that had served the purpose was now slated for destruction.

When I stopped to photograph the pair of wooden elevators at Ryegate, a town on U.S. 12 in east-central Montana, I went into the local cafe for a burger. A fellow at the bar introduced himself as Ken. He wondered where my hometown was, and the purpose of my visit. When I told him I was a bit of an elevator tourist, he told me about the Ryegate elevators. DSC_5156

Ken worked at the Ryegate facility. He said that over the years, he had been employed as a grain hauler and in almost every other aspect of elevator work.

The smaller elevator was built in 1917. Ken said grain dropped 70 feet from the top of the grain spout to a truck below while loading. The elevator had been in use as recently as two years ago, then the new fertilizer plant was built nearby to replace it.

The larger elevator, built in 1914, was still used for storage—it had fresh siding and looked neat and clean on an immaculate lot. But the smaller elevator, equally handsome, would be razed next week. He hoped I would get out and take more pictures before it was gone.

Our discussion ranged from elevators to the military. Ken served in the U.S. Army, had great admiration for the old C-130 aircraft, and expounded with enthusiasm about the M-1 Abrams tank and the Tow missile. He got a kick out of talking with another veteran who shared his interest. He also spoke with reverence about serving under President Ronald Reagan.

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The interior of the shed addition.

Our conversation was interrupted as a young lady burst into the cafe, exclaiming,

“I just got a deer!”

As two men moved to follow her out the door to see her trophy, she said,

“Come see. I got my mulie.”

Her announcement passed without any comment at the bar. Apparently, during deer season, such declarations are expected.

Before I departed to take a closer look at the doomed elevator, Ken introduced himself more formally as Sgt. Ken Davis, and shook my hand. It was an honor to meet this veteran who served back when we had a 600-ship Navy (in the good old days, about three wars ago).

As I took another circuit around the old elevator to shoot a few last pictures, the sun played on the high clouds, projecting light like a halo radiating about the old structure. I thought it a fitting farewell.

In honor of Veterans Day, I salute Sgt. Davis and his life’s work. I hope he enjoys the pictures. DSC_5231

An old wooden elevator comes down at Halsey, Oregon, and shares its secrets

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Halsey, Ore., in early 2012.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

Elevators such as this one in Halsey, Ore., have elicited interest from photographers and curious travellers for as long as they have existed, especially since they are on the verge of extinction. Technology passed them by back in the early 1940s when most of the new construction in the United States went to slip-formed concrete.

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The remnants of the Halsey elevator, Feb. 2013, in a downpour.

Canada held out, building wooden elevators well into the 1970s, with a minority of them still in service today, and many more long since demolished, abandoned, or burned.

The end has come for the Halsey elevator. After hearing of its demise in an online forum, I recently passed near the town on I-5 and stopped to see the hulking remnant. It was a sorrowful sight, topless and dreary.

But beside it was a more interesting find.

In an empty lot next to the elevator, piled randomly, was the elevator’s leg. It brought to mind a story–a cautionary tale, really–which illustrated why concrete was so attractive to engineers looking for a better alternative.

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The leg from the Halsey, Ore. elevator, piled on the ground.

While exploring elevators in Alberta, Canada, I took a trip to a small town called Milo.

It was a snowy day, and as I gazed up at the lone wooden elevator, a gentleman pulled up in his truck and asked if I needed directions. He introduced himself as Ian Thomson. He was a long-time resident and farmer, and once we got on the topic of elevators, he told me that Milo once had nine wooden elevators lined up along the rail line. The sole survivor, silver-sided and huge, was built in the 1970s. It was still active, and its nearest neighbor had come down a year or two before.

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The lone wooden elevator in Milo, Alberta, Canada.

Ian told a tale of the demise of one of the old wooden houses.

One of Milo’s elevators was decommissioned in winter, years ago. When the leg was torn out, a salvage company tried to remove the conveyor belt to reuse the rubber. Water remained in the pit, and the lower portion of the leg could not be retrieved because it was frozen solid. So they cut the belt off at the top of the ice and hauled off what they could. The owners told Ian that as soon as the pit thawed out, he could have the rest.

It was an early spring day, and a thunderstorm rolled by. A farmer could always use rubber–Ian was thinking of mud flaps for his truck, so when he went to check the elevator that day, he was disappointed to find the leg remnants still frozen solid in the pit. So he left without them. But as he exited the elevator, he noticed a thin tendril of smoke rising from the headhouse.

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Ian Thomson displays his railroad collection.

With gut wrenching dread, he called the owners, but he knew it was already too late. A fire company fought the blaze, but by then the elevator was fully involved, and it burned completely down.

A nagging worry stayed with Ian. While he knew he had done nothing to cause the fire, he was seen leaving the elevator, and he thought his neighbors might wonder about it. But the real culprit was lightning. He needn’t have worried.

Ian Thomson was an honorable member of the community and an esteemed historian, with a proud military heritage. He was, and still is, a true gentleman farmer.

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Alberta wheat country.

The fire danger inherent in wooden elevators spurred engineers to try concrete building methods. Concrete elevators came with their own hazards, but also great advantages, and they remain the premier choice for durable, large scale grain storage.

But we still miss the proud old wooden denizens of the plains.