Book report, Part Two: In the 1800s, Cargill already had huge elevators

Cargill 03

By Ronald Ahrens

Although it’s understandable why, we fail to appreciate how big and well-developed the grain business already was by the the years after 1895, when electric motors were adopted to power internal mechanisms and reinforced-concrete was first used for elevator construction.

This much we take away from Section One of Cargill: Trading the World’s Grain. Will Cargill, the “Frontier Entrepreneur” of the section’s title, boldly expanded his operation as the railroads pushed northwest and Minneapolis became a center of trade.

In an 1889 statement of holdings, Cargill said he had “54 Elevators & Warehouses in Minn & Dakota)” worth $147,597.16 and “16 Elevators and Warehouses in Wisc, G Bay RR” worth another $18,479.29.

Cargill 02We tend to think of wooden elevators as modest structures, but in the 1870s the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad had two massive terminals in New York City holding 3.5 million bushels of grain for export. Cargill shipped over the Great Lakes to Buffalo and then by rail to the terminals.

Buffalo also had millions of bushels of capacity in its multitude of elevators.

As early as 1873, a year of economic panic and the start of a profound international depression (not to mention a Midwestern grasshopper plague), Will Cargill was building elevators and warehouses along the railroad tracks. He shelled out more than $12,000 for “a large elevator” in Cresco, Iowa.

Panic 01Three years later Cargill had settled in La Crosse, Wisc. When he and his wife, Ella, went on a pleasure trip to Chicago, a La Crosse newspaper said, “They have been making so much money on wheat they they’ll buy Chicago if they feel like it.”

And in 1879, Cargill’s office became part of a telephone network in La Crosse. Author Wayne G. Broehl, Jr. points out it was only three years after Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone.

At the same time Cargill expanded along the Green Bay and Minnesota line with nine warehouses. As a lake port, Green Bay became an important focal point, and here Cargill and his partner bought a 30,000-bushel warehouse and leased a 250,000-bushel terminal. The latter, which stood 100 feet high, had been built in 1862 for $80,000.

Decades later, Tillotson Construction Co., of Omaha, showed the value inherent in a fire-proof elevator built of reinforced concrete. In 1946, for example, Tillotson put up a 250,000-bushel concrete elevator at Dike, Iowa, for $87,250.

In the early 1880s, a new type of wooden elevator, the cribbed elevator, became common. As Milo S. Ketchum wrote in The Design of Walls, Bins, and Grain Elevators, published in 1907, “In this construction, 2″ x 4″, 2″ x 6″, or 2″ by 8″ are laid flatwise, so as to break joints and bind the structure together and are spiked firmly.”

Some called the method a “log cabin” approach. It resisted the insistent, fluid-like pressure on the sides and made for stout construction.”

In the 1880s, with another partner, George Bagley, Cargill pushed into the Dakota Territory with a small elevator at Aberdeen and several warehouses. By 1886, Bagley & Cargill also had a 250,000-bushel terminal in Minneapolis.

Combining all Cargill-controlled storage facilities, there was 1.6 million bushels of capacity–ready for the bounty of wheat that poured in as farming began in the Red River Valley.

 

Tillotson built a 181,000-bushel annex at Weatherford, Okla., in 1954

Reader Terry Christensen found himself wondering about something, so he wrote this comment, which is lightly edited for style:

Hello and thanks millions for these awesome stories!

My dad, George T. Christensen, worked for Tillotson Construction in the early ’50s, and he died in an unrelated accident while building the elevator in Boxholm, Iowa, in 1955. My mom told us that he worked on several elevators in Oklahoma, and I would love to see the construction notes for all the elevators they built in Oklahoma. I think they built the one in Weatherford, Okla., in 1952 or 1953 and maybe the one at Hydro Okla.?

Thanks again,

Terry Christensen

Well, in fact,  we don’t know anything about Hydro, but Tillotson Construction Co. sure did build at Weatherford–a 181,000-bushel storage annex in 1954.

We find specifications in the construction record. At the top of the entry, the coded notes tell us there were eight tanks of 17 feet in diameter by 115 feet in height. Two 24-inch conveyor belts moved grain through the run atop the tanks. There was a tunnel, probably from the main house to the annex. And a tripper would sweep grain off the belt into a storage tank.

“The key feature of the steam-powered conveyor belt that ran alongside the tops of the grain bins was the ‘trimmer’ or ‘tripper,’ a device that deflected the flow of grain off the belt, and down and into a particular grain bin,” writes William J. Brown in American Colossus: The Grain Elevator 1843 to 1943.

Here are the notes for Weatherford (as well as Dacoma and Orienta, Okla.); Newell, Iowa; and Bellwood, Neb.:

Weatherford 01

Weatherford 02

 

 

The engineering behind elevator construction began with retaining walls

 

Before electronic scales weighed the grain, weights and a fulcrum did the trick.

Story by Kristen Cart

Nothing is quite so revealing as a vintage book. Ronald Ahrens alerted me to his discovery of an engineering textbook, written by Milo S. Ketchum, about retaining walls and elevator bins. Prof. Ketchum was the dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Colorado (my alma mater) when he wrote The Design of Walls, Bins, and Grain Elevators. First published in 1907 by the Engineering News Publishing Company, of New York, it boasted a second edition in 1911.

From the first few paragraphs, revelations abound. Most eye-opening is the historical context of its publication.

In 1907, surviving Civil War veterans were well-established in their old age. No one yet considered the possibility of the worldwide conflagrations to come. Comanche wars in Texas were still an ugly living memory, more recent to people than the Vietnam War is to us. Grandmothers shared their memories of living in sod houses on the Great Plains. Movies were not yet a national pastime. Airplanes and automobiles were on the drawing board–the Ford Model T would begin production the following year.

When grain was delivered to elevators, it came by barge, rail, or wagon. The business model that drove the elevator boom was in its infancy. Engineers had just begun working with reinforced concrete for bridges, dams, and skyscrapers, but much remained to be done.

Grain transport by truck was a later innovation.

In the introduction, the book gets right to the nuts and bolts of the problem it purports to solve.

A special subset of engineering concerns granular fluids. Grain acts both as a solid and as a fluid–it can be piled in a conical pile because of internal friction which is absent in liquids, but it can flow very much like water. Containing such a fluid requires an understanding of internal pressures–both vertical and outward–that are exerted on a container. All of these considerations boil down to a mathematical model that accurately describes the materials, structures, and shapes required.

The book first examines retaining walls, the simplest structure for containing granular fluids, and proceeds to bins and elevators from there.

Failure to heed safe engineering principles bore disastrous results in Fargo, North Dakota.

Thus we have a textbook that gets into the weeds of that math and physics, ultimately used to teach future designers how to do grain bins. The young men schooled in the years following 1907 would be the builders, engineers, superintendents, and architects who started the concrete elevator building boom.

Early grain-storage leader Buffalo experienced the boom in full

Buffalo 07

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.

 

 

 

 

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

MIndenNeb

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.

IMG_7105

“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

IMG_7130

“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

IMG_7135

“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.

55449882966__9DAFF0D4-3DA9-40F5-BF49-9BB5C9F789F3

“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.'”