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



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.


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.


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.” 


“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


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.


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.


“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. 

Ryan Day came home and got ‘hootered’ at his historic elevator



By Ronald Ahrens, photos provided by Ryan Day

It’s bad enough the man who runs Valley Wide Cooperative’s landmark elevator and mill complex in Downey, Idaho, has to climb a ladder to the headhouse. Being “hootered” by an owl makes things even more precarious.

“I go up there pretty much every month for inventory,” Ryan Day said when we talked on the phone.


Ryan Day shared a selfie.

Getting started the last time, Ryan surprised a barn owl roosting on the truck lift. Both he and the owl survived the encounter without becoming candidates for a viral video. 

The main elevator with the tall, sleek, gleaming headhouse are made of riveted steel plates and date to at least 1915.

So why does he have to climb to the headhouse instead of using the manlift?

Last year, when Valley Wide looked for new insurance coverage, all the estimators’ walkthroughs resulted in reports flagging the manually operated wooden manlift.  

It needed to be removed, they said. Indeed, it might have presented some hazards. So it was cut out and a ladder installed. 

Before going any farther with our story, get this for coincidence: Ryan Day’s grandmother was Beatrice Tillotson. We don’t know of any relation to the Tillotsons of Tillotson Construction Co., of Omaha.

Here is the link to the obituary for Beatrice Jane Tillotson Day.  


The Downey elevator has survived flames and smoke.There was a fire, I don’t know when.” Ryan referred to the photo with men in hats. “There’s fire hoses draped around them. You can see smoke coming out of the door.”

He assumes the leg burned up. In those days, the 80-foot-high silos hadn’t been built.

Lingering evidence of fire is found in heat warpage on a couple of bins.

Besides flames and smoke, there were also bullets. But they’re for another post.


Day’s father, Elvin Eugene Day, Jr., known as Jene, went to work running this site in 1964 for Downey Grain Growers. It later became affiliated with Farmer’s Grain Growers and eventually Valley Wide.

Today the facility is devoted to production of organic feed. “The mill survived due to the fact there was a vacuum of organic dairies in our area,” Ryan said. Representatives of an organic dairy came through with their pitch, saying, “We can highball you through the system.”

Ryan works alone at the site, milling feed for the dairy cows from barley, organic soy, canola (not grown locally), ground corn, and depending on the season, a lactation mineral. 

It might seem that a man who grew up in Downey and whose father ran the mill and elevator, would have been foreordained to run it himself.


Ryan Day: “Here’s one of our local farmers and my pit and scale area.”

“Back in junior high, I swept floors, mopped, helped bag grain,” Ryan says. “I wouldn’t do any [barley] rolling, that was always my dad’s job.”

But after high school, when Jene suggested coming to work with him, Ryan said, “No way, dad, I’m going out to see the world.” 

He did leave Idaho. “I made it as far as Laramie.” He went to trade school for auto upholstery but found it unsatisfying to make a hobby into an occupation. Then he got into industrial painting. 

In 2012 he joined Valley Wide and three years ago replaced Jene, who is retired.

“Now I can’t think of a better job I’ve had. Everything in that place is historical. It’s in my blood.”