By Nash Black
During the 1930s about 27,000 of these monuments to food production served the farms and small towns across American. They have been called ‘prairie cathedrals’ by those who understand the role these ancient wooden buildings served to create the image of how our small farms fed the world.
Today, few have seen them except in old photos of railroad stations or feed store calendars. A rare few have been converted into museums and others have been revitalized as homes much like restored barns. The rest have burned or been torn down.
I’m reintroducing the grain elevator into a collective memory during this harvest season. This proud sentinel of a productive nation for whom the products of the land were paramount to survival. The wagon loads of wheat, corn, barley, oats, and other grains were weighed and sold at the elevator. The grain was then stored to be shipped by rail or rivers to the great ports for distribution around the world.
The earliest steam-powered elevator was built in 1843 on the waterfront of Buffalo, New York. A perfect location as Buffalo is on the eastern side of Lake Erie, across the Canadian border from Southern Ontario. There the grain from American & Canadian Mid-West was stored in gigantic grain elevators. The produce arrived on canal boats. Buckets driven on a steam-driven belts scooped up the grain and elevated it (thus the name) into the storage bins.
In the early 1960s, a friend and I took a trip to New Orleans. Wandering the city we ended up on the docks – okay, the truth, was we were lost. They were loading corn into the holes of huge ships. We stood in awe watching those rivers of flowing gold. Golden kernels that may have come from Kentucky, Kansas, Iowa, or any other state in the great Mid West.
After World War II the roads were improved and during the Eisenhower administration the monumental inter-state highway system was developed. Railroad trunk lines to small towns disappear as it was easier and faster to truck the grains to larger distribution centers while the old wooden structures were replaced by better and safer concrete silos.
Today, maybe a fourth of those grain elevators are still standing as monuments to a passing age, but they tell the story of family farms and hard work that went into the making of America, this is their season.
Note: I am computer illiterate. The e-mail address that I have posted for the last couple of weeks is not working. Sorry! I’m working on it.