Thanks for all the kind comments on last week’s post about the barn on my home farm in North Dakota. Here’s a link to the post if you happened to miss it: The Barn. This week I’ll take you to a few country elevators near where I grew up. No, I’m not talking about the carriage that moves people floor to floor in a building and saves them from walking the stairs, I’m talking about grain elevators. Those tall iconic buildings that once populated rural areas in the US. There are some of them left but most have been replaced with more modern, easier to use and maintain structures. What follows is a story I wrote as part of the memoirs class I’m currently taking along with photos of a few of those elevators. Lets get started.
When looking back at my youth, I’ve come to appreciate that the country elevator was a critical economic institution on the Northern Great Plains. The elevator was the place where farmers sold grain (mainly wheat, durum, oats, barley and flax in our area), bought seed and fertilizer for planting, purchased feed and supplements for livestock, and even carried a few products for human consumption, more about that later. Elevators were by far the tallest structures in prairie towns. The city water tower might come close but a tall, big elevator or two was an indicator of prosperity
While grain elevators were around before railroads were built across the country, they became more abundant when spurs from the mainline to the many small towns were constructed. Almost all country elevators were located along one of these spurs for the ease of moving grain to markets in Duluth and Minneapolis. These towns and their elevators were spaced about seven or eight miles apart because in the early 1900’s a farmer with a team of horses and a wagon could take grain to the elevator and be back home by supper time. This distance became less important after pickups and trucks became more common.
Prior to the spur being built in our area, the young hamlet of Krem had a flourmill where farmers could bring wheat to be ground into flour for bread and baking. Also nearby, the Missouri River villages of Expansion and Mannhaven had elevators and facilities to load grain onto barges for markets downriver. Farmers would deliver grain by horse and wagon and later with trucks. These towns all but dried up when the railroad bypassed them for an easier, more economical route, or incentives offered by competing towns.
Many of the grain elevators in our part of the world were farmer owned cooperatives where the farmers pooled their resources to build and own the enterprise. Once organized they hired a manager to run the business. This helped farmers receive reasonable prices for their commodities and pay less for products. Prior to the creation of cooperatives, farmers were often at the mercy of grain dealers some that were unscrupulous and took advantage of small producers. Other examples of cooperatives organized in our area are: creameries; fuel, tire, battery, hardware supply co-ops; agricultural credit co-ops; credit unions; and a grocery store. If the cooperative makes a profit those are returned to the patrons in the form of dividends.
Grain elevators are dusty places. This dust, if allowed to accumulate, can cause an explosion when a spark sets it off. This can be offset with adequate ventilation and safe guards to prevent spontaneous combustion. These explosions can also occur at on-farm grain storage facilities. As a kid, I can remember the tall, wide rolling doors on each end of the Farmers Elevator being open even in cold weather to prevent dust explosions. The only warm and relatively dust free place was the office where there were a half dozen wooden chairs usually occupied by farmers waiting for their grain check to be written. In the meantime: weather, crop yields and prices were discussed; the latest government program cursed; and local gossip traded.
The Farmers Elevator in my hometown was created in 1915 along the rail spur line that connected to the main line Northern Pacific Railroad (now BNSF) at Mandan. The NP provided grain transport to the terminals in Duluth or to the West Coast. Many times as a young kid, I rode with my Dad, Grandpa Miller or Grandpa Isaak to the elevator to deliver grain or make purchases. We lived north of town so had to drive through Main Street and cross the railroad to access the elevator. After turning off the paved road to the gravel driveway, we drove past the smaller privately own Occident Elevator to the larger Farmer’s Co-op Elevator.
At the elevator, farmers drove their trucks up a ramp into a covered building onto a scale where the truck and grain would be weighed and a sample taken to test for quality. Then the grain would be dumped into a big pit by raising the truck box hoist. Alternatively, the elevator was equipped with a hydraulic hoist that lifted the front of the truck up so the grain would flow into the pit. Once the truck was emptied, it was weighed again; the difference between the two weights equaled the amount of grain delivered. The farmer either got a receipt if it was a delayed sale or the cash price in the form of a check if they were selling for cash. During harvest time, there would be a line up of trucks waiting to deliver grain, the farmers would stand and visit until it was their turn to unload. If they needed nourishment they would walk up to the office where they could buy a bottle of orange Nehi for ten cents and a Salted Nut Roll for a nickel, my favorites!
It wasn’t until the late 1950’s that my Dad purchased a two-ton truck of his own. Prior to this, he used my Grandpa Isaak’s Chevy truck to haul grain to the elevator and coal from the mine for heating the house. If that wasn’t available, he used Grandpa Miller’s red 1948 IH half-ton pickup that had a top speed of about 45 mph and the brakes squeaked every time they were applied. We could hear it coming down the road for a mile
Dad’s truck was a 1951 Ford with fading red paint and a dented green Army surplus box on the back. Dad built up the sides with new wood and painted it green so the truck could hold a couple of hundred bushels of wheat. The truck was equipped with a six-cylinder engine with a 4 speed manual transmission and a two speed axel. It didn’t have much pep but it got the job done. It did not have a hoist so if we were unloading grain or coal, it had to be hand shoveled off the truck, a job nobody relished. When I was a sophomore or junior in high school, the engine went out on the truck. Dad took it over to Leroy Walker’s garage and junkyard where Leroy installed (if I recall correctly) a 1954 Oldsmobile V-8 engine. It was a Sunday Noon and we were eating dinner after attending church services when Leroy delivered the truck. Dad took it for a spin and Leroy told him to: “gun it” and Dad went flying down the country road with the rear dual wheels spewing gravel. It was now a hot machine and a lot more fun for a teenager to drive. I recall taking a load of wheat to the Farmers Elevator in Underwood, another elevator we patronized as they at times paid higher prices for wheat. Loaded with a couple hundred bushels of wheat, the truck with its new engine sailed down the road. The only downside was to keep the speed down to the posted limit of 40 mph when crossing the earth rolled Garrison Dam, with Lake Sakakawea on one side and a long sloping bank to the valley on the other. Once on the other side of the Dam, I put the hammer down. I forgot to mention, the speedometer didn’t work so I had no idea how fast I was going. Thet road was well patrolled so I kept as close to the speed limit as I could. I was also aware that if the load shifted the truck would go tumbling down the highway like a tin can with wheat flying in every which direction. I made that trip many times and never was stopped by the highway patrol or had an accident.
On the farm, we had some “lean” years, this was especially true during times of drought. 1961 was one of those super dry years, crops were burning up in the fields and there wasn’t much hay to cut for the coming winter. The grass in the pasture was sparse so milk production was down and so was the milk check. While we had a big garden and plenty of meat, we usually ate boxed cereal for breakfast like Corn Flakes, Rice Krispies, Cheerios, and Cocoa Puffs. By this time, there were four hungry, growing kids chowing down several boxes a week. If Dad had to go to town for repairs during the week, he’d stop by the Farmers Elevator and buy a five-pound bag of Farina. It’s milled wheat and when cooked similar to a porridge or gruel. I hated the stuff! Every morning Mom would cook up a big pot of Farina and set it on the table with four kids staring at the pot. Finally, we would dish some this liquid concrete into our bowls, spoon sugar on it until we were told to stop, then poured the creamy milk from our cows over the top and choked it down. To this day, if I see Cream of Wheat or oatmeal on the breakfast menu, I’m reminded of those days eating Farina and the elevator where it was sold.
In 2009, the oldest part of the Farmers Elevator was torn down. I happened to be in North Dakota at the time and just happened to drive by when the demolition was in progress. My Dad was with me and we watch intently as the machine clawed the building down. Dad was sad to see it go, it held a lot of memories for him. Here are a couple of photos of the process.
In 2013, I was back in North Dakota again and just happened to catch this rainbow over the top of the Farmers Elevator. There must be the pot of gold in that elevator!
The final set of photos are of the grain elevators in Dunn Center further down the spur line from my home town. The top photo was taken on the east side of the village looking into the western sun. The bottom photo was on the west side looking back towards the village. These elevators are now gone, torn down in the name of progress.
I hope you enjoyed my story of the country elevators in my life. Please feel free to add a comment or your own reminisce below.
Until next week, happy virtual travels!