Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Reinforced-concrete grain bins

On pages 224-225 of American Colossus, I note that the industrial archaeologist Robert M. Frame III has offered the following useful guidelines for historians of the use of reinforced concrete in the construction of the bins in grain elevators in North America:

1) a period of experimentation (1899-1906);

2) a period of development and eventual mastery (1906-1912); and

3) a period in which the building-material received widespread, if not universal acceptance (1912-1928).

Adopting and slightly altering these guidelines, I have discerned:

1) a period of experimentation (1899-1908);

2) a period of development and mastery (1909-1919);

3) a period of widespread acceptance (1920-1928); and

4) a fourth period, one that lasted between 1929 and 1943, and marked the end of the line begun in 1843 with the Dart Elevator, the world's first mechanized grain elevator.


For a good text about the "third" period -- universal acceptance (1920-1928) -- see The Literary Digest, August 20, 1921, page 21:

An almost complete change in the methods of constructing country grain elevators, with the employment of concrete in place of wood, has recently taken place, we are told by A.T.R. Curtis, writing in "Concrete" (Detroit). Seldom, he says, has one material of construction replaced another is so short a time. Only a few years ago, the concrete country elevator was a rare xception; to-day in many parts of the country scarcely a wooden elevator less than five years old can be found.

For a photograph that captures the first two-and-a-half periods, see the one below, which shows the grain elevator district in Buffalo, New York, as it was in 1925.

Upper left: the Superior (three stages: 1915, 1923, and 1924). Upper right: the Dellwood (1914-1917). Dead center: the Marine "A" (under construction). Left to right in front row: the Perot (1908), the American (1907), the malthouse associated with the American (1922), and the Electric (1897, steel bins).

For a photograph that captures all four periods, see the one below, which shows Buffalo's grain elevator district as it was in the 1950s.

Virtually all of the elevators visible here were made out of reinforced concrete. Lower left: the Standard (built in two stages: 1928 and 1942). Extreme lower right: Portland Cement (not a grain elevator). Lower right: the Annex to the Electric (built 1942) and towards the middle the Electric itself (steel, not reinforced concrete). Between the Electric and the Lake & Rail: the American (built 1906) and the Perot (1907). Middle left: the Lake & Rail (stages between 1927 and 1930). Middle right: the Marine "A" (built 1925). Upper middle: the Concrete-Central (stages between 1915 and 1917).


At the center of or, let us say, the driving force behind the fourth period (1943 to the present) was Cargill, the large, ever-growing and now dominant grain-trading company based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Between 1929 and 1933, Cargill stopped leasing or buying grain elevators built by other companies, and started designing and building its own, according to its own lights, not "tradition." At first there were three of these elevators, and they were built in a "line" that traced out the long trip from farm to market: from Omaha, Nebraska (by rail) to Chicago, Illinois, and then from Chicago (by lake vessel) to Albany, New York, where the grain was transshipped to barges for transport down the Hudson River to New York City. Though it might have been more direct to ship grain (by rail) directly from Omaha to New York City, it was cheaper to ship and transship it in this roundabout fashion. Note well: the "flow" of grain is not a natural one; it does not necessarily follow the geographical terrain; it strictly follows the route that is the least expensive, and thus the most profitable, for the shipper (in this case, Cargill).

Cut out of this "line" or "flow" was Buffalo, New York, which Cargill -- believing the place to have fallen "outside" the primary flows of grain from farm to market -- had abandoned at the end of 1920s. During World War II, when international demand for American grain was at an all-time high, and there was money to be made in storing exportable surpluses, Cargill returned to Buffalo, where in 1942 it built an annex to the Electric Elevator, a classic steel-binned elevator that Cargill had purchased in the interim.

In each case, the four new elevators that Cargill built weren't especially large, at least in comparison to other elevators built out of reinforced concrete in the 1910s and 1920s, some of which could store as many as 10 million bushels of grain. The elevator that Cargill built in Chicago in 1932 could only store 1.3 million bushels; the elevator built in Buffalo could store 6 million. Only the Omaha and the Albany elevators (built in 1931 and 1933, respectively) were truly colossal.

What made these four elevators (but especially the elevator in Buffalo) different from their predecessors wasn't their large or small size, but the fact that they didn't use or shifted the emphasis away from large groups of "bins" or "compartments." Instead, they contained huge undivided rooms in which large piles of grain in bulk were dumped and then moved around by front-loading gasoline-powered vehicles with rubber wheels, not by electrically powered horizontal conveyor-belts and lofting legs (as in previous elevators).

There was a single such "room" at Cargill's Chicago elevator; four of them at both the Omaha and Albany elevators; and six at the elevator in Buffalo. In each case, these grain rooms could store a staggering one million bushels. Previously, grain bins had never been designed to store more than 80,000 bushels each!

The elevator that Cargill built in Chicago (see photo above) had short and flat, box-like walls that intersected at right angles, and a pitched roof. Some have said that it resembled a tabernacle. It certainly didn't "look like" a modern grain elevator. If anything, it resembled an old-style "flathouse" (a cavernous barn in which sacks of grain and barrels of flour were stored).

Below is a picture of the elevator Cargill built in Albany. Counting the "traditional" looking cylindrical grain tanks that are arrayed in three parallel rows across it, the facility could store a total of 12 million bushels of grain, making it one of the biggest in the world.

But the Annex to the Electric Elevator seemed to be a deliberate throw-back to the elevators of the 1910s and 1920s (see picture at the top of this entry). From the outside, the six-million-bushel annex appeared to be a collection of cylindrically shaped, self-contained silos (grain bins) surrounded, when feasible, by interstitial "fillers" such as quarter-bins and half-bins, which were also curved like cylinders. But it was not.

As we can see from the picture above, which shows the machine room inside the Electric Annex, the cylindrical shape of the walls was not necessary: the walls could easily have been "flat." The walls or, rather, the reinforced concrete forms that composed them, were in the shape of a series of cylinders for purely aesthetic reasons, not for reasons that concerned physics, efficiency or profitability. The complete breaking of the connection between form and function was intended to be a way of saying, "Here at Cargill, we are doing everything differently, and this even includes the way of our retaining walls are built." Cargill had changed all the rules back in the early 1930s, and the Electric Annex -- built in the very place in which the grain elevator was invented, almost exactly a hundred years previously -- was in part built as an ironic, self-congratulatory testament to those changes and the end of an era.

What happened after 1943? Grain elevators changed so fundamentally that one must start a completely new history, i.e., the history of self-unloading grain ships, sealed storage containers, pneumatic grain-transfer systems, grain storage rooms, et al.


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  2. I am going to build these elevators at a scale of 1:160, but require the measurements to do so. Thanks