Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Introduction to the book

Some of my readers may already be familiar with grain elevators because they grew up on or near a farm, at which these simple mechanical devices – buckets attached to revolving, vertically arrayed conveyor belts that can be powered by horses or small engines – are widely used to scoop up piles of loose grain and bring them to the top of the structure to which the elevator is attached. Once at the top, the grain can, using the force of gravity, be sent down into a scale and weighed, and then sent into a waiting railcar, truck or barge, or, if need be, into a grain bin for temporary storage. (Gravity will once again be used to conduct the grain down through the bin’s bottom and into a pit, from which the grain will be elevated once more, weighed once more, and then sent by chutes or spouts into a railcar, truck or barge). Such readers may wonder why grain elevators, or any other ubiquitous and apparently ordinary invention, for that matter, would merit an entire book.[1]

But to most of my readers, the subject of grain elevators will be an unfamiliar one. Indeed, some readers may even find the very phrase “grain elevator” – not to mention the machine/building hybrid to which it refers – to be obscure, even strange. “Why would grain need to be elevated?” they might ask. “Isn’t grain shipped horizontally, along the surface of the earth, not raised above it?” Such readers might also wonder why they hadn’t heard about grain elevators before.[2]

And so, precisely because the grain elevator remains “the most important yet least acknowledged invention in the history of American agriculture,”[3] and because agriculture has been so important to America’s growth and world-wide power,[4] I am aware of the need to write this history of the American grain elevator from 1843 to 1943 with two groups of readers in mind. I would like to educate and inspire the first (the neophytes, if you will), but without frustrating or boring the second (the already-initiated). Conversely, I would like to delight and provoke the second group, but without confusing or “losing” the first.

Writing the same book for two groups of readers isn’t easy. It is possible, even likely, that being an expert in one of the many highly specialized “fields” upon which grain elevators are built and operate – agricultural production and storage, transportation and exports, prices and markets, mathematics and mechanical engineering, architecture and fireproofing, urbanism and modern life, symbolism and myths, et. al – doesn’t necessarily give someone the ability to write a good book. Indeed, despite or perhaps precisely because of his or her specialization, an expert might not be able to adequately cover those fields that weren’t his or her specialty and would thus fail to capture a glimpse of “the big picture,” which is precisely what one seeks in an instance such as this. Only an enthusiastic generalist such as myself, skilled in research and writing, could undertake a history of the grain elevator in which all of the specialized fields are called upon, but only when a detail in “the big picture” needs to be filled in and explained.

Depending on the source, there are at least two and as many as six different types of grain elevators. To one writer, “Elevators, as they are now constructed, belong to two classes: those which are simply for transferring and weighing grain (‘elevating’), and may be fixed upon land or are more often floating, and elevators which store as well as transfer grain.”[5] There would seem to be three classes here: floating elevators; land-based transfer towers; and land-based elevators that store as well as transfer grain. But, of course, this writer also neglected to mention “country elevators,” which are storage-and-transfer elevators that are built in-land along railroad tracks,[6] and “receiving elevators,” which store grain that will eventually be processed by an adjoining flourmill, feed mill, distillery, oil-extraction plant or malt-house.[7] Another source asserts that grain elevators “can be classified as either ‘country’ or ‘terminal’ elevators, with terminal elevators further categorized as inland or export types” and that both country and terminal elevators can be subdivided into “two basic types of design: traditional and modern.”[8] This perspective is echoed by a third source, but with a twist: “Grain elevators can be divided into two major functional types, ‘country’ elevator (in Canada, a ‘primary’ elevator) and terminal elevator, and three more specialized types: receiving elevator, transfer elevator and cleaning elevator.”[9] A fourth source lists four major types: “primary elevators” (aka country elevators), “transfer elevators” (transfer towers and floating elevators), “terminal elevators” (transfer and storage elevators) and “processing elevators” (aka receiving elevators).[10] A fifth source lists five types of elevators: terminal, transfer, country, “private” (aka receiving elevators), and “hospital” (designed to rehabilitate inferior or damaged grain).[11] If we put these sources together, we come up with ten distinct types: traditional country elevators (crib or balloon construction); modern country elevators; transfer towers; floating elevators; traditional in-land terminals; modern in-land terminals; traditional export terminals; modern export terminals; receiving elevators; and hospitals.

Further complications arise when one takes into account the building material(s) out of which grain elevators are constructed. Traditional country elevators are built out of wood, and modern country elevators are built out of steel or reinforced concrete. When they were still used (before 1920), both stand-alone transfer towers and floating elevators were made out of wood. Ever since the late 1890s and early 1900s, grain terminals and receiving elevators have been built out of tile, steel and/or reinforced concrete.[12] Though there are exceptions, grain elevators built out of wood tend to be small (storage capacities between 40,000 and one million bushels), while those built out of reinforced concrete tend to be immense (storage capacities between one and twenty million bushels).

Let us arrange these elevators according to their position in or along the “grain stream.” Furthest “upstream” are the country elevators and hospitals, whose owners receive grain directly from the farmers in the surrounding regions. These primary elevators then ship this grain by railroad to local receiving elevators, where the stream ends, or to “mid-stream” inland terminals, where the grain is either stored for eventual shipment to regional receiving elevators or transferred from rail to barge for transportation to ocean-port terminals, transfer towers and floaters. At these “downstream” ports, the grain is either sent to large-scale receiving elevators, where the stream ends, or to terminals and receiving elevators in other countries, where it continues on.

Except for the floaters – which transship grain from one kind of water-borne vessel to another (for example, from a lake steamer to a canal boat, or from a barge to an ocean-going tanker) – grain elevators all along the stream can receive grain from ground-based forms of transportation. The wagons, trucks and railcars simply drive up to the elevator’s receiving shed and dump their respective cargoes into pits, from which bucket-bearing conveyor belts elevate the grain to the top of the building. With the exceptions of the receiving elevators, which stand at “the end of the line,” and the floaters, grain elevators all along the stream can load grain into ground-based vehicles (especially railcars) for further transportation “downstream.” Some grain elevators – the inland and export terminals and the transfer towers – can load grain into water-borne vessels as well as into ground-based vehicles. But only the grain terminals, transfer towers, floaters and some of the receiving elevators can unload grain from ships, barges and boats. Such vessels cannot simply dock and dump their cargoes into receiving pits. Their cargo-bays or “holds” are below sea level, and so require assistance from the grain elevator. They receive it in the form of a “marine leg,” which is a bucket-bearing conveyor belt that has been attached to an apparatus that can be lowered down into a ship’s hold from the heights of a specially constructed “marine tower” and then retracted back into that tower when the “leg” is not in use.

For a variety of reasons that will be explored at great length in this book, the “marine leg” – far from being an exception or late development, as its position in/on the stream might indicate – was in fact the first type of grain elevator to be invented. To be precise, the very first mechanized (steam-powered) grain transfer and storage warehouse was built in Buffalo, New York, in 1843, by the engineer Robert Dunbar, then employed by the entrepreneur Joseph Dart. By the 1850s, the example of “the Dart Elevator” had been followed in port cities all over the Great Lakes. But it wasn’t until after the Civil War, when standardized and uninterrupted railroad service was finally established, that the first country elevators were built. And so here we have a contradiction or “wrinkle” that takes time to examine and smooth out: the first grain elevator wasn’t built “upstream,” on a farm, but “downstream,” in a port city. In other words, the history of the grain elevator takes us from the city to the farm, while the grain stream that the grain elevator helped to create moves in the opposite direction, that is, from the farm to the city.

As a result, this book has been organized in such a way that the reader is always reminded of the importance of geography, space and spatial practices. Though chronological exposition has been relied upon in most of the chapters that follow, this book isn’t so much a linear presentation of the history of the American grain elevator from 1843 to 1943, but a spatial presentation. It describes the way grain elevators “take up” or consume space and produce new space(s), and it also dramatizes or mimics these very spatial practices. Like grain bins, each chapter of this book can serve as an autonomous unit and as a part of the “larger” array. My readers can explore them in any order that they fancy.

What will these readers find, once inside these chapter-bins? Not heaps of fragments, as one finds inside each of the many chapters that compose and subdivide Walter Benjamin’s massive Arcades Project (from which I have quoted several passages), nor uninterrupted flows of narrative exposition, which is typical of most scholarly works. Instead they will find well-ordered assortments of “kernels” and interruptions. My model here is a pile of wheat: not only does it contain several different varieties of this particular grain, but also “foreign” objects (organic materials) that have been swept up and included in the course of the harvest, such as clumps of soil, dead insects, bits of other plants and so forth.[13]

To help guide the reader, I offer the following slightly enlarged iteration of the Table of Contents: Chapter 1, “Grain Power,” identifies the role of grain elevators in the international grain trade; Chapter 2, “The Metaphor of Elevation,” widens the discussion to include the symbolic dimensions of grain elevators; Chapter 3, “The Rise and Fall of the Port of Buffalo,” tells the story of the invention of the world’s first grain elevator, and the effects it had on the city (and the nation)[14] in which this first grain elevator was located; Chapter 4, “Fireproofing the Tinderbox,” describes the work that went into designing and building grain elevators that resisted fires and explosions; Chapter 5, “American Colossus,” tries to explain why the grain elevators of the 19th century were thought to be ugly, even evil; Chapter 6, “The European Modernists,” details the many mistakes that the European modernists, despite their strong interest in American grain elevators, made when they used pictures of them in their manifestoes; Chapter 7, “Reyner Banham,” appreciates and critiques Banham’s pioneering book A Concrete Atlantis; Chapter 8, “Town and Country,” describes and critiques the post-Banham tendency to focus exclusively on country elevators; and Chapter 9, “On Dwelling,” touches upon the adaptive reuse of abandoned grain elevators.

I would also like draw the reader’s attention to back of this volume, which includes an appendix that lists every grain elevator ever built in Buffalo, a bibliography of sources, a comprehensive index, and a total of seven black and white illustrations.

[1] To date, with the exception of about a dozen books of photographs of grain elevators, no comprehensive work has ever been devoted to their invention and development.

[2] Lewis Mumford, for example, doesn’t mention “grain elevator” in his long list of key technical inventions created between 1041 and 1933 C.E., and only mentions “the application of machines to sowing, reaping, threshing, instituted on a large scale with the multitude of new reapers invented at the beginning of the [twentieth] century” in the context of factors that “hastened the pace” of migration from the countryside to the cities. Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (Harcourt, Brace & World, 1934), pp. 192, 437-446.

[3] William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (W.W. Norton, 1992), p. 111.

[4] “The three decades following 1860 witnessed the rapid transformation of American agriculture from a primitive, pioneer, largely self-sufficient type of industry into a modern business organized on a scientific, capitalistic, commercial basis. The most significant result of this transformation was the rise of the United States to the leading place among the nations of the world in the production of grain and live stock […] Grain was the most important American product and the leading item entering into the nation’s domestic and foreign commerce. Its production and distribution therefore constitutes a subject of fundamental interest and significance in the study of American economic development.” Louis Bernard Schmidt, “The Internal Grain Trade of the United States, 1860-1890,” Iowa Journal of History and Politics (State Historical Society of Iowa, 1922), pp. 196-197.

[5] Cf. “Report on the Cereal Production of the United States,” The Tenth Census of the United States, 1880, Volume III, quoted in Louis Bernard Schmidt, “The Grain Trade of the United States, 1860-1890,” Iowa Journal of History and Politics (State Historical Society of Iowa, 1922), p. 435.

[6] According to Barbara Krupp Selyem, “The Legacy of Country Grain Elevators,” Kansas History, the Kansas State Historical Society (Spring/Summer, 2000), p. 44, country elevators can be subdivided into those that are “cribbed, a technique whereby wood was stacked horizontally, with broad sides together, interlocking at the corners log-cabin style,” and those that “were built using stud or frame, sometimes called, balloon, construction,” in which “horizontal wood bands placed every four feet vertically secured the perimeter.”

[7] Note well that in the pages and chapters that follow, the word “house” will have many different meanings and resonances. First and foremost, it will be a place in which a commercial or industrial function is executed: and so one speaks of malt-houses, warehouses, storehouses, etc. Second, it will be a structure that encloses a machine: and so I will say, for example, that the elevating mechanism is housed in a long narrow box or that the box is the housing for the elevator. Third, “house” will be a place in which people live. Fourth and last, “house” will be a metaphor or figure for the human body, a ruler’s kingdom, even human existence itself.

[8] Air Pollutants 42, Fifth Edition, Volume I, Chapter 9.9.1-1: Grain Elevators and Processes, issued by the Clearing house for Inventories & Emissions Factors, Environmental Protection Agency, February 1980. “Traditional grain elevators are typically designed so that the majority of the grain handling equipment […] are located inside a building or structure, normally referred to as a headhouse.” Built after 1980, “modern elevators […] eliminated the enclosed headhouse and gallery (bin decks)” and “employ a more open structural design, which includes locating some equipment […] outside of an enclosed structure.” But “modernity” didn’t arrive in 1980, in the form of developments that primarily concerned country elevators. One might more plausibly maintain that “modernity” arrived in the late 1890s and early 1900s, when materials other than wood (tile, steel and reinforced concrete) were first used in the construction of “fireproof” terminal and receiving elevators.

[9] Robert M. Frame III and Jeffrey A. Hess, “Saint Anthony Elevator No. 3,” Historic American Engineering Record, HAER No. MN-57, November 1992, p. 9.

[10] “Grain Elevators in Canada,” Table 9, Canadian Grain Commission, 2007.

[11] “Concrete Elevators,” Barney I. Weller, Proceedings of the Ninth Annual Convention, held at Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, December 10-14, 1912, Vol. IX (National Association of Cement Users, 1917), p. 339.

[12] One of the striking things about Barbara and Bruce Selyem’s “The Legacy of Country Elevators: A Photo Essay,” Kansas History, Spring/Summer 2000, is that it includes so many pictures that show traditional country elevators built out of wood standing next to modern country elevators built of reinforced concrete. The latter are often twice the height of the former and distinctly “urban” in character.

[13] In the analogy thus created, Franco-German Marxism, utopianism and modern poetry correspond to the “foreign” objects that have gotten mixed in somehow.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

horizontal conveyor-belts, continued

Caption for Figure 6: “Detail of concrete bin bottom and conveyor.”

The Standard Elevator, Buffalo, New York. Located in the building’s basement, the hopper conducts grain from the bin above it onto a horizontal conveyor-belt. Note the long corridor-like crawl-space at the lower right.

Photographed by Jet Low, 1990.
Courtesy the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Historic American Engineering Record.

Built in 1928 and extended in 1942, the Standard Elevator can store a total of five million bushels in a structure that is completely made out of reinforced-concrete. The elevator remained in operation until just a few years ago. It would transship grain from lake vessels to rail cars destined for a nearby flourmill that was owned by Pillsbury and later by Archer-Midland Daniels.

horizontal conveyor-belts

Caption for Figure 5: "Close-up view of tripper."

At the Standard Elevator, Buffalo, New York. Located on the bin floor, the tripper (sometimes called a trimmer) sweeps grain from the horizontal conveyor-belt into the top of a grain bin through a chute. Note the great length of that conveyor-belt. Each of those small circles along the left-hand side is the capped opening to a towering grain silo made of reinforced concrete.

Photographed by Jet Low, 1990.
Courtesy the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division,
Historic American Engineering Record.

From pages 198-199 of American Colossus:

Prior to 1868, when the pioneering Niagara Elevator was built, some grain elevators in Buffalo had horizontal conveyor-belts installed in their “basements,” that is, below their grain bins. Such conveyors brought grain dumped down on them to a boot, from which a lofting leg elevated the grain to the top of structure. It wasn’t strictly necessary to have such a conveyor – the spouts and chutes could simply send their grain directly from the bottoms of the bins to the boot – but this might involve a great tangle of spouts and chutes, if not the need for a second (or third!) lofting leg to accommodate them all.

At the Niagara Elevator, which was designed by George H. Johnston, horizontal conveyor-belts were installed both above and below the grain bins. The walls and foundations of the building were able to accommodate all that weight – the combined weight of the grain bins themselves, their contents, and two floors’ worth of machines – because they were laid down upon newly driven piles, more than a thousand of them, which secured a solid place for the Niagara on the otherwise weak, marshy banks of the Buffalo River. Like the Bennett Elevator before it, the Niagara had a solid masonry foundation and ironclad wooden walls and grain cribs. But unlike the Bennett, it could store 800,000 bushels, not 600,000.

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. (See figure 5.) The ingenuity, that is, the usefulness, of the trimmer lay in the fact that it could be unlocked, moved up or down the line, and then locked into position above a different grain bin. This meant that the number of big turn-heads and spouts previously needed to conduct the grain down from the garner and scales in the marine tower to the tops of the bins could now be drastically reduced; the whole procedure could be simplified. Same thing for the basement of the elevator, even though the trimmer didn’t play a part down there: thanks to the steam-powered conveyor belt, the number of spouts and chutes leading down from the bins to the boot of the lofting leg could be reduced. The cramped space of such basements could now be “freed up.” But “freed up” spaces came with a cost: conveyor belts exposed more grain to the air, and thus created more fugitive grain dust than did the spouts, unwieldy though they were.

As a result of the lateral “reach” of the new conveyor-belts, elevator operators and designers began to re-conceptualize the way that grain bins might be organized. Instead of locating the bins close to or even around the spouts that came down from the marine tower – which was a spatial practice that tended to make and keep the elevators’ main houses tall and boxy (sometimes even round) – the designers began to array the bins in long straight rows that led away from the marine tower. This meant that large-scale elevators no longer needed to be centralized like the Watson or oriented along conflicting lines, as in the case of the Bennett Elevator (one line ran from the marine tower at the Evans Slip side of the elevator to the other end of the building, i.e., along the Buffalo River, while another line ran from the boiler room and the primary marine tower to the Buffalo River). New elevators could now be built in a long, narrow and tall row, perpendicularly to the river, which not only “freed up” space along the wharf, but also created space for the railroads to lay down little feeders that led to their trunk lines. These new elevators could not only transship grain from lake to canal, but from lake to rail, as well.