Monday, December 13, 2010

Sales to date

Since its publication in March 2009, American Colossus has sold 129 copies:

67 through the book's publisher, Colossal Books;
41 through the on-line store; and
21 through, the printer used by Colossal.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Small Book Fair in Cincinnati

Between 2 and 4 pm on Saturday 6 November 2010, a Small Press Fair will be held at the Contemporary Arts Center, 44 East 6th Street, in downtown Cincinnati. Colossal Books will have a table at this event, and copies of our publications will be available for sale.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Wood grain elevator in Cleveland, Ohio

My friend James Jackson was in Cleveland, Ohio, last week and took a tour of the harbor. It turns out that there is a "Civil War-era" grain elevator located on the Cuyahoga River! (The approximate date "Civil War-era" comes from the taped commentary provided by the boat tour company, which gave no other information about the elevator, which is certainly one of the few 19th century wood elevators still standing, and may well be among the oldest surviving grain elevators in North America.)

As you can see, the entire structure -- even the marine tower -- is made out of wood.

Supported upon huge beams, the marine tower is stationary and built right up against the main house. The word "FLOUR" can be made out on the top of the structure.

From this view of the marine tower, it appears that the iron casing for the elevating leg is intact.

(All photos by Jim Jackson.)

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Curious email from Lulu

Just got a curious email from, which is the company through which I self-published American Colossus.

You recently published American Colossus: The Grain Elevator, 1843 to 1943 and made it available to the world in the Lulu Marketplace. Thank you. We're thrilled to have such a remarkable work in our catalog!

Unfortunately, the world didn't get to see it as quickly as they should have. A hiccup in our system kept your book from showing up in search results immediately after you published. 

The short of it is the gremlins got us. Fortunately, we found them - big, hairy devils with beady red eyes and the complexion of toad - and dispensed with them. (We'll spare you the details). Our systems are back to the Lulu standard and all books in our catalog now appear in our search results.
They go on to offer me a discount on my next purchase(s) of the book. Funny thing, though: I didn't really notice any problems that needed to be corrected. The book's sales aren't setting any records -- 103 copies sold so far -- but I'm not complaining. We'll see what happens now.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

One hundred copies sold so far

Since its publication in March 2009, American Colossus: the Grain Elevator, 1843 to 1943 (Colossal Books) has sold 100 copies: 20 through, 25 through, and 55 through

Monday, May 17, 2010

GrainNet publishes a notice about my book

Notice in GrainNet 16 May 2010.

Thanks, Mark Avery! It looks great.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Standard Elevator

The Standard Elevator was designed by A.E. Baxter Engineering and built by James Stewart Engineering in Buffalo, NY, in 1928. An extension was added in 1942 by M.-Hague.

In 1992, Orrin Pava and I were given a guided tour of the facility by a man named Chris, who (as I remember) was the elevator's superintendent. Then owned by Pillsbury, the facility was being used to unload boats from the Great Lakes/New York State Barge Canal and transship the grain to neighboring flour mills via railcars and trucks. But when Orrin and I returned to the place in April 2010, it appeared that the elevator, "now" owned by ADM, was no longer operating.

One of the Standard's marine legs, thrust into the hull of the J.L. Mauthe.

A view of the leg, extended from the marine tower, into the boat's hold.

At the top of the marine tower, the grain is conducted towards the main house through "Y" spouts that have been erected on top of it.

Part of the machinery that garners the grain into batches and weighs it out. Note the wheel that turns the flow on and off: not an instance of "pure" utility or "form following function," but an instance of "useless" decoration and aesthetic beauty!

A horizontal conveyor-belt system waits to receive the grain from the garner and scale above.

The chart upon which the bins inside the "B-House" -- the extension built in 1942 -- are represented. Since the contents of the various bins (both full and interstitial) are temporary, they are "recorded" in chalk and then erased when the account has been cleared.

(All photos 1992 by Orrin Pava.)

Monday, May 10, 2010

The tile bins at the old Washburn-Crosby Elevator

The grain bins at the center of this picture (there are nine of them in total, only three of which face us) were designed and constructed by the Barnett-Record Company for the Washburn-Crosby Flour Milling Company in 1903. The only bins in Buffalo to be built out of tile, and one of the earliest examples of tile-bin construction in North or South America, they are now part of the General Mills Flour complex. (Photo 1992 by Orrin Pava.)

The American Elevator

Designed and built by the James Stewart Engineering Company in 1906, the American Elevator is one of Buffalo's greatest elevators. It is remarkable for its storage bins, which are among the first in America to be built out of reinforced concrete, and for its marine towers. There are two of them: one mobile (on the left), the other fixed in position(right). Though these towers used ropes in their drive systems, they were still in operation during the 1990s.

Here the American's legs work upon a single vessel. Note the horizontal conveyor belt in the upper left: it carries grain over to Perot Malting, which also includes historic bins made out of reinforced-concrete (built in 1907). They are visible on the left side of the photo at the top of this entry.

In the lower left of the photo above: the spectacular ruins of the Marine "A."

(Both photos were taken by Orrin Pava in 1992.)

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Concrete Central Elevator

I've already mentioned the Concrete Central Elevator, which still stands and probably remains accessible at ground level, but no higher (the stairs having been removed?).

There is a lot to see at the ground level, that is, in the "basement"of this colossal grain elevator (built between 1915 and 1917 and capable of storing 4.5 million bushels).

There is the magnificent hall-like effect created by the huge amount of space that exists underneath the reinforced-concrete structure that holds the iron hoppers and spouts that are attached to the bottoms of the grain bins. (Note that some spouts are coming down from interstitial bins, which do not require hoppers.)

A photo that documents just one of many such hoppers at the Concrete Central.

The only way Orrin and I managed to obtain this view of the three rusted-out, formerly mobile marines towers at the Concrete Central was to climb the stairs all the way to top of its neighbor on the Buffalo River, the Superior Elevator, where the degree of deterioration was just as bad.

(All photos on this page taken by Orrin Pava.)

Horn Buttons at the Superior Elevator

I've already mentioned the Superior Elevator, which still stands but might not be accessible any more (stairs to the top removed?). On page 406 of American Colossus, I state:

On a wall at the bin-floor level of the Superior Elevator, next to a button that caused a horn to sound and thus alert everyone in the area that the 'loose leg' (the automotive marine tower) was about to go into operation, Orrin and I saw the stenciled image of a Native American warrior in silhouette and the word HORNBLOWER.

Either we didn't manage to take a picture of that particular graffito, or my memory has deceived me; in either case -- as you can see -- the graffiti speaks of "Horn Buttons" not "Horn Blowers." But my point remains the same: there's a close (and unusual, certainly unique) association of Native American imagery with buttons that signal by the use of horns that a marine leg is going into operation.

(Note: there is something stenciled below the phrase "Horn Button," but I can only make out a part of it, that is, its top line, which says "2 HORNS SCALE FLOOR.")

Not only is this association between Native American warriors and grain elevator operators close, it is also repeated.

Indeed, it is repeated over and over again.

What's going on here? Was the Native American warrior part of the Superior Elevator's corporate logo? Not likely: "Superior" referred to Superior Flour, not any tribe associated with Lake Superior. Was the warrior part of the logo of the unionized team that ran the elevator? Possible, but not likely in a business dominated, at least on the local level, by people of Irish descendent.

At some point, it doesn't matter, precisely because it is the appearance of Native American imagery in a ruined grain elevator (the basement floors of which were permanently flooded when Orrin and I were there in 1991 and 1992) that creates the feeling that the place is haunted by ghosts, that is to say, the ghosts of dead Native American warriors.

(All photos on this page were taken by Orrin Pava.)

Which grain elevator is this?

Neither Orrin nor I can remember where he took this photograph, which shows a chart -- scrawled by hand upon a wall made of reinforced concrete -- that records the names of the boats that were unloaded (and the amounts of grain they were carrying) in 1980.

The fact that the year is 1980 suggests that he took the photo in the Great Northern Elevator, which ceased operations in 1981 and which we were given a tour of in 1992. But there are no reinforced-concrete walls in the Great Northern. Furthermore, we have no other pictures of this elevator, which suggests we didn't take any photos of it during that tour.

The photo could have been taken in the Superior Elevator, the Wheeler (aka the Agway/GLF), the Concrete Central, or the Standard Elevator, all of which have walls made of reinforced concrete. But the Superior Elevator ceased operations in the 1960s, and the Concrete Central and the Agway/GLF closed down in mid-1970s. As for the Standard Elevator, it remained in operation until the 1990s, if not later, and so wouldn't have though the year 1980 to be worthy of such notoriety.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Marine "A"

The Marine "A" (designed by AE Baxter Engineering and constructed by the James Stewart Company in 1925) is one of the four grain elevators that were recently purchased by a company that hoped to utilize them in the construction of an ethanol plant. Those plans have fallen through, and the entire area remains inactive, even those parts of it that had been functioning as recently as 2000.

As I mention on page 405 of American Colossus, when Orrin and I were last there, in 1992, "on one of the walls in the basement of the Marine 'A,' there [is] a very detailed, almost gentle multi-colored chalk portrait of the Standard Elevator, which sits across from the Marine 'A' on the Buffalo River. Accurate but not fussy about the details, this careful portrait was made by someone who either had a photograph to work from, or knew the Standard by heart. Such a portraIit could only have been made with adequate lighting, which hasn't existed in the basement of the Marine 'A' since 1965, when the elevator was closed down and abandoned."

Note: those aren't spires that one seems to see along the top of the elevator; those are Y-shaped spouts, seen in relief. (When you see Orrin's pictures of the Standard Elevator, which I will post in the next few days, you'll see what I mean.)

On this, the side of the Marine "A" that faces the water, Orrin has captured one of my attempts at graffiti art. It says, Ruin of the modern spectacle. The ruined structure that dominates the picture is the bottom of one of the elevator's two mobile marine towers ("loose legs").

The Wheeler Elevator (aka Agway/GLF)

Now I'll turn to grain elevators that haven't been demolished, but may no longer be accessible to photographers. It seems fitting to begin with the Wheeler Elevator (built of out of reinforced concrete in 1909), which lies at the heart of the completely abandoned complex formerly owned and operated by Agway/GLF, because back in 1992 -- when Orrin Pavan and I snuck into the place and wondered around it for almost three hours before someone discovered our intrusion and asked us who we were -- we were told, "It's a good thing you're leaving, because if our guard dog gotta hold of you, you'd be in trouble right now." Or something like that.

In the photograph above (not taken by Orrin), the original 1909 bins plus the original marine tower (thus one of the oldest marine towers in Buffalo) appear -- if the whole complex can be likened to a baseball diamond -- at "home plate." At "first base" we see the flour mill (and more concrete grain bins that lead back from the tower) that were designed by AE Baxter and constructed by James Stewart in 1936. And at the "second" and "third bases," we see the huge annex designed by AE Baxter and constructed by Hydro in 1942.

Orrin's picture (above) finds us inside the marine tower, where we see parts of the machine's wood-and-rope drive system.

The H&O Oats Grain Elevator

I might as well as continue in the direction of grain elevators in Buffalo that have been destroyed in the last few years: around the time that the Wollenberg burned down, the steel-binned H&O Oats Elevator (designed by HR Wait & Monarch Engineering in 1931) was razed to make room for a casino that still hasn't been built yet.

As I mention on page 405 of American Colossus, when Orrin and I visited the H&O Oats in 1992, the basement was permanently flooded. And, although someone had laid out a series of bridges that allowed passage to the stairs that in turn led to the top of structure, we decided to go no further than the vantage point at which Orrin took the picture above.

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Wollenberg Grain Elevator and Feed Mill

Built in 1912 out of the wood salvaged from the old Kellogg "B" Elevator (which itself dated back to 1892), the Wollenberg Grain Elevator and Feed Mill managed to stay in business until 1987, when it suddenly closed and was abandoned. In 1990, the Wollenberg -- the only wood-binned country elevator in Buffalo -- was selected for documentation by the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER), and in 2003 the Wollenberg was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places.

Despite these honors, the Wollenberg was never properly cleaned or secured by the City of Buffalo. In point of fact, it was one big firetrap: filled with piles of flour, grain dust and feed. On 1 October 2006, the Wollenberg was partially destroyed by a fire of uncertain origin; on 3 October 2006, whatever remained was torn down by the City of Buffalo.

In 1992, Orrin Pava and I visited the Wollenberg. These are the photographs that Orrin took.

Grain dust (and cobwebs) cover the machinery inside.

Piles of raw grain dumped on the floor.

Looking down into one of the wooden grain bins. Bags as well as raw grain are at the bottom.

Spouts in the ceiling.

Good news, everybody!

During a recent trip to Buffalo, New York, my dear friend Orrin Pava gave me DOZENS of photographs that he took during our grain elevator explorations in that city during 1991 and 1992. In the coming days and weeks, I'll be posting scans of those exciting pictures to this blog. You will see it was worth the wait!

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Superior Elevator in Buffalo, New York

The Superior Elevator in Buffalo, NY, circa 1925. Photographer unknown. Built in three stages by the A.E. Baxter Construction Company and H.R. Wait and/or the James Stewart Construction Company, the Superior used two electrically powered marine towers ("loose legs") and could store up to 3.7 million bushels. Note that these loose legs were restricted to the Superior "A" (built in 1915), and that both the Superior "B" (built in 1923) and the Superior "C" (1925) had to built at an angle to the original structure to accommodate one of the many twists and turns in the course of the Buffalo River.

Montreal, circa 1925

At left, electrically powered mobile marine towers ("loose legs") in Montreal, circa 1925. Photographer unknown.

Buffalo, circa 1900

A picture looking up Main Street, Buffalo, NY, in 1900. Photographer unknown. At the left, the Brown Elevator. At the right, moving from left from right, the Wilkeson, the CJ Wells, and the Sternberg Elevators. All of these grain elevators were designed by Robert Dunbar (the true inventor of the mechanized grain elevator), constructed out of wood and powered by coal-burning steam engines.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Sales March 2009 to March 2010

This blog debuted exactly one year ago today to publicize the existence of American Colossus: the Grain Elevator 1843 to 1943, the first book-length history of the American grain elevator. To date, the book has sold 77 copies: 18 copies through, 21 copies through, and 38 through Colossal Books, which published the title and will be offering a second, expanded edition of the book later this year.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Feedback on presentation at GEAPS 2010

Audience response:
We had 65 attendees, 94% completed the evaluation.

How would you rate the quality of this session overall?
Excellent 34%
Good 57%
Fair 8%
Poor 0%

How interesting was the session?
Very 70%
Somewhat 30%
Not at all 0%

How useful will it be at work?
Very 16&
Somewhat 37%
Not at all 46%

Was the session?
Too tech 1%
Not enough 10%
Just Right 89%

To what degree did it improve your understanding?
Very 36%
Somewhat 52%
Not at all 12%

How would you rate your speaker?
Excellent 41%
Good 52%
Fair 7%
Poor 0%

Should GEAPS offer this as a webinar?
Yes 32%
No 62%

Good history of the industry.
Very interesting session, no operations benefit, but fun to learn about the history of the industry.
Very interesting historical background.

Text of presentation at GEAPS 2010 Wichita, Kansas

The History of the Grain Elevator
by William J. Brown

I was born in a place where a huge grain elevator stood and, indeed, still stands. The elevator was built back in the 1920s. As a child, I used to see it often, riding in my parents' car on the way to Grandma's house. Many years later, I went to graduate school in a place where there were (and still are) over a dozen grain elevators, one or two of which are among the most active facilities in the USA. I became fascinated by grain elevators, and spent several years reading about them, looking at old pictures of them, exploring the abandoned elevators and getting guided tours of the ones that were still working. Eventually, I wrote American Colossus, which is a book about the history of the American grain elevator between 1843 and 1943.

Now, without reading any more, you might assume that I was born and went to graduate school somewhere on the prairies, in the American Midwest or Canada. Certainly somewhere in or near the great wheat/corn/soybean belt that is the geographical center of our great nation and this extraordinary continent. But in fact I was born in Brooklyn, New York, and went to graduate school in Buffalo, New York. If you are surprised by this -- and clearly I am hoping that you are -- it is probably because Brooklyn and Buffalo are big cities, not small towns or villages, and because both cities are centers of industry, not agriculture. To give this hoped-for surprise a voice: "What would a city boy know about grain elevators?"

Now, generally speaking, city boys and girls know very little or nothing about grain elevators; indeed, the very words "grain elevators" are often foreign to their ears. And this is because city folks on the West, East and Gulf coasts of the USA live at the terminals of the torrential streams that bring hundreds of millions of bushels of grain (and all of the many products that are derived from it) from farms in small towns in the American Midwest to supermarkets, bakeries, liquor stores and gasoline stations everywhere else. By the time all or any of that grain has reached the city folks, the grain elevators have already done their work, and so they escape notice. Of course, there are grain elevators in the big cities (port cities, especially), but these facilities generally ship grain overseas, and so the average big-city coast-dweller doesn't know or doesn't need to know what those huge, odd-looking buildings are, or how they fit into the international "grain stream."

OK, so I'm "unusual" for a city boy: I know all about grain elevators; in fact I wrote "the book" about them! Humorous though it might be, this little pleasantry isn't the real punch-line of my story. My real punch-line is the fact that the grain elevator itself was invented in a major city (in Buffalo, New York, as a matter of fact), and not in a rural town. Despite our expectations, the grain elevator was invented more than 160 years ago in an urban transshipping hub and in the middle of the grain stream, and not at the beginning or the "well-spring" of that stream. How and why did this happen?

Technically speaking, the first grain elevators -- that is to say, the first steam-powered bucketed conveyor-belts -- were used by Oliver Evans, an inventor and businessman in Maryland who started using them in his flour mills in the mid-1780s. The idea was both simple and brilliant. Evans could have used the new invention (the wood-burning steam engine) to move grain to and from the millstones on horizontal belts, which would have required his flour mills to be big and wide enough to encompass all that machinery. Instead, Evans used his conveyor belts to "elevate" the grain vertically, to the top of the mill, from which the force of gravity alone was needed to conduct the grain down to the millstones and then down from the millstones to the barrels in which the flour was sealed. Not only did Evans' top-down flour mills function much more rapidly and efficiently than "traditional" mills (which were powered by water currents, the wind, or teams of horses), but they also didn't take up as much space as their predecessors. They were tall buildings, not wide ones, and thus well-suited for locations near water (rivers, lakes or oceans), where the demand for space is always much higher than elsewhere.

In 1865, looking back on the history of the invention that he claimed was his, and his alone, the Buffalo-based merchant Joseph Dart, Jr. was paradoxically explicit in his debt to Oliver Evans. In his address to the Buffalo and Erie Historical Society (BECHS), Dart stated: "Indeed, the building I then erected [in 1843] may perhaps be called the parent, not only of the Bennett Elevator [built in 1863 on the site previously occupied by the Dart Elevator], but of all others; for I believe it was the first steam transfer and storage Elevator in the world. It was the first Elevator in the world. It was the first successful application of the valuable invention of Oliver Evans to the commercial purpose for which it is now extensively employed."

For Dart, who had been out of the grain business for years before the historic elevator that bore his name burned down, this acknowledgment of Oliver Evans had two purposes. Dart not only wanted to help historians trace the history of the invention that, by 1865, had transformed Buffalo into the biggest grain port in the world. He also wanted to lobby in favor of granting a patent for the device called "the grain elevator" to one Joseph Dart, Jr., of Buffalo, New York. Oliver Evans had been awarded a patent, and so should Joseph Dart, Jr., too, because "an inventor's merit consists not merely in conceiving an idea of a machine, but also in overcoming the practical difficulties of its successful operation [...] It is worthy of remark that some of the most useful inventions have not been discoveries of new principles or methods of mechanical action, but new applications of methods and principles already known."

But Dart was never granted a patent for the "grain transfer and storage elevator." One can easily see why. Despite his claim to personally "overcoming the practical difficulties of [the elevator's] successful operation," Dart's address to the BECHS contains nothing about the construction, mechanics or day-to-day functioning of "his" grain elevator. The people who really knew about these subjects were Robert Dunbar, the mechanical engineer who both designed and built the Dart Elevator, the Bennett Elevator, and many others in Buffalo and elsewhere in the USA, and William Wells, the superintendent of the Dart Elevator and several others in Buffalo.

Far from being without interest, Dart's self-serving address to the BECHS is full of information about the rapid increase in the grain trade through Buffalo between 1831, when the first grain-bearing brig arrived from Chicago, and 1845, when the Dart Elevator was doubled in size and capacity to accommodate the ever-rising demand for "transfer and storage" services in that city. Why was Buffalo so important? Because of its unique geographical location: at the eastern end of Lake Erie, and thus reachable from anywhere on the Great Lakes, which is the single biggest system of lakes in the world; and at the western end of the Erie Canal, and thus reachable from Albany (and points east, such as Boston), the Hudson River and New York's Harbor. Completed in 1825, the Erie Canal was, at first, an east-to-west route for immigrants, pioneers and settlers who were heading out to Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Soon afterwards, and thanks to the great productivity of the farms in the new "West," the Erie Canal became a two-way conduit: people and manufactured goods traveling from East to West; but also grain (flour in barrels, and wheat in sealed sacks) being shipped from West to East, that is to say, from farm to market.

An in-land port city, Buffalo also had a problem. The vessels that navigated the Great Lakes were too large to sail through the Erie Canal, and the boats that traveled the Erie Canal were too small to sail on the Great Lakes. And so, the grain that came into Buffalo had to be transshipped, that is, unpacked from the lakers, temporarily stored on the docks, and then packed up into the canal boats. As late as 1842, this transshipping was accomplished by the oldest and most labor-intensive of technologies: a block-and-tackle, and teams of stevedores, who would do most of the carrying of the barrels and sacks on their very backs. It was a very slow process, and often times required as much as a week to transship a single shipment of grain (approximately 3,000 bushels). But by 1842, when Buffalo began to receive a million bushels of grain from in-coming lakers, it was clear that this method had become obsolete. The answer, certainly, lay in mechanizing the transshipping process, just as agriculture had been mechanized by such inventions as Cyrus McCormick's steam-powered reaper (1831), the Pitt Brothers' steam-powered thresher (1834) and John Deer's steel-tipped plow (1837).

Here Joseph Dart, Jr. had no choice but to turn to Robert Dunbar, who had been working on the problem in nearby Black Rock, New York. A trained mechanical engineer, Dunbar had tried water mills to power his elevators. (A miller from Black Rock named Mahlon Kingman had tried teams of horses.) But these were only experiments. Over the winter of 1842-1843, Dunbar -- working under the auspices of Joseph Dart, Jr. but using his own designs, his own iron foundry and his own hands -- constructed what came to be known as the world's first "marine tower." Called marine because it faced the water (Buffalo Creek), this tower was a tall, thin box made of heavy wood timbers. Inside of it, the conveyor-belt was stored horizontally, just as the elevators at Evans' flour mills were. Powered by a wood-burning steam engine and enclosed in its own wooden tube, the elevating device was called a leg because, when lowered out of the marine tower, the apparatus appeared to "step" out, down and into the hull of the grain ship that was docked in front of it. The buckets that were attached to the conveyor belt (later called "Buffalo buckets") could each store a quart of grain. Dunbar did some experimenting before he finally got the number and spacing of the buckets right. When the leg was lowered into a ship's hull, these buckets bit into the piles of grain in bulk stored therein, and elevated it to the top of the marine tower, where the grain was expelled from the "leg" and collected separately. Because it had been elevated in this fashion, the grain could then be sent -- using nothing but the force of gravity -- to a canal boat, which was docked underneath the structure, or to the top of the "mainhouse" of the elevator, where the grain was stored temporarily in tall, rectangular bins. When it was needed, the stored grain was conducted by gravity down from the bottom of the bin into a "boot," from which the grain was then elevated by another steam-powered leg (called a "lofting leg" or simply a "lofter" to distinguish it from the marine leg) to the top of the tower. From the tower, the grain was then conveyed by gravity down into a canal boat or horse-driven wagon, depending on who the ultimate purchaser was. (Later, with the coming of the railroads, the marine tower could also dispatch grain into a shed and the cars of the trains that had pulled into it.)

On 12 June 1843, the Dart Elevator serviced its first vessel, the schooner Philadelphia, which brought 4,515 bushels of grain in bulk from Chicago. A cheap but remarkably indirect route, which took as long as a month to complete: all the way up Lake Michigan, all the way down Lake Huron, and then all the way across Lake Erie! The grain from Chicago was transshipped from the Philadelphia to canal boat in a single day, which was almost seven times faster than a "traditional" grain warehouse could manage. Over the course of the 1843 shipping season, the Dart successfully unloaded a total of 229,260 bushels of grain from more than 70 different vessels. Indeed, the Dart was so successful that, just two years after its opening, its storage capacity was doubled (a total of 110,000 bushels) and a second marine tower was added. It was clear: Buffalo's transshipping problems could be solved if another half-dozen of these elevators were built there. Together, they could easily accommodate the millions of bushels that the Port of Buffalo was receiving every year. By 1852, Buffalo's harbor was indeed filled with such elevators, as well as floaters (grain elevators placed on small ships) and transfer towers (elevators without storage bins accompanying them).

But the grain elevator was not an invention that was adopted immediately and universally. Indeed, it wasn't until 1846 that other grain elevators were built in Buffalo, and it wasn't until 1847 that "Buffalo-style" grain elevators were built outside of that city. What accounts for the delay? It seems there were a great many factors, including the costs of construction, the difficulty of obtaining credit, the absence of plans or designs for constructing a good grain elevator, the limited demand for grain in bulk, the different ideas of what a "bushel" meant, the resistance in the local community to "time-saving devices" that put people out of work, the absence of a local flour-milling industry, and the uncertainty and chaotic nature of the grain trade itself (no telegraph lines, no "to arrive" contracts, no futures markets, no standardized grain-grades, etc). In fact, it was only in the 1850s that the basic conditions for the widespread adoption of the transcontinental grain elevator system were finally met. The key development was the universal adoption of the switch-over from shipping grain in sealed, burlap sacks to shipping grain in bulk. Once this switch-over was accomplished, grain elevators weren't merely helpful in dealing with exceptions (shipments that weren't in sacks or shipments of grain other than wheat); they were necessary for conducting business on an everyday basis.

The beginnings of the interlinked grain elevator system of today can be seen in the locations of the world's second and third steam-powered grain elevators, which were constructed by Robert Dunbar in 1847 in Toledo, Ohio, and Brooklyn, New York. The line that stretched from Toledo to Buffalo to Brooklyn moved grain along an all-water route from the interior of the country to one of its primary coastal marketplaces. Along this line, the grain had to be transshipped three times: from horse-driven wagon or canal boat to lake vessel at Toledo; from laker to canal boat at Buffalo; and from canal boat to wagon, rail car or ocean-going vessel at Brooklyn. In time, this line would be extended west to Chicago, Illinois, where a steam-powered elevator was built in 1848, and east to Oswego, New York, where one was built in 1851.

Thanks to this interlinked system of grain elevators, America was able to develop its enormous agricultural potential. Grain that was grown for profit could now be transported more easily, more cheaply and much further than ever before. These advances in transportation meant greater profits for both grain growers and grain dealers. Greater profits in turn meant that more land could purchased and turned into farmland, and more and bigger markets for grain products could be constructed. Both enterprises required human labor, which meant that more people would be able to move "out west" and find jobs . . . as grain-growers, grain-transporters or grain-dealers. As a result, more grain was grown and . . . the cycle began anew. And so let us say, in word: America had grain, but it was the grain elevator that turned that grain into power: grain power.

It was through the British that American grain elevators came to dominate the transshipping practices of the world. Because it had long nourished itself on bread made from wheat, and because it was becoming increasingly dependent on American wheat after the abolition of its Corn Laws in 1846, England was one of the first countries to start switching-over from grain shipped in sealed sacks to grain shipped in bulk. It appears that the first American-style grain elevators to be used in England were floaters: one of them was in fact towed clear across the Atlantic Ocean in the 1880s. Once in England, this elevator was studied and copied by British engineers, who began building their own floaters. Thereafter, the "American Elevator," as it was known, was sold off to the Belgians, who successfully used it in their harbors. Around 1905, floating elevators were first introduced in Holland. But it wasn't until the 1910s, when reinforced concrete became the primary material out of which grain bins were made, that huge land-based elevators were built in Western Europe, Russia and India. At first, their bins were shaped like rectangles, not cylinders. Eventually, or rather, after ravages of World War II, truly American-style elevators (cylindrical silos and all) were built in Europe and elsewhere in the world.

Between 1843 and, say, 1943, grain elevators in America underwent several significant changes. With the change-over from wood to coal as the source of fuel, the steam engines inside these elevators became more powerful and the machines they powered became even faster and more efficient. Storage capacities grew from around 100,000 bushels to nearly a million bushels per elevator. Another major change-over came at the end of the 1890s, when the availability of electrification brought about the obsolescence of the steam engine. To answer the challenge of this new, "cleaner" and more-modern form of energy, and to take advantage of the lowered insurance rates that were offered to operators of electrified grain elevators, designers and builders experimented with a number of building materials other than wood and iron: tile, steel, and reinforced concrete. As a result of all this experimentation, grain elevators -- or, rather, the buildings that enclosed them, as well as the buildings that stored the grain -- began to look very different from the Dart Elevator and the ones that were built in the 19th century. The chief difference was the visual appearance of the grain bins: they were no longer stored within a larger structure (the "mainhouse"), but instead stood alone, on their own.

During and after World War II, the construction and technology of grain elevators changed once again. At some grain elevators, the storage bins were no longer compartments, as they had been since the time of the Dart Elevator, but single rooms capable of storing a million bushels each. At other grain elevators, the machines were no longer housed in buildings of their own, but were -- like the grain tanks they serviced -- freestanding structures, fully visible to the eyes of passers-by. At still other elevators, external conveyor-belts were no longer necessary, because some sailing vessels had machines aboard that did the unloading themselves. Indeed, some "grain elevators" were no longer grain elevators, but grain blowers (or grain suckers, if you prefer): machines that transship piles of grain in bulk by vacuum cleaners and pneumatic tubes, not buckets and belts.

Generally speaking, the old American classics of the 1843 to 1943 era have been destroyed, either to make room for newer facilities or to simply remove a troublesome eyesore or "attractive nuisance," as the lawyers say. In some places, especially in small rural communities with a strong sense of municipal pride, the old classics (the "country elevators") have been turned into museums. In other places, the old classics of the reinforced-concrete variety have been transformed into climbing gyms, planetaria, hotels, and condominiums. Paradoxically, it is only in poor communities -- places like Chicago, Cincinnati and Buffalo -- that classic elevators still stand, but only because they haven't been demolished yet, not because they have been "saved" from demolition.

Quite obviously, we can learn from a great deal from the past. In the course of my research, I have compiled this list of "lessons" that might be useful for the future.

1). In America, the order of development has not the same as it was in Europe, where the rural village existed long before before the big city. In America, the small town and the big city were built at the same time. A "big city" could spout up anywhere, even in the middle of the wilderness. Likewise, big cities collapse and end up looking like wildernesses again.

2). Unlike the production of grain, the grain trade doesn't necessary originate with or even follow the contours of the land. Generally speaking, the grain trade follows the opportunities offered by current business conditions. And so, the grain trade can embrace or abandon a place -- even the very same place -- with equal rapidity and coldness once an opportunity arises.

3). Though the "givens" of the natural environment play a large role in determining the success or failure of a local enterprise, one shouldn't forget that the natural environment can be modified, sometimes quite substantially. And so the question isn't, "Who has access to the best resources?" but "Who can imagine how those resources could be put to use?"

4). There is no such thing as a "pure" invention. All inventions are built upon the work of others. There is certainly something "original" in an invention, but it lies in its imaginative use of something else, something that pre-exists it. This suggests that there are no solitary inventors, no "isolated geniuses," and that inventions are always the work of a team of individuals (at least two of them).

5). The beginnings of modern industry, globalization and other apparently contemporary phenomena are much earlier than we might believe. They all seem to start in the 1840s, not later (the 1880s, the 1920s, or the 1940s). This might help us today, when it global capitalism is undergoing its worst crisis since the 1930s.

6). Despite the widespread notion that most industries strive to produce just enough "quality" or "excellence" to survive, but never strive to produce real excellence for its own sake, many of the grain elevators of the classic period were truly excellent architecture. They were very well-built, and they were very striking to look at, even if the viewer couldn't decide if they were spectacularly beautiful or spectacularly ugly.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Presentation in Wichita, Kansas, 22 February 2010

From 2-3 pm on Tuesday, 23 February 2010, I will be giving a presentation at the Grain Elevator and Processing Society's 81st Technical Conference and Trade School, which will be held at the Century II Performing Arts 
and Convention Center
 in Wichita, Kansas. Entitled "The Mechanized Grain Elevator: How Did We Get Here?" my presentation will be part of a session coordinated by Kathy Reading, Vice President of Sales at the Seedburo Equipment Co., Des Plaines IL.

The mechanized grain elevators of today have their roots in American history. This session, by the author of a new book, will discuss how we got here, and why an understanding of the past may be useful to us in the future. What necessities led to the invention of the mechanized elevator? How did it work?  How did grain elevators become so important to the development of the U.S.? How did they influence grain handling in other countries? And what happened to the old American classics?

For more information, visit GEAPS Exchange 2010.