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Grain elevators

October 10, 2000

A public radio commentary

When my wife and I moved from the East to the midwest we found the landscape dull. We missed the beauty of rolling hills, mountains and rivers - and as an engineer I missed tall buildings and complex bridges.

After a few months my wife looked at me and said "the beauty is here, the trick is to look carefully." And indeed she'd found beauty in the bloom of wild flowers and in glorious sunsets. Sunsets that dazzle because the flatness of the plains lets the whole sky be a canvas. Still I found few buildings that fascinated me, until I noticed grain elevators.

You've seen them: They look like a chimney standing alone. In the early twentieth century Le Corbusier, the great Swiss architect, called them "the magnificent first fruits of the new age." He felt they defined the times, along with planes, cars and ocean liners. Now, of course, planes and cars are symbols of decadence, and ocean liners of obsolescence, but grain elevators are still with us, their reputations intact.

Le Corbusier admired their unadorned purely functional concrete exteriors. Yet, so silly was the idea of using concrete to build a grain elevator that the first, built in 1900, was known as Peavy's Folly.

Frank H. Peavy owned a granary in Minnesota just when the midwest moved from subsistence farming to cash crops, which caused an explosive growth in the number of crops shipped by rail. Peavy at first transported his grain in sacks, but this was expensive and time consuming. He found it quicker and cheaper to load his grain by dumping it into the railroad cars. Hence the name elevator - to elevate the grain above the railroad. Peavy tried building wood elevators, but sparks from the engine frequently light them on fire. He was impressed by concrete bridges, so he hooked up with Charles Haglin, a local builder, to make a concrete grain elevator.

The two men faced opposition because engineers across America argued that a tank of solid concrete would not have any "give" and would thus explode when the grain was taken out. Undaunted they moved forward, building their grain elevator like a cake: First pouring a ring of concrete, letting it dry, then adding another ring on top. Eventually they built a hollow structure sixty eight feet tall, and twenty feet in diameter with walls about ten inches thick. When it dried they shoveled grain in and let it sit for the winter. In the spring as they prepared to let the grain flow out a huge crowd gathered, although they stood back a good block from the elevator sure that it might explode.

With the courage of his convictions Charles Haglin stood at the elevator's base and pulled the lever to release the grain. It was in perfect condition. And the tower didn't explode. It still stands near Minneapolis. This first circular reinforced-concrete grain elevator pioneered the way for the thousands across American's heartland.

So important is this particular grain elevator that in 1982 it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Copyright 2000 William S. Hammack Enterprises