Harvest and the prairie skyscraper…

Written by: Marvin Baker

Now that harvest is in full swing, a lot of things come to mind, but there is one thing I doubt many people think about and that is the loss of the old, wooden elevators, sometimes called prairie skyscrapers.

On Sunday, we made a trip to Bismarck to purchase a lawn mower and went through the community of Coleharbor. There are, of course, two of the original structures still standing tall against a backdrop of canola, barley and wheat.
These prairie icons are quickly disappearing. There are still some around, but as time deteriorates the buildings, owners have no choice but to side with safety. The elevators at Coleharbor are a good example. As you drive by, you can see right through the buildings, and in a word, both are unsafe.

Several of these old structures are still in use, however. The companies owning them have gone to great lengths to make the necessary upgrades to keep them functional since many of them were built from the early 1890s into the 1930s.
I’ve personally seen a number of the prairie skyscrapers dismantled or destroyed to make room for new, modern, concrete structures, or to make room for open spaces or other buildings.

Growing up in Hazelton, we had two elevator companies. There was the Farmers Union Elevator and Peavey, two competing companies in a small town. First, the railroad went, then Peavey, then Farmers Union. It forever changed the Hazelton skyline. Today, the community water tower is the only thing poking out above the tree canopy.
One day I was on my way to Jamestown on Interstate 94 and as I approached the community of Cleveland, I saw the local grain elevator being toppled right there on site. It was quite a spectacle. It seemed as if the colossal structure dropped over in slow motion.

I’ve seen prairie elevators taken down in Foxholm and Carpio and although I wasn’t in Hazelton to witness either elevator being destroyed, I know the Peavey structure was burned down as a training exercise for the local fire department.
Many years ago, my brother tore an elevator down in the ghost town of Sanger, in Oliver County. He didn’t get paid for doing it, but could keep all the wood from the structure and anything else that was in the elevator. To this day, he isn’t sure it was worth it, even though there was a sizable amount of copper wire that he sold.

Up until the late 1970s, there was an elevator in downtown Bismarck, on the corner of Ninth Avenue and Main Street. It was always interesting to see that building in downtown Bismarck. After it was torn down, I believe a parking lot for St. Alexius Hospital was put in its place.
And for those of us in North Dakota who are able to watch Canadian television, even the iconic grain elevator in the hit CTV comedy Corner Gas, was torn down. It was a typical Saskatchewan elevator in the town of Roleau (aka Dog River), but after the show was canceled after six years, it was decided to take one of the most recognizable structures in Canada down for safety purposes.

I know there are people out there who photograph old grain elevators. I’ve looked at some of those photos, from St. Agathe, Manitoba to Spokane, Wash. Montana and Idaho still have plenty of prairie skyscrapers, as does Alberta and South Dakota.
There’s one picture floating around that I think was taken in Mott shortly before World War I. It shows horses and wagons lined up to 10 or 12 individual elevators. It’s a striking photo that shows harvest as it once was.
In Kansas, it’s a little different. You’ll see a mix of modern and old, but many of the elevators in Kansas are massive, even the oldest ones.

Here in North Dakota, we still have some that haven’t gone by the wayside. It would be good if we could preserve some of them so that we never forget how massive amounts of grain used to be handled before modern silos and before unit trains.

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