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Monthly Archives: August 2017

I enjoy photographing grain elevators—they bring back memories of my childhood on the farm back in Lancaster County, when my dad would let me ride in the truck when he delivered corn to the local feed store—I remember stopping on the scales on the way in, dumping the corn onto the big grate in the floor, then the second stop at the scales.    And I admired the grain elevators in the western landscape when I rode my bike across the country—the grain elevators were the biggest things out there—you could spot the huge silos from miles away.


Nebraska, 1984


I started making photographs of grain elevators as soon as I arrived in Spokane, five years ago.  I recall taking a drive out into the wheat country south of town while waiting for a call-back on renting an apartment during my first full day in town, and seeing elevators I wanted to photograph.


Madson Elevator, Whitman County, July 2017


Within a few weeks, I made my first photographs of grain elevators in Whitman County, located just to the south of Spokane County.  This is the heart of the Palouse country, one of the highest wheat producing areas in the world, the highest wheat producing county in the US.  My first photographs there were on the northern end of the county, in the towns of Rosalia and Oakesdale.   Both of these towns had clusters of wonderful old grain elevators, which I later discovered had been photographed and painted by other local artists.


Rosalia, March 2017


In talking with local residents, there is a lot of discussion about the fact that the old wooden crib style elevators are being torn down, disappearing from the landscape.  The problem is mostly that those elevators are too small to efficiently deal with the volumes of grain that are being produced by current farming methods in Whitman County, and so are on the verge of becoming functionally obsolete.


First steam powered elevator, Moorehead, MN, 1879


Of course, changes in farming methods are nothing new—I discovered a couple of ebay treasures a few years ago—two historical photographs from wheat farming from more than a century ago.  One shows “the first steam powered elevator, Moorehead, MN, 1879”—with dozens of farm wagons loaded with sacks of wheat waiting to unload their harvest at the elevator.  Obviously, the farm wagons couldn’t have traveled far to reach the elevator—meaning that small farmers using horses to reach the railheads needed an elevator within a few miles of the field.  And each trip could move only perhaps 20 bushels of wheat.  Looking at the photograph, it looks like the crib elevator could have held something around 35,000 bushels of wheat.  While it isn’t clear from the photograph, it is almost certain that this elevator was located next to a rail line, so that the grain could be loaded, by gravity, onto bulk rail cars.    It is crib elevators like the one in this photograph, now mostly covered with corrugated steel siding, that are being torn down.


Combine Advertising Photo, 1907


The other photograph is from 1907, an advertising photo intended to show off the new combines that were being built to harvest wheat.  There are a total of 5 combines shown, each requiring 3 men and 33 horses, for a total of 15 men and 165 horses.  That’s a lot of mouths to feed to get the harvest done—and lots of hay that needs to be put up for the winter.


McCoy Elevator, near Rosalia, 2013


Currently, In addition to the wooden crib elevators, many locations added “tanks” for additional storage to the sides of the wooden elevators.  These are occasionally made of wood, but are usually either concrete or steel.  This configuration—the wooden crib “house” elevator flanked by “tanks” is a fairly typical configuration of operating elevators in Whitman County.  Elevators of this type can typically store a few hundred thousand bushels of grain.

Newer elevators are being built that use a vertical steel shaft with numerous tubes coming down in various directions to feed the storage tanks.  Sometimes these are added to the tops of existing crib elevators, which look a bit like some muli-legged alien landed.


New McCoy grain terminal, March 2017


The problem with all of the elevators is that the volume of grain that is being produced in Whitman County is huge—about 30 million bushels per year—and there is a cheaper way to store all this grain—put it in piles on the ground.  The capital cost of a pile on the ground is almost zero, but there is the problem of waste—if it rains or snows, the grain on the top of the pile will rot or sprout—though I’ve been told that wheat will actually make its own protective layer—mixing wheat with water makes a paste that hardens and protects the rest of the grain beneath it.   In years of abundant harvest, a lot of the wheat produced in Whitman County is stored in ground piles.  Large pile storage is especially common at the barge loading facilities along the Snake River that forms the southern boundary of the county.

But the northern end of the county is a long way from the Snake river terminals—about 60 miles from Rosalia to Central Ferry—so the decision was made to build a high volume rail terminal—the new McCoy terminal.  This facility is designed to load 40,000 bushes per hour on to train cars—about 10 cars per hour.  A typical “grain train” has 110 cars—430,000 bushels.  The McCoy terminal has three steel tanks each big enough to hold enough grain to load a train—and four ground piles, each 1.3 million bushels (three train loads), for a total of 6.4 million bushels of storage.  The piles are covered with a thick plastic cover for the winter to minimize spoilage.


New McCoy grain terminal, March 2017


I stopped in at the new McCoy terminal a few weeks ago, at the peak of the wheat harvest in Whitman county.  The place was hopping—big trucks lined up to get on the scales, about a dozen people in the office—and three different dumping spots, one for the big steel tanks, and two for ground piles.  The men working in the office said that they were unloading 400 trucks a day—some of them were smaller dump trucks (500 bushels), some were regular semis (900 bushels), and some were semis with a second trailer (1500 bushels)—so my guess is that the terminal was taking in about 400,000 bushels a day.  They took in trucks from 6:00 AM to 8:00 PM, a schedule designed so that they could load trains at night.


New McCoy Grain Terminal, August 2017


I’m having an exhibition of my photographs of the grain elevators of Whitman County at the Library in Colfax during September and October.  I was offered the show in March, and decided at that point that I wanted to find and photograph as many of the elevators in the county as I could find.  I’ve managed to locate a total of 62 sites with grain elevators—these range from heaps of rotting lumber where a grain elevator used to be, to abandoned elevators, to small elevators now privately owned, to small but active co-op elevators, to clusters of elevators in communities, to large terminals for bulk shipments.   While the wooden crib elevator may be disappearing from the landscape, the grain elevator remains an important part of the landscape of Whitman County.

And I think they are beautiful.