One summer, my husband and I rode our motorcycle into Canada and through Saskatchewan. On the way back we stopped to visit my father's home town, Mohall, in northern North Dakota. I had been there as child, but wanted to see it again when I could appreciate it as an adult.
My Dad's family history has a familiar ring - my grandfather coming from Sweden to America and teaching himself English. He landed a job in the grasslands of North Dakota at a grain elevator where his first job was sweeping the floors. But over time, the mill owner noticed that my grandfather, John, had a knack for mathematics. After giving my grandfather numerous arithmetic equations to master, he made John his accountant. Grampa did so well that when the mill owner died, he left the grain elevator to him for a small price. John ran the elevator for many years, including during the depression. My Dad told me that during those hard times, Gramps did all that he could to help the struggling farmers, including selling them feed at half price and giving away hay and grain that was past its expiration, but still seemed good.
Small town elevators, as my Dad knew them, have gone the way of the small farmer.
I stood there looking at the grain mill that my Grandpa used to own, and I could almost smell the bags of seed corn, the soybean meal, and the molasses pellets all mingled with the scent of ground corn and oats. I could picture the farm trucks weighing on the scale and tipping their loads into the steel grate above the hopper. Huge columns of dust rose during this operation, and men with shovels stood alongside, coated with grain dust. Most never wore dust masks. They came into the elevator to warm up looking as though someone had coated them with flour.
Farmers bought feed, lumber, coal, barbed wire and other farm supplies at the elevator that served the area. It was a necessary stop for most on their way to the city. Prices for grain and seed were posted on blackboards that had not been cleaned in some time. The elevator manager would sometimes poke his head out of the office to say hello and sometimes give a sales pitch on a new type of fence or a new product to make the cows milk better.
Elevators like the one my grandfather owned were also a gathering place for the farm crowd. Seldom did one see the local city folk under its roof. Men with big, calloused hands and reddened faces could be seen leaning on the counter or sitting in one of the tattered kitchen chairs discussing the prices of commodities or which livestock commission firm seemed to be doing the best job. Deals were struck for machinery, livestock and rental land and news was spread about upcoming farm auctions and why the farmer was selling out.
Some of the smaller elevator offices sported a card table complete with a deck of bedraggled playing cards. During the slow winter months games of pinochle, whist and uecker were played by some of the farm crowd. A stained coffee pot was usually plugged in somewhere, and once in a while there was even a package of store-bought cookies lying beside the overbrewed beverage.
Farmers placed their order for feed or seed and then drove to the warehouse part of the building where they handed their order to a worker with a wooden pushcart. He plopped bags one atop another until the order was full and then loaded the bags into the back of the pickup. Often elevators sported a lumberyard as well, and just about every board on the farm came from it.
But as urban areas began their expansion, living in a small town became a challenge. Railroads, the life and breath of the grain elevator, began departing the rural areas nearly as fast as the towns' residents.
Our trip took us through a region of Saskatchewan where we rode for nearly a hundred miles through nothing but rolling prairie. In every direction there was grass and sky and openness. It was a beautiful but empty landscape in which we were at the mercy of the unexpected. Like being low on gas with no town in sight. Few people live now in this stark environment. It has become an unstable place with a boom and bust agricultural economy. Or as Terrance Kardog, a monk in South Dakota, has termed the Great Plains, "a school for humility."
The region requires that you wrestle with it before it bestows a blessing. After endless miles of riding, we finally came upon the town of Crane Valley. Crane Valley literally sits in the middle of nowhere. For most purposes, it is a ghost town. There are no barking dogs, no sounds of children, just the wind whistling through the prairie grass. The grain elevator stands nearly empty. The rail line has been torn up. A lone truck appears and brings its grain to the elevator - the last place to die in a dying town. All around us, everything is closed, boarded up, and forgotten. It's a disheartening sight, as if the prairie were reclaiming it.
Grain elevators are becoming more and more a part of history. The consolidation of the farm industry has eliminated the need for small country grain mills. The once busy elevator of my father's youth has been shut down for years now - standing tall and mute against the prairie skies.
These days local seed and feed houses sell about as much wild bird seed and deer corn as they once did cattle pellets. New types of customers wearing fashionable sneakers and driving sport utility vehicles are seen transacting business. Bib overalls are seldom seen. All a part of the changing rural community.
April 21, 2003