Mailboxes and Old Barns: Grain Elevators – Castles of the Prairie


Today’s MBOB is a repeat from a year ago. It’s harvest time again and depending on when the rain finally stopped last spring, harvest has been under way since July in some areas.

1951 was a good year. Dad sold 3,686 bushels of our wheat to the local elevator – 3,000 from the 1950 crop and the remainder a portion of the 1951 crop.

He didn’t plat out the wheat acreage in his record book for that year so I don’t know how many acres contributed to the total, but if we estimate 200 acres (which would be a little less than half of what we had in cultivation, the rest being poor-quality pasture) that year’s production was a little over 18 bushels per acre. Not bad. Thirty bushels per acre was considered a good crop. Some fields gave us thirty-six bushes per acre one year.

Although we had 500 of our 1181 acres under cultivation, only half of that could be planted in any given year because of the poor quality of the soil and limited, random rain.  Strip-elevators3farming helped preserve the soil so the ribbons Dad had carved out from our 500 acres allowed for 250 or so to be in production each year. Not all of that would be wheat (which is why I used 200 in the previous paragraph to estimate production). We usually had at least one field of oats to provide grain for the milk cows.

The grain elevators at the railroad siding in every small town were a hub of activity in August as the first loads of wheat were brought in.  The reports of crop quality and bushels-per-acre traveled with the farmers and spread quickly around the community as sales and services were tallied up, some of the wheat going into the grain car waiting on the siding destined for St. Paul, Minnesota, and some into the elevators for storage in the hope of better prices in the winter or spring.

Wheat prices in August of 1951 ranged from $1.95 – $2.12 a bushel, the latter being the high water mark for the year.  In January, Dad had sold 504 bushels of the 1950 crop for $2.08.

Until around 1958, our wheat was harvested with a 6′ John Deere combine–so around and around he’d go, harvesting a six foot swath as he went. When the hopper was full, a couple of rounds if the crop was good, he would pull up next to our all purpose farm truck at the end of the field and dump it.

When the truck was full, he would  drive it back to the granary(ies) in the farm yard.

It would be backed up to the grain pallet (an open wood platform with sidewalls about six inches high to keep the grain from running on the ground) positioned in front of the granary. The tailgate is slowly lifted, by hand, and the grain begins pouring out.  As it piles into its little pyramid (about three feet high was workable) the truck is slowly driven forward as a three foot high ridge of grain is created in the 8-foot long pallet.

elevator6The grain auger, serviced and standing by, is ready.  After the pallet is holding all it can, the business end of the auger is positioned in the small wheat pile and fired up. The auger is a miniature by 2013 standards, and it faithfully does its job, pulling the wheat through its long cylinder and depositing it inside whatever grain bin has been selected for this load. As the grain is augered into the granary, he and my brother shovel grain toward the auger base to move the last of it.

There was an unrehearsed ritual that attended the arrival of the first truckload of wheat each year. Money and machinery and time had been invested for a full year in order to gain this moment. The uncertain weather had allowed this crop to develop, this wheat to ripen, and now this year’s first load is welcomed as any little sisters in the house come out to the granary with Mom to watch the wheat begin to sw-i-i-s-h-h with a rustle out of the truck, then to be gathered and moved into the bin by the auger.

It’s fitting that wheat fields are often described as looking like waves of the sea because the sound of a load of wheat smoothly swishing out of the truck bed is similar to that of distant surf.

Wheat dust rises from the process and fills elevators33the air around the truck.

Now add a full moon to these harvest sounds.

Know that the usual supper with home made bread is waiting to be eaten as soon as the grain is tucked away and the cows are milked.

That’s why tired, grateful farm families sleep well.

When time’s allowed to realize you may not get a crop – and that realization fills several months of every year – then gratitude acquires detail, color, angles, edges and nuances that the presumptuous and demanding will never know.

When we sang harvest songs in our little country church they were sung with gusto because we lived every word – every year.

Come, ye thankful people, come, raise the song of harvest home;

All is safely gathered in, Ere the winter storms begin;

God, our Maker, doth provide for our wants* to be supplied;

Come to God’s own temple, come,

Raise the song of harvest home.

(*back in the day, wants were presumed to be needs and it wasn’t considered necessary to make a distinction)

Oh, that song of harvest home! As we stood by our parents and sang , we had fresh memories of our dads working in the field, working through the mechanical breakdowns that were often a part of harvest, and finally bringing the wheat to the yard to be delivered by the auger into the granary — we knew what the declaration of harvest home! meant.


Potential harvest doesn’t mean much.

Hoped-for harvest isn’t the goal.

It’s harvest home the farmer needs.

pagedividerOur granaries were small, clean-as-a-whistle wood buildings. The wheat piles were so pretty but we knew it was still a sure invitation to swift punishment if we were ever caught playing in the wheat – not only because of our dirtying and wasting the crop but because of the danger. 

Think beautiful quicksand.

Grain drownings happen. Sometimes farmers forget the danger. Sometimes elevator workers miscalculate the condition of the wheat in the elevators, aren’t paying attention to where they placed their foot, or may lose their balance. And they drown just as quickly as if they had fallen into Niagara Falls, inhaling the wheat as they struggle for air.

It’s a nightmare scenario, the potential for which has always been a part of working around quantities of small grains.


The following link is more fun than the previous one: When I was looking for the thumbnails of prairie elevators, I elevator4found this video of the very elevators to which my dad delivered his wheat crops sixty years ago – one of them being pulled down just recently –with a payloader!  You can see that OSHA and the EPA are not on the scene.  I suspect they were neither invited nor informed. Seeing this footage was slightly surreal for me.

You gotta love the fact that the two oldest elevators remain standing after they pull down the one the payloader is hitched to.



These weekly MBOBs are snapshots from the back roads of my memories. Mailboxes along the roads and old barns set back in fields overgrown with weeds often served as landmarks that told us where we were and how far we had to go in the prairie country where I grew up in northeastern Montana. 

Sometimes they signaled “home” and the end of the road.  At other times, barely visible through swirling snow they told us we had miles to go.  When I started compiling these word pictures I realized they were like those mailboxes and old barns—still identifying important places along the road, still signaling where I am and how far I have to go.  


Signed copies of Mailboxes and Old Barns ($18/including shippingcan be ordered by emailing Payment can be made by PayPal or check to Sharon Torgerson, P O Box 513, Woodburn, OR 97071.

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6 Responses to Mailboxes and Old Barns: Grain Elevators – Castles of the Prairie

  1. stella says:

    Note from Sharon: this great poem from stella was dropped into the thread when this post was published a year ago. It’s part of the picture so I’m leaving it here as a starter commenter. Thanks, stella!

    Poem about Harvest time in 1920’s Michigan:

    (Harvest time was when the threshing machine came and the neighbor men, because they liked to eat at our house. They worked hard and they ate the same way.)

    When you see the men all comin’
    And that thresher sittin’ there
    A puffin’ and a pantin’
    Like a dragon from its lair –

    Then you better start a cookin’
    For when dinner time comes around
    They’ll come like starving cattle –
    Stampeding o’er the ground.

    You quickly load the table
    With taters, roasts and pies.
    Like magic they all disappear
    Right before your eyes –

    For thrashing makes you hungry
    I think you will agree.
    For filling up the empties
    Seemed impossible to me.

    There was something kind of friendly, though,
    When neighbors came around
    To work and eat together
    On a friendly common ground.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. lovemygirl says:

    It’s always a lovely mental break for me to read your posts. Thanks for sharing parts of your writings.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Cyrano says:

    This picture is complete. All the details are there. I remember working on the farms of northern Illinois at harvest time, and how well we were fed at lunch time. Nicely done, Sharon!


  4. P.Spinach says:

    You gotta love the fact that the two oldest elevators remain standing after they pull down the one the payloader is hitched to LOLLL


  5. Mist'ears Mom says:

    I don’t remember reading this last year. I recently moved to North Idaho and one year when I was visiting we went over to Washington State to the Farmers Daughters Market, which evidently is a annual event. Driving there we passed through fields and fields of golden wheat with a lonely farmhouse here and there. We eventually arrived in a tiny village along railroad tracks with many large grain silos lined up nearby. Being a ‘city’ girl I was intrigued with everything down home and country and the beauty of the land. It was a lovely day with good ole folks out in the middle of nowhere along the WA/ID border. Nice to learn a bit of what it was like to actually live it. Thanks.


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