After the Harvest: Indiana's historic grain elevators and feed mills
PHOTOGRAPHY by John Bower, FOREWORD by Birch Bayh
Motivation and inspiration for creating After the Harvest
While looking up in hundreds of Southern Indiana towns during the course of shooting 2nd Stories, it didn’t take long form me to realize that the tallest structures in many locales were grain elevators and feed mills. Like most Hoosiers, I’d always taken their ubiquitous presence for granted. After all, just about any Indiana town of any size had at least one of them. But, it soon became obvious, as we traveled from place to place, that these looming towers were rapidly being abandoned—and were disappearing—at an alarming rate. I realized I had to capture these once-vital economic enterprises on film, right now, before they fell down, burned down, or were purposely torn down.
Along the way, I learned a great deal about grain elevators—their design, how they were built, how they worked, how important they were to their communities, and why so many had gone out of business. Unexpectedly, I even found out about their impact on modern art and architecture. All this made for a fascinating visual story that reinforced the correctness of my desire to document this unsung aspect of Indiana’s heritage.
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As Lynn and I were driving around, looking up, for our 2nd Stories book, it was obvious that the tallest structures in many small towns were grain elevators. In fact, we’d included a couple in 2nd Stories. But, as we understood how vital they’d been to Indiana’s agricultural development, we knew they needed their own book—a book covering the entire state. It would be a daunting, but important, project.
Exploring all of Indiana, looking for old elevators, would be extremely time consuming, so we decided to track down as many leads as possible before heading out. Lynn had created a list of the ones we saw while doing 2nd Stories, but I also talked to contacts I’d made at historical societies and libraries, asking what was in their area. And I received leads from operators of newer elevators, and individuals we met at presentations. When our list of possibilities reached 500, we started driving. It seemed like a lot of leads, until we realized how many thousands of elevators there used to be. At one time, they were spaced close enough together so farmers could deliver their grain by horse-drawn wagon, then get back home in a day’s time.
From the start, we decided to include feed mills as well. The two types of business are sometimes confused by non-farm types. Simply put, a country grain elevator (or elevator, for short) is a place where grain is delivered and stored, bought and sold. A farmer sells his grain at the end of the season to the local elevator, which resells it to an end user (or a much larger terminal grain elevator). A feed mill, on the other hand, is a business that purchases grain (usually from local farmers) and grinds and processes it into animal feed for resale locally. Some facilities function as both an elevator and feed mill. We also wanted to include a few grist mills, the ancestors of today’s feed mills. At one time there were over 700 grist mills in Indiana. Today, only a handful remain, some beautifully restored, some in the rough.
As soon as I started shooting, we realized that, if we didn’t do this book right now, it would be impossible to do later, because so many older structures were being razed. I was regularly told, “There used to be an elevator in such-and-such town, but I haven’t been there in several years, so it may have been torn down.” In many cases, they were, indeed, already gone. It wasn’t unusual to see where they stood, on an irregular shaped lot, along a railroad (or where the railroad used to be). Sometimes, the site was marked by circular foundations of long-gone silos. On several occasions, we arrived just as an old elevator was in the process of being flattened.
Lynn and I were both quite pleased with the variety of photographs I was able to get. There were portrait shots of stately, old wooden elevators built in the late 1800s, as well as concrete ones that dated to the early 1900s. We even found three made of clay tile, which was probably too costly for the average operator. And there were loads of detail shots of rotting loading docks, entry doors with paint peeling, enameled metal signs advertising various brands of seed, signs proclaiming the name of a small town or Farm Bureau Coop, rickety stairs, empty offices, rusting pulleys and sprockets, worn belts and chains, water wheels, milling equipment, man lifts, conveyors. I particularly liked an ancient sewing machine for stitching up bags of seed—still in use—and a mechanical chain hoist for lifting the front end of a truck off the ground so the grain would slide out the back. There was a sign in Amish territory for “Horse & Buggy Parking Only.” I included adjacent railroads, liars benches on porches, and a fascinating variety of large and small scales. We were allowed inside Beck’s Mill in Washington Co., just before it was restored, so we could shoot it in the rough, after sitting idle for over 50 years.
We visited 100-year-old elevators and feed mills still in business, although they were often surrounded by newer and larger storage bins. A few of the old buildings had new uses. A couple elevators were now private residences, and the feed mill in Cross Plains housed an antique/oddity/junk shop run by Hap Chandler. In giving us a brief history of the place, Hap told us how the current structure had been erected in 1902 on the rock-and-mortar foundation of the original building that had been burned to the ground by the Ku Klux Klan. Before we left, Hap had us sign our names on his office door. It was filled scores of autographs, including Mitch Daniels, who signed it when he was touring the state during his first run for governor. Hap, the local Democratic precinct committee chairman, told us that he gave the future governor his unvarnished opinion of how Indiana should be run.
Many of the elevators and feed mills we visited were closed-up and abandoned, with no one around to bother me as I took pictures. But, in New Palestine, a Deputy Sheriff pulled up just as I was setting up my camera and tripod. I prepared myself for a talking-to but, instead, he asked if I’d seen any tennis shoes laying around. When I said, “No,” he told me he’d chased a perpetrator through the area the previous evening, and the fellow had lost his shoes. Now he was trying to find them. I assumed he needed them for evidence of some sort, but didn’t ask. So, while I took photographs, he tromped around looking for cast-aside shoes.
When we pulled up to the old wooden elevator in Rosston, we spotted a man working on the engine of his car. I told him what we were up to, and asked permission to take some pictures. “No problem,” he said, as his two sons walked up. I guessed they were between 8 and 10 years old, and they told us they’d be happy to give us a tour of the inside, where they played all the time. While I set up my camera, they showed Lynn a couple of discarded relics they thought could be sold on eBay. They were pleased we thought enough of “their” elevator to take pictures of it. So, when the book was finished, we returned to Rosston, and give each of them a copy, which they were tickled to receive. A couple years later, the old elevator was razed to the ground.
From the very beginning of this project, Lynn and I both knew Indiana’s former Senator, Birch Bayh, would be the perfect person to write the Foreword, but we didn’t know how to contact him. Because his son, Evan, was our Senator at the time, I called his Washington office, and was given the phone number of the law firm where his dad worked. When I spoke to his secretary, she suggested mailing a package of information about the project, along with some sample photographs, to her attention, and she’d make sure he saw it. A few weeks later, I answered the phone, and a man said, “Hello John, this is Birch Bayh.” Having grown up on a farm, and having been a farmer himself before entering politics, he said he’d be more than happy to write something. And what he wrote was absolutely perfect—about how important the elevator was in his home town, and his personal experiences growing up there.