Prairie Sentinels – Grain Elevators
The explosion in American agricultural production in the mid-nineteenth century following the invention of the mechanical reaper led to a shift from subsistence farming to agriculture-as-industry. But the grain had to be collected at terminals before being hauled to market by the newly-constructed waterways or railroads, and grain elevators, invented in 1842, met that need. They were powered by steam engines that were used to lift grain from ground-level to storage bins aloft, whence it later poured down a chute to fill waiting conveyances. They loom over the surrounding country in a design that has changed very little, grain elevators reminded people of line-of-sight watchtowers keeping vigil, and were therefore affectionately called “Prairie Sentinels”. In the heyday of horse carts, they were spaced as little as ten miles apart along a railroad to let a farmer and his horse accomplish the round-trip from farm to grain elevator in one day.
When I come across these structural machines that still dot much of the farmland, I am reminded of the moai of Easter Island. True, those statues that stare seaward are thought to be ceremonial depictions of departed ancestors, with no other explicit function. Here, our departed ancestors were too frugal (and hard-pressed) to build monuments, but they cooperated as a community to build structures that helped effect economies of scale. What, in my mind, unites the two is the declaration they make — “We’re here now” – a statement of fact that, for better or for worse, signifies an indelible human handprint upon a virgin landscape.
Grain elevators are still in use, with modern ones clad in steel or made of concrete and powered by electricity. I have a weakness for the old wooden ones sitting by sidings where no locomotive has puffed in for a century or more. Crumbling stone sidings sprout weeds. Ties askew, rusted rails run helter-skelter. Pigeons fly in and out of unglazed windows and the wind coaxes an impatient whistle from a ghost locomotive. Daubed with shreds of old paint, wood is whittled and roughened by age; sinews of wind-twisted metal hold tenuously. Painted messages exhort across a century, their voices only slightly hoarsened by time.
Newer grain elevators incise themselves effortlessly into images against storm clouds scudding across the Montana sky or silhouetted in the glow of a setting sun. A string of bright orange BNSF, or deep blue MRL, locomotives ties it off nicely, or you may strike gold and find a waiting line of brilliantly graffitied boxcars. Or, maybe, just one sway-backed, rusted, antediluvian box-car, next to the elevator, waiting patiently for a load of grain, going nowhere at all…. limitless possibilities! – Ranga Parthasarathy
The reception will take place during the first art walk of 2019, June 28th, 5:30-8pm