Grain elevators and feed mills

John Oncken

There is little to remind visitors (and residents) of Sun Prairie that this city of some 34,000 people and often referred to as “a suburb of Madison” had its beginnings in farming. The fact that world famed artist Georgia O'Keeffe was born on an area farm is sometimes mentioned. Residential and commercial development continues to eat up farmland, there are no remaining farm equipment dealerships and the last of the former lineup of dairy farms facing US 151 between Sun Prairie and Madison went dark a couple of months ago.

About the only remnant of the farming past of this fast-growing city is the unique three-silo grain elevator still standing along the railroad tracks several blocks south of the city’s main street.  

I’ve driven past this unusual structure many times, always curious and wondering about its history and why this obviously vacant structure was still standing. Finally I made some phone calls and got in contact with Joe Chase, former Sun Prairie Mayor and local historian who related some history.

Joe Chase, Sun Prairie historian and former mayor.

Chase grain elevator

The railroad was first built to Sun Prairie in 1859, was relocated to its present site 10 years later and in 1899 J.W. Chase built a 16,000 bushel grain elevator on the location of the present structure. The original elevator burned in the early 1920s and the existing structure was built in 1922 by Fred Chase. The new structure was built near a tobacco warehouse dating to 1894 — Sun Prairie had become a tobacco shipping center — that later served as a feed warehouse for the grain elevator.

The Chase Grain elevator was later described as a “country elevator where farmers brought grain by wagon or truck for shipment to market by rail.” 

As was described in an application for National Registration of Historic Places some years ago:  “As was typical of country elevators, the Chase Grain Elevator integrates the 17,000 bushel storage bins, the workhouse where grain receiving, weighing and loading took place, the office  and the cupola which housed the top of the conveyors. The bins consist of two silos 18 x 40 feet in size with a half silo between the two full silos called a ‘pocket bin'".

Fireproof clay tile

The most unusual feature of this grain elevator is that the silos (bins) are constructed of curved clay tile produced by the Brazil Hollow Brick and Tile company of Brazil, Indiana.  Fred Chase was looking for a fireproof building after his previous elevator had burned the year prior. Note: This was one of but a few such tile-walled grain elevators built in the state and apparently the only one still standing. 

The Chase Grain Elevator on the left and the former tobacco warehouse and feed sales office (now apartments) on the right.

A large shed-roof canopy sheltered the trucks while unloading but it was torn off by one of the trucks or the wind (no one is sure which) in the 1970s and not replaced. 

1922 - 1978

The Chase family operated the grain facility until the late 1930s after which it was bought, sold and leased several times. In 1978 the Oconomowoc Canning Company bought the property solely to use the ground level scale to weigh trucks for their nearby canning facility.  

Although the feed sales business continued in the next door warehouse until 1983, the stately grain elevator has been unused since 1978. After many years of being vacant it was purchased by local contractor Steve McHoes who also owns the former tobacco warehouse next door (now apartments) who will do some restoration of the grain elevator before offering it for sale. 

Thanks to Joe Chase and Steve McHoes, I now know more about the now 97 year old grain elevator. And yes, in 2010 it was granted a designation on the National Register of Historic Places.  

In North Dakota

Another interesting and curious old grain elevator still stands at Andoch, North Dakota. I have viewed and photographed it several times on visits to my son and his family at Grand Forks.  

The long vacant and decaying Mondry Grain Co. at Andoch, North Dakota.

The Mondry Grain Co. elevator stands just outside the pretty much vacant hamlet of Andoch, some  40 miles north of Grand Forks. Interestingly the grain elevator was owned by the Mondry family farm and was at one time located on a rail line. When the railroad closed, the elevator and the village of Andoch were not needed anymore and they pretty much died. The old elevator now provides a photo site for countless photographers who probably drive by, then turn around to get their photos. 

Andoch has an empty church, lots of empty houses and many picturesque buildings and a few year-round residents and quite a few summer workers who reside in Texas otherwise.  

Dead flour mill to modern house

Probably the most interesting old feed mill I know of is the one owned by Ross and  Theresa Halverson who in March 2011 moved the 1858-built Lone Rock Flour Mill over a mile of frozen fields to their property located a couple miles north of Lone Rock. Note: regular readers may remember my columns telling the rebirth of the old mil over several years.

Big steel grain bins are everywhere today.

It appeared to me that the old mill was about ready to collapse, the roof was in bad shape and the whole thing a mess. Yet the Halversons planned a major reconstruction and planned to live there. And they did —  since the fall of 2017. And what a home it now is! 

Old grain elevators and feed mill intrigue me. The elevators are big and by their use are oh so sturdily built. The farm feed mills were the Saturday morning gathering place for farmers where the community news was shared and the national and world news endlessly argued over. 

Most of them are now gone, replaced by 100 foot tall concrete silos that will easily survive the next century and big, wide metal bins that may come and go.

As for me, agriculture history is fascinating and interesting and I’ll keep looking for it. It’s also a bit scary because some of the things I grew up with on the farm are a part of the now ancient and almost forgotten farming life.

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-572-0747, or email him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.