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By James Pratt D


rive anywhere in western Oklahoma and it is hard to miss the tall concrete and steel monoliths rising from the ground. These “skyscrapers of the prairie” are beacons to Oklahoma’s strong agricultural industry and are filled with the bountiful harvest of


wheat, soybeans and corn. We pass these grain elevators every day, on the way to school, to work or on vacation. Like mailboxes and fire hydrants, these ubiquitous structures blend in to the western landscape, silent and sturdy, awaiting the bustling activity of harvest. But how do these giants of the prairie operate and how did they become an integral part of western Oklahoma? During harvest, it is not uncommon for hundreds of trucks to pull be- neath giant grain storage bins, unload cargo, and return to nearby fields to pick up another load from the grain combine. Often, these trucks run well into the night, carrying the golden harvest of Oklahoma’s fertile soil back to the local grain elevator, the first point along a trip that can lead from the plains of Oklahoma to a grocery store in New York, Shanghai or Moscow. For many rural Oklahoma communities, the local grain elevator is the center of the economy. Not only do farmers bring loads of grain during harvest, they also pick up seed, fertilizer and supplies year-round for their farm or ranch. While many elevators are privately owned, some are coop- eratively owned by local farmers, similar to a local electric cooperative.


History of Grain Elevators


The towering Schroeder Grain Company concrete elevator was built in 1954. Four generations of Schroeders have worked in the grain industry in El Reno, Okla. Photos by James Pratt


The first grain elevator was built in 1842 in Buffalo, N.Y., to handle the increasing grain shipments coming from upper Midwest farms. As American farming moved west, grain elevators sprang up in local communities to load and store grain destined for the railroad and eastern markets. The first known elevator in Oklahoma was built in 1889 near present day Kingfisher. Made of wood, these elevators could hold only a few thousand bushels of wheat. Elevator construction was slow in the early 1890s, but after 10 years of drought, a bumper crop in 1897 produced a then-record 11.7 million bushels of Oklahoma wheat. The lack of elevator capacity meant farmers had no way of storing the grain until they could get it to market for sale. Finding a place to store their harvest became a challenge. Donald E. Green, in his book, Rural Oklahoma, wrote that a family near


El Reno stored their crop in half of their small house for a year—then the grain “was moved into a lean-to addition intended as a kitchen the next year.” Once the harvest was complete, farmers would haul the grain in a wagon pulled by horses to a “buying station” set up along a railroad siding.


The Coffey Grain, Inc. elevator in Calumet, Okla., towers above the surrounding countryside.


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