Relics From Grain Elevators

Grain elevator memorabilia collection celebrates American agriculture

Toothpick Holders

Ceramic toothpick holders and napkin holder carry out the elevator theme.

Photo by Linda Laird

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It’s the first Sunday of the month, and Linda Laird is at the Kansas State Fairgrounds in Hutchinson checking out the flea market. She’s looking to add to her collection of Kansas grain elevator memorabilia. The outing is no fluke: Linda and her husband, Larry Haney, are utterly captivated by grain elevators and related memorabilia celebrating an important part of American agriculture.

Making a record

When the Kansas Legislature changed the state’s tax code in 1992 to include a new tax on vacant, wood-frame grain elevators, it seemed likely that many of the old structures would soon be demolished. Linda and Larry decided to photograph and document as many as they could, creating a historic record of these important but overlooked buildings.

“We had a lot of fun poking through small towns in Kansas,” she says, “finding the ‘babies’ (small, early elevators sometimes moved from uprooted rail lines to farmsteads) and spending weekends and vacations stalking ‘the wild grain elevators.’”

Over the course of 15 years, the couple visited more than 2,000 elevators in Kansas and many in nearby states. They also researched elevator history in major university libraries. During their travels, they were given mountains of record books, photos, ephemera and more. The estate of Mrs. Clinton Chalmers, wife of a founder of the Chalmers & Borton Construction Co., a Hutchinson elevator construction contractor, gave the couple boxes of early construction photos, scrapbooks and memorabilia.

Their personal collection grew from there. “At a flea market about 10 years ago, I found a blue ceramic toothpick holder in the shape of an early wooden grain elevator,” Linda says. “Only six from Kansas have emerged since. One has toothpicks still in a plastic wrapper.” A “made in Japan” sticker on the bottom dates the piece to the years immediately following World War II – a boom period for elevator construction. “From that small investment, my collection has grown to include several hundred Kansas elevator giveaways, from calendars to bread knives,” she says. “I’ve also found a blue ceramic napkin holder with four elevator shapes.”

The farmer’s partner

Common in agricultural areas throughout the U.S., grain elevators were built to follow railroads and shipping routes. Small, wooden elevators came first as towns sprang up along railroads. Larger structures were built at major shipping terminals as the U.S. became the world’s breadbasket.

Elevators were typically owned by individuals and families, private businesses and farmers’ cooperatives. Owners marketed storage to farmers to gain the few cents per bushel that allowed business expansion and profitability. As long as the American grain elevator has existed, owners have found ways to market the elevator’s name and service while enticing and rewarding their customers.

Annual customer appreciation dinners were a fixture in many communities for years. Members of the elevator’s management team took advantage of the captive audience to promote the company and announce planned improvements for the next year.

Time-honored tradition

Elevator owners also relied on premiums to promote their business to farmers. A marketing gimmick dating to the late 1800s, the advertising premium is a long-established source of small but practical gifts and gadgets. By the early 1900s, farmers were well-accustomed to receiving free pocket ledgers, watch fobs, pins and match safes from local businesses.

At grain elevators the selection varied over the years, but often included cups, caps, artwork, wall-hanger notepads, letter openers, tape measures, barbecue forks, screwdrivers, key chains and cigarette lighters – all imprinted with the elevator’s name, address and phone number. Pocketknives, including some fairly ornate models, were another popular premium.

Caps, calendars & coasters

Caroline Duvall, who orders premiums for Garden City (Kan.) Co-op Inc., believes elevators got in on the premium act in the 1920s. In Garden City, she says, caps were among the first items used to promote business. But premiums took a nosedive in the 1930s during the lean years of the Depression and Dust Bowl.

Caroline has unique personal experience with elevator premiums. When she remodeled the bathroom in her home, she discovered a pen-size Co-op level apparently forgotten during cabinet installation when the home was built in 1954. And the wall calendar was the workhorse of premiums, especially on the farm. “My grandmother used the calendar as a diary,” she says, “making notations of who had the measles and other important family information.”

A display of elevator memorabilia lends a historic touch to Caroline’s office. Coasters, a rain gauge, toy tractors, a yo-yo and a small set of Allen wrenches in a bright red case complement a series of handsome belt buckles issued as commemoratives from 1982 to 1994.

Pens and pencils (including mechanical pencils and bullet pencils) are among the most commonly found elevator collectibles. These were often stamped with the elevator’s phone number, which can help date the piece. From 1928 to 1958 (years approximate), phone numbers consisted of two-letter prefix codes followed by four digits. After the mid-1940s, metropolitan numbers consisted of three-letter prefix codes followed by four digits. Beginning in about 1958, seven-digit numbers were phased in.

Growing business

The bullet pencil – short enough to fit in a shirt pocket and topped with a bullet-shaped metal cap to prevent broken tips – was a popular farm-country premium commonly distributed by equipment dealers, elevators and livestock exchanges. According to Jim Kontny, Julesburg, Colo., the pencils were a staple during the heyday of grain elevator building and storage in the 1940s and ’50s, but they disappeared by the 1970s.

Jim is one of the last independent elevator owners in Colorado. His family bought a 25,000-bushel wood-frame elevator in Julesburg in the early 1940s when the elevator’s phone number consisted of one digit. Although that original structure remains in use today, the family business has expanded its total storage capacity to 1.8 million bushels in massive concrete bins. The elevator’s phone number has expanded too, to seven digits plus an area code.

Premiums have always been part of Jim’s family’s business. The assortment they’ve offered includes mini-flashlights, screwdrivers, rain gauges, playing cards and pens, and balloons for kids.

Bright as an Oscar

Magnetic clips have lasting appeal. When a loaded truck arrives at the elevator, it is driven onto the scale to be weighed. The grain is tested for moisture and quality, then hauled into the elevator and dumped into the pit. The truck is weighed again and the farmer is given a ticket indicating how much of his grain is stored in the elevator. He can sell immediately or store the grain for a fee until the price suits him. Having a clip of tickets on the refrigerator is either comforting or problematic, depending on the year.

A heavy, brass-colored paperweight sits on Jim’s desk, a premium from Chalmers & Borton Construction Co. Pat Augustine, who works at the company today known as Borton, Inc., says the company used the paperweights as premiums into the early 1960s. The paperweights were produced in pewter, brass and copper finishes; a few remain in storage at Borton offices.

The hunt continues

Linda stops to look in a few boxes of junk that have probably just come from an auction as she leaves the flea market, discouraged, with only a couple of pencils to add to her collection. Pawing under some glass items, she spies a blue elevator toothpick holder. Tagged at $1, it’s priced to sell. Her day is complete. FC 

For more information:  

– The Country Grain Elevator Historical Society was founded in 1996 “to promote the preservation of country grain elevators and their history by the collection, conservation and dissemination of information for documentary and educational purposes.” Members receive four newsletters per year. The Country Grain Elevator Historical Society, 155 Prospector Trail, Bozeman, MT 59718-7988; online at The Country Grain Elevator 

– Contact Linda Laird at (520) 393-0623 or online at Grain Elevator Press. 

Read more about grain elevators in New Book Examines American Grain Elevators.