Relics From Grain Elevators
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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.
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.