Back in 1903, when the J.H. Hawes Grain Elevator opened in Atlanta, Ill., or even in 1976, when the elevator closed its doors, the farmers who hauled grain there didn’t dream that one day it would re-open as a museum.
The 55-foot-tall elevator with studded walls is the only such structure in Illinois listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and Deane May, who spearheaded the building’s restoration, knows of no other restored elevator museum in the U.S.
“It’s very unusual to find a building this old that has not been upgraded and that still retains its original character,” Deane said.
The elevator even has a historic location: Just one block off old Route 66.
J.H. Hawes built the 30,000-bushel capacity grain elevator along the Illinois Midland Railroad, which gave him access to east-west grain markets.
In the late 1980s when Deane learned that the Atlanta City Council might allow the local fire department to burn the old elevator as a training exercise, he mobilized the public to save the structure.
The Atlanta Historic Preservation Council organized and received permission from the city fathers to develop the elevator as a museum. The next step was to get the building listed on the National Register, a process that took about 10 months.
“I practically had to write a thesis on this elevator for the National Register application,” Deane said. The designation was approved in 1991 because of the elevator’s significance in the areas of commerce, transportation, and engineering.
In 1997, the preservation council received a $55,252 matching grant from the Illinois Bureau of Tourism to repair and restore the structure. That involved replacing the steel roof with slate shingles, and replacing rotten boards.
For more than 25 years, Deane had known about a 10 hp Fairbanks Morse Type Z gasoline engine made in Beloit, Wis., in 1920. But he had been unsuccessful in buying it. Finally, however, he persuaded the elderly owner to donate it to the museum.
The engine was originally sold to the nearby village of Minier in November 1920. The city paid $383.50 for the new engine, which was to be used to pump water into its water tower. In 1933, after Minier switched to electrical power, the pump was sold for $75 to Eminence Grain and Coal Co., which retired the engine in 1935.
When Deane secured the donation of the engine, he also obtained the check Eminence used to buy the engine, and the Minier village board minutes approving the sale. The documents are on display at the museum.
Restoration started with a stuck piston.
“I took the cylinder off with the piston in it and sat it upright,” Deane said. “I poured anything and everything anybody mentioned to me down into it to break it loose. Finally, I filled the cavity above the piston with gun grease and built a steel plate and bolted that down. Then I drilled it and tapped it for a grease zerk. Then I put the grease gun on it and jacked it out of the cylinder.”
He also found the exhaust valve was bad, and it had an unusual stem. Finally, he found a John Deere G tractor that had a valve to fit. He had to cut off the valve and regroove it to fit the engine, which now runs smoothly at 300 rpm.
A small scale house/office and a brick engine building that sat near the elevator had been razed. Excavations, however, located the sites.
The Stanford Grain Co. donated a scale house/office that was moved to the Hawes Elevator site in 1997. It now contains a wood-burning stove, a grain scale made by Chicago Scale Co., a grain sample scale, sieves used to grade the grain, and a model of the dump mechanism.
The engine house was rebuilt on the original foundation.
“About 25 to 30 people cleaned over 8,000 bricks,” Deane said.
The Fairbanks Morse Z was installed in the engine house. The drive belts had to be twisted so that the drive shaft would turn in the right direction. Originally, the engine burned water and kerosene, but now operates only on gasoline. A cistern in the engine house will eventually provide water to cool the engine.
The engine operates a line shaft that extends into the elevator basement and drives the elevator grain leg. The leg carries grain to the pivoting distributor spout in the cupola, where the grain is directed into one of eight, open-top, hopper-bottom bins made of wood.
The equipment could elevate 1,500 bushels of grain per hour.
A 280-foot rope runs from the drive pulley in the basement, up the elevator and around the pulley on the jack shaft in the head house.
To prevent problems, 3/4-inch rods criss-cross each bin, and stay rods were installed at each corner of every bin.
“If you load one bin and not the others, you put tremendous pressure on that structure,” Deane explained. “As you unload the bins, you change the pressure in the building.”
Unlike most elevators of the era, the Hawes elevator did not have a cable-operated lift to carry an employee to the cupola; it had a seven-flight stairway instead.
Except for the brick foundation, the entire building, even the grain leg, is made of wood.
At some point, the metal boot in the elevator basement was raised from the pit because of water damage, and a new receiving pit was built inside the old one.
An antique wood wagon sits inside the elevator and is used to demonstrate the operation of the dump mechanism. First the lid of the receiving pit in the floor is opened, then the end gate is removed from the wagon. A lever in the floor unlatches the 12-inch-wide dump logs, which tilt like a teeter-totter raising the front of the wagon into the air. Gravity pulls the grain from the wagon into the pit.
In later years, after rail service was discontinued, a spout was added to one side of the elevator, so that semi-trucks could be loaded with grain.
Now that the elevator has been restored, Deane has further development plans. The city owns a nearby building that could be used for exhibit space. He’d also like to obtain three sections of railroad track so that a railroad grain car and possibly a caboose could sit next to the elevator. Although the old track has been removed, a railroad signal remains in its original location.
As for Deane himself, he didn’t realize what he was starting when he asked that the elevator be saved.
“It’s led me in a lot of directions I never would have gone,” he said. “Now when I drive through the country, I look over every elevator I come to. People don’t realize what goes on in grain buildings.” FC
For more information: The elevator is open 1-3 p.m., Sundays, June-August and at other times by appointment. To schedule a tour, call (217) 648-2056 or (217) 648-5077. Online at www.haweselevator.org.
Dianne L. Beetler is a lifelong rural resident who enjoys writing about people with unusual collections.