The Day the Silo “Busted”

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Filling the silo.
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The Cement Silo Co., Kalamazoo, Mich., was one of many eary 20th-century cement silo advertisers in Hoard's Dairyman, a periodical aimed at "an up-to-date class of farmers." The above ad, complete with misspelled "large," appeared in a 1911 issue.

Dad was building a new barn after the old barn and silos were destroyed in a disastrous fire caused by lightning.

The year was 1920 there on the banks of Muddy Creek.

Dad had decided to make the new barn as fireproof as possible. He contracted with George and John Moore, well-known carpenters in Lukin Township, to erect forms and build the barn of poured concrete.

They had just completed erecting the 50-foot-tall, all-concrete silo, the tallest manmade structure in the area, when silo-filling time arrived.

The neighbors were betting the old Titan tractor would not have enough “umph” to spin the cutter fast enough to blow the chopped silage high enough to get it over the top of that silo.

Dad figured this might well be a problem too. So, since the feed room was not yet built, he decided to set the blower right under the chute and run the discharge pipe up through it to the 42-foot level. The Trimble boys north of Robinson had proven that their silo could be filled at that height using the same power source, so Dad figured this was a good first goal.

Filling silos in those long ago days was a far cry from filling them today. Field choppers were unknown, and in fact, corn binders with their mechanical cutting and bundling of the stalks, were still in the experimental stage. As a result, most of the corn for silage was cut by hand using brute strength and awkwardness.

The editor of Hoard’s Dairyman, an early advocate of corn silage, was recommending that corn be cut for silage just as it passed the roasting-ear stage. The leaves were still green and the stalks full of sap and heavy.

The stalks were cut with a corn knife, a machete-like instrument with a very sharp, two-foot-long blade. About a dozen stalks were gathered into the crook of the left arm, the knife then swung, cutting off the stalk about four inches above the ground.

Cut stalks were laid together in a heap for later collection by two men with a team and wagon. One man picked up the piles and handed them to the other, on the wagon rack. His job was to “build” a load of the stalks, which were then hauled to the silo.

There, two more men would feed the stalks into the chopper. The whole process was certainly not labor efficient.

The chopper was a huge fan with knives attached to the blades. Using the tractor for power, the blades spun at a high speed and the knives cut the corn stalks into inch-long sections.

Then the blades blew the cut corn up the eight-inch discharge pipe and over the top of the silo into a string of three-foot-long buckets hanging on the curved end of the “gooseneck.” A man inside the silo guided the spout so that the chopped corn was spread so to keep the surface level. At the same time he tramped down the silage along the edges to pack it so it kept better.

At the best this “inside” man had a tough job. He had to spread the chopped silage as well as insert new doors every three feet and “mud” them in with a bucket of Muddy Creek mud. The mud sealed the cracks around the doors to make them as air tight as possible.

Silos had become more common by this time, but the labor demands were still very strong and Dad had to “borrow” several neighbors to help fill this new silo.

Besides the filling crew, there were several carloads of “lookers,” some of them skeptics there to heckle Dad and say “I told you so” when the blower would choke down and not push the cut corn over the top. This happened often as the men feeding the chopper had to learn just how fast it could be fed and had to learn to read the sounds of the blower and of the tractor as it lugged down under the load of the stalks being fed into the machine.

It takes a lot of corn to fill a silo, especially when the corn is green and well filled with “juice.” As I recall they would fill about 10 doors a day and then over night it would settle. As the silo got fuller, the weight was greater and the squeezing even more so, and the juice actually stood on top of the chopped corn.

Dad decided when they reached the 39-foot level and had proven that the tractor could blow the silage higher, that the corn was just too green. So, he decided to let the corn mature a bit and meanwhile raise the blower pipe to the top of the silo. He suspended chopping for a week.

When filling was resumed, in early October, the silage level was down near half from where they stopped. The inside man had to use a ladder to get down to the surface because the doors he’d installed earlier were still in place.

The chopped corn had started to ferment and the smell and heat was mighty heavy. We now know that this was a dangerous time for the inside man and that he had been at great risk from being overcome by gas, but thankfully no problems occurred.

The filling continued at the rate of about five doors a day and with the settling it took more than a week to get near the top.

All seemed to be progressing fine. The corn was handling nicely, the men had learned the proper rate to feed the chopper and the rains had held off. It was just about time to top off the job when the accident happened.

A good group of visitors remained on hand to see the end of the fillin’. Uncles and aunts and cousins, people who came over to see the unusual operation and those who were still certain the blower would surely explode from the pressure.

Someone, either one of the workers or an onlooker, suddenly noticed a black line running down and around the silo, starting near the top and winding down about six rings. Against the fresh, bright, white-painted background, this line was clearly visible from the driveway.

He jumped up and down, yelling, “Crack! Crack! She’s a ‘crackin’! Get out! She’s gonna bust wide open!”

There it was, no doubt about it. That black line stood out like a sore thumb. Dad hollered up the chute for the inside man to get down and out, the tractor was thrown into reverse and jerked back with the belt still attached to the chopper. This yanked the chopper out of place, and the team with the partly unloaded corn lurched into a gallop, spilling the man on the load. The horses headed for the barn, wagon and all, spewing corn stalks along the way.

The tall metal blower pipe was twisted out of position when the chopper was yanked out and the part that didn’t come tumbling down hung at a crazy angle.

Dad bellowed for everyone to get back, way back, out of the way. Mother came to the kitchen door with Aunt Easter to see what the commotion was. The yelping of the dogs as they headed for their hole under the side porch added to the din.

And then there was old man Wagner from Tom town. Well loaded after checking out the three-week-old apple cider in the basement, he kept aslappin’ his knee and saying, “I knowed it, I knowed it, told ya so, I told ya so!”

The only calm person in the bunch was Uncle Walter. How proud I was of him as I look back. With all the commotion around him, Uncle Walter took a long look at that crack. It didn’t seem to be getting any wider.

Later, he said he figgered that iffin’ it was agonna fall, it would have done so, but it didn’t.

We all waited, me holdin’ on to Aunt Easter’s skirt. Scared? You betcha, but still fascinated by the hubbub and knowing something BIG was about to happen.

But it didn’t. We waited. Still nothing. Then Uncle Walter told Dad he was agoin’ to climb up and take a look at that crack. He headed up the chute and in a few moments, we could see his head as he poked it out of the top of the silo, 60 feet in the air.

Then he waved and clasped his hands over his head. He had seen something we couldn’t. He could look right down between the crack and the wall and see that one of them big Monarch butterfly larva had hitched a ride south on a cob web, drifted a bit low and got wrapped around that silo.

Boy, from the ground, it sure looked like a crack, especially if you was kinda expectin’ something like that anyway. Even today in early October, one can often see hundreds of silver streaks in the sky as the Monarchs head south on the breeze, riding on cob webs. Take a look this year. FC

The late Perry Piper was a newspaper columnist in Indiana and Illinois for more than 12 years. His columns, reprinted here from his memoirs, appear in Farm Collector with permission of his family.
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