Relics From Grain Elevators

Grain elevator memorabilia collection celebrates American agriculture

| May 2012

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.