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'Form, function and memories'

David Britton was driving from Grand Forks to Sioux Falls, S.D., on business one day in the early 1980s, and he was struck by the absence of much to break the flat monotony of the landscape -- until he spotted a pair of grain elevators marking th...

The disappearing grain elevator

David Britton was driving from Grand Forks to Sioux Falls, S.D., on business one day in the early 1980s, and he was struck by the absence of much to break the flat monotony of the landscape -- until he spotted a pair of grain elevators marking the tiny town of Victor, S.D.

He felt a pull, something he later realized came from his childhood, and he pulled off Interstate 29. With a cheap little camera, he snapped a few photographs of the aging but still proud structures.

That was hundreds of elevators and thousands of photographs ago.

Britton, 63, president of Britton Transport in Grand Forks, will show some of those images and talk about country grain elevators, "form, function and memories," to open the 45th annual Northern Great Plains History Conference here tonight.

Distinctly angular and boastfully tall, grain elevators long have dominated the rural landscape of the North American plains. They stand, though some sag, small-town cousins to the prairie's other signature architectural feature, the rural-elegant white clapboard church with its bell-tower steeple.


And like the little churches, many of which are gone or shuttered now, attended only by rows of fading gravestones, the landmark country elevator is fading into disuse and disrepair and has become history: the history of a place, a time, a people.

"They were gathering places for farmers and others, who'd come in through the winter to have coffee and chew the fat," Britton said. "They were an integral part of our rural economy, and they were reference points -- especially in a winter storm. 'There's the elevator; I know where I am now.'

"And they're fast disappearing."

Early fascination

Britton was born in Devils Lake and lived briefly in Larimore before the family arrived in Grand Forks in 1952. Clarence Britton was in the grain business, and young David often rode along as his father navigated seas of grain throughout northeastern North Dakota, visiting elevator managers, testing and weighing grain, helping to load railroad boxcars.

"He always had a truck with high-sided boxes, and he'd buy and sell screenings -- mustard seed, pigeon grass screened from the grain -- which farmers fed to their cattle," he said. "There's not much of that anymore, thanks to chemicals."

His father and a partner had two elevators in Keith, N.D., a few miles east of Devils Lake, where they processed screenings into feed, and that's where David's fascination with trucks and elevators began.

In 1952, the partners built a grain mill immediately north of the Bronze Boot in Grand Forks, operating it for just a year or so until it was bought by the neighboring North Dakota Mill & Elevator.


"My dad stayed on as manager," Britton said. "I spent a lot of time running around that elevator."

His father also had an elevator at Merrifield, N.D., for a time, "an old Peavey, a typical 30,000-bushel elevator with an annex."

He recalls sweeping elevator driveways as a youngster, building play forts with grain boards used for coopering, and thrilling to the sights and sounds of harvest: trucks lined up, grain flowing, his father joking and cajoling with farmers.

"I probably didn't realize at the time how stimulating that was," he said. "My father was a pretty gregarious fellow. People liked him."

Primacy of place

Since he started photographing grain elevators, he has visited more than 1,800 locations from California to Indiana, from the prairie provinces of Canada to the Gulf Coast. He uses old railroad maps and gazetteers to track them.

At first, he knew little about photography, but he has taken a series of short courses since. "I hope the images have improved some over the years," he said.

For the past five years, he has used his elevator photos to illustrate calendars issued by his transport company, and he has several framed favorites on the walls of his office, including a stark image of the elevator that is all that remains of the town of Thelan, N.D., near the Montana border.


The windows are long gone, the driveway doors left open, the shingles eroded and the wood showing signs of rot. But it still has the attached "dust house," where grain dust accumulated, and the original office survives. The office once housed in its basement the gas-powered four-cylinder Case tractor engine that powered the elevator, Britton said, until safer electrical equipment could be operated in the main structure.

Happy memories

Country elevators blossomed across the northern prairies in the 1870s and 1880s, as immigrants came to break and farm the land and railroads laid track to haul harvests to mills and shipping points.

The wooden structures were always at risk of fire because of lightning and, with the bigger ones, the accumulation of highly flammable grain dust.

As big unit trains demanded elevators with greater capacity, the smaller structures became less vital. Some were brought down by controlled burns or dismantled by salvage crews. A few have been moved and converted to farm equipment storage, and Britton said he knows of at least one each in Montana and South Dakota converted to family homes.

And a diminishing number of old elevators remain standing, empty and silent even at harvest but still proclaiming themselves through faded lettering as a Peavey or an Occidental, still claiming primacy of place on the horizon, still evoking memories.

For Britton, they evoke memories of happy times when he was young and worked alongside his father.

"It's history, and it's disappearing," he said. "It's just like the demise of the small towns. We're not going to change it, but it's sad to see them go."


Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send e-mail to chaga@gfherald.com .

David Britton
Grand Forks businessman David Britton has traveled thousands of miles and visited more than 1,800 locations over the last nearly 30 years photographing grain elevators. Britton will open the 45th annual Northern Great Plains History Conference tonight with a presentation of some of his images and talk about country grain elevators,"form, function and memories. Herald photo by John Stennes.

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