Elevators, Grain

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ELEVATORS, GRAIN. Unlike most agricultural products, individual grain kernels are not damaged by scooping or pouring. Also, wheat and corn can be safely stored for long periods. The inventor of the grain elevator, Oliver Evans, took advantage of these properties when, in the late eighteenth century, he designed machinery to lift grain into storage bins at the top floor of his flour mills. The machines featured iron buckets attached to a moving belt that was driven by hand, or by horse or waterpower.

For years, large flour mills only operated mechanical grain elevators based on Evans's system. By the early 1840s, however, expanding grain production in the Old Northwest made it difficult to transfer and store grain surpluses by hand. In 1842, a Buffalo, New York, grain merchant, Joseph Dart, built a steam-powered elevating apparatus that unloaded grain from vessels into his waterfront warehouse, reducing unloading time from days to hours. Merchants, warehouse workers, and railroad officials at booming Great Lakes ports saw the advantages of this technology and, within years, grain warehouses at these ports featured similar machinery. The devices grew larger, more powerful, and more efficient, and, by the mid-1850s, fused elevating and warehousing functions into a single structure called a "grain elevator."

This technology spread slowly. In the 1870s, it appeared in major Mississippi River ports and on the eastern seaboard. By the 1880s, railroad feeder lines west of the Mississippi boasted elevators at each station. On the Pacific slope, unique weather and ocean shipping conditions retarded the introduction of grain elevators until after World War I. As they spread, grain elevators changed basic marketing methods, introducing standardized grading and futures contracts, and exposed grain producers to the power of large firms with exclusive control of "line" elevators at rural shipping points and warehouses at terminal markets.

Strong reaction against real and imagined abuses—such as fraudulent grading and price-fixing—followed. Backed by the Granger movement, spokesmen demanded government regulation. In 1871, Illinois passed a Warehouse Act that the Supreme Court upheld in Munn v. Illinois. Some farmers also sought relief through cooperative elevators, but most of these failed in the 1870s. Later, the Farmers' Alliance, Populist, and National Nonpartisan League movements obtained cooperative action, stronger government regulation, and—in places—even state or municipal ownership of elevators, forcing private firms to share market control and conform to government regulation.

Some reductions in abuses resulted; however, twentieth-century grain firms adjusting to abrupt shifts in government regulation and the varying market conditions encountered during wars, depression, and major shifts in world trading patterns, have tended to develop greater centralization and efficiency. Since the interwar period, more grain elevators have come under the control of a few multinational firms, which have responded quickly to shifting grain belt locations, the new importance of soybeans, and flour and feed mill needs. These multinational firms continue to share the building and control of grain elevators with government agencies and farm cooperative organizations and have adopted technical advances in elevator construction—such as pneumatic machinery—to handle grain delivered by trucks. Thus, the innovation of the grain elevator, which helped make the United States a leading producer and exporter of grain crops in the mid-nineteenth century, still serves that function in the early 2000s and continues to evolve.


Clark, J. G. The Grain Trade in the Old Northwest. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1966.

Cronon, William. Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: Norton, 1991; 1992.

Fornari, Harry. Bread Upon the Waters: A History of United States Grain Exports. Nashville, Tenn.: Aurora, 1973.

Lee, G. A. "The Historical Significance of the Chicago Grain Elevator System." Agriculture History 11 (1937):16–32.

MortonRothstein/c. w.

See alsoAgricultural Machinery ; Agriculture ; Cereal Grains ; Cooperatives, Farmers' ; Grain Futures Act ; Northwest Territory ; Oats ; Populism .