Foreword to After the Harvest (copyright 2006 Birch Bayh)
I confess to getting a large lump in my throat—an emotional rush—when first viewing John Bower’s pictorial glimpse of an important feature of rural Indiana history. When I was growing up on my grandparents’ farm in the northwest corner of Vigo County, Indiana, the local grain elevator did more than handle grain. As in most small towns, the grain elevator was the economic center and hub of male social life.
Occasionally we went to Graham’s in Terre Haute (above) but most of the time, we patronized the elevator in Libertyville, Indiana—a pillar of rusty, corrugated steel, rising far up into the Hoosier sky. To a small boy, it was an imposing structure. Located a few hundred yards from the Illinois state line, with the railroad tracks on one side and U.S. Highway 150 on the other, it provided ready access for shipments—by either mode of transportation—of grain, feed supplement, and similar products. The usual practice was for farmers to haul their grain to the elevator for sale or storage. When a sufficient supply of corn, soybeans, wheat, and oats had been accumulated in the elevator’s storage bins, the grain would be transferred to waiting boxcars for shipment throughout the country by train. If there was a shortage of railroad cars, there would be a string of semis lined up.
Libertyville was a wide spot in the highway with a population of about 100 folks when everybody was home. There was a small grocery, a storefront room for women’s social gatherings, the white-clapboard Church of Christ where we worshiped, and the grain company, with its elevator and adjoining buildings. The center of activity, located adjacent to the elevator, was the feed mill, which could grind a farmer’s grain, mix in a food supplement, and provide a finished product to feed the cattle, hogs, and chickens on the farm.
The mill was arranged with a dock in front that permitted the farmer to back his truck up and unload several gunnysacks filled with his own grain. This grain would be dumped into a grinder, mixed with supplement and, perhaps, other grain from one of the elevator’s storage bins. The ground mixture would be blown into a waiting bin overhead where it would be funneled, by gravity, into gunnysacks below. As the sacks were filled, the farmer and mill operator would carry them back to the truck. Those sacks seemed huge to me as a lad, somewhere between 80 and 100 pounds. How proud I was, as was my granddad, when, in my mid-teens, I could actually shoulder one of those sacks and carry it into our waiting GMC truck.
What I remember most is the saga of our ton-and-a-half Jimmy truck, with me at the wheel, driving up that elevator. First, I should point out that the way a farmer delivered his grain in Libertyville was to drive his truck up and around the very tall elevator shaft and dump his load at the top. Let me emphasize that the pathway to the top was a narrow circular incline that wound tightly around the outside of the elevator shaft all the way up. At the top, the grain was dumped and distributed, according to classification, through a maze of tubes into a variety of bins below. Then, one had that winding, tortuous return trip down. Heaven help you if the brakes or clutch gave away.
It is impossible to adequately describe this experience in words. One needed to be behind the wheel to understand. Picture, if you can, this incline, winding upward in a dimly lit passageway that was only slightly wider than the truck bed itself. The continuous winding nature of the incline left little or no room on either side of the truck for error. A scar or two on the side of our truck gave testimony to my occasional misjudgment. Adding to one’s nervousness was the fact that the floor of the incline consisted of wide oak planks, with two-inch intervals between each, to let spilled grain or dirt fall through the cracks to the ground below—far below. It took discipline not to glance out the side window of the cab and be reminded that, as you were creeping upward, the ground was several stories below. The first few round trips were frightening. Thereafter, each was challenging, even though you drove the trip a hundred times. You were always alone, by yourself in the cab of the truck.
Meanwhile, in the mill room and the waiting area below, there was often significant activity. As long as there was grinding and sacking to be done, two or three able-bodied men were kept busy toting sacks. There were also usually some farmers gathered about to pick up the latest gossip. If the weather was bad, or a big rain the night before had kept the farmers out of the fields, there could be a dozen or more, all participating in the conversation. There were three or four dilapidated chairs to sit on and several bales of straw which were less risky. The conversations were continuous, often several men were speaking at the same time. The subjects were as diverse as one’s imagination. Who had the latest baby? Who was getting a divorce or getting back together. How were the crops? What was the yield? Was the new variety of wheat worth the extra seed cost? Who was hurt in the corn picker? Had anyone seen Everett Funkhauser’s new Chevy pickup? Whose hound won the fox chase last night? Often a housewife would drive by and ask, “Has anyone seen Jack?”
Someone always had a new joke. I’m sure that some of them were not intended for young years but everyone laughed, so I did too—although I often wasn’t sure why I was laughing. Sometimes there were political arguments, usually intense, but not lengthy, because no one’s mind was going to change. One morning two brothers got into a fist fight that ended with one of them out cold on the dusty floor. Then there were those always-present black flies buzzing around searching for an exposed neck or arm.
The mill had a number of items for sale. In addition to grain, straw, and hay, there was a limited variety of feed supplements, Purina Hog Chow or Chicken Chow, soybean-oil meal, some first-generation antibiotics. There was a Coke cooler (no such thing as a Diet Coke), usually with a block of ice, but it was often melted into water. Just outside, there was a hand pump with cold water and an old cup which everyone used. Baby Ruths, Butterfingers, Camels, Marlboroughs and, oh yes, Mail Pouch—plus fly swatters. If there had been a church social the night before, there could be some leftovers, but they didn’t last long.
Libertyville’s grain elevator has been gone for years and, I’m afraid, the same can be said for many of those good souls that traded and relaxed in its mill room. Yes, gone but not forgotten! I shall always remember those wonderful friends I grew up with in Fayette Township. I can swear it is true, “You can take the boy off the farm but you can’t take the farm out of the boy.” If you don’t believe me, ask my wonderful wife Kitty. She will tell you I still want to grow my own tomatoes.
There was so much in common, whether joking around at the grain elevator, or visiting at 4-H or Farm Bureau meetings, the rural youth square dances, or the county fair. There were no airs, no “keeping up with the Joneses.” You were what you were. What was on your back was not important, it was what was in your heart that mattered. There is something about living on a farm that makes one appreciate the basics of life. Following the life cycle from seed to plant to crop, and being surrounded by piglets, newborn calves and chicks, and seeing them grow to maturity, reminds one of the fundamental elements of life, the satisfaction of hard work and a job well done, the importance of friends, a sense of openness, honesty, trustworthiness, faithfulness, love of country, and the blessings of the Almighty. All of these are as important today as when I was a lad in jeans with no shirt on, trying my best to grow up in the shadow of that grain elevator. Yes, the elevator is gone, but the lessons learned there live on.