Introduction to After the Harvest
Indiana has a rich and fascinating agricultural history—a history that's evolved in various ways over the decades. A century ago, farming required a great deal of manual labor, and any town worth being called a town had a grain elevator sitting alongside the railroad tracks. Today, the farms are much larger and highly mechanized, the tracks are being ripped up, and the elevators are disappearing. Some elevators have been gone for decades, barely leaving a trace; others sit forlornly and abandoned, gradually turning to dust; there are probably a few being razed as you read these words; yet there are still others that remain in business, contributing to local economies. This book is a celebration of these important structures that have touched the lives of so many.
When I first started thinking about this project, I only planned to photograph abandoned grain elevators. However, after visiting some intriguing older ones that were still very much in use, I decided to include them as well. Then I realized that some of the elevators were actually feed mills—and some were both. So, within a short period of time, my project expanded once again to include aging feed mills—and even a few grist mills. Eventually, my wife, Lynn, and I drove about 12,000 miles, tracking down leads in over 500 locations, in every one of Indiana's 92 counties. Most of the structures I photographed were built between the late 1800s and the mid-20th century.
While that may sound relatively straightforward, this book's journey was a long and circuitous one. In truth, it began several generations ago, required my growing up in farm country, waited for me to develop an aesthetic appreciation of Indiana's heritage, and came to fruition in the last few years when I finally responded to the plaintive call of old grain elevators and feed mills to honor them—please.
When my great-grandfather, Jakob, came to the United States from Bavaria in 1840, he Americanized the spelling of his name from Bauer to Bower. In German, bauer means peasant or grower, and, in fact, Jakob had been a dirt farmer in the Old Country. After he and his wife, Susanna, made their way across the Atlantic, they lived for a while in New York, then moved to Chicago, before settling in Newton County, Indiana. For $12 an acre (the going price for high-quality cultivatable land at the time), Jakob bought some acreage and settled in.
When one of Jakob and Susanna's sons, John (my grandfather, whom I was named after), grew into adulthood, he followed the traditional route and farmed—but in nearby Benton County, where land was a bit cheaper. Eventually, he owned over 1,800 acres, but he didn't just raise crops. He and my Grandmother Emma produced 5 girls and 9 boys. They lived in a grand 3-story farmhouse that was once featured prominently in Prairie Farmer magazine.
Grandfather John died, at the age of 68, in 1928. He was said to have been a poor businessman, and he left behind great deal of debt. After he passed, my grandmother struggled to pay off the loans but, in the midst of the Great Depression, on January 20, 1930, she had no choice but to put the farm, and all the family's possessions, on the auction block.
Most of John and Emma's 14 children went into other, more secure, lines of work. The youngest, my father Gregory, opened a small typewriter shop in the Benton County Seat of Fowler. So, I grew up living in town, never rising early for farm chores, never hearing discussions about the price of soybeans or corn.
Fowler wasn't very big. From our house, farm fields were only a few blocks away in any direction. Of course, there was a grain elevator—located on the west side, along the railroad tracks. It was (and still is) a massive structure (see page 6). But, as a child, with other things to grab my interest, I didn't pay much attention to it, and it was soon relegated to the cobwebs of memory.
When I was in the middle of first grade, Dad moved us, and his growing business, 30 miles away from Fowler, to the larger city of Lafayette. Although we lived further from any fields, I went to school with a number of kids who lived on farms, and I spent time in their homes and barn lots—occasionally even riding astride a tractor fender. But these experiences were only a shallow, temporary immersion into farming life. Lafayette also had a grain elevator, but I paid it little notice—until I watched it burn down late one night.
Over the next few decades, as I traveled many of Indiana's highways and county roads, I would casually observe the rural countryside. By middle-age, I started paying closer attention to an agricultural infrastructure that was beginning to deteriorate. At some point, which I can't date precisely, I found myself admiring weather-beaten barns, abandoned farmhouses, and the rusting mechanical equipment that other families, in other generations, had left behind.
By the time I was in my fifties, the tall, stately grain elevators began whispering to me. Slowly, over several years, they seemed to be saying, "pay attention"—and I did. Before long, they had transformed themselves, from simple, nondescript storehouses, into captivating, rather mysterious structures. I was drawn by their, dignified appearance, as they sat proudly along railroad tracks—or where the tracks used to be. The abandoned ones particularly grabbed my attention, with their crumbling, yet solemn, majesty.
Now, as I would drive down a county road or highway, I would routinely scan the horizon, looking specifically for the familiar shapes and silhouettes of grain elevators. Getting closer, I'd scrutinize their specific combination of boxy towers, circular bins, tubes, conveyors, fans, and corrugated siding. I came to understand that, while there were similarities, each facility was unique. In time, through simple observation, I began to understand the rudimentary basics of how a grain elevator worked. But there was so much more I wanted to know.
As my initial interest turned into a mild obsession, I began seeking out images of grain elevators in the hundreds of photography books I'd accumulated over the years. To my delight, I found compelling photos by Wright Morris, David Plowden, and Hilla and Bernd Becher. I also purchased three books (Grain Elevators by Lisa Mahar-Keplinger, Measure of Emptiness by Frank Gohlke, and Grain Kings by Greg McDonnell) devoted exclusively to the subject. While these provided some fine reading and excellent pictures, they weren't enough to satisfy my craving.
Then I had a brief encounter that was eerily synchronistic. At a book signing in Lafayette, just after the release of my first photography book, Lingering Spirit, a fellow about my age stepped up to the table. He looked familiar, but I couldn't quite place him. When he smiled and said, "Hi, John," I realized it was Mike Silver—a good friend from my high school and college years, whom I hadn't seen in nearly three decades.
Mike had been a farm kid. In fact, he was, and remains, one of the most enthusiastic farming persons I know. An ag major at Purdue, Mike has worked in a variety of agriculture-related positions. Yet, with his various successes, I suspected he missed driving a tractor—and he later confirmed that he did. Although we didn't have a chance to visit long, I was glad Mike had stopped by. Before he left, he casually mentioned that, for years, as a hobby, he'd photographed abandoned grain elevators. "Wow," I said, "that really sounds interesting."
During the next two years, grain elevators continued to steadily call to me—not quite like a Siren luring a sailor to the rocks, but almost. During this time, as I was busy shooting other subjects, I would occasionally stop and focus my camera on an old elevator or feed mill. I knew if I wanted to photograph it, I had no choice but to shoot it right away, because it might not be there if I returned later. By now, I was appreciating the various details, configurations, and materials making up these aging hulks.
As my 2nd Stories book was wrapping up, I finally realized I was destined to produce this one. I also knew that our former Senator, Birch Bayh, would be the person to contribute its Foreword. He had been a farmer before entering government service, had spent time on a tractor, and he still had a deep love of Indiana, so I suspected he would have a soft spot in his heart for my subject. And he did, as you can tell from reading his heartfelt words. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank him for his moving contribution to After the Harvest. I'd also like to thank Mike Silver for his encouragement, my wife, Lynn, for her loving support and assistance, and the many people who helped me locate elevators and feed mills all across the state.
So, with the completion of these pages, at last, the winding journey that began so long ago reaches its end. During this project, I've come to realize that Indiana's historic grain elevators and feed mills are a tremendously important part of Indiana's soul. As such, they deserve to be honored and admired before any more are lost to fire, demolition, or neglect.