Bob and Janet Nelson, residents of Ross, Iowa, in Audubon County, did not want to take down an old elevator on their property so they saved it the Iowa way, with hard work. Bob is a nurse with the Audubon County Health Department. Janet is a health consultant with the Iowa Department of Public Health. Here Bob tells their story of saving a piece of Iowa’s history.
My wife, Janet, and I purchased the Ross grain elevator 2.5 years ago. The elevator (called the “old mill” by the old-timers) is located just west of our home in the unincorporated village of Ross, Iowa. Living next to the elevator, we had often heard people complain about it being an eye sore and that it should come down. The previous owners wanted to see it saved, and had tried in the past, but it needed too much work. So when they asked if we wanted to purchase it, and attempt to restore it, we immediately said “yes”! We never thought it was an eye sore as it had such a majestic style and was so interesting to look at. We knew little about barns and even less about restoring one, but were certain if we didn’t purchase it the next owners would most certainly tear it down.
We’ve been working on it for 2 years now; researching its history, fundraising, and finally the restoration efforts. The project is not complete, but to have gotten this far is amazing to us. Here is a short synopsis.
Wooden grain elevators followed the construction of the railroads and were built approximately every 6-7 miles in grain producing states and Canada. The goal was to make it possible for all grain producers to drive their wagons to an elevator and then be home in the same day. Thousands and thousands of these old wooden grain elevators were built, some have been modernized, a few remain in disrepair, but most no longer exist.
The Ross elevator was built in 1881 by Civil War veteran Captain Charles Stuart. After the war, Mr. Stuart was employed by the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad as a forwarding agent, part of his job was to determine the location of the railroad through sections of Iowa. This led him to become the founder or cofounder of several Iowa cities including his namesake Stuart. He was the largest landholder in Iowa at the time, eventually settling in Audubon County.
We purchased the elevator from the Fred and Betty Seivers family. Fred’s dad purchased it in the late 1930’s to be used for the family farm. The beginning of the end for most of the wooden elevators was when the adjacent railroad no longer existed; this happened in Ross in the 1940’s. The Sievers family continued to use the elevator until the 1970’s, but by then it had become obsolete as the modern steel grain bin was much easier to operate and less expensive to maintain.
The elevator complex consists of 3 buildings: elevator, annex, and the scale/engine house. The elevator and annex are constructed “crib style”. Cribbed construction is dimensional lumber laid flat with the corners interlocked like a log cabin then spiked together. The elevator’s cribbing begins with 2X8’s on the bottom, 2X6’s in the middle, and eventually transitioning to 2X4’s at the top. This created an extremely strong building and is what kept the elevator from tumbling over as the limestone foundation crumbled.
The scale/engine house is built just as durable, but instead of wood, is double-walled brick.
The trend in modern agriculture seems to be out with the old and in with the new with little regard for the farm or local history. Why take the time and money to repurpose an old barn when a metal pole barn can do the same job better? From the financial perspective of maximizing profits this may be true. We could have saved ourselves a bunch of time and money by digging a hole, burning then burying it. An excavator could have taken it down in an afternoon, the land then bulldozed and farmed without a trace of what once was.
We are saving it because of its history.
This 1.75 acre piece of property once contained 2 grain elevators, train depot, stock yards, cob houses, town dump, coal shed and much more. The elevator is all that is left. The old timers (most are gone now) talk about the long lines of horses and wagons lined up at the elevator at harvest time, the cattle and hog drives (yes, hog drives) from the local ranches and farms to the stockyard. They shared stories from when they were young children about being frightened of the hobo’s and gypsies that were allowed to hang out by the “waste area” near the “east grove”.
We’ve had dozens of people stop and tell us their stories of the sights and sounds of the steam locomotive, shellers, grinders, milling operation and associated animals and people that kept it all going. As an example, the most recent visitor was an elderly gentleman researching his genealogy. His grandparents settled near Ross in the early 1880’s, but when he was young, his parents moved to North Dakota leaving his extended family behind. He was so excited the elevator remained, having something tangible to see and feel knowing that his parents, grandparents and associated relatives had all spent time and used the services at the elevator.
The elevator complex was in extremely poor condition when we purchased it. The limestone foundation had collapsed on 3 sides, large sections of the roofs were gone and had been for years. Siding had blown off exterior walls, not a single door or window had been in place for decades, literally tons of raccoon excrement everywhere. This all caused tremendous damage and rot. The consensus of all who saw it was, “It’s too far gone” and “foolish” to try.
Shortly after purchasing it, we asked local contractor Bryan Olson to give us his opinion. We were surprised when he said “anything made entirely of wood and stone can be fixed” but not so surprised when he also said “all it takes is time and money”.
He added that it just takes time and money.
The most challenging aspect, other than fundraising, was working within time constraints, the weather, and opportunity costs. Contractors had limited time to work on the project. Due to weather not always being ideal, many days did not coincide with restoration work days. Opportunity costs were tough because money that we would have used for upkeep of our own house were being used on the elevator. We did not go on family vacations.
Instead, the family was involved in painting the windows and doors of the elevator and annex, hand digging tons of old dirt and grain from the basement, power and hand-washing generations of dirt from the walls, sanding, staining and varnishing the annex floors, cleaning hundreds of bricks from the scale house by chopping off the mortar with hatchets, and hours of grunt work.
How could we possibly afford to have it restored? I was aware of the Iowa Barn Foundation and contacted them about their matching grant program. The group had a site visit, and we were awarded $25,000. The group added more for the annex.
We had to raise matching funds so we created a Facebook and web page (see below) about the elevator. We sent hundreds of letters to local and regional businesses and individuals asking for donations. We sent information on the elevator project to newspapers that resulted in stories and created interest. Having the credibility of the Iowa Barn Foundation helped.
The project, including in-kind donations is about $65,000. (Audubon County Tourism donated $5,000.)
Much of the work on the elevator and annex have been completed and we will now begin to focus on the scale house. It’s a small brick building. The men from Bryan’s Barns were helpful with the project.
We’ve learned — both good and challenging. A project like this takes work, and it's expensive. But, it’s the cost of saving history. We hope people now, and through the years, will visit the site and think about farmers bringing in their crops. We have satisfaction in knowing we have contributed to saving a piece of Iowa’s agricultural history. Our only reason for saving the elevator is because of history. It cost us a tremendous amount of time and money, and we have no current ideas on how to make a penny in return.
Our only goal, since day one, has been to keep it around for another 100 years, and this is already a possibility.
Visit the Ross Elevator website at: http://www.saverosselevator.com
We were very thankful with the generous offering of our local contractors with the use of their equipment and time, but raising money proved to be more difficult. We considered becoming a nonprofit, but found we would lose ownership of the elevator. We also contacted a lawyer whose opinion was the project was not large enough to “jump through the hoops” of becoming a 501-C3 (non-profit). This decision did cause us to lose some large donors, as most expected a tax deduction, but we were still able to come up with the $25,000, which qualified us for the Iowa Barn Foundation grant.
For a project like this, if you don’t have the skill or time, consider a contractor. We are extremely fortunate to have Bryan Olson, Jake Olson, and Larry Graves from “Bryan’s Barns”. There would have been no way for us to do this on our own; the project was just too large and overwhelming! In the last 2 years, we have repaired the foundations, roofs, walls, and much of the interior. The foundation work required a building mover be hired, the elevator lifted and blocked in place until the foundation repair was completed.
Much of the work on the elevator and annex have been completed and we will now begin to focus on the scale house. It’s a small brick building that once housed the office, scale, and engine that powered the elevator. We are thrilled that the Iowa Barn Foundation has awarded us a second matching grant to complete this. We hope to get it stabilized and have it mostly completed by the end of summer. Our goal is to have as much done as possible, and be ready for the next Iowa Barn Foundation tour in 2017.
We’ve learned a lot since starting this project - both good and challenging. The first being - it’s a lot of work. We both have full time jobs which means weekends and evenings are spent on the elevator. It’s also expensive - opportunity costs are high and have caused us to question our sanity at times. However, despite the expense and the time commitment, we have met some great people, learned more about ourselves and history, and have enjoyed the experience.
I would like to thank the Iowa Barn Foundation for their help, not only for the grant money, but also for their enthusiasm and encouragement. Saving an old barn may not be easy, sometimes unpopular, usually expensive, but that’s the cost of saving history.