Courtesy of Montana Grain Growers

You may have noticed Montana has lots of elbow room. Our population per square mile is less than all others, with the exception of Wyoming and Alaska. All this space is a primary reason why you won’t see many skyscrapers in our cities; there is simply plenty of room to build out, rather than up!

Rather, we tend to build our skyscrapers on the rural prairies of our state. These are our grain elevators, and they offer a striking vertical dimension to an otherwise horizontal panorama. Some are smaller and older wooden structures, perhaps in need of attention and repair. Others are larger, shiny and new. But all have a story to tell about our largest industry in Montana—agriculture.

The first elevator was built on the shore of Lake Erie 175 years ago. Its defining feature was a continuous belt with buckets attached for the purpose of unloading boats at the dock. This grain-moving principle is surprisingly similar today, although the capacity and scale are much larger.

The first big influx of homesteaders arrived in Montana by train in the early 1900s, and by no accident, those railroads stood ready to haul farmers’ crops to the markets back east. The proven model, and still in use today, was to elevate the farmers’ grain into overhead bins, then load those rail cars by gravity. This gave rise to the high-rise.

Many of those original wooden elevators from a century ago still stand along Montana highways, in small towns or abandoned places. Some burned down long ago, almost always the casualty of a hot motor or bearing at the top end of the bucket belt. A few have gained a new lease on life, repurposed to handle a small business dealing in a specialty commodity like beans or peas. But, by and large, the new model is for bigger and taller elevators to handle volume efficiently.

Our farmers have become more efficient in their grain handling, as well. Those first homesteaders delivered their grain with a team and wagon. Through the years, they moved to Model T Fords, then single axle trucks, then tandems. Today, most full-time farmers use semis, the big-rig truck and trailer used by industry nationwide.

The majority of our farmers store their freshly-harvested crops right at home, in the round steel bins you have likely noticed at farmsteads across the state. Some grain is hauled directly to elevators from the fields, but Montana’s long distances discourage that practice during the busy days of harvest. More commonly, grain is hauled during those seasons when fieldwork is not pressing.

Railroads, too, have evolved in the way they move grain. Boxcars were used for all manner of goods a century ago, including grain, but covered hopper cars are now standard for bulk grains like wheat, barley, corn, and soybeans. Where once a 25-car train was a good load for a steam engine, 110-car trains are pulled (and pushed) by 3 or 4 diesel-electric locomotives.

Each advance by farmers and railroads in the movement of grain has prompted changes in the way elevators are built and managed. For maximum efficiency, an elevator has incentive to be able to fill a mile-long train in 9 hours! This requires 25 million pounds of grain, a large facility, and some pretty specialized equipment. Modern elevators are a massive marvel of industrial technology.

All three of these evolutions—on our farms, at the elevators, and on the rail—make the movement of Montana’s huge grain crops competitive in the world markets. Naturally, these three sectors each have a financial interest in the intrinsic value of each bushel of grain. Market interests can cause a dynamic tension between the three, but organizations like Montana Grain Growers Association have lead the way to synergistic relationships between all parties.

Just 75 Montana Grain Growers’ farmer members can grow enough food to feed the whole population of Montana! This should plainly indicate the importance of the good relationship between farmers, railroads, and our grain elevators in working together to deliver Montana crops to our export markets.

If you have occasion to travel the highways of Montana, take note of our Prairie Skyscrapers, both old and new. These are a significant part of both our history and future.