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City of Silos

Updated on July 22, 2019

A Story of Buffalo’s White Working Class

Part I

People around the country think of Buffalo as either a snowy hell or as New York City’s long lost brother. People from Buffalo probably think about the sports or the newly developing waterfront at Canalside. Personally, I think about the abandoned buildings that once made Buffalo an industrial powerhouse. Industry infests more than half of the city, and the most publicly noted and the most mysterious to me are the grain elevators. The unique architecture of the numerous elevators has always caught my eye. Even when I was very young, I was astounded by the amount of grain elevators there actually are. Normally when you age, things that you once perceived as immense become smaller. The grain elevators in Buffalo have grown up with me, and the older I get, the more intrigued I am. Now, as Canalside is developing, light shows have illuminated the waterfront elevators, showing Buffalo’s residents’ newfound appreciation for the marvelous structures. I constantly wonder why there are so many out of operation... if there was some great event that shut them all down? When assigned this research paper, I knew right away that this was my chance to dig deep into their strange existence. Many people see the grain elevators as eyesores, but they are what makes Buffalo so unique. There must be a reason that they are still standing today.

My grandmother and her siblings grew up in the Old First Ward which surfaced some rumors when I mentioned my research to family members. My great uncle also worked on and owned the fire boat for some time which established my family’s credibility. Stories of Buffalo are told down from generation to generation. This could have caused some details to be lost, but the stories are still intriguing. According to my grandparents, when the grain industry in Buffalo came to a halt, the grain elevators were up for sale. Apparently, the man in charge sold them for cheap to a con artist. Not only did this con man get his hands on the grain elevators, he gained one-hundred percent ownership of them. From that point on, this person made use of them by offering a place to dock retired ships. He charged about $10,000 dollars per boat. Because the industry no longer owned them, all of the profit went to him. Basically, the person who sold the grain elevators was trying to make quick money, and he ended up setting a con artist up to make a fortune. Through research, I intend to uncover why there are so many vacant grain elevators, and whether or not the rumors I have heard are true.

In order to conduct thorough research, I plan to take advantage of the resources I have right here in Buffalo. While the required sources for this assignment are all either media or paper sources, I intend to get interviews from people and to tour the grain elevators myself to formulate an uninformed opinion on the breathtaking architecture. I hope to meet someone that was involved in the leasing scandal or someone who currently has ownership of one or all of the grain elevators. The grain elevators have never been in operation since I can remember. I want to know why and what they are used for now. I am hopeful that the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library has some old newspaper articles or first hand accounts from the World War I era. I am curious to find out if the African Americans involved in the great migration landed jobs in the grain elevators. I predict that the majority of southern blacks found industrial jobs in Buffalo. I also think that the increased employment of African Americans is what caused the racial divide in downtown and the east side of Buffalo.

Part II

Before I dug into the history of the operations of the grain elevators, I decided to explore the unique structure of them. Nobody can deny that the connected tube-like structure sets apart the grain elevators from other industry in Buffalo. In The Grosvenor Room at the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, I found an account from Henry H. Baxter describing architecture of the first grain elevators in Buffalo. Before the concrete silos we see today, there were wooden elevators scattered along the Buffalo river in the early 1800s. Eventually, the grain production in Buffalo become monumentally successful. This caused grain elevators to be overloaded resulting in collapsing structures. In Grain Elevators, Henry H. Baxter described the modern engineering of the newer grain elevators that appeared once Buffalo became a production powerhouse. The author states, “Once the foundation was in, construction of the elevator itself could begin, the American Elevator (now Peavey) was built of reinforced concrete; After that time this was the material used for constructing most Buffalo grain elevators. Steel rods embedded in concrete provide the reinforcement [...] Concrete also forms a fire resistant coating over the steel” (Baxter 12). The way the elevators looked has always been very unique to me. When kayaking through “Elevator Ally,” it feels like there are guardians watching over me. Many immigrants from the first ward probably felt that way too, causing them to feel at home and safe in their neighborhood. A poem written by Crystal Ockenfuss, a German immigrant, describes the atmosphere that the tall concrete elevators set in Buffalo for years. The author states, “There are concrete ghosts / grain elevators standing / guard over Lake / Erie, sentinels watching / over a past / obscured by smoke” (Ockenfuss). Ockenfuss, as well as many other immigrants, not only saw the grain elevators as job security, but as guardians. Many people who visit Buffalo describe the grain elevators as “eyesores.” Most people native to Buffalo can agree that their unique structure has an element of beauty.

Beyond the beauty, the grain elevators offered a significant economic boost from the Civil War era to the World War II era. In the 1840s and 1850s, Buffalo had a monopoly on grain because it was the mouth of The Erie Canal. In a short documentary from C-Span titled History of Buffalo’s Grain Elevators, Brad Hahn refers to Buffalo as “America’s toll booth” (Hahn) on the Erie Canal. Everything coming from and going to the Atlantic Ocean to the west had to go through Buffalo. This caused a noteworthy increase in business in Buffalo. However in the mid 1860s, a problem was posed. The Civil War was underway and many free African Americans in the North took jobs in industrial parts of the region. Refugees also migrated to the North and many found jobs as grain scoopers in Buffalo. More and more business took place in Buffalo during this time period, and the industry was beginning to grow at a rapid rate. However, there were some negatives as well. In Against the Grain, Timothy Bohen wrote about the challenges that the grain industry had to overcome when the monopoly was threatened. The author states, “In 1864, a serious threat to the monopoly of lake-vessel shipments of grain to Buffalo occured when the first, all-rail shipment of grain from Chicago arrived in Buffalo” (Bohen 29). Surprisingly enough, the railroad competition did not even phase the market in Buffalo. In fact, businessmen figured out a way to use the new “competition” to their advantage. Railways helped export grain from Buffalo causing a new industry to build in the exportation of grain. Now, more grain elevators would be responsible for temporary storage causing a higher demand for more grain and more business in Buffalo. In a photo book by Thomas E. Leary and Elizabeth C. Sholes, an image of grain being unloaded from a box car is shown on page 39. The railroads made grain transport more practical, and grain was now able to move beyond the Great Lakes.

At the turn of the century, the grain industry in Buffalo became too large for anyone to handle. The inability to control certain aspects of the business caused corruption. The First Ward played a significant role in the corruption of the business because everyone in the area held a job in the grain elevators. In a personal interview with Gene Overdorf, a teacher at Timon and a resident of the First Ward, he explained the Grain Strike of 1899 to me. “Buffalo was run by a man they called Fingy Conners,” he said. “Fingy Conners was relentless. He took advantage of starving Irishmen looking for work. He used the desperate residents of the First Ward for cheap labor” (Overdorf). There were many strikes in the grain elevators, but according to Overdorf, this was the most bloody. Because Buffalo was the most important city in the grain industry, a strike had the potential to wreck the nation’s entire grain industry. Eventually, the Great Lakes and the Erie Canal became so congested and backed up that the workers ultimately won the strike. The strikers won even though they had the entire nation’s industry against them. This is written about in a journal by Brenda K. Shelton. The author states, “Grain shovelers went out on strike in the spring of 1899. Arrayed against them were the large Great Lakes shipping companies, the elevator owners, and the railroads as well as the contractors who served as middlemen” (Shelton 210). The strikers’ victory seemed like a longshot, but the efficiency of work in Buffalo was pivotal to the nations’ success. Once I began to understand the success and achievements of the grain elevators, I decided to get to the bottom of the reason they shut down.

I can scarcely fathom the reasons why a huge business would collapse. Through research, I knew that I needed to look just before the 1960s to get a clearer understanding of what happened to the grain elevators. At this point in the library, I was knee deep into sources that could not be checked out, panicking, and rifling through as many sources as possible before the library closed. The St. Lawrence Seaway was obviously the breaking point, but there must have been some steps leading up to that point. Suddenly, a small newspaper article caught my eye. The title stood out to me because of the rumor I heard about the short sale of the grain elevators. I read the title; “Grain Company Leases Elevator.” I struck gold. This article was written in 1954, which means that the elevators were sold twelve years before they went out of business. The author states, “A nationally-known grain concern has leased the Connecting Terminal Elevator in Fuhrmann Blvd. in the expectation there will be ‘new business’ developing in the Port of Buffalo in the immediate years ahead” (O’Connell). While the article explained the lease of the elevators, it failed to give me the inside scoop of what actually went on. This article seemed to give a positive outlook on the new business that could be held in Buffalo. With the St. Lawrence Seaway opening soon, the article should have been more negative. However, based on the opening of the transcontinental railroad, I’m sure that Buffalo thought they could use the new water route to their advantage. Even with speculation and through research on history, many questions still come to the surface. Why did General Grain lease the elevators if they anticipated big business opportunities? Why did they not foresee that the St. Lawrence Seaway would ruin their business? Was there more going on than what was reported?

I felt like I came to a stand still in my search to uncover the truth behind the scandal that happened with the sale of the grain elevators. I talked to several people who had a general understanding of what happened to the grain industry in Buffalo, but nobody had a direct experience. My father and I were talking in the car on the way home from school one day and I brought up my slump. He mentioned that my grandfather held a job downtown when he first hitchhiked here from New Hampshire. Absurdly enough, it was a job in the grain elevators. Not only was a it a first hand experience of the flourishing grain industry in Buffalo, but he worked there during the 1950s, the decade in which the scandal occurred. If anyone knew about what happened on the inside, it was him. During an interview, he confirmed that the sale was not clean and that General Grain sold them for cheap in order to get them off their hands. This makes sense because, like any logical business, they anticipated going out of business if they had too much of a surplus of grain once the St. Lawrence Seaway was completed. Because the grain industry was flourishing in the 1940s and 1950s, General Grain was still able to sell the elevators for more than they would be worth after going out of business. Not only did the company make a quick buck, but they also saved their company from going out of business. In fact, smart business decisions after the opening of the St. Lawrence River made their company flourish. According to the General Mills website, their company expanded internationally after purchasing Pillsbury. The author states, “From its milling roots, General Mills had leveraged its grain expertise into breakfast cereals, cake mixes and grain-based snacks. Pillsbury had evolved to develop unmatched expertise in refrigerated dough products. It also had a strong bakeries and foodservice business, and a growing international portfolio” (General Mills). After discussing how and why General Mills sold their grain elevators, we discussed who bought them and why. When my father told me the rumor about how the person who bought the grain elevators made a fortune, I felt driven to get to the bottom of it. My grandpa had the inside scoop and I was excited to dig deeper into this shocking case that only happened within miles of my own home. According to rumors, the person who took ownership of the grain elevators single handedly started his own business. Because the grain industry in Buffalo was starting to decline, this entrepreneur turned the waterfront grain elevators into a boat shop. A surplus of parts for repairs filled the waterfront elevators. This business flourished at the time of the St. Lawrence Seaway opening. Grain no longer needed to be stored in the elevators, but boats were now carrying large shipments directly to other cities along the rust belt. Shipments would still pass through Buffalo, and boats would often need repairs after a long ride from New York City or Boston. Not only did the man repair ships for a high price, he also charged an absurd ten thousand dollars to just dock the ships. The rumors say that this man made a fortune scamming shipment companies. With my grandfather’s history in the first ward and his experience as a grain scooper, he has reliable information.

Part III

Industry takes up a ridiculous amount of space in Buffalo. If you look in one direction, you see a city, and if you look in another direction, you see the fourteen grain elevators still standing today. If the grain industry in Buffalo was not as successful as it was, Buffalo would not be the same. The grain elevators are still standing because of the major impact they had on Buffalo’s identity. The grain elevators positively impact Buffalo because of their unique structure, significance and history. Because of the overwhelming amount of business, nearly forty different elevators were built, each one with a slightly different and unique structure. The architecture makes it easy to identify Buffalo as “Silo City.” Buffalo was the first city to create a revolutionary design for a grain elevator that used mechanics rather than scooping by hand. This caused their significance to carry through to the modern world, and their mechanics are still being replicated to this day. There are a bunch of compiled photos of the grain elevators in operation in a book by Thomas E. Leary and Elizabeth C. Sholes. Specifically on page 32 there is a photo that shows a bird’s eye view of Buffalo, and it highlights the amount of elevators there were at one point in time. At one point in time, there were nearly forty elevators in Buffalo alone, each with a slightly different structure. “The real reason that some are still standing today is because the city could not afford a proper demolition” (Moore). I personally believe that this was a blessing in disguise. The grain elevators are historic monuments today, and more people are beginning to appreciate them for their history. The first modern grain elevator was invented in Buffalo. Buffalo was responsible for one of the largest industries in the country.

The grain industry in Buffalo saw its peak in the 1920s through the 1940s. Because entrepreneurs harnessed the powers of the newly built railways, Buffalo became a powerhouse of grain export. I knew that the grain industry was successful, but I didn’t realize to what degree. My home city seems so quaint and inactive. It is hard for me to picture Buffalo as a truly successful and wealthy city. On my expedition to the library, I came across an article written in 1945. The war in Europe just came to an end, Adolf Hitler committed suicide, and President Truman dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan. 1945 was a big year for the world. All of these events overshadowed the immense economic success in Buffalo. In an article written in 1945, the author talks about the immense success of the elevators. The author states, “‘About 6,000,000 bushels of grain can be stored in the towering gray elevators General Mills owns or leases in Buffalo. Still more grain can be stored in Winter in the holds of lake freighters which are broken out of the ice and towed to piers when needed’” (Hornaday). The immense success of the grain industry in Buffalo is what shaped the city into what it is today. The city went through some troubling times once the grain elevators began closing and businesses moved on, but economic depressions happen in every city. I do not think anyone expected for it to crash and burn like it did so quickly. It is baffling to me that Buffalo changed from largely successful at the turn of the century, to moderately illustrious today. However, it is on it’s way back up to the top.

The uniqueness and importance of the grain elevators in Buffalo’s history are causing officials to make plans for the future of them. A task force on the waterfront development team was specifically assigned jobs to work on the grain elevators. Some of these changes can already be seen driving through Buffalo at night. The grain elevators near the retired Sullivans illuminate in the evening. Near the First Ward at Riverworks, an elevator was painted through a sponsorship from Labatt’s. These are really the only two of the noticeable changes of appearance in the elevators. On a website for tourists visiting the Buffalo and Niagara Falls area, Drew Brown explains the light shows for anyone planning on visiting Buffalo. The author states, “Down at Canalside, a group of architects and lighting specialists took it upon themselves to turn a rather plain looking grain elevator into a canvas – and transformed it into a dynamic work of art. Each night from sunset until around 11pm, the Connecting Terminal bursts onto the Buffalo skyline with an illumination art show that flows from one colorful scene to the next” (Brown). Events also take place inside them from day to day. For example, some elevators are used for musicals and poetry readings, some are used for concerts, and some are even used for dinners. The most publicly praised use is the historical tour where people are guided through the grain scooping process. Other plans for the future of the elevators have gone public as well. The most interesting idea to me is transforming one of them into a hotel. I think this is the best idea because it gives visitors a chance to experience the most dominant landmark that Buffalo has. If done properly, the grain elevator hotel will fit in perfectly with the rest of the cities attractions, and it will make visitor access to the waterfront much easier.

For the longest time, I have always marveled at the uniqueness of the Buffalo Grain Elevators. I have always wondered why the city has left them standing despite them being abandoned. Throughout my research I found out the simple reasons of their existence as well as the meaningful ones. The technical reason some of the silos are still standing today is because the economy fell to shambles after the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, and Buffalo simply did not have the money to properly scrap the buildings. Looking into a deeper explanation, I realized that the grain elevators are really what define Buffalo. Buffalo would have never become what it is today without the grain industry on the Great Lakes. The culture of certain communities such as the First Ward revolved around their work as grain scoopers. It is common to hear someone to say that everyone in the First Ward knows each other, and that is because they all worked together in the silos along the Buffalo River. In the modern era, Buffalonians are beginning to appreciate the silos that watch over us on guard. New uses for these unique structures are coming about. The grain industry defines Buffalo as a city, and the elevators are a part of our heritage. Geography is destiny and it built Buffalo.

Works Cited

"A Look Back on 150 Years." General Mills. 2018. Web. Accessed 14 May 2018.

Baxter, Henry H. Grain Elevators. Buffalo: Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society, 1980. Print.

Bohen, Timothy. Against the Grain: The History of Buffalo's First Ward. Buffalo, NY: Petit Printing, 2012. Print.

"History of Buffalo's Grain Elevators." | National Politics | History | Nonfiction Books. Web. 24 May 2018.

Hornaday, Hilton. “Mill Here Puts Out Flour for 6,000,000 Loaves Every Day.” The Buffalo News. 21 April 1945

Leary, Thomas E., and Elizabeth C. Sholes. Buffalo's Waterfront. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Pub., 2006. pp 26,27. Print.

Moore, David. Personal Interview. May 2018.

Norton, Donald J. “Grain Industry Victim of Trends.” The Buffalo News. 30 August 1966.

Ockenfuss, Crystal. “ Manufactured Articles.” Right Here, Right Now: The Buffalo Anthology. Edited by Jody K.Biehl. Belt Publishing. 2016. p 128.

O’Connell, Francis J. “Grain Company Leases Elevator.” The Buffalo News. 20 September 1954.

Overdorf, Gene. Personal Interview. 28 May 2018.

Reisch, Jim. “Empty Elevators Tell an Unhappy Story- Buffalo Grain Industry is Sorely Troubled.” The Buffalo News. 29 August 1966.

Shelton, Brenda K. "The Grain Shovellers’ Strike of 1899." Labor History 9.2 (1968): 210-38. Print.

"4 Ways to Explore Buffalo's Grain Elevators." Visit Buffalo Niagara. 06 June 2017. Web. 24 May 2018.


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