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If these walls could talk: the grain elevator

December 1, 2012

Culver’s grain elevator, circa 1940s.

Longtime Culver residents will remember how different was the appearance of the east end of Jefferson Street in decades past, as alluded to in a recent entry in our ongoing series of virtual "walks" through Culver, building by building.

This week we'll visit the old site of what most Culverites simply called "the grain elevator," whose property resided along the south side of Jefferson, not too far from the lake shore.

For the uninitiated, our friends at Wikipedia refer to a grain elevator as "a tower containing a bucket elevator or a pneumatic conveyor, which scoops up grain from a lower level and deposits it in a silo or other storage facility," though they also point out the term generally applies to the entire complex, rather than just the elevator proper, and that grain elevators made their debut in the 1840s.

Technically Culver's had various names through the years, apparently including the Thayer Elevator. The Culver newspaper in July, 1903, noted, "Farmers can now bring their grain to Culver and receive the highest market price for it. Dillon & Castleman have opened the Thayer elevator and are paying seventy cents per bushel for...wheat, thirty-three cents for oats and forty-five cents for rye. They have just received a car load of corn and will always keep a big supply on hand."

By 1906, the business was referred to as the Dillon & Medbourn Grain Elevator, and of course the elevator complex abutted Sam Medbourn's bustling ice house to the south (we'll explore that property more properly later).

In October, 1909, Medbourn erected a corn crib 12 feet wide and "upwards of 90 feet long at the elevator," noted the Citizen.

By April, 1912, the business was referred to as The Culver City Grain and Coal Company, and it was erecting two storehouses, one 20 by 50 feet for flour, and one 20 by 40 feet for feed.

In June of that same year, the Citizen noted that "one of the most extensive changes which have taken place here in late years is the sale of the grain, coal, flour and cement business of S. E . Medbourn and Son to Ezra Hawkins....Mr. Hawkins is in possession with his son, Fred, as office assistant."

Ray Marshall, it was noted, was partnering with his father-in-law Ezra Hawkins in the business and dividing his time between that and his duties as right hand man to Major Greiner in the Commandant's office at Culver Academy until his successor could be appointed.

In June, 1921, it was reported that "Hawkins and Osborn are installing a coal conveyor at their yard" at the grain elevator, and in August, 1934, the office of the Culver Grain & Coal Company was more than doubled in size by the erection of an addition.

In October, 1939, the Citizen reported "another old landmark is passing into the scrap heap with the tearing down of the elevator of the Culver City Grain and Coal." This was obviously not the end of the elevator business itself, but the razing of the original elevator for replacement.

In late September, 1953, a two-alarm fire broke out at the grain elevator, though the business was saved from the flames, at least for another few decades.

It did pass into new hands, however, in February, 1957, when The Marshall County Farm Bureau Co-Op Association, Inc., purchased the Culver City Grain and Coal Company from Samuel Medbourn and George Phillips, who by then were co-owners. Maurice Curtis was named the new manager of the Culver Branch of the Bureau, which would retain ownership of the business until its demise. Curtis remained manager into the 1960s, when he left to take a lead sales position at the Gates & Calhoun Chevorlet's Culver branch.

By the 1950s, regular passenger train service to and from Culver had stopped with the exception of occasional special trains and the single-engine Doodlebug train, though these, too, faded away as well. The rails were left intact, however, for transport of grain to and from the elevator.

Down at the Antiquarian and Historical Society of Culver's Center for Culver History museum (lower level of the Culver Public Library), there's a pretty amazing, approximately three-minute (silent) video of the grain elevator finally meeting its maker, which gives an idea of just how spectacular was the blaze.

Culverites on Oct,. 27, 1978 must have wondered what would burn down next. Just five days earlier, on the Sunday of Oct. 22, the popular bowling alley and coffee shop on Lake Shore Drive had burned to the ground, and on Friday the 27th, the grain elevator was completely destroyed in a four-alarm blaze which Culver, Monterey, Aubbeenaubbee Township, and Plymouth fire departments fought for hours.

Then fire chief Don Overmyer said arson wasn't suspected (likely dry grain combusted in the grain tower) in the 4:30 p.m. fire. Police tried to keep residents away from the area for fear that nitrate-containing tanks at the rear of the seven-to-eight-story building might explode (which they didn't), though the intense heat of the huge conflagration kept most at a distance.

And so another era effectively ended with the demise of the co-op, emblematic perhaps of the changing times in many small, rural communities like Culver as the 20th century waned. Grain elevators and the transport of their commodities by rail were once the norm in most such communities, but its telling that no effort was made to rebuild and re-launch Culver's operation after the fire. Instead, that portion of the land stayed mostly vacant, awaiting development -- that of the Culver Cove resort -- which would take around a decade to begin, and which could also said to be symbolic of the coming shift in Culver's identity, which in many ways was a throwback to a century prior.

We'll take a look at that development, and what once sat on the rest of the land the Cove occupies today, in our next column.

CULVER HISTORY CORNER is sponsored by The Antiquarian and Historical Society of Culver, http://www.culverahs.com.

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