Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Honoring the small town feed mill March 6, 2014

The Lonsdale Feed Mill.

The Lonsdale Feed Mill.

SOME TERM THEM “Cathedrals of the Prairie.”

Feed mill, close-up top

I know them simply as “the elevator” or “the feed mill,” the grey structures which, for years, have graced our farming communities.

Feed mill, back of

 They hold memories for me of bouncing in the pick-up truck, seated beside my farmer father, to the Vesta Feed Mill.

Feed mill, truck

Deafening roar of machines grinding corn.

Feed mill, bags of feed

Dust layering surfaces. The memorable smell of ground feed, as memorable as the scent of freshly-cut alfalfa. Stacked bags awaiting pick-up or delivery.

Feed mill, front 2

Like barns, these feed mills and elevators are disappearing from rural America, replaced by more modern structures. Or simply falling apart.

I hold on to fading memories. And I promise to pay photographic reverence to these Cathedrals of the Prairie whenever I can.

Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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33 Responses to “Honoring the small town feed mill”

  1. treadlemusic Says:

    Our town, unfortunately, has no sense of vision or history for such. Many years ago, a professional design team from Mpls came and helped the town set a vision/direction for its future. Committees were formed and everyone rallied to the endeavor. The single most outstanding building was the local elevator that stood at the crossroads of SH76 & 16. It was something that would have been the key marker for postcards, etc. Well, it was on privately owned land and the owner needed a few more feet of parking for his auction building that was somewhat adjacent, so, yup…….it is gone!!!!! And that is the way it is around this town….really quite frustrating (and it was done by our generation not the previous!!!!)!!! Great post!!!! Hugs…………

    • That has to be incredibly frustrating. The first error was bringing in a metro design team, unless that group fully grasped small town life.

      I watched a public television show last evening on La Crosse that followed the history and development of the city. At one point, beautiful historic buildings were torn down in the name of progress, replaced by non-descript, boring structures. Eventually someone realized that the old buildings had value and their destruction ceased. Hallelujah.

  2. I didn’t know these were called Cathedrals of the Prairie. That’s a wonderful name for them. And, as always, your photos show your love for yet another bit of rural life.

    • I first heard that “Cathedrals of the Prairie” moniker several years ago while working on a photo essay of grain elevators for Minnesota Moments magazine. I thought it so fitting. And, yes, you are correct about my love of rural life.

  3. “Cathedrals of the Prairie” – wonderfully evocative phrase. And wonderful photos, as well.

  4. Beth Ann Says:

    Aw…that was a very nice post and the visuals of the disappearing elevators and feed mills are wonderful reminders of what used to be, aren’t they? I think they are enchanting and I am sure you agree. Thanks!

  5. Clyde of Mankato Says:

    Farm structures of the first 3/4 of the 1900’s had such grace, or this case, line and proportion, often in striking contrast to the surroundings. I wonder to what degree an artistic sense had anything to do with it. I have so many pastels I want to do before my hands are completely gone. I should try to do some more farm structures. I need to get a good photo of a certain on-farm grainery once common in Iowa: drive-through, rounded ends, with cupola on top. That is my favorite form, other than high-roofed multiplex gabled barns.

    • Clyde, I agree with you. Modern polesheds simply cannot compete in architecture and grace. Your project to preserve these in art is a noble one and I would urge you to continue such an endeavor.

      I want to direct you to my friend Jackie’s current header photo on her blog: http://jackie000.blogspot.com/

      Like me, I expect you to fully appreciate the drive-through corn crib she photographed.

      • Clyde of Mankato Says:

        Like it but not the one I am looking for.

      • From your description, I didn’t think it was the right one. The corn crib Jackie photographed is like the one which once stood on my home farm.

      • Ted Aaberg Says:

        I agree with you Clyde of Mankato. Structures of old as I see it reflect a spirituality, and highness. As if the community imbued its buildings with these important forms, showing that those graces were so vital in agriculture, business, commerce, community, etc.; not just relegated to a philosopher’s roundtable…

      • Another insightful comment. Thank you, Ted.

  6. Thread crazy Says:

    Cathedrals of the Prairie; great title for these fading creatures. We still have many down our way and still in use. Of course, the look like some of them could blow over too!

  7. Lisa C. Says:

    There’s a feed store with a mural on it in Farmington. It’s not as rustic looking but still enjoyable to view while driving by. Having not grown up around these, they are always fascinating. 🙂

    • Thanks for the tip, Lisa. I have mixed feelings about murals. I’m fine with them if they are painted on something and then adhered to a building. Not so fine with murals when they are painted directly on the building.

  8. Ted Aaberg Says:

    Besides Cathedrals of the Prairie, I so liked growing up the term “breadbasket of america.” I first read about it in my current events magazine’s weekly publication which we received on Friday at the Scarville Lutheran School. It gave me a very real sense of pride and meaning what our communities were doing not only for ourselves, but for the nation and its people. Feeding families in all 50 states. Growing older a few years ago, traveling back to Mankato, stopping at a local tavern, I had a Grain Belt beer for the first time in a long time, and had the epiphany that is the “perfect name for a beer.”

    I wish somebody would come out with a cd of the sounds of a feed mill, would be so fun to listen to from time to time.

    • You must be referencing The Weekly Reader. Oh, how I looked forward to that weekly missive showing me the world was much bigger than tiny Vesta in rural Redwood County.

      I, too, like that term “grain belt,” but had never considered its significance with the beer. Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful comment, Ted.

      • Ted Aaberg Says:

        That is right Audrey, The Weekly Reader. A wonderful publication. I still remember when I read about Ghandi’s march to the sea to protest the salt tax. I found it so amazing I could find out about something that far away.

      • That’s incredible that you would remember that detail from your Weekly Reader. I can’t say I recall anything specific. I just loved getting The Weekly Reader each week. Who produced these anyway? I ought to research that.

  9. The painted-on sign with the hours of operation amuses me. It’s like, “This is the way it is, always has been, and always will be.”

  10. ryanware Says:

    I remember the feed trucks that used to run all over the rural areas delivering to farmers. Kent, Vigorina, Wayne, are just a few that I remember.


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