Photographing Prairie Cathedrals

American Icons, On the Road, People
on January 18, 2009
Doug Loneman Bruce and Barbara Selyem photograph and record the histories of grain elevators across the United States and Canada.

Lugging 60 pounds of camera gear,
Bruce Selyem trudges across a wind-whipped frozen field near Fargo, N.D., in search of the best angle to frame his favorite subject: a forlorn country grain elevator.

Despite the cold, Selyem spends hours photographing the abandoned prairie cathedral. After all, this could be his last opportunity.

Sometimes when I return to places where the elevator has stood proud and beautiful just a few months before, I discover it has been demolished, says Selyem, 55, a professional photographer in Bozeman, Mont. (pop. 27,509), who has made it his mission to capture lasting images of the towering grain storehouses that once dominated the prairie skyline.

During the last two decades, Selyem has photographed more than 6,000 grain elevators across the United States and Canada, presenting them in slide shows, and having them published in books, magazines and calendars.

While Selyem photographs the simple, unadorned structures, his wife, Barbara, 57, heads to nearby farmhouses, country cafes and libraries to track down their histories and stories from people whose lives are connected to the vanishing agricultural landmarks.

What other building do we have in the United States that better represents the history of our country? Barbara asks. To the Selyems, the small country grain elevators are monuments to the hard work of pioneering farmers.

Prosperity on the plains
In the 1870s, wooden grain elevators began cropping up alongside railroad tracks in nearly every farming community. During the harvest, farmers hauled their wheat, corn, barley and oats by horse-drawn wagons to the elevators where the grain was weighed, bought, stored and shipped by rail to buyers. Often, farmers met their neighbors
and visited over a cup of coffee at the elevator.

Designed for function without any architectural frills, the wooden elevators sometimes were sided with metal for fire protection. They were dubbed prairie cathedrals because they towered like steeples over the treeless plains. Their height was necessary for the bucket elevators running from the bottom to the top of the giant grain storage bins. Buckets on a vertical conveyor belt scooped grain from a pit where farmers unload their wagons and trucks, then hoisted the grain to the top for deposit into storage bins. Horses powered some of the earliest elevators, followed by gas and electric power.

The wooden elevators started going out of favor in the early 1900s because of so many fires and because concrete became popular, Selyem says.

As farms grew in acreage and production, larger elevators were needed. Grain companies merged and built elevators with storage capacity for millions of bushels, instead of thousands.

Everything is so big now, Selyem says. A farm has custom combine crews that travel, and those crews have their own trucks and haul by semi-load to the big concrete elevator.

At their peak in the 1930s, about 27,000 grain elevators of all typeswooden, brick, tile and concretedotted the countryside. Today, about a third of those remain.

Rural romance
In 1985, Selyem photographed his first grain elevator at Anceney, Mont., though he actually was focused on the orange sunset, shrouded with dark storm clouds, behind it. I didnt even know what it was called, he says about the elevator, so I labeled it building.

As he traveled with his camera, the photography student at Montana State University in Bozeman discovered more deserted grain elevators.

At first, I just admired their beauty in connection with the prairie landscape, Selyem says.

You have a landscape in the Great Plains thats pretty flat and youve got these tall magnificent buildings that in a way are like the mountains.

As his portfolio of photographs grew, so did his appreciation for the grain elevators role in agricultural history. Saddened that rural grain elevators were disappearing from landscapes and memories, Selyem founded The Country Grain Elevator Historical Society in 1995 so members could exchange information about the aging elevators and document their history.

One of the societys most enthusiastic members was his future wife, who sold grain-elevator buckets for a St. Louis company and invited him to present a slide show to the Grain Elevator & Processing Society.

The couples shared interest sparked a romance and in 1998 they exchanged wedding vows at the site of Selyems first grain elevator photograph. The Selyems wedding cake was shaped like a grain elevator. The newlyweds spent their honeymoon traveling across the prairie photographing elevators and recording their history.

Success stories
Among the 825 members of The Country Grain Elevator Historical Society are farmers, grain-elevator owners and workers, and architects and artists who see value in preserving the history of the buildings and, when feasible, the buildings themselves.

Im thrilled with the preservation of our elevator. Its truly a form of sculpture, says Jill Baumler, 58, about the 1914 Anceney, Mont., elevator, which has become her six-story home.

Baumler and her husband, Bob Mannisto, 69, began remodeling the elevator in 1999 and built a 75-step wooden staircase that winds through the former storage bins. From their four-level deck, the couple enjoys watching elk and bison grazing on the prairie.

In Ithaca, Neb., Roma Smith is grateful to fellow members of The Country Grain Elevator Historical Society for helping her clean, repair and weatherize the elevator that her late husband, Ken, bought in 1981. Kens grandfather, Cleon Dech, managed the elevator from 1918 to 1926.

As you drive into town, this stately little grain elevator stands so beautiful, says Smith, 56, who initially was upset with her husband for buying such junk. She has grown to appreciate the history and craftsmanship in the 1886 building and secured its listing on The National Register of Historic Places. It will never be torn down.

While the Ithaca elevator is vacant, the 1909 elevator in Grenola, Kan. (pop. 231), houses a museum. The Grenola Historical Society bought the elevator in 1990 for $400.

In the Midwest, every little town once had a grain elevator and most of them are gone, says Dorothy Keplinger, 74, president of the historical society. It was important that we keep our history.

The Selyems plan to continue photographing and recording the history of the grain elevators that endure. Racing against time, they hit the road for three weeks at a stretch in their well-traveled pickup, sleeping in their pop-up camper. To reduce costs, the couple coordinates their route with Selyems other photography assignments.

Often Selyem is in the field with his tripod and cameras before dawn to catch the early-morning light on a forgotten wooden grain elevator. And while the sunrises are glorious, theyre not his primary focus. Today, his lens is focused on the prairie cathedrals that dot the rural landscape.

For links to the Selyems websites, click on this story at