Historic Structures

Appleby Atlas Grain Elevator, Watertown South Dakota

Date added: June 22, 2022 Categories: South Dakota Grain Elevator

For over seventy years the Appleby Atlas Elevator served local farmers as a principal buying and transportation station for their cash grain crops. As a "country elevator," its was the initial link in the network of moving raw grain from the producer to large processing and marketing centers. Built in circa 1883 by the Atlas Grain Company, the property was one of the few 19th-Century all-wood elevators in the region to survive in fair, unaltered condition at its original location.

The first grain buying centers in the midwest during the 19th Century were simple "flat houses" (flat floored warehouses), which at the time permitted the storage and distribution of only sacked grain. Railroad companies found it much easier to handle bulk grain and generally insisted on receiving shipments from facilities where grain could be elevated into bins and from there poured through spouts into railroad cars. Therefore, during the last half of the century, the influence of railroads in the west combined with the farmers' growing need for adequate markets caused the construction of a plethora of grain elevators alongside an expanding railroad infrastructure. Two functional types of elevators emerged, the terminal elevator and the country elevator. The terminal elevator is a large transport hub that receives commodities in railcar lots and transfers the grain to processing plants or other terminals in even larger units (such as in barges or ships). On the other hand, the country elevator receives grain in wagon or truck lots and ships it to terminals often via the railroads.

It was the country elevator, like the Appleby Elevator, that dominated the Dakota grain market. These local elevators permitted safe storage of the community's grain harvest until prices rose or until sufficient quantities had been collected to permit cost effective rail shipment. Establishment of railroad grain-handling stops at regular intervals also encouraged the settlement of small service towns. However, after recovering from the nationwide financial panic of the mid-1870s, railroad companies generally did not own their own elevators. Instead, most country elevators were operated by independent proprietors, farmers' cooperatives, or large conglomerates. In Codington County, many of the country elevators were run by cooperatives, but the Atlas Grain Company of Watertown (Dakota Territory) owned several combination elevator/lumber and coal yard facilities.

Until the mid-20th Century, wood was the overwhelmingly favored building material for these country elevators. The two popular types of construction, cribbed and balloon frame, were made possible by the availability of standardized dimensional lumber. Cribbing entailed wooden planks laid flat, overlapping at the corners (much like log construction), to create integrated bins with solid, interlocking walls. Balloon frame or studded walls were less expensive to build, but did not withstand prairie winds as well as cribbed units. Consequently, most frame bins, such as the annex of the Appleby Elevator, are supported by tie rods that pull the walls toward each other. During the 19th Century, exterior wall surfaces were usually sided with clapboard, but by the turn of the century, in the interest of fire protection most wooden elevator were sheathed with galvanized steel panels. Extant clapboard sided elevators are rare in South Dakota.

Settlement in Codington County began in the early 1870s, when the Winona & St. Peter Railroad, a subsidiary of the powerful Chicago and Northwestern line, established a railhead near the present-day City of Watertown. However, development of the region was quite slow until the reemergence of prosperity during the Great Dakota Boom from the late 1870s to the mid-1880s. The county was organized in 1878. Watertown was named the permanent seat of government and served as the major commercial center. As such, it also became a hub for several rival rail lines. Eventually, smaller railroad sidings, like the now defunct town of Appleby, grew up along the various tracks radiating from Watertown.

In 1883, Aaron W. Folger sold a strip of land in section 34 of Sheridan Township, to the Dakota Central Railway Company, another subsidiary of the Chicago and Northwestern. The following year the Western Town Lot Company bought around 80 acres of land near the route and platted the town of Appleby. Reportedly the name derived from a load of Appleby Twine Tie Grain Binders that were unloaded at the new townsite. Atlas Grain Company built the elevator sometime between 1883 and 1864. This stop on what the Andreas' 1884 Atlas termed the "Sioux Valley Branch of the Dakota Central Railway" immediately developed into a local farm shipment point. Business there was sufficient to merit a second elevator, a depot, stockyards, and a few houses. A post office operated intermittently at Appleby between 1884 and 1902. In 1919, Albert Draves, a local grain buyer and elevator manager, brought his bride Nellie to Appleby and became part owner of the elevators. Draves bought out his partners in 1944 and was the sole owner of the Appleby Elevator until 1958, when he sold the business to the "Potato Company." By the 1960s, area farmer Ed Spevak had leased the structure and used it to store his own grain. In 1976, the railroad sold the land and the elevator to Wendel Gnat. It was last owned by Marvin Czech.

Twentieth century changes in agricultural practice, especially mechanization and increased farm size and production, diminished the need for numerous small shipping points such as the Appleby Elevator. In 1926 one of its two elevators was moved to nearby Kranzburg. Also during the 1920s the stockyards were dismantled. Still later, the depot was moved to Volga after the depot there burned. One of the two original Appleby houses has been razed. The other has been moved to a nearby farm where it is used as an outbuilding. Only the Appleby Elevator stands on the former townsite as a reminder of bygone agribusiness and the economic lifeline that railroads provided to small farming communities.

Elevator Description

Rising prominently above the natural prairie landscape in southeastern Codington County, South Dakota, the Appleby Atlas Elevator was a small wooden grain elevator of cribbed and balloon frame construction. Situated along a main line of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad, the structure once served local farmers as a buying and transportation station for their cash grain crops. The original body of the facility is a square cribbed section comprising structurally integrated bins of sawn dimensional lumber towering over a concrete work floor. A wooden conveyer "leg" projects through the midsection to lift the grain to a gabled cupola or distributing floor where the product is then sorted and sent to its appropriate bin. Extending to the west of the cribbed section is a gabled, balloon frame annex, which provided additional storage capacity. A scale, dumping platform, and scale house project to the east of the elevator. Except for the scale house, which is covered with pressed metal panels, exterior wall surfaces are clad with clapboard siding. Characteristic of balloon frame elevators, all four walls of the annex are supported by metal tie rods connected to metal bars on the exterior surfaces. The gable roofs are covered with galvanized tin panels. A small brick chimney rises from the peak of the scale house. Concrete retaining walls, poured in 1951, flank the earthen approach ramp on the north facade. Extant interior furnishings and equipment include benches, signs, scales, distribution controls, and a modified Ford Model A engine that served as the power plant.

A short railroad siding runs between the main line and west facade of the annex. The former town of Appleby, now made up of a few modern homes and a farmstead, lies several yards northeast of the elevator. An undated historic photograph shows a second gabled annex projecting south alongside the railroad tracks. Today, only a concrete pad survives from this feature.

The elevator served as a commercial grain facility until at least 1958. Under a government program, a local farmer stored grain there as late as the 1970s.

The elevator structure collapsed in 2012.