What is a Grain Elevator?

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

Grain elevators are storage areas that are used to house grain and prepare it for eventual shipment. An elevator may be a single building or an interconnected series of buildings, depending on the size of the operation. Generally, the design allows for the easy storage and retrieval of grain while providing a stable environment that helps to delay decomposition.

Barley, a type of grain.
Barley, a type of grain.

One of the first designs for a grain elevator appeared in the early 1840s in the United States. Joseph Dart, who was also the creator of the marine leg, designed storage buildings that could be easily located near shipping ports. The design allowed for the marine leg, which is essentially a large scoop, to easily extract grain from ships and other carriage devices and place it into the storage building.

While the first examples were simple wooden buildings, brick and masonry quickly became the materials of choice for construction. The spouts and conveying ductwork that allow for grain to be easy extracted are often made with steel. Using the natural flow of gravity, the spouts can be opened and grain forced out of the elevator into bins or trucks for easy transportation.

While the grain elevator was first used in New York State, the concept quickly caught on in other parts of the country. By the latter part of the 19th century, the structure was a common sight in the Midwest, often used for the storage of corn and wheat. The Southwest and Southern United States also make use of these buildings to store various types of grains. Some modern examples are simple, one building operations that may serve the farmers who form a local cooperative. Others involve multiple buildings and include a sophisticated series of ducts to connect the units.

Often, a grain elevator is strategically placed in a location where it's relatively easy to transport grain to and from the facility. The elevator may be found near railroads, riverbanks, or a section of flatland that is located within easy distance of fields used to grow various grains.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

After many years in the teleconferencing industry, Michael decided to embrace his passion for trivia, research, and writing by becoming a full-time freelance writer. Since then, he has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including wiseGEEK, and his work has also appeared in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and several newspapers. Malcolm’s other interests include collecting vinyl records, minor league baseball, and cycling.

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I grew up in a small, rural Midwestern town that has a grain elevator right next the the railroad track that passes through town.

The railroad track has not been used for several years, but the grain elevator is still in use. This is a farmers cooperative and every fall the grain bins are filled with the local corn harvest.

Many years ago this was the only place in town where you could buy a candy bar and something to drink. I have many memories of walking up town to the grain elevator with my brother to buy a snack.


My grandfather lived in a really small town in north west Kansas where pretty much the only industry for miles and miles in every direction was wheat growing. The entire surrounding area was just massive rolling wheat fields with the occasional homestead marking the land.

There was a small town that had a general store and a post office and a small train depot. All of this sat in the shadow of an enormous grain elevator that cast a shadow for hundreds of feet out into the fields. That train depot was there almost exclusively to haul wheat away from this one particularly fertile piece of Kansas.

I will always associate trips to visit my grandfather with that big grain elevator. It looked so out of place next to all those empty fields like some kind of American obelisk.


Its always amazed me to think of how much grain is inside of a grain elevator. Imagine how much you pour into a bowl of oatmeal or use to make a loaf of bread and then think of the size of grain elevators. It boggles the mind!


In some places in the United States, there are not nearly enough grain elevators for the amount of grains grown in these regions. As a result, it is often just a matter of course to leave large piles of corn out in the open air until they are shipped.

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