Tinning The Top

“Grab that nail, set with tap
Hammer it down, just like that.”

Prairie work song – Clarence Holm

They stood as sentries of the prairie! Tin clad collectives, towering over the glacier scraped wheat fields of Dakota. Each one decorated with a city name, reflecting a community’s pride and showcasing the prosperity of the area farms.

From the exterior you would be hard pressed to guess that thousands of board feet of lumber were used for these wood cribbed structures. Each wall was made by laying lumber flat, one atop another. The base was constructed using 2X10s and then would progressively slim the walls by switching to 2X8s, than 2X6s and finally 2X4s near the top. Above the storage line a frame building (cupola) was constructed to house the mechanical top of the elevator.

They were purpose built structures. Tall nested bins, surrounding the steel legs of a gravity driven storage system, designed to move bushels of grain from the boot to the header in the cupola. The grain was dispersed at the header by the elevator manager to designated bins. This header (looked like a giant tin octopus) was accessed by a series of vertical ladders or when working – a rope powered “man lift”. The grain was lifted up through the legs by a continuous belt, holding tin buckets which scooped the grain from the bottom of the elevator.

The elevator manager could store grain based on type, quality, moisture content or any of a more than a dozen criteria. Grain was constantly in motion throughout the system as it was moved from dryers, to cleaners and back to storage on its way to market.

Cuba, North Dakota Google Earth Image

Cuba, North Dakota
Google Earth Image

The elevator co-op that we brought our grain to was in Cuba, North Dakota and was owned by the Miller Elevator Association. It stood alone on the prairie, next to a spur line of the Northern Pacific Railroad. The town at one time boasted a mercantile, a school, a small grocery and a lumber and implement dealer. All but the elevator eventually closed due to the dwindling farm population and the competition from the bigger cities.

As a young man, my father was part of the crew hired to build that elevator (about 1940). He reported to work daily with his 16 ounce hammer and crosscut handsaw to pound the 16 penny nails holding the cribs together. My father was proud to be part of building the 125 foot tall structure, which rose high above the prairie. It was with pride that he was able to say that he “tinned the top of the elevator”. (Tinning refers to the corrugated steel used to cover the entire building.) As a young child I was in awe that my father had ever been that high in the air and couldn’t imagine anything that could have been bigger.

In 1972 I carried on the family tradition as I worked on one of the last cribbed granaries constructed in the United States at Luverne, ND. (Cribbing was later replaced with steel and concrete) The one I worked on exceeded 140 feet and took about 6 months to build. By that time hand saws were replaced by powered circular saws, but the 16lb nails were still driven by an arm powered cribbing ax. I learned to set the nail with a tap and drive it home in one single swing of the ax. It was tedious and boring work and I constantly sang a song to myself to set my nail timing. “Grab that nail, set with tap. Hammer it down, just like that.” For some reason Peter, Paul and Mary never made a recording of my work song!

Luverne, North Dakota Google Earth Image

Luverne, North Dakota
Google Earth Image

I too learned to “walk the top of the crib walls” and hung over the side to “set the tin”. When it came time to tin the top, I had a rope tied around my stomach as I went on the roof to put on the highest pieces of tin. (I still can’t believe I didn’t kill someone when I found out no one was actually holding the rope I wore around my waist. They figured they had told me to be careful!)

Over forty years later both buildings still stand, although my father is now gone. I am proud to tell both of our stories.

I very rarely get back to Luverne, ND but when I do again, I hope I have my grandchildren with me so I can point to the top of the building and say “I did that”.

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