Web Essays

A Tall Order

Rehabbing a century-old grain elevator

By David Brown | August 7, 2021
This 110 year-old wooden grain elevator is in the community of Big Sag, near Highwood, Montana. (Photo courtesy of the author)
This 110 year-old wooden grain elevator is in the community of Big Sag, near Highwood, Montana. (Photo courtesy of the author)

Most of the building’s skin was made of narrow horizontally laid boards painted white, with half the paint gone. The bottom fifth, however, was barn red and brought to mind the color discontinuity in the Washington Monument that occurred when construction was stopped and resumed with different-colored stone 23 years later. We turned off Montana Route 228 onto a gravel road and drove a few hundred yards to get a better look at the wooden grain elevator rising flèche-like from a sere plain. Its top was narrower than its body and had a single square window, like that in a cupola.

As I drove toward the elevator and prepared to park a respectable distance away, I saw a man disappear around the corner of the building. Virginia and I got out, took a few iPhone pictures. As I walked toward the elevator, the man reappeared.

“May we take a few pictures of your wonderful building?” I asked. He said we could. His assent began a two-hour encounter too good not to record.

The day before, Virginia and I had come off a four-night canoe trip through the lower Missouri Breaks. Now, we were heading to the Little Bighorn battlefield, with an overnight first in Billings. We were taking non-interstate roads and stopping at any historical marker, visual attraction, or weirdly named burg that caught our eye. Later that day, we visited Two Dot, a town so nearly abandoned, it should be renamed One Dot, or possibly Dotless. The wooden grain elevator, near Highwood, Montana, was our first detour.

The man who greeted us is named Michael Benzinger. He’s a 66-year-old, mostly retired house painter who’s restoring the elevator as a home for himself and his wife (who’s younger than he, and still painting houses). They hope to make a rentable guest apartment in the elevator, too; there’s plenty of room.

Mike bought the building and one acre surrounding it in 2001 for $1, having learned about it from someone whose house he was painting, and who was willing to let it go if he would try to save it. “They’re burning roughly one of these a day in the West,” Mike said. He later added that was mostly happening in Canada.

It’s part of a settlement of a half-dozen houses that’s now occupied by one other person, an 87-year-old man. The place is called Big Sag, a reference to its geological history as a former bottom of the Missouri River.

Michael Benzinger looks into what will be the library of his residence in a repurposed grain elevator. (Photo courtesy of the author)

Mike gave off none of the exhaustion or second thoughts one might expect from a person who’s single-handedly repurposing an 80-foot industrial building that had been abandoned for 30 years. He isn’t certain when the elevator was built, but guesses 1911, the date stamped on the lightning rods on the roof. He’s found grain receipts from 1912, so it was in business at least by then.

Mike and his wife have lived for three years next to the elevator in a 400-square-foot building that used to be the power plant of the grain operation. “It’s one open room—and not a lot of room for two people, two dogs, and two cats,” he said without complaint. I asked if it had a wood stove. “No,” he said. “One spark and the whole thing could burn up.” You could tell the grain elevator was already a pillar of sweat and blood, almost a child he’d protect any way he could. They heat their tiny building with electricity.

He took us into the main room of the elevator on the ground level, which goes from the front to the back of the building. He’d put in three cathedral windows on the far wall; they look up the brown grass slope to the road off which we’d turned. On the left-hand interior wall is a basketball hoop, on the right wall shelves with objects he’d found in the elevator or gleaned from trips to the dump.

Notable among the latter was a collection of oil cans, reminiscent of (and larger than) a dozen I bought at an auction in Philadelphia in the 1980s. I find old oil cans mysterious and poignant. They’re often all that remains of machines they once kept running. Many are stamped with the names of companies that themselves no longer exist.

Left over from the elevator’s active days was a sign proclaiming that it wouldn’t accept “treated grain”—referring to it as “poison”—and a set of New York–made counterweights for weighing grain samples on a scale. The most beautiful objects were wooden paddles with single oval holes in them. Inserted into chutes, they were used to control the flow of grain.

Above the door of the main room of the grain elevator are paddles once used to regulate the flow of grain into the bins. (Photo courtesy of the author)

Mike said that when he took possession of it, the building was in surprisingly good shape despite its long vacancy. Only the top had let in birds (he mentioned flickers) and needed serious repair. The structure has survived because of skilled construction from massive lumber that the arid climate and years of grain dust have dried into the equivalent of petrified wood.

Inside, the walls appeared to have been refinished, but all he’d done was power wash them, rappelling from the top through each bin. The only visible wear to the wood is in a few places where gravity-fed grain has inadvertently come into contact with a wall for years, sculpting patterns of flow the way water does to rock. The interior is Douglas fir, the exterior siding cedar.

The most interesting thing in the main room is a feature still in use—a “man lift” that allows a person to ascend to the top of the elevator. Mike had replaced the cables and refurbished the brake, but it is otherwise little changed. It consists of a small, unenclosed platform with cable that goes up to the top floor of the elevator, through a pulley or shackle of some sort and then back down to a counterweight. Without a passenger, the platform is at equilibrium. When a person stands on it and pulls a rope that also goes to the top, the platform rises with little effort. Stop pulling, and it slowly descends. It can be stopped anywhere by holding the rope and can be locked in place for work with a brake.

Mike demonstrated it and then graciously allowed Virginia and me to take beginner spins up 20 feet. Neither of us was seriously tempted to take it to the top. The alternative route is on a vertical ladder built into the corner of the main shaft, which is scarier.

Most of the interior of the building is divided into grain storage bins about 10-feet square, which Mike is turning into living space on the two levels above the ground floor. He invited us upstairs to have a look. As we ascended the rail-less staircase, the treads squeaked. He told us he’d put the squeaks in intentionally.

“Let’s you know if someone’s coming,” he said with a smile.

He’s removed the walls between some bins to make large rooms, but he’s keeping others intact. He likes the intimacy of the spaces, and their reference to the building’s original use. He showed us the library, and a meditation room for his wife.

“The biggest part of the job was taking out the floors,” he said. Why do that, we wondered. Because they all sloped—intentionally, to facilitate the flow of grain in and out of them. Some bins had three layers of floor, each on a slant.

The interior isn’t the only part that needs work. Many boards of the exterior siding need to be replaced. Mike plans to put a new skin on much of the building—tarpaper over the wood, and galvanized tin over the tarpaper. It will then look a little more like its modern descendants everywhere on view in Montana’s wheat country. On the east side of the building, he’s finished the job about 20 feet up.

“I got the metal from a farmer on that first farm up on the bench,” he said, gesturing out a window. “I helped him harvest one season. He said I could have it for free, but I wanted to give him something. Plus, I got to learn how to drive a combine, which is trickier than you’d think.” I remarked on the amount of scaffolding he has up, and how much more he’ll need.

Even when the carpentry is finished, there will be more work to do. Plumbing will be a big job. At the moment, Mike and his wife get water from a spring on a rise in the land behind the settlement. It’s delivered by gravity through a hose, and they carry buckets of it into the house. On the deck was a black rubber bathtub full of water, warming in the sun. “That’s where we bathe,” he said. I didn’t ask about winter.

It’s a hard life, and sometimes a dangerous one. A year or so ago, Mike’s wife was bitten by a rattlesnake, and was flown to a hospital in Great Falls. Because the physicians initially thought the strike had been dry, they hadn’t given her antivenom. The next day, however, her leg began to swell so much, she had to have a fasciotomy to relieve the pressure. It turns out an underground delivery bin for grain near the elevator’s front door was a cool and damp home for snakes. It took five dump-truck loads of gravel to fill it.

It’s also a lonely life. Mike works on his own most of the time, his wife away during the day earning a living. His dogs, a border collie named Smokey Bear and a border collie mix named Arrow, follow him from room to room. Two days before we met him, however, he finally got an Internet connection. Next task: an email address. So he’s happy to have visitors.

“I’m kind of proud of it,” he said of his project as we played with the dogs a final time before leaving. “If it inspires someone, I’m happy. It shows what’s possible, even if you’re working by yourself.”

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