By RICK A. RICHARDS
SHELBY, Ind. — For more than two decades, the grain elevator on Ron Brown’s farm in southern Lake County sat unused and neglected. Not a single kernel of corn was ground into livestock feed and not a single bag of feed was stored inside.
So, it made perfect sense for Brown to spend a chunk of change (he won’t say how much, only that it was “a lot”) to repair it.
The 100-year-old grain elevator has been a landmark on the tabletop-flat farmland just north of the Kankakee River, in what once was marsh and swamp when his great-great grandfather came to Indiana after the Civil War.
“It was worth it,” said Brown of the effort. “If I was having a hard time feeding my family, I might not have, but this was well worth it. The way it looks now, I think my dad, even though he’s not here to see it, is glad.”
His father, Robert W. Brown, died in late November. For months he had dropped hints about how much he would like to see the grain elevator that was the centerpiece of the family farm repaired.
Ron Brown kept putting it off. “My dad said something to me a number of times to fix that. I said we don’t use it. We don’t make any money on it, so why?”
But last summer, the 65-foot-tall elevator received a new coat of white paint, the family name was restored in big, black letters on the front and by fall, new windows and doors were built and installed and roof repairs made on the elevator and two other buildings.
So why did Brown do it?
He stops for a few seconds before answering to let a wave of emotion about his late father pass.
“We were going to have to pay money to tear it down, so I decided to fix it. It was going to cost me money either way. And it’s been a fixture on this farm since long before I was here,” he explained.
“Dad’s health was failing, and I think that Dad was glad to know it was being done. I told him it was being done and we sent him pictures of the elevator being painted. He wasn’t here when it was finished. I wish we had started sooner, but we didn’t know Dad would pass away.”
It is his great-great grandfather, John Brown, whose name is on the elevator. He came to southern Lake County after the Civil War to start a farm and acquired nearly 12,000 acres.
“That history made me think, ‘Wow, that’s significant,” said Ron Brown. Today, the farm covers 1,725 acres and he leases the land to others, who farm a combined 8,000 acres.
But he lives on the farm in a big brick house built in 1915, across the road from the elevator. The house was built by his grandfather; Ron and his wife, Luann, moved into it in 1978.
He’s on the farm every day and he’s still involved in agriculture. He owns B.T.E., Inc., a manure spreading operation. His business card more politely describes it as “recycling waste beneficially through land application.”
When Brown graduated from Purdue University in 1973 the farm was big into raising cattle. The elevator was used to store feed for the cattle by that time.
“My dad was really big into that,” he said. “When he grew up, the stockyards in Chicago were still open. He’d put a stock rack on a truck and put eight or 10 head on there and drive to Chicago. He’d wait by a pen for the buyers to come by. He liked wheeling and dealing.”
Brown admits that part of the business never appealed to him.
As time went on, it became more impractical to feed cattle from an elevator that was too small to accommodate modern machinery.
He pointed out when the elevator was built, grain was handled by horse-drawn wagons, and the doors used to handle those wagons are far too narrow to accommodate a tractor-trailer rig.
“That’s why the elevator won’t ever be a working elevator,” he said. “It was originally put up to handle ear corn. The ears were stored in mesh wire bins outside until it was time to shell and grind the corn into feed.”
Later, the elevator was converted to handle-shelled corn and did so until 1990. It hasn’t been used since.
It was in 1990 that Brown stepped away from farming. “The stresses of farming made me get out. We had two failures right in a row in the late ’80s. We got hailed off the first year. We had some crop insurance, but it was minimal. The next year we had a huge drought and I think we wound up with a 40-bushel crop.
“We put in irrigation, but that wound up taking as much time to operate properly as it did to farm. Those are the stresses I’m talking about.”
Since then, the elevator that sits in the heart of Brown’s farmland began to show the effect of neglect and lack of use. Finally, with prodding by his father, he began repairs on the building. “The windows were falling out, the roof leaked, it needed a lot of work,” he said.
Brown contacted Travis Earl of Earl’s Exteriors in DeMotte to take on the challenge of making the elevator watertight and pigeon-proof.
“Travis Earl is the only guy who wanted to tackle this project,” he said. “They made all the windows and doors themselves. The doors for the wagon entrance were rebuilt all the way. You don’t find many guys who will do something like that.”
The work will be completed this summer, when painters come back to touch up the building where repairs were made and paint the newly installed doors.
For now, Brown doesn’t see the elevator ever being used again. There is still much cleaning up and repairing to do inside. Plus, said Brown, it isn’t practical for use by today’s large equipment.
“Basically, it’s going to be a historic piece that we preserve,” said Brown. “I like the idea of keeping history. It means more to me at 61 than it did when I was 40. It’s part of the history of this farm. It’s an acknowledgement of the family’s history.”