Iowa History
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Iowa History

When Iowa was America’s Breadbasket

When the Yetter elevator in northwest Iowa ruptured a few weeks ago, it was no shock that thousands of pounds of corn spilled across the adjacent railroad tracks. Had it been 150 years earlier, that avalanche probably would have been wheat.

It may surprise readers to know that Iowa was second in the country in wheat production as recorded in the 1870 agricultural census. The state was still in the top five in wheat acreage in 1880 and top 20 in 1890. Several key factors, including the Civil War, positioned Iowa to become the nation’s breadbasket.

An exhibition at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair promotes Iowa’s bounty. (State Historical Society of Iowa)

Foremost is Iowa’s soil. From the 1840s through the 1890s, corn was mostly fed to livestock and largely used on the farm, but wheat was the primary cash crop for Iowa farm families. During Iowa’s territorial and early statehood days, inventors developed machinery that mechanized wheat production and enabled greater productivity. Farmers could plant six acres a day using a horse-drawn grain drill and harvest 10 acres a day with a reaper, and horse- or steam-powered grain separators mechanized the threshing process. In 1856, John Kenyon of Delaware County wrote to relatives in Rhode Island that “they use thrashing machines here. It requires eight horses and 10 men to tend them and will thrash from 3 to 5 hundred [bushels] a day … It’s a right smart machine.”

Additionally, an architectural innovation assisted in storing and distributing grain and remains on the Iowa landscape today. Joseph Dart and Robert Dunbar of Buffalo, New York, are credited with the development of the grain elevator in 1842. As millions of bushels of wheat moved to the Erie Canal from the farms of the Midwest, Pennsylvania and western New York, this efficient and secure system of grain storage and handling met the needs of farmers and merchants.

At least two elevators were built in Iowa before the Civil War, in Davenport and Dubuque. Elevator construction also began in smaller towns. The Marion elevator in Linn County was completed in the fall of 1864 with a capacity of 35,000 bushels. As farms developed in western Iowa, Sioux City became an important grain hub. A Sioux City Journal report from 1874 lists three local elevators. Both the City Mills elevator and Evans & Peavey elevator had a capacity of 50,000 bushels of grain, and about 90 percent of that was wheat. The Hedges elevator had a capacity of 45,000 bushels, and it was reported that 450,000 bushels of wheat had been handled through it in the previous year. In the late 1860s, as railroads started to outpace riverboat traffic, Chicago supplanted St. Louis as the destination for Iowa’s agricultural bounty.

Among the greatest threats to an elevator was fire. Fires broke out in elevators in Mills, Mitchell and Cass counties around the time the United States entered World War I, prompting suspicions they had been started by enemy spies.

Most elevators built in Iowa before 1900 are now gone, but a noteworthy one still stands in Ross, in Audubon County, where a Civil War veteran named James Stuart began building it in 1881. The structure has a footprint of 25 by 32 feet and towers 70 feet tall over the rural landscape, and reports from the early 1900s show it was used for corn, oats and wheat. More recently, it has been preserved by Bob and Janet Nelson, whose efforts led to its listing in 2018 on the National Register of Historic Places.

The grain elevator in Ross, Iowa. (State Historical Society of Iowa)

Iowa’s days as a leader in wheat production began to wane in the late 1890s as farming increased in drier regions of western Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas and Colorado. Iowa farmers raised more corn to feed hogs and raised oats to feed horses. Soybeans became common in the 1930s.

Elevators remain important landmarks on the rural landscape, and preserving early examples provides lessons into our state’s past.

— Leo Landis, state curator for the State Historical Society of Iowa

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