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  • Dale C. Maley

Brick grain elevator controversy

In the 1880s, Fairbury suffered many fires. In that era, Fairbury was experiencing a town feud.

The opposing factions were the West Enders, associated with John Marsh, and the East Enders, aligned with Bruce Amsbury. The city feud degenerated to the point where the two sides set fire to their opponent's business buildings. Fairbury had so many fires that insurance companies raised their annual premiums to five percent of the building's value compared to less than one percent rates today. As a result, only some business owners could afford fire insurance.

In 1884, Walton Bros. owned an elevator at the southeast corner of Locust and First Street. It burned to the ground, and the fire jumped across Locust Street to the north side and burned the first Walton Bros. department store. Another major fire occurred in 1896 when the Walton Bros. department store at the northwest corner of Locust and Third Streets burned completely.

The Sanborn Insurance Company made maps of Fairbury for the years 1885, 1892, 1898, 1906, and 1911. Two different grain elevators are shown on the 1892 Sanborn map. Frank Churchill owned a massive grain elevator complex located on both sides of the railroad tracks between First and Second Streets. Dr. S. M. Barnes owned the other 30,000-bushel capacity elevator located at the southeast corner of Fifth and Locust Streets.

In May of 1899, Dr. Barnes sold his grain elevator to the Shearer brothers. The three brothers were John L. Shearer, Joseph P. Shearer, and Elmer S. Shearer. These three brothers had previously operated grain elevators at Cullom and Kempton. They named their Fairbury elevator the Shearer Grain Co.

The 1906 Sanborn map shows there were three different grain elevators in Fairbury. Churchill's elevator was still in business at the exact location as shown on the 1898 Sanborn Map. The Barnes elevator had been replaced by a new 60,000-bushel capacity elevator built by the Shearer Grain Co. Also, in 1903, N. B. Claudon & Son erected a 160,000-bushel capacity grain elevator on the south side of the tracks on Walnut Street between Fifth and Sixth Streets.

The July 1901 edition of the Grain and FarmService Centers magazine published an article about a major controversy involving a new grain elevator to be built in Fairbury. The article recounted that the Fairbury City Council had rejected the plans for a new wood elevator and insisted the new elevator be designed to be artistic and fire-proof. The Fairbury City Council members had grown weary of the many previous fires that had plagued Fairbury.

To fulfill the City Council's requirement for a fire-proof elevator, the owner hired the firm of C. M. Seckner & Co. to design the new elevator. A few large cities required new grain elevators to be fire-proof, and Seckner specialized in the design of grain elevators constructed of wood, concrete, or steel. The new elevator for Fairbury was designed to be encased in a brick veneer, with a slate roof and galvanized iron on the top. The magazine article included an end and sectional view of the proposed brick elevator.

Unfortunately, the article in the 1901 elevator trade magazine does not mention the identity of the Fairbury businessman who wanted to build the new elevator. The 1898 and 1906 Sanborn map information indicates the new proposed brick elevator had to be for either the Shearer Grain Co. or N. B. Claudon & Son. Comparing the 1901 drawings for the proposed new brick elevator to the two elevators shown on the 1906 Sanborn map indicates the owner was most likely to have been the Shearer Grain Co.

In April of 1902, the Blade reported that the Shearer Grain Co. had commenced to tear down the old elevator to prepare for building a new elevator. The Blade noted the new structure would be "a fine modern elevator."

The 1906 Sanborn maps reported that both the Shearer Grain Co. and N. B. Claudon & Son grain elevators were built in 1903. In 1904, the Grain Dealers Journal of Chicago, Illinois, published a book with architectural plans for many Illinois grain elevators. This book has a report and drawings about the controversial brick elevator proposed for Fairbury, Illinois. Apparently, the grain elevator owner and the Fairbury City Council reached a compromise on the design of the new elevator. The owner wanted a new wooden elevator to be built because it was cheaper than a brick elevator. The City Council wanted a brick elevator, making it less likely to catch fire. The drawing of the actual elevator that was built has the lower part of the building encased in bricks, but the upper part is conventional wood construction. Unfortunately, there are no known photographs of the elevators owned by the Shearer Grain Co. or Claudon & Son to verify the actual design of the finished elevator.

A new illustration of the proposed brick elevator was created using the drawings shown in the 1901 edition of the Grain and Farm Service Centers magazine. If this brick elevator were built per the proposed design, the resultant brick elevator would have a very unusual and distinctive design. Very few brick elevators were ever built in the United States.

Honeggers & Co. later bought the old Churchill elevator and a large wood grain storage building where Addis Auto Parts is now located. In February of 1949, the entire facility burned to the ground. This structure was one of the last wooden grain elevators in Fairbury. Almost all grain elevators and bins are built today using steel and concrete. The new elevators are relatively fire-proof compared to wood elevators. These new elevators are still prone to explosions of the fine particles from the grain.

If Fairbury had built the all-brick elevator with a slate roof, it might still be standing today. The building might be a tourist attraction since so few brick elevators still stand today.

(Dale Maley's local history article is sponsored each Monday by Dr. Charlene Aaron)

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