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Cathedrals of the Prairie

A history of Enid’s grain elevators 

Cathedrals of the Prairie

Y and Z: Union Equity Elevators Y and Z, the largest of the historic elevators, are now owned by Archer Daniels Midland. Photos courtesy of Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center Archive 

 

They punctuate the skyline of every small town in Oklahoma—tall structures, cathedrals of the prairie. But one town outdoes them all—Enid, with its collection of massive grain elevators. As examples of architectural engineering and significance to state history and economy, they qualified for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) as the Enid Terminal Grain Elevators Historic District. 

I grew up in a suburb of Kansas City. When my father came home with the news that we were moving to Enid, Oklahoma, I pictured dirt roads and a tiny, clapboard grocery store with an RC cola cooler on the porch. Why would we ever leave the big city for a small, Oklahoma town I’d never heard of? One reason only— Union Equity Co-Operative Exchange had finished building the world’s largest grain storage facility in 1954, making Enid the third-largest grain-storage center in the country. Relieved that Enid had paved streets and modern conveniences, I ignored the mega-constructions that brought us to town. Even as an adult, my only interest was in my first glimpse of them from miles away— knowing I was almost home. 

I learned there are three kinds of elevators: country elevators designed to handle local grains; processing elevators which include both storage and a mill; and terminal elevators which receive grain from many smaller elevators, storing and distributing the grain to regional, national and international markets. The Enid elevators were designed for this. Although there were more than eight elevators fulfilling this function in Enid, the eight listed on the NRHP are the only ones that maintain sufficient historic integrity to be included. 

In the 1920s concrete—fireproof, waterproof and affordable— became the material of choice for construction. All of the listed elevators are built of concrete and constructed between 1925 and 1954. 

Of the historic district elevators, the Enid Terminal Elevator was built first. Followed soon after by Southwest Terminal Elevator; General Mills Terminal; and Oklahoma Wheat Pool Terminal Elevator. Last constructed were Union Equity Co-Operative Exchange Elevators A, B, Y and Z, now owned by Archer Daniels Midland. 

The Union Equity Co-Operative Exchange, founded in the late ‘20s by E.N. Puckett, combined elevator groups from Texas and Oklahoma. Union Equity’s first concrete elevator, Elevator A, built in 1931, had an initial capacity of 500,000 bushels of grain. 

The year of 1946 was significant to the industry. Puckett devised a honey-comb design which changed future storage facilities and was used in the construction of Elevator B that year. Add-ons brought capacity in this structure to 11 million bushels. 

Union Equity intended building one last elevator—naming it Elevator Z. Grain elevators have several typical sections. There’s a facility for unloading grain which typically goes into a pit and down into the “boot” where it is moved upward to the headhouse, the tallest part of the elevator. From there, grain is conveyed into the gallery and is directed into the proper bins. The gallery in Elevator Z is so long that bicycles are kept there for workers to travel from one end to the other. 

Constructed between 1949 and 1951, the bins could hold 15.3 million bushels. 

Bumper crops and a shortage of storage space made more construction imperative. And thus, Union Equity backed up the alphabet, building Elevator Y, completed in 1954. 

Almost a mirror-image of Elevator Z, this addition pushed Union Equity’s total storage capacity to 46 million bushels. Elevator Y became the largest conventional-type elevator in the world. 

The next few years were probably the peak years for grain storage. But export markets were opening up and stockpiled grain was moving more swiftly into international markets. A grain embargo in 1980, over-expansion of farming operations, and a nationwide economic slump played havoc with the industry. 

Joe Hampton, CEO of the Oklahoma Grain and Feed Association, reflects on how have things changed in the industry. 

“There has been a lot of consolidation in the past 15 to 20 years. The industry remains a big contributor to Enid’s and the state’s economy,” Hampton says. 

Hampton estimates Enid’s current storage capacity at approximately 52 million bushels—down from the heyday but still an impressive number. 

“We’re a great part of Enid’s economy,” says Scott Keller, regional manager for Archer Daniels Midland. “This is a great company and an amazing facility.” 

There are 151 properties and districts in Oklahoma listed on the National Register of Historic Places. These include homes, schools, and historic districts like downtown Guthrie. Unlike many NRHP sites, the Enid site is not open to visitors—it’s best admired from a distance. You can get close, but it is an industrial area with its own activities and traffic. 

While Enid’s elevators have been singled out for their historic and continuing importance to our state’s economy, every elevator, large or small, is a tribute to Oklahoma’s hard-working wheat farmers. Next time you pass an elevator, tip your hat to a symbol of Oklahoma’s agricultural heritage. OKL Article End