Havre Daily News - News you can use

By Pam Burke 

Hi-Line Living: A gift of history


December 8, 2017

At a time when the rural landscape is losing more and more of its agricultural icons Havre/Hill County Historic Preservation Commission is honoring the H. Earl Clack Co. and Centennial Mills elevators - Havre's old, corrugated steal-sided grain elevators - as the subject of its limited-edition Christmas ornaments this year.

"We selected this, as the commission, just because there's kind of a disappearance of elevators that has happened in recent years," Becki Miller, the commission's historic preservation officer, said, adding, "They're just kind of a missing iconic structure in our Montana landscape especially here on the Hi-Line."

The pair of elevators, on the north side of First Street at the intersection of Eighth Avenue, cut familiar angles into the Havre skyline.

Research by the Preservation Commission shows that the original elevator, the one to the north, was built around 1930 by Havre businessman H. Earl Clack.

An important entrepreneur and investor in north-central Montana, Clack added the grain elevator business to his empire of auto accessories, gas and oil, service stations, metals, farm repairs, hardware, planting and harvest supplies in 1911.

Clack's elevators burned down twice, the report said, costing the company about $50,000 in February 1922, including about 5,000 bushels of grain worth close to 88 cents a bushel and $75,000 in May 1930 when the adjoining wholesale gasoline, oil buildings, and tanks burned to the ground. The report said he rebuilt in 1931 for $40,000.

The Clack elevator handled more than 2 million bushels of grain annually, the commission's report said.

This amount is less than the number of bushels that can be stored daily in elevators currently in operation in Havre.

The two elevators, which sit side-by-side north to south, have the classic shape for elevators of the era, with a monitor-roof tower jutting up from a wider base structure. Not all readily seen from the street view are the series of shed-roofed extensions on the east, south and west sides at the first- and second-story levels.

Though they look like afterthoughts, these extensions were support structures for pit/truck bays, offices and scale equipment, says the commission's report on the elevators used to determine the historic significance of the structures.

Commission researchers found tax rolls that described the foundation of the elevators as 3-feet by 8- to 10-inches thick and footings at 24- by 12-inches wide.

Centennial Flouring Mills Co. purchased the Clack elevator in 1948, the report says, and added the second elevator to the south to increase capacity and feed into the original structure from which grain was loaded into rail cars on a now-abandoned rail line. Grain trucks drove into the bays to unload grain. That newer elevator, closest to First Street, bears the faded Centennial Mills logo.

Local farmer and businessman Marcel Thiel, who said he purchased the elevators in 1992, said the second structure was added around 1956.

It is the street-view image of the Centennial Mills elevator with the Clack elevator behind that is depicted on the ornaments. This is the seventh year the Preservation Commission has created the cast-metal, limited-edition ornaments to sell as a fundraiser and tribute to area historic landmarks.

The ornaments are $20 at the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce. A few ornaments from past years are still available and can be purchased for $30 for two, Miller said.

Preservation Commission members got together with Thiel Monday to present him with one of the Christmas ornaments.

The ornament stamped No. 1, out of the 100 made, is always presented to the land owner, Miller said.

"We wanted to select it as something that's important not only from a history standpoint because of H. Earl Clack's kind of empire and his beginnings as a businessman in Havre and how he helped Havre prosper," she added, "but also because it's still intact and still here."

Thiel has worked to keep the elevators intact.

He said he bought the elevators "just for the fun of it," but he has used them over the years to store grain.

Thiel said he started farming in 1969, switching to organic farming in 1982, and the elevators gave him a place to store his wheat and barley, as well as clean and grind it. The elevators currently hold a little bit of wheat and barley, he said, adding that he's worked to keep the structures sound and sealed. He was last up on the roof about 11 or 12 years ago, he said, repairing some tin.

The existing elevators are the last signs of a hub of elevators that had been built and used on that block of town - conveniently sandwiched between the street and the railroad tracks for easy unloading from trucks and loading onto trains for transportation across the country, Miller and Thiel said.

Over the years, those elevators were made obsolete by faster, more efficient structures, Thiel said.

"Both elevators could be unloaded at a speed of 1,500 bushels an hour with the north bin having a capacity of 35,541 bushels and the south bin, 56,000 bushels," the commission's report says. "Both elevators had manual lifts, offices, warehouse, scale, and bins."

Centennial moved their operations to 22 Seventh Avenue Northeast in 1982, the reports says.

As a comparison, the new, high-speed elevators owned by CHS Big Sky hold a total of more than 1.7 million bushels, and the faster elevator operates at 20,000 bushels per minute, loading a railroad grain car in three to four minutes, said grain manager Lance Johnson.

In recent years older elevators like the two depicted on the Christmas ornament have been taken down and salvaged. The lumber is reclaimed for higher-end homes, Miller said. This happened two summers ago to an elevator in Hingham and another in Kremlin.

After years of grain beating on and sliding against the wood, Miller said, the surface gets highly polished, exposing beautiful wood-grain patterns.

But these old grain elevators are a defining shape to the rural landscape, especially the flat horizon of eastern Montana, she added.

"These elevators are vestiges of an era gone by," says the report. "They are significant for their association with the grain industry and with H. Earl Clack, a local businessman influential in the development of that industry as well as gas and oil. They punctuate the horizon as reminders of the importance of the grain industry ... and represent an increasingly rare property type."


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