Ross Elevator Saved

Aug 5, 2015

An Iowa man grew up playing in one of the coolest hide-outs around: an old-fashioned, vacant grain elevator. Today, he is restoring it as a tribute to early American agriculture. Phase one has been completed and Iowa Public Radio's Rick Fredericksen was there for the dramatic finish. 

It's the tallest building in Ross, Iowa, built in the 1880s by a Civil War veteran. One of the last original grain elevators still standing west of the Mississippi, the faded building rises nearly 70 feet with all the internal mechanisms still in place. Bob Nelson remembers exploring the deserted complex as a boy back in the 70s.

Bob and Janet Nelson own the elevator.
Credit Rick Fredericksen / Iowa Public Radio

"I think it was a standard rule of every kid in Ross, don't you go back there and play in that elevator. But yes, we would go back there we would ride our motorcycles, shoot our bb guns, throw rocks and whatever else kids would do, play hide and seek, it was just the neatest place to play."

The Nelsons live next door and bought the dilapidated elevator last year for about a thousand dollars. Bob's wife Janet Nelson says it's comforting living next to history.

"Even though it's abandoned and hasn't had a lot of activity it's just a phenomenal building, it's beautiful, and we want to keep it."

The elevator has stood dormant for many decades, and now volunteers have come to the rescue; the crumbling foundation has been repaired and a new roof is going on. Brian Olson's job was to reinforce the limestone footing.

Workers stand over the newly repaired foundation.
Credit Rick Fredericksen / Iowa Public Radio

"My estimate is it probably should have been restored 30 years ago, so I mean if you looked at it you'd wonder what was keeping it from falling over."

This past spring, the 80 ton elevator was lifted four inches off its foundation for repairs. Now it's time to set it back down on solid ground. Tom Mader has moved hundreds of buildings, including a 500 ton church, but he's never tackled a six-story elevator.

"Where you're at right now you're at the top of the grain bins, I got to catch my breath too just a minute."

"They were trying to jack part of it up but realized this thing's getting over their head real fast. No pun intended but it was over their head." 

Building mover Tom Mader of West Bend.
Credit Rick Fredericksen / Iowa Public Radio

Mader and his crew need to jack up the building again, keep it floating on steel girders, knock out the supporting wooden beams, and then gingerly set the heavy load down on its new foundation.

"Getting real close. A little more Brian? We are now sitting on hydraulics, the whole elevator is, which is, I don't remember the weight, but around 160,000."

The command post is set up underneath the elevator, where the action is.

"We have a lot of kinetic energy here so I'm going to take advantage of it and just release the oil as we go and let it rest to its new home. This is always the fun part of the project, clunk, Ooooh that even excited me. Okay here we go, she setting down? Okay, she's creaking, she's 80 percent down. That's just hydraulics."

H beams and heavy rafters support all 80 tons during ground work.
Credit Rick Fredericksen / Iowa Public Radio

The whole process took less than 15 minutes.

"Sounds like waking up a ghost. Okay, we're good to go, here we go. Okay, she's down, everything's relaxed. When we did set it down, she zeroed in I mean, it zeroed in perfect."

Owner Bob Nelson is pleased too.

"I personally would be happy if it sat just like it is now for the next 100 years."

The Nelsons have raised $60,000 so far; the next priorities include siding and windows. Bob is starting to think of the future.

"Of course we'll open it up to the public. It's something that just needs to be there to remind us of how agriculture once was."

The crew celebrates the set down (L to R) Jason, Larry, Bryan, Tom and Ramon.
Credit Janet Nelson

A jagged sheet of corrugated metal flutters in the wind; the elevator was wrapped in steel more than a century ago to guard the original wooden structure from sparks. Others had burned down when embers from locomotives set them ablaze. The vintage Ross property symbolizes an early revolution in grain storage; the predecessor of today's ultra-modern elevators that still serve as beacons of Iowa's farming economy. In Ross, I'm Rick Fredericksen, Iowa Public Radio News.