Milling and Grain Storage
Throughout its history, the Sunflower State has been known for producing wheat, corn and other grains. For most of the 20th century, wheat has been the lead product in the state's agricultural economy. All this grain required grinding before it could be used, however, so early on small Kansas grain/grist mills were built to serve the needs of local communities. By the mid-1880s flour and feed milling had become the state's leading industry, and grain storage facilities (such as grain elevators) dotted the Kansas landscape, becoming a symbol of the state's abundant harvest and agricultural vitality.
The first millers in Kansas often operated both grist and lumber mills. Although the lumber industry quickly declined in importance, flour milling became one of the state's leading industries. Perhaps the first flour, or grist mill was established and operated near present Kansas City by Matthias Splitlog, a Wyandotte, about 1852. Splitlog and some other early millers used water power to turn the stone burrs, which then ground the corn and wheat kernels into meal or flour. Other millers were soon using steam engines to power their equipment. A few even experimented with wind as their power source. By the 1880s Kansas communities reported the existence of 350 mills with one-third of them powered by water and nearly all the rest by steam.
Splitlog and other early millers usually operated on a "custom" or toll basis. The miller kept a percentage of the flour as payment for his service and returned the remainder to the farmer, or simply charged a flat fee of perhaps 25 cents per bushel. Either way, after the miller finished his work, the farmer went home with flour or meal ground from the grain he had produced.
Soon, however, grain elevators changed the relationship between the farmer and the miller. With storage facilities in the form of elevators available by the 1870s, most millers simply purchased raw wheat from farmers or took it in exchange for a predetermined quantity of flour. The grain for this flour came from storage bins or elevators that had been filled with the produce of many different farms. This practice of mixing grains together made for a more uniform product and a more efficient method of payment.
During the 1880s, another "revolution" transformed the industry. Hard winter wheat, especially Turkey Red, became the small grain of choice on the Kansas plains, and milling technology adapted to the change. A so-called gradual reduction process using iron or porcelain rollers replaced the old stone burrs, and after 1890 fewer and bigger mills became the rule. The smaller operator simply could not afford the capital investment required for the new technology.
Kansas City became the state's major milling center by 1900, but more than 350 mills of various capacities continued to operate throughout the state. At least a dozen smaller towns (Topeka, Wichita, Leavenworth, Atchison, Wellington, Coffeyville, Salina, Arkansas City, Hutchinson, Newton, McPherson, and Enterprise) could claim to be significant milling centers well into the 20th century. For a time the expansion of the milling industry in Kansas kept pace with the increased production of wheat— 2.5 million bushels in the 1870s, 80 million bushels by 1900, and 172 million by 1914.
All this grain also meant the need for more storage space, and elevators, located near the railroad tracks, became an integral part of the Kansas landscape. Most early elevators were made of wood and had a storage capacity of 5,000 to 15,000 bushels of grain. Concrete silos became popular after 1900, in part because they were less susceptible to fire. Their storage capacity was probably in the neighborhood of 100,000 bushels; today storage elevator capacity ranges from 500,000 to more than 1,500,00 bushels.
Over the years much has changed in grain storage and milling industries. Like Kansas farms, elevators and mills are fewer in number but larger in size and production capacity. Overall, they are undoubtedly safer operations as well. Nevertheless, while the threat of fire was reduced with the conversion to concrete and steel silos, for example, dust explosions remained an ever present hazard. Kansas elevators and mills have earned a relatively good safety record over the years, but an accident at Haysville in 1998 demonstrated that the grain storage business still carries some significant risks.
Entry: Milling and Grain Storage
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: April 2009
Date Modified: April 2011
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.