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Wonders from our past; TV series to show grain elevators, first power station

Memo to Buffalo:

Don't miss the Travel Channel's hourlong series debuting in late summer with host Don Wildman.

Buffalo may not have a better ambassador.

"It kind of awes me that much of the country, like myself, is in the dark as far as what Buffalo means in the evolution of the United States," Wildman said. "Buffalo was such a profound part of this nation. If I can do a television show that has any part in teaching that, that's terrific."

Well, he is doing just that. After visits to the Adams Power Plant Transformer House in Niagara Falls on Wednesday, and grain elevators in the Old First Ward on Thursday -- with more stops to come, including the Col. Ward Pumping Station, Lackawanna windmills and Lockport caves -- it's apparent Buffalo and Western New York will be the subject of a one-hour lovefest.

The new, still-untitled series aims to reveal intriguing sites that are off-limits to the public.

"Every time we stand at a chain-link fence, or no-trespassing zone, there is a story to be told. If you can do that safely, and legally, and get on the other side of that fence, so much of life opens up, and [the grain elevators are] a perfect example of that," Wildman said.

Wildman explored the hulking elevators near the Michigan Street Bridge off Ohio and Child streets, beyond a gated fence on private property that normally keeps people out.

Local grain elevator expert "Swannie" Jim Watkins, who works at nearby Rigidized Metals, was with Wildman to explain on camera how the elaborately designed elevators, invented by Buffalo merchant Joseph Dart in 1843, operated.

The two men, plus a producer, cameraman and sound man, first walked along a small stretch of river, where the largest concentration of grain elevators exist, before climbing the cavernous, 1907 Perot Malting Elevator. It's next to the smaller, Perot Malt House, once used to manufacture Genesee Beer.

They walked in the silos, stood around hoppers, looked down storage bins, touched conveyer belts and peered down washing vats. During a break, Wildman called the cone-shaped hoppers "giant pieces of equipment that are pieces of art."

"You can understand why so many people in Buffalo are screaming about preserving these places, because this just doesn't exist anywhere else in the world, on this kind of scale," Wildman said.

Later, looking down on the ground through an open door, he imagined a re-landscaped seating area by the river, with movies projected off the ADM elevator across the way. It's an idea local entrepreneur and historian Mark Goldman and others have suggested.

"This could be the Silo Drive-in Theater. You would [pack] this place in the summertime," he said.

A few minutes later, Wildman looked down into a vast storage silo while on camera and said, "A surefire way to die down there if you fall down that hole."

Then he got another idea, and repeating the scene, looked up and said, "Whole grain death."

Before finding his niche as a cable TV host, Wildman was a struggling actor who waited tables in New York City while forging what became a successful career making commercials.

"I was the first one who ever opened an Oreo cookie with a little boy and said, 'Gary, its time I taught you something every man should know: How to eat an Oreo cookie.' "

He was also a pitchman for Sprint alongside Candace Bergen.

Eventually doors opened for him to host shows, beginning with "Men's Journal" on ESPN, and continuing with "Weird Travels" for the Travel Channel and most recently, "Cities of the Underworld" on the History Channel, which ran from 2007 to 2009.

Buffalo is one of 13 cities being filmed for the first season of the series, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Seattle.

Wildman went to cities on five continents for "Cities of the Underworld," yet he said the grain elevators and the Adams Power Station already rate with anything he saw before.

The power station is the only remaining structure left of the first large-scale, alternating current electric generating plant when it opened in August 1895 by tapping the power of Niagara Falls.

"It was off the charts -- really an amazing experience. You have a site where everything changed. The entire electrical system of the world originates from that place, right there," he said.

"It's an unbelievably fundamental piece of infrastructure of America and the world that's being used as a warehouse -- thankfully, by a man who is taking care of the place -- and essentially ignored and neglected, historically speaking," Wildman said.

"But that's really cool in terms of our program. You get a chance to tell that story, and it's an honor to get inside and say, 'Think about what happened here.' "

e-mail: msommer@buffnews.com

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