Share this article

print logo

When grain was golden A small cadre of grain elevator workers remain, and all take pride in the role they played in the golden age when Buffalo fed the world.

Buffalo's grain elevators stand ravaged yet tall, testaments to a time when the city and its waterfront workforce supplied the world with grain.

About 10,000 laborers worked there between 1850 and 1950, historians estimate. They helped to make Buffalo and its 21 miles of canal systems the country's leading grain market from the late 1800s to the Great Depression. The workers -- many of Irish descent, living in the First Ward -- scooped grain, milled flour or operated the more than 50 towering grain storage units that at one time lined the inner and outer harbors, the Buffalo River and Lake Erie.

"You could say Buffalo's elevators fed the world," said Jerry Malloy, editor of the Buffalo History Gazette, an online publication. "A lot of people don't realize what an important place the grain elevators had in world history. Every bit of grain from our country had to go through Buffalo."

"Just as the period from 1890 to 1940 was a golden age of grain trade and flour milling in Buffalo, it was also a golden age of grain elevator construction," wrote Francis R. Kowsky, Buffalo State College distinguished professor of art history in "Monuments of a Vanished Prosperity." "In 1931, Buffalo possessed 38 elevators with a total capacity of more than 47 million bushels of grain. And the world took notice ..."

Only 17 grain elevators remain. Over the years, many of the elevators have fallen into neglect. Some burned. Others have been demolished, their stories told by the men who scooped grain. Once the backbone of the waterfront grain trade, the remaining grain scoopers are today in their 70s and 80s. All are proud of the roles they played in making Buffalo's history.

William "Billy" A. Brehm turned 74 this month. He started at the Pillsbury Elevator in 1956 and retired in 1996, scooping his way around waterfront elevators at Cargill Superior, Cargill Electric and Concrete Central, which in 1917 was the largest transfer elevator in the world.

"I scooped rail cars," said Brehm. "Car shoveling, especially when it was 80 or 90 degrees, was dirty and dusty, and you'd sweat like you wouldn't believe. It was good hard work, and the money was good, too."

When Brehm got the call to work, he was already employed at one of the steel plants, where he earned $1.70 an hour. He would be making $2.15 at his new job scooping grain.

"My brother Art got a job, then my brother Bob got a job, and then I got a job," Brehm recalled. "Working in the elevators was the thing to do. You found fathers, sons-in-law and in-laws and outlaws working there. There were very few outsiders and only one black gentleman, who worked at the GLF on Ganson. That's the way it was back in '56."

A few miles from the Grain Elevator District, the steel industry, with a force of 21,000 workers, also was booming, but Lackawanna might as well have been another country to scoopers of the First Ward, who liked the flexibility their jobs afforded.

"We had nothing in common with the steelworkers, really," said Brehm. "At that time, every grain elevator was operating. If you got laid off from one elevator, you'd just call the union hall, and they'd send you to another one."

Today, Brehm has returned to the grain business and is working part time at Lake and Rail in quality control. His son works nearby at General Mills' cereal plant.

"When he got out of the Navy, he needed a summer job, so I talked to some people there," Brehm explained. "After a couple of years there, he was going to go back to college. He's been at General Mills 25 years. He's not going back to college."

Buffalo's First Ward, centered on South Park Avenue and bounded by downtown, Smith Street, the East Side and the Buffalo River, was home to large Irish families led by hard-working men whose livelihoods were passed down generation to generation.

Corner taverns were as much a part of the neighborhoods as the Irish lace curtains hanging in the houses' windows. There was a saloon on every block, and each was full every day. Grainmen would wet their whistles there or clear the dust from their throats.

Julie Stanek Malloy is 90. She and her late husband, Edward, ran the Harbor Inn at Chicago and Ohio streets from 1975 to 1995, buying the business from his sister. Julie Malloy, a former Curtiss-Wright employee who built airplanes during World War II, served as chief cook, dishwasher, barmaid and cleaner. She recalls her haddock fish fry special, a bargain at $2.50.

"Scoopers and sailors came to eat lunch," she recalled. "They liked my roast beef and liver, but they really went for my breaded pork chops. I used to put in 13 hours a day starting at 6 a.m."

The Malloys had four children who helped with the business. Son Jerry Malloy, the historian, is 59 and grew up at the Harbor Inn, he said, turning some parts of it into a museum with display cases, photographs, slide shows and elevator memorabilia.

"Back then there were longshoremen, steel haulers, sailors and scoopers, some of whom used the bar like their chamber of commerce," said Malloy. "We used to take them to doctors' appointments, loan them money. We used to help them out in all kinds of ways."

Jack "Irish Jackie" Donnelly today lives in the house he grew up in at Tennessee and O'Connell streets. At age 76, Donnelly looks very much like the former New York State lightweight champion that he is. His go-to saloon was McCarthy's.

"Everyone went to McCarthy's," said Donnelly, finishing a glass of iced beer at his perch in the Swannie House, Ohio Street and Michigan Avenue. "You stayed in your neighborhood."

After dropping out of McKinley High School at 15, Donnelly became an apprentice bricklayer, following in his father's trade. His summers were spent unloading grain from rail cars at the Mutual, which was Pillsbury's grain elevator.

"Most of the kids who lived in the ward didn't want to go to school anymore after they hit 14 or 15, so they'd go to work in the elevators," said Donnelly. "They hired in the summertime; that was their busy time. You would get laid off, but you could work summers for 20 years -- and if you knew somebody, it didn't really matter how old you were."

Scooping grain was hard work -- dusty, dirty and dangerous.

"The rail car would pull up over a pit, and inside the car was a second door made of wood to hold the grain in," Donnelly recalled. "My job would be to take the door off and let the grain fall into the pit. We had aluminum shovels -- 6 foot high, 4 foot wide -- flying around. If one of them hit you, it could hurt you."

Grain dust explosions were not uncommon, often sparked by spontaneous combustion of grain causing a slow, smoldering fire deep in the interior of a bin. In 1972, a large explosion in Pillsbury's bulk flour storage bins killed six people and put the mill out of operation for more than a year.

The morning of the explosion, Donnelly recalled, he received a phone call from a friend telling him to get to work.

"Our job was to go in and dig out the bodies, or see if we could find anybody alive in the rubble," said Donnelly. "We needed a rig to get people out, but there wasn't anybody left. That was hairy. We were there for a week."

Wheat wasn't the only thing stored in the elevators. Flaxseed, barley, oats, corn and soybeans also filled their towering bins. Only two things happened in a grain elevator, said scoopers: Grain was elevated to a high point and then fell by gravity to wherever it was needed -- a waiting canal boat, rail cars or trucks.

Dangerous conditions faced by scoopers on a daily basis went beyond the elevator. Unloading a ship meant a 30-foot descent into the hold of a freighter. It required balance and guts.

"If you were afraid of heights, if you were afraid of being on ladders, you did not belong there," said Fred Brill, who retired after scooping for 43 years. "There wasn't a staircase that led down there."

The scooper crew -- some numbered as many as 17 workers -- positioned a 140-pound shovel to drag across the hold of a ship, pushing the grain toward a conveyor lined with individual buckets. The "marine leg," as the conveyance was called, averaged 125 feet in length and would first lift the grain -- bucket by bucket -- before dumping it into the elevator.

"We would start at 8 a.m. We couldn't start until the conveyor moved enough grain out of the hold for us to hang our blocks and pulleys onto lugs and rings that were welded into the bulkheads," said Brill, who lives in the Town of Tonawanda.

"We were always in a hurry. That's the nature of what we did," Brill explained. "Nobody was sitting around telling stories. Our pay was predicated upon how much grain we moved, not how long we were there. We got paid by the tonnage."

Brill at 63 is considered a baby among former scoopers. He's the last in a First Ward family of grainmen. Both his father and his uncle scooped, and before them his grandfather started scooping in 1901.

"When my grandfather started, they didn't have a phone," Brill said. "There were 17 working grain elevators, and the guys used to go and wait at the union hall for the ship to arrive. They'd actually have little shanties they'd wait at. You pretty much knew if a ship left Duluth, it would take 80 hours to sail to Buffalo."

Brill, the former president of Grain Shovelers Union Local 109, worked full time for the City of Buffalo in its engineering department, but started scooping at age 17 after he graduated from Canisius High School. He remembered eight or nine working grain elevators, and he worked them all until his last scoop in 2003 at the Frontier for General Mills.

"We lasted longer than we thought," he said. "At one time the railroad was competition. The self-loader [ship] was always a threat. We knew it wouldn't last forever.

email: jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com