The dynamite was not such a good idea. J. Clayton Russell, extension agent for Golden Valley County of North Dakota in the 1920s and 1930s, was enthusiastic about improvements to farmsteads in this county on the Montana line. In 1924 he got the idea of using dynamite to blast out trench silos. He assembled a bunch of fellows with teams and 70 pounds of dynamite, which sounds like a formula for a good time. Sure enough, they had great fun blasting out a 45x14x10′ trench, but when they took a pencil to the proposition afterward, it turned out it was cheaper to dig it with slips.
I’ve been reading the old county extension reports again, which is where I get my stories about agent Russell of Golden Valley. He illustrates a state of mind common on the open plains: the desire to make a mark on the land. Russell was an expert in what was known as rural engineering, that is, building stuff. Permanent stuff, preferably. That was why he loved concrete.
Trench silos were relatively easy to dig, but some farmers preferred to combine cylindrical design with the temperature regulation of earth, and so Russell helped them install pit silos. A pit silo was a circular excavation lined with poured concrete, from which silage was extracted with a winch and bucket. I’m not exactly sure about details of the construction process for a pit silo, but it appears that you first marked out a circle and poured a ring of concrete flush to the ground. Then you dug down a few feet, set braced circular forms in the pit, and poured concrete around the outside of them. This was repeated to go as much as 20 feet deep.
In matters such as these Russell would construct the forms, do a demonstration, and then loan the forms to anyone who wanted to use them. So there are concrete pit silos scattered across Golden Valley County, the first one being that of Harvey Easton, finished in 1924. I have a nifty photo the silo forms perched precariously atop the rumble seat of the agent’s roadster.
Cisterns were another popular project. Russell drew plans and built forms for an underground concrete cistern 8′ deep and 8’8″ in diameter. At the top it tapered to an opening just 2’6″ in diameter. The first one, in 1928, served the household of the John Denton farm; construction consumed 42 sacks of cement. In 1929 twelve cisterns were installed, some catching rainwater, others filled by windmills.
The most intricate concrete construction jobs were root cellars, which were found to keep produce well from season to season in this semiarid region. The first step was to dig a hole 17×9′ and 6′ deep. Then arch forms were set into the hole, so that the arrangement looked like a covered wagon in quicksand. Concrete was tamped beside the forms and run over the top. Three feet of earth was shoveled on after the concrete had set.
The truly interesting thing is, agent Russell, master of concrete, had a sensitive side and an appreciation of nature. He built forms for lily ponds and helped homeowners establish water lilies in the backyards of Beach. He organized landscaping demonstrations using trees, shrubs, asters, and goldenrod transplanted from draws. He got to talking with a “Russian farmer” (probably a Ukrainian) about making adobe bricks from gumbo clay and taught other farmers to do the same.
Then there was his enthusiasm for clinker rock, gathered from the badlands and used for ornamentation. He encouraged Beach citizens who used it for retaining walls and other decorative purposes; he finished one of his lily ponds with an exterior of clinker; and he was just ecstatic in 1933 when E.D. Nelson emulated his example and decorated the exterior of a pit silo with “the beautiful clinker rock common in this part of the country. The rock finish adds greatly to its appearance.” Farmer Nelson noticed an immediate increase in butterfat production due to the clinker rock. (OK, I made that part up.)
I have to go to Golden Valley and see this stuff. Hope I don’t fall in a hole.