Plains Folk

Beautiful Silos


Look left as you turn south from the Almont interchange of I-94, and you’ll see a specimen of Great Plains architecture that deserves some explanation. It may not get a lot of people excited, but it’s one of those structures that says a lot about how we live with the land.


I’m talking about a pit silo. Not a trench silo, which is an elongate cut in the ground filled with fermenting forage, but a pit silo, a cylinder excavated and formed into the earth. Think of a vertical cylindrical silo, the kind you see on sentimental calendars, only it’s dug into the ground instead of towering above ground.


Pit silos were common from Texas to Saskatchewan, and in North Dakota, county agents particularly encouraged them. This was mainly in the West River country, where agents built and loaned wooden forms for pouring concrete.


This silo at the Almont interchange is different in a couple of ways. First, it is a partial pit model, that is, half below ground, half above. Second, it is constructed of ceramic drainage tile, a common material used for constructing farm buildings from about 1920 on.


The obvious advantage of a partial pit silo was you only had to dig half as deep. It also was somewhat safer than a full pit. Thirty feet down, gas could accumulate and overcome someone at the bottom of the hole. With a partial pit, too, if you fell in, it was only a fifteen-foot drop.


This pit silo at the Almont interchange is pretty big, about fifteen feet in diameter. Like other substantial silos, it expresses faith in the country in general—it constitutes physical evidence of confidence in the future—as well as faith in animal husbandry in particular. Such a structure expressed a vision for the land.


As you drive south along the Almont road, you come to a couple of other partial pit silos that go beyond an economic vision. They are, aesthetically, exquisite structures, works of art designed to hold forage. They are constructed of drainage tile, but atop each one is the most beautiful conical roof artfully covered with poured concrete.


One of these is a leaning tower, which may not last much longer. The other, about a half-mile away, stands perfectly plumb, and is the home of an impressive flock of pigeons. Each is the remnant structure on an abandoned farm site. I suspect they were constructed by a traveling contractor, and if we were to discover his itinerary, we could follow his legacy across the countryside.


Examine the details, and you see that the builder laid up the tiles to stand lengthways in courses to make the walls. When he had reached the desired height, he then laid a course of tiles flat. Atop this course he began to set more tiles flat, and leaning in slightly, filling in with concrete. These courses had to have been laid over a period of days, so the concrete could harden before going higher. Round iron hatches were installed in the domed roofs, and a ventilator placed on top. A veneer of concrete made the roof tight.


Was it accidental that these functional structures turned out so beautiful? Did the builder back up from his finished product and admire what he had done? Did he know that he was an artist?


Make sport of me if you will, but I believe these beautiful silos belong on the National Register of Historic Places.


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