|Architect John Portman's Renaissance Center in Detroit. |
Other than the barns and field stone homes of the Middle River Region of Michigan the most common and hard to miss structures that dot our landscape are the grain silos. They are an invention of the late 1880's when at the same time in Chicago and New York innovative steel frame structures also shot skyward in the form of skyscrapers. The skylines of the Metropolis and rural horizons were no longer dominated by the church steeple. You could make a pretty good argument that the silo was an even more important invention than the skyscraper though the structural part of its innovation has more in common with a pickle barrel than an erector set. Pictured above is the ruins of a ancient barn, its stone foundation giving way to nature, yet its silo, an interconnecting puzzle of curved precast tiles banded with wire, stands straight and tall raising a metaphorical finger to the passage of time. Indeed, the combination of these elements, structural steel frames clad in precast cement or glass panels, is architecture in these wonderful modern times. The similarity between silos and the skyscrapers to the right is hard to miss.
Before silos hay was stored in huge barns to feed cattle and horses through the winter. It was difficult to store enough hay to feed even a small herd of the thousand pound animals through the long cold months. Often a farmer would sell off much of his stock in the fall rather than trying to winter them over. Inexplicably, wonderously, this discovery was made. When unripened corn was stored in air tight cylinders it fermented the green stalks and ears into a supercharged animal feed called silage. In 1915 Hiram Smith, farmer/scientist, kept detailed records and found he could winter three cows on the silage produced from one acre of corn while he could winter only a single cow from two acres of hay. Simply put, using corn silage, he could feed six cows for the price of one! Cattle loved silage and because it was moist they also drank less water and yielded more milk. Silo Mania ensued and by 1924 the state of Wisconsin alone had 100,000 silos. Remember, man and woman of the new millennium, every bit of water and feed had to be toted by hand every single day and night to maintain farm animals. No days off ever. We won't even talk about removing the steaming manure from the barn stalls all winter long. It was back breaking work. Edna Meijers remembered her childhood days when her "progressive" farming father built an early silo and it fell to her to collect the silage from deep inside it, "I was always scared because you had to get into the bucket to go down and I was always afraid they wouldn't be able to hold the rope steady or let go of it or something and I would have a fast ride." These chores were what the old timers thought the Good Lord made kids for.
Silo technology was a major productivity tipping point just like the assembly line and micro computer would be many decades down the road. Herds grew, people were fed, and milk was drunk. Silos shot upward like mushrooms in the warm spring sun and tractors soon out ran horses as the main source of pulling power. Farmers made more money, more efficiently, with less labor and their now obsolete kids (the cheap labor) left the family farm and went to the cities to work in skyscrapers and factories creating today's modern population. Consider, in 1900 60% of the population in the U.S. lived in a rural setting. Today that figure is 20%. World wide we reached the 50/50 mark about 2008.
Modern life is the grand illusion. We imagined into being a heaven on earth, a place where all our needs are met without turning the soil. Can everyone live in a mansion where all that is left for us to do is praise god and play harp or in this practicality grow fat on processed food and play video games? In today's American suburban neighborhoods poorly constructed five thousand square foot McMansions have become a study in despair as these cheap facades rot from the inside out just a decade or two from construction. The faux luxury and ease of 1990's suburban life, as it turned out, has more in common with purgatory than paradise.
We are first and foremost children of the earth, sun, air and water even though that connection has lately been obscured. The hardships of farm life a hundred years ago left its mark on the soul of it's people and I think we're missing some of the integrity and purposefulness of those times. Perhaps this observations grows more acute here in the Middle River Region where the old ways compete head on with the present and the relative merits and foibles of each lay not in the circus of our imagination but in the cold stone reality of these ancient walls.
Click photo to check out Barn Charm!