Note: In the summer of 2009, the St. Paul Municipal Elevator and Sackhouse was remodeled and renamed the "City House." It is now used as a municipal gathering place, a place to rest on the Mississippi River Trail.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This cliche is a great statement about how context, or frame of reference, informs our sense of what is beautiful and what is not, what is meaningful and what is irrelevant. Without context, the St. Paul Municipal Elevator and Sackhouse are eyesores, broken-down hulks, needless relics in a landscape being rejuvenated. But steep yourself in their river heritage, and you have to look at them anew. They will never be high architecture. These are blue-collar, rolled-up shirt-sleeve places. We have to appreciate them for what they are.
The elevator (headhouse) and sackhouse possess local, regional and national significance. They can teach visitors and residents alike about debates over the shipping and marketing of the region’s grain, about inter-city rivalries, about Minnesota’s rural and urban past and about transforming the Mississippi River from a natural stream into a commercial highway. They are remnants–rare remnants–of St. Paul’s, port-city history. They are nationally significant as the remaining elements of a grain elevator complex that grew from the first successful grain terminal elevator owned and operated by a farm cooperative in America. They are locally and regionally significant as reminders of an effort by farmers to gain control of the marketing of their crops and the drive to reestablish the upper Mississippi River as a viable commercial artery.
During the late nineteenth century, Minnesota’s cereal production boomed, its flour milling grew to lead the nation, and railroads established the means to market huge quantities of grain nationally and internationally. In this context, some entrepreneurs saw the opportunity to control grain buying, selling and shipping. Two men dominated by the start of the twentieth century: William Wallace Cargill and Frank Hutchinson Peavey. They both located in Minneapolis in 1884 and helped build the city into one of the world’s major grain marketing centers. Cargill established a warehouse and offices in Minneapolis, and Peavey moved his headquarters to Minneapolis after the Minneapolis Millers Association became his largest buyer. Both became members of the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce. Joined by the powerful flour millers and other grain merchants, Peavey and Cargill helped the Minneapolis Chamber corner cereal trading in the Midwest.
In response, farmers began to protest. Started in Minneapolis in 1908 and incorporated under the laws of North Dakota in 1911, the Equity Cooperative Exchange emerged as one of several farm organizations to challenge the grain traders. The Equity initially focused on the fair marketing of spring wheat, taking on the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce. The Equity and other critics accused the Chamber of rigging its prices and commissions against farmers. Farmers had little choice but to go through Minneapolis. The Federal Trade Commission estimated that 70 percent of the region’s cereal harvest between 1912 and 1917 passed through the city.
As the Equity’s popularity among farmers grew, the Chamber fought back. In October 1912, the Chamber refused to allow its members to trade with groups or individuals that criticized the Chamber–a not so indirect threat against the Equity. This only made the farmers more determined to establish their own exchange, which they did in 1914, locating in Minneapolis.
Connecting to the River
The Equity’s desire to run its own terminal and to increase farm profits meshed well with a navigation improvement effort underway on the upper Mississippi River. In 1907, the Upper Mississippi River Improvement Association convinced Congress to authorize a 6-foot channel. Under this project, the Corps of Engineers was to create a continuous channel, at least six feet deep at low water, using wing dams and closing dams. Long piers of rock and brush, wing dams projected into the navigation channel to narrow or constrict it. Like the nozzle on a garden hose, the wing dams quickened the river’s flow, allowing it to cut through sandbars. Closing dams, also made of rock and brush, shut off side channels to divert the river’s flow into the main stream.
Although Congress had authorized the 6-foot channel, it questioned funding the project for two reasons. First, unable to compete with railroads, commercial traffic on the upper river had steadily declined. Second, few river cities had modern barge terminals. If port cities would not commit local funds to building modern terminals, Congress debated whether it should spend federal dollars on the 6-foot channel. To demonstrate its sincerity to Congress and to encourage river traffic, the Upper Mississippi River Improvement Association initiated a campaign to modernize river terminals. The Equity Cooperative joined this effort.
Not only did the Equity establish its own exchange in 1914, it moved from Minneapolis to St. Paul. St. Paul promised the Equity free land along the upper levee, so the exchange could build a terminal grain elevator. The location provided access to rail lines and the river. The Equity broke ground in 1915 and completed the new building in 1917. At the dedication ceremony, J. M. Anderson, the Equity’s President, baptized the building with river water, hoping that the Mississippi would again become a factor in grain shipping.
The Minneapolis Chamber rejected the idea that St. Paul could establish a grain exchange and terminal facilities. In 1917 the Chamber asserted that it was “utterly ridiculous” that “this milling industry, linseed oil industry and terminal elevator industry, can be transported to St. Paul by the establishment of a small pretended grain exchange or selling agency. . . ."
The rivalry between St. Paul and Minneapolis had been long and bitter. Minneapolis envied St. Paul’s title to the head of navigation, and St. Paul coveted the hydropower at St. Anthony Falls and the grain trade it drew. When St. Paul persuaded the Equity to leave Minneapolis, the rivalry between the Equity and the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce fed into this inter-city rivalry.
The Equity’s timing was poor. Despite all the Corps’ work on the 6-foot channel projects, commerce continued leaving the river. As the Equity finished its elevator, through commerce on the upper Mississippi died. No steamboats carried or pushed cargo from St. Paul to St. Louis. Steamboats generally traveled less than 15 miles between their origin and destination. Their cargoes most often included rock and brush for channel improvement work under the 6-foot channel project. Even if some boats had made the trip to St. Louis, the Equity’s new elevator was not connected to the river yet.
The Transportation Crisis
As the region’s need for a diverse transportation system had grown, its shipping options had declined, creating a transportation crisis. Railroad car shortages, the Panama Canal’s opening in 1914 and several Interstate Commerce Commission decisions combined with channel constriction’s failure to erect, Midwesterners declared, an “economic barrier” around their region. Although the Engineers had built thousands of wing dams and had closed many of the river’s side channels, they had been unable to create a dependable navigation channel. All too frequently, droughts and floods made the channel impassable. Rail car shortages, occurring in 1906-07, during World War I, and in 1921, caused acute, short-term shipping crises, and pointed out the Midwest’s dependence on railroads.