Oral histories of life and work among Buffalo’s grain elevators
Ever walk across a river frozen thick to get to a whiskey-soaked work lunch? Stood atop grain piled so high it was like trudging in deep snow? Ever spend a month camped inside a leaky grain elevator — or fought to keep one from being demolished?
The people featured in Spilling Grain have. They’ve worked in and around Buffalo’s magnificent grain elevators, toiled in their shadows, studied their architectural magnitude and even made music inside them.
Buffalo, New York is known as a rust belt city — an old steel town. The thing is, the massive monuments dotting the waterfront are not there in memory of steel.
They are remnants of another industry — one a lot of people don’t realize had a profound impact on the Great Lakes city: grain. There was a time when Buffalo was the most important hub in the world for storing, milling and transporting the stuff. Unlike many industries whose buildings and machines are long gone, Buffalo’s grain industry past lives on in the 15 nearly indestructible grain elevators that still dominate the landscape.
For a lot of people over far more than a century, Buffalo’s grain elevators weren’t icons of industrial chic. They weren’t gritty backdrops for experimental poetry readings, or places to zip line over. And no — they most certainly were not always painted to resemble giant cans of beer.
Spilling Grain is about what happened in and around these places before they became boat tour themes and apartment scenery.
Special thanks to D. Rives Curtright for providing original music for these audio stories.
For more about Spilling Grain, read on below.
The Audio Stories
BRUCE AND JOEL CARTER Former Buffalo flour mill workers "My father said, ‘Here’s a bottle of whiskey. Go tell that guy I need about a three-second spill.'" With a dad nicknamed Fearless Freddie who worked in and around the grain elevators throughout his life, Joel and Bruce Carter were indoctrinated into Buffalo's grain culture as kids. They both went on to work in the mill themselves, but an industrial accident in the mill sidelined their father and put an end to the family's flour milling days. Bruce Carter (left) and his brother Joel were interviewed in 2020. Note: This story involves graphic injury descriptions.
PAT NEEDHAM Buffalo grain scooper and grain ship engineer from Alabama Street “When we were kids we’d go to Concrete Central – just fields over there, old railroad tracks. And we'd hang out." Some of Buffalo’s grain elevators had already shuttered by the time Pat Needham was a kid, but he worked hauling and scooping grain for decades in Buffalo and around the Great Lakes. A tragic accident down in the hold of a grain ship put an end to his working life. Pat didn’t have to tell us what it was like getting pulled out from a ship hold without being able to feel his legs. But he did. Note: This story involves graphic injury descriptions.
LYNDA SCHNEEKLOTH University at Buffalo architecture professor emeritus and grain elevator preservationist “They are so out of scale to anything that you see in your life that they are like a distant landscape right in front of you all the time.” More than a grain elevator enthusiast, Lynda Schneekloth is a scholar of these giant concrete and steel structures. On a frigid and windy Buffalo day in February 2020, she braved the cold to point out their inner-workings, why they were built the way they were, why they’re considered architectural wonders – and why so many of us are intrigued by them. Lynda is pictured here inside the Perot Malt House, where barley was once converted to malt for use in beer, booze and food.
STEVE BACZKOWSKI Musician, music curator at Buffalo’s contemporary arts center Hallwalls and Buffalo grain elevator sound enthusiast “Banging, creaking, popping, sliding, scraping: every sound you could imagine. Sometimes it sounded like a person screaming, the way the wind moved through there.” As a kid, Steve Baczkowski sneaked into Buffalo’s abandoned grain elevators to hear what his sax might sound like bouncing around their concrete canyons. So, when the longtime music curator at Buffalo’s contemporary arts center Hallwalls got a chance to keep watch over a robotic electronic sound installation inside a grain elevator, his sound nerd alarm bells rang. “The idea of having a little vacation in Buffalo at the grain elevators for the month of September seemed like fun, and in the downtime I could do recordings and play in the space,” he said. Steve camped out inside Silo City’s Marine A elevator for the month of September 19, playing his sax and didgeridoo, hearing ghostly sounds, diverting rain, and even witnessing a Buffalo Bills fan's life-affirming experience through art. Steve Baczkowski was interviewed in 2019.
These are just a few of the stories you’ll find here over the next several months featuring generous people who gave their time, knowledge and personal memories for this project.
More about this project
My name is Kate Kaye. I was born and raised in Buffalo (I grew up on the border of North Buffalo and Kenmore a couple blocks from St. Joe’s, for all you sticklers out there). I guess I must have noticed the old elevators at first as a kid peering out from the back of the car on the way to a Bisons baseball game or a Sabres hockey game.
What were they for? Who worked in and around them? What did those people do? I wasn’t taught about any of that history and I never bothered to ask. Think I had a clue back in the ’70s and ’80s that Buffalo’s silos were built on Seneca land? Ha!
I’ve been a journalist for many years, and when I returned briefly in 2019 to do some investigative reporting, I spent a lot of my free time chasing after people who could help me learn more about my hometown’s magnificent pyramids. I coaxed people who had worked down around the elevators to share their experiences, and I talked to others who are as fascinated by these “beautiful machines” as I am — by the shadows and spaces they carve and deep meaning they illuminate.
My original intent was to spin these audio recordings into a narrative podcast. In fact, the scripts for a series are written, waiting for a someday. But for now, like that grain elevator ethanol plant idea that never quite panned out, life’s pesky realities got in the way.
Creative projects are meant to morph and often are better because of it. So, rather than wait around for an elusive media partner or financial supporters to help bring a much-more-involved podcast production to fruition, I decided to put out these stories in simpler form so they can be heard right now.
Even these short audio pieces take time to put together! But stay tuned: you’ll find more Spilling Grain stories here in the future.
Thanks for listening and thanks to the people who shared their time and tales with us.