Time and progress have conspired to end the working life of the last grain elevator in St. Louis County

When Richard Grellner was a traffic-court judge in Valley Park, holding court in City Hall twice a month, he would frequently pass by the hulking structure out on Route 141, on the edge of town. Maybe it was the beckoning checkerboard sign out front, touting Purina feeds, but he'd stop and buy some nails or a can of lacquer, because even in the 1960s the old elevator was gradually making the transition from a buying and selling point for grain to a one-of-a-kind hardware store. One day, in 1976 or so, he got to talking with old Bill Osdieck, owner/operator of the elevator for as long as anyone could remember, and when the judge learned that Osdieck was in the mood to retire, he decided to try on a new hat. Back then, the eight oak-lined storage bins were still operable and local grain farmers such as Walter Schmidt depended on the Valley Park Elevator to pay fair price for their hard-wrought harvests. Along with sons Steve and Jeff, Grellner continued to buy and sell grain in small lots, at times no more than dabbling in the trade. It was more an accommodation to the few remaining grain farmers in the Meramec Bottoms area.

"There wasn't any great profit in it," shrugs Grellner, 66, glasses down around the tip of his nose, "but it sure was fun messing with that grain."

The grain elevator has always been a stanchion of rural economy, linking the grain farmer to the market. Built for capacity, the elevators may store soybeans in Illinois, corn in Iowa, rice in Arkansas or wheat in Missouri. For many towns, these windowless, monolithic structures are the defining landmark, eclipsing even the church spire. A rural Midwestern town without a grain elevator is like a marching band without a bass drum.

In a more rustic time, when the plow on the county seal meant something, four grain elevators operated in St. Louis County — in Eureka, Chesterfield, Florissant and Valley Park. The first three are extinct, victims of urban sprawl. The Valley Park elevator, however, still holds its ground, looming over the Missouri Pacific tracks as it has for more than a century. The railroad was once the lifeline to the old elevator, bringing in coal for local distribution and carrying out grain by the carload. In its heyday, the 1920s, the elevator handled 500,000 bushels of grain a year. According to Osdieck, now 94 and living in Shrewsbury, during the various harvests so much wheat and corn and soybeans came in, it was beyond their capacity to handle. The surfeit lay on the ground in golden, tawny and ochre-colored mounds, covered with tarps.

Toward the end, in the 1970s, the elevator was moving a mere 20,000 bushels per year, all of it from the dwindling base of local small farms.

As early as 1874, the site was a mill, making Meramec Flour and Red Rose Flour. But the mill burned in 1883, and the grain elevator rose in 1895. For decades, the Valley Park elevator also did a brisk trade in coal. There are still square metal signs near the door touting Orient Coal and Christopher Coal, back in a time when the elevator's telephone number was "Valley Park 76."

"They sold stoker coal, 3-by-6-inch lump coal and briquettes," says Grellner. "They had a John Deere tractor with a scoop; two scoops was a ton. You ordered 2 tons or 15 tons, whatever would get you through the winter. It was delivered to the home by dump truck. Everybody had a coal shed in those days." But the coal operation stopped when Laclede Gas eventually made its way to Valley Park, around 1960.

Today, in stark incongruity, Valley Park Elevator & Hardware, with its saloonlike wooden-column porch crammed with sacks of animal feed, stands across the street from a modern strip mall of restaurants and offices, facades adorned with backlit signs bearing uniform Helvetica lettering: The Stepford wives meet Lee Marvin.

From the time Grellner took the deed, the cards seemed to be stacked against the place's continuing as a working grain elevator. The times, it seemed, had just caught up with them. Sitting in the back of the store on stacks of 50-pound dog-food bags, Steve says the problems began when that Georgia peanut farmer, Jimmy Carter, placed an embargo on the sale of grain to Russia: "Because of Afghanistan, remember? But, see, there was a bull market in grain that year and we were buying soybeans, holding them in our bins, playing the grain and futures market. So when Carter slapped that embargo on the sale of so many million metric tons of beans and wheat to Russia — fighting their own Vietnam in Afghanistan — that's when the grain market fell. We had all these beans in storage, earmarked for Russia, that we couldn't legally sell, so we had to eat it, and that hurt."

Marie Winkoe, the bookkeeper there since 1955, overhears the discussion and chimes in: "Actually, the decline started even further back, when the Chrysler plant came to Fenton, back in '59. The workers needed homes, and the farmland started being gobbled up by developers."

"There must be 20 locations around here that used to be farms and are now subdivisions," puts in Jeff.

"You bet," says the judge, tilting his hard-of-hearing head toward the conversation, "so it was goodbye crops and farm animals and hello pets and lawn care."

Already the bigger-volume farmers were hauling their grain to St. Louis or East St. Louis and the elevators of Continental, ADM and Peavey. Still, the local elevator took care of the small-timers, the gentlemen farmers of sorts, working 40, maybe 100 acres as a pastime.

But it was the Missouri Highway Department that handed the Grellners the proverbial last straw. "I think it was 1986," says the judge. "They decided to expand 141 out front here — that took out my frontage, blocked the trucks from getting in."

"If you don't have the grain anyway, it doesn't matter," notes Steve.

"It's still a shame," counters his father. "This was the last elevator in St. Louis County that I know of. It was part of our heritage. I tried to tell the highway department that. People don't realize this is what this country was built on — small elevators like this."

The Grellners thought it over that year, between late fall and early spring. You had to change with the times or throw in the towel. They'd already been moving toward hardware, but now the Valley Park elevator would diversify even more, selling bulk seed, more tools, more feed, paint, propane, bedding plants, live bait and anything else there seemed to be a demand for. As for grain buying, the small independents such as Walter Schmidt — "It was not uncommon to see him at my door at 5 a.m.," says the judge. "We'd unload and have a cup of coffee." — well, they would just have to take their business to the elevators in Labadie or Washington.

There is one entrance to the elevator proper from the store side, and it's in the back, near where they fix the busted windows folks bring in. The door has about two dozen windowpanes leaning against it, and Jeff carefully moves them aside. He opens the door to another time. The space resembles an old farmhouse basement, except the beams are gargantuan — they have to be, because they support eight capacious grain bins, 90 feet tall, each capable of housing 25,000 bushels.

"The bins are oak," explains Jeff, glancing upward, "2-inch-by-8-inch boards — enough wood there to build an entire subdivision."

Everything is hung with cobwebs, and the earthy smell of grain lingers in the air. Grain shovels, the kind with the wide scoop, lean against the wall, wheat still stuck to them by the filament of time. Pulleys the size of manhole covers depend from the ceiling, idle for some 13 years. On the floorboards lies the clean skeleton of a rat, flesh reduced to granulated, organic dust.

If those old floorboards could talk, they would tell of farmers bringing their wheat harvest to the grain elevator: It is late August, hot as blazes, and the air is thick with grain dust. Some of the men cover their mouths with kerchiefs. One by one, the farmers pull up to the scales. The scale master tests the grain for purity and moisture content. Eight cents a bushel is the going price, a little less than market. Whether the farmer had a good crop or a poor crop that year is of no consequence in the transaction. He can either take it and be glad or he can drive that team another 20 miles into St. Louis and get maybe 12 cents a bushel at Continental or Peavey. Given the OK, the farmers dump the contents of their cloth sacks into a pit. The scale master notes the volume in a ledger. From there it runs by conveyor belt to a main chute to be transferred by a series of augers (or vertical elevators, called "legs," attached to belts and pulleys). The grain is carried to the top of the bins, where it is cleaned, blown by fans and passed over various screens. Dirt and impurities are collected in conical containers on the outside of the elevator. Then the grain just sits — until the market is right or the owner gets impatient.

Standing there in the bowels of the old elevator, if you switch on your imagination, you can hear conveyor belts moving, augers turning, men cursing or laughing, grain flowing through chutes like lifeblood, a steam engine chugging along, powering the whole operation. The scale master calls the next wagon in line.

"This elevator would run right now," Jeff says. "All we'd have to do is grease up all the pulleys and bearings, hook the power back up. It'd run in a heartbeat."

"Maybe we will someday," says the judge, hefting a bag of dog food, "just for the hell of it. It sure was fun messing with that grain."