Sunday, September 10, 2023

Sentinels of American Farmland


By Suzanne Norquist

What road trip through farm country is complete without sighting a grain silo or two?

Surprisingly, the familiar, tall, round structures have only been around since 1889, and at the time, many farmers were slow to adopt them. Even more surprising, they are already being replaced with newer technology. As we point out the towers on our road trip, we are living a slice of history.

In antiquity, the ability to store food allowed people to survive winters and famine. Rot and insects could ruin grain if improperly stored, but pits lined with a thick layer of chaff provided protection from loss. Careful drainage prevented moisture accumulation.

Some civilizations built storage structures, the precursors to the modern silo. The word silo is derived from a Greek word meaning “pit for holding grain.”

Julius Cesar stored food in pits along the road, which would be covered and marked for use on another trip.

Fred Hatch, an Illinois farmer, is credited with building the first “modern” silo in the United States in 1873. Reports of earlier ones were unverified. Mr. Hatch described the structure to the Prairie Farmer newspaper in 1922.

“The silo was 10 by 16, and 24 feet deep. We didn’t know anything about building silos outdoors, so the first was put inside the barn. We first dug a pit eight feet deep and laid stone walls around it. The part above the ground was built of flooring, with a layer of tar paper and another thickness of flooring boards. This made it almost air tight.”

Farmers throughout the Midwest adopted this practice.

However, the square structure tended to get moisture and rot in the corners. So, in 1889, Franklin King, a professor of agricultural physics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, devised a cylindrical tower.

These round towers started popping up throughout the Midwest. However, as with all new technologies, some farmers needed to be convinced of their value. Advertisements, expounding on the virtues of silos, filled rural newspapers in the nineteen-teens. Here is one from 1915.

The small print reads,

My silo saves 90% of my crop. A year of plenty puts me 2 years to the good on feed. I can scare up some ‘Ready Money’ when I need it,—I use-ter couldn’t raise a goldurn cent.”

Wooden silos were quickly replaced with brick or tile since they weathered better.

Next came the familiar cement landmarks that stand watch in most small farming communities. Later, metal silos were added to the mix.

I was surprised to learn that newer “silos” are giant plastic bags that can be stacked across the ground.

Eventually, the giant sentinels we see on road trips will crumble into history. Until then, kids can imagine them as castles from medieval legends . . . after they ask for the bazillionth time, “Are we there yet?”


”Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection

Four historical romances celebrating the arts of sewing and quilting.

Mending Sarah’s Heart by Suzanne Norquist

Rockledge, Colorado, 1884

Sarah seeks a quiet life as a seamstress. She doesn’t need anyone, especially her dead husband’s partner. If only the Emporium of Fashion would stop stealing her customers, and the local hoodlums would leave her sons alone. When she rejects her husband’s share of the mine, his partner Jack seeks to serve her through other means. But will his efforts only push her further away?


Suzanne Norquist is the author of two novellas, “A Song for Rose” in A Bouquet of Brides Collection and “Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection. Everything fascinates her. She has worked as a chemist, professor, financial analyst, and even earned a doctorate in economics. Research feeds her curiosity, and she shares the adventure with her readers. She lives in New Mexico with her mining engineer husband and has two grown children. When not writing, she explores the mountains, hikes, and attends kickboxing class.



  1. My grandfather built silos in the Fox River Valley in Wisconsin over 100 years ago, some are still standing! When I was a kid and we would visit the area my parents would drive by some of the ones he built. Thanks for an interesting post!

  2. Thank you for the interesting post today!