Giving way to sentiment
By KAREN SHWALLER
MILFORD – It wasn’t the most practical thing Don Cable ever did. It wasn’t even the most financially savvy thing.
But what it was, was one of the most sentimental things he could think of doing.
Cable is the owner of a 1935-era round corn crib, which his grandfather, Emil Y. Cable, built on his rural Milford property.
The elder Cable was a 1910 graduate of Iowa State College’s School of Engineering, and was a mason by trade. He built not only that round corn crib on his farm, but he also built a handful of other round barns and structures in the same neighborhood. That farm is northeast of the Clay County town of Fostoria, and is just inside the Dickinson County line, near U.S. Highway 71.
The body of the crib was constructed of glazed tile from the Fort Dodge Tile Company, while the roof was covered with wood shingles. After three-quarters of a century, the crib itself is still in very good condition inside and outside, but the roof was well past showing its age. That’s when Cable decided to call around to see if someone had the skills to put a new tin roof on an old round structure.
“My grandpa built (the crib) and I wanted to preserve it in his name,” Cable said. “I was pretty close to him. He was a gentle fellow and had a lot of foresight, and was very well educated.
“The crib is in pretty good shape with just a little fixing up to be done. “There are a few blocks breaking here and there, but it’s just a matter of patching it.”
The crib features an alleyway through the middle, and halfway through the alleyway is a John Deere bucket elevator, used to put grain into the bins. There are two side bins of the crib, each holding roughly 4,000 bushels of picked, unshelled corn. There are four overhead grain bins which held loose grain. The overall capacity of the bin is about 10,000 bushels.
“These corn cribs were big back in the day,” Cable said. “A bin this size wouldn’t even hold a candle to what they use now, but if people still picked corn, it would still be useful.”
As agricultural practices changed over the years, the 1970s saw more and more growers going to combines, which shelled kernels off of the cob. This meant that the crib would not be used much longer, since it was designed to hold primarily ears of picked corn. The last crop the bin held was around 1980.
“Corn cribs went by the wayside at that time,” Cable said. “You could still store grain up above today, but the crib isn’t big enough to get a truck in there, and you would have to use some augers to get the grain into a truck (waiting outside). It would be a lot of work.”
Cable remembers shelling corn out of that crib.
“It was a (real pain),” he said. “It mostly flowed out smoothly until the last 500 bushels or so on each side, then you had to scoop it out into the drag way. We first had to make the drag way because there was no division in the concrete floor.”
He remembers that before putting ear corn in the bin, they had to take a couple of 2-by-12-inch boards to make an alley of sorts, then nail boards over the top, making a place for the sheller’s equipment to slide into that spot. When they began shelling, they would take boards out of the drag way as needed. When the ears didn’t roll anymore, it was time to start scooping.
Cable said he remembers his father, Kenny, using a two-row corn picker in his farming days, and filled that crib as well.
“It took one week to fill one side using that two-row picker; if we broke down, it took longer,” he remembered. “On a good day we’d get 10 to 15 loads in the crib.”
Cable said it wouldn’t be worth the time putting grain in it today.
“It’s just easier to haul it to town now and be done with it,” he said.
Sitting empty for more than 30 years now, the roof was showing clear signs of aging. Cable’s sentimentality with the structure led him to decide it was time to at least make it look nice again, even if it wasn’t useful for anything but helping people to remember a bygone era in agriculture.
He decided to tin the roof because wood shingles would have been far more costly, and would have taken a lot more work.
“I thought tin would last longer than wood shingles and faster to put up,” he said. “Wood shingles would be tedious, getting 4 or 5 inches done at a time all the way around the roof of the crib. You’d have to tear off all of the old wood shingles in order to replace them.”
Cable said he didn’t even consider using asphalt shingles because he didn’t think they would last as long as tin, and said that new sheeting would have also been expensive.
“Tin was just what the doctor ordered,” he said, smiling, as he observed his new crib roof.
“I thought about putting a white roof on it, but I thought it would stick out too much and look like it wasn’t part of the building, so I went with brown.
“It blends in nicely with the color of the building.”
Cable added that round buildings were an experiment and a pipe dream for Iowa State College in those days. He said with a round structure, there was no pressure on the outside walls because the weight was distributed evenly all the way around.
There would be no corners to create stress points. The round shape also gave less surface to the strong Iowa winter winds.
“They were a real pain to clean out, though,” he said as he laughed and remembered cleaning out the round barn. “They had to have taken a lot of determination to build-hoisting all of the sheeting and rafters up there that it would take for a round building and roof.
“It would have to take a lot of scaffolding.”
Though the round buildings never caught on, the glazed tile used to construct them continued to be a popular building material for many years.
Cable contacted the Iowa Barn Foundation to inquire about helping with the cost to reroof the historic structure, but was denied on two accounts – it not a barn and the owner does not live close enough to keep up maintenance.
The crib stands as a monument to a more difficult, and yet a more simple, era of American agriculture Cable said.
“My grandpa passed it down to me, and it will be passed on down to my son after me. I hope he can keep it preserved, too. For now, it just sits empty, taking up space.”
And for Cable, that’s good enough.
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