Why the Rochester Elevator is NOT a Barn

Op-Ed: Why the Rochester Elevator is NOT a Barn

During their August 8 meeting, members of the Rochester City Council discussed the pending development of the Rochester Elevator property. Council members were brought up to date on the negotiations and advised about the various options for preservation of the elevator structure. It is early days in the process, so no firm decisions have been made at this point.

During public comment on this issue, Sue Douglas – formerly a member of both the Rochester City Council and Oakland County Board of Commissioners – admonished the council that the elevator should not be referred to as ”the old barn.” She noted that some elected or appointed members of Rochester’s government – in particular, those on the planning commission – have been heard to speak of the elevator in such dismissive terms and correctly informed the council “it’s not a barn – I don’t know when it was ever used as a barn.”

The Rochester Elevator Location May Soon Be Condos - photo by Michael Dwyer

The Rochester Elevator Location May Soon Be Condos – photo by Michael Dwyer

This criticism is spot on. Red paint and a gambrel roof do not necessarily a barn make. To use the vernacular, Mrs. Douglas gets it, as apparently some Rochester officials do not. Here are the facts.

On December 13, 2010, the federal government listed the Griggs Brothers/Rochester Elevator Company Grain Elevator on the National Register of Historic Places for its significant role in the emergence of the village of Rochester, Michigan as a center of agricultural commerce in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The center section of the Rochester Elevator was built by Charles Kelley Griggs and his brother, Albert, in the summer of 1880, and was expanded at both ends in 1909. Its construction followed on the arrival of two railroad lines in Rochester and it opened the grain markets of Detroit, Chicago and Buffalo to local farmers. Access to these markets brought an infusion of capital to what had been a sleepy farm village and changed the course of Rochester’s history.

Grain Elevator

Grain Elevator

The elevator provided a crucial transportation mechanism for shipment of crops and allowed farmers to store their grain until it could be sent to market at a time when it would command the most advantageous price. The grain elevator was responsible for positioning Rochester as an agricultural marketplace within Oakland County, which led the state of Michigan in wheat production at that time. The grain elevator attracted farmers from the surrounding townships to the village to market their crops and to conduct trade in the downtown business district. Today, it is the last remaining icon of Rochester’s agricultural history.

The Rochester Elevator is an example of a country grain elevator. Such buildings were designed for the efficient loading of agricultural products into railroad freight cars. Before grain elevators, this work was tedious and labor-intensive. The crops were first packaged in barrels or bags, which were then loaded by hand with a block-and-tackle system. A significant improvement over this manual system, the grain elevator’s apparatus consisted of a hopper and scale, one or more “grain legs,” a series of screens for cleaning the grain, storage bins, flexible chutes and spouts for loading rail cars, and a power shaft. The farmer drove his load of grain on to the scale, where it was weighed and the load was dumped into a below-grade hopper. From the hopper, it was picked up by a system of buckets or scoops attached to an endless belt traveling inside an enclosed wooden case. This belt and scoop system was referred to as the “grain leg.” The leg elevated the grain to the top level of the building, where it then passed, by means of gravity, through a series of screens to remove dirt, pebbles and debris. The clean grain was then directed, via a chute, into a grain bin for storage. When a rail car pulled alongside for loading, the grain was directed into the car by a flexible chute and spout and delivered via gravity. The endless conveyor system inside the grain leg had a shaft drive which was powered by originally by horses, then later by steam and gasoline engines, and eventually by electric motor.

The Rochester Elevator building is not a barn. It is an increasingly rare example of a wooden country grain elevator. Not many of them have survived the years and the inherent threat of fire (under the right circumstances, grain dust is highly combustible). As Mrs. Douglas observed, the building was never a barn. Referring to the Rochester Elevator structure as a barn diminishes its vital role in the community’s history. At best, such usage is lazy and imprecise speech, and at worst, it reveals ignorance of – and disrespect for – Rochester’s rich history. Before they make any decisions affecting one of Rochester’s greatest historical treasures, the elected and appointed members of city government have an obligation to understand and acknowledge its important place in the increasingly frayed tapestry of her heritage.

READ:  Condos to Replace Rochester Elevator Location

About Deborah J. Larsen

Deborah J. Larsen recently retired after 34 years as local history librarian at Mount Clemens Public Library. She currently serves as the research chairperson for the Rochester-Avon Historical Society, and writes on a wide range of local history topics.


  1. Tom Parker says

    Sort of reminds me of when the press refers to Oakland Universit as being in Rochester…

    • Sue Ann Douglas says

      Matilda Dodge Wilson required that the mailing address of the property be Rochester when she donated the land. Auburn Hills and Rochester Hills didn’t exist at that time.

  2. TED GEORGE says

    Looks like a barn , built like a barn , smells like a barn . Nope , NOT a barn !

  3. I think most people on Rochester City Council care about that structure whether you want them to call it a barn, elevator, or some other precise term that makes you feel better. If you actually listened to what they said about protecting it then this OP ED would not be necessary. But then again this little piece fits with Sue, I mean “Rochester Media”‘s editorial bent.

    Insulting the officials who you want to make a good decision concerning its future is foolish and smacks of amateurism that hobbles the Rochester historic preservation community. Be a force for action by supporating the Historic District efforts of the City and raise some real money to help preserve and restore the barn/elevator instead.

    • Deborah J. Larsen says

      No insult was offered here. I objected to an inappropriate use of language and stated my reason for doing so. Government officials cannot make effective decisions unless everyone involved in the process is well-informed and on the same page with the nomenclature. That won’t happen if some of our leaders are trying to decide what to do with an old barn and others are trying to decide how best to preserve a nationally-recognized historic structure.

      Your point about supporting the historic district effort in the City of Rochester is a good one. I hope that you support it, as I do. I have conducted hundreds of hours of professional research on a volunteer basis that was used to support the Historic District Study Committee’s extensive survey work in the city. I also donated research material to the committee’s paid consultants, and researched and wrote the nomination packet submitted to state and federal officials to place the Rochester Elevator on the National Register of Historic Places.

      • Sue Ann Douglas says

        Who would have thought that a column on an historic structure in our city would bring out so many grumpy people with some afraid to use their last name or any name? Nice job Deborah. Although we have never talked, you understood what I was saying at the council meeting.

  4. SAVE THE BARN says

    I’ll be selling some “SAVE THE BARN” t-shirts at the Farmer’s Market this Saturday.

  5. Lyn Sieffert says

    Good for Rochester Media in publishing this info. Who wants ignorant people on the council anyway?
    They should be embarassed — not defensive.

    • Sue Ann Douglas says

      Lyn, the lead person calling Rochester’s old grain elevator an “old barn” was not anyone on the council. It was a city employee.

  6. Its not a tumor says

    Could you raise money to save it? Perhaps by renting the space out to local farmers to store farm yard animals and hay bales?

  7. Earl Harwood says

    Political corruption across the board, a shrinking job market, 18 trillion national debt, failing infrastructure and public services. Nope. Let’s get our feelings hurt by somebody calling our obsolete firetrap a mean name. Historical society people crack me up with their “priorities.” The world is a big place and ultimately, the sleepy hamlet of Rochester in comparison is ahistoric at best.

  8. It breaks my heart that they want to put condos where this historical building stands. Rochester has enough condos/apartments/townhouses/lofts downtown. They are going to fill Rochester up with more people so that it makes it impossible to maneuver down there. It will just be another over crowded city. The city of Rochester does not care about anything historical. They just care about dollar signs.

  9. It’s sad to see members of the Rochester community continue to bash and misrepresent the intent of our City Council members. Regardless of what they choose to call this establishment I firmly believe they are working towards a solution that is in the best interest of all that is involved. Sometimes difficult decisions need to be made and each member of City Council was selected to make these tough decisions by balancing good judgment alongside the information provided by historical subject matter experts as well as the voice of the Rochester residents. Based on the information provided in this article I agree that this establishment is not simply a “barn”; however, lets look at the bigger picture here and not focus on a naming convention. Positive change verse spreading negativity. There is already enough of that in other news outlets.
    Furthermore, who appointed Sue D. a historical guru or any guru for that matter? The few City Council meetings I was able to attend Sue spent a great deal of time complaining and failing to come up with solutions. She leads with her credentials, which quite frankly are outdated. We can do better than this!

  10. Joanne Haberkamp says

    Are the guts of the grain elevator still there? The chutes, hoppers, etc so we could restore it back to the way it was when it was being used. We could have surrounding schools come and use it as a teaching resource. Or turn it into a really cool, old restored elevator, restaraunt like Aurelio’s Pizza did in Homewood, Illinois. It would be a shame to move it to a different location just to put ugly updated apartments. Put the apartment building where you were going to put the grain elevator and leave the elevator alone!!!!!!!!

  11. Michael G. says

    Save the historic nature of our city! Please!!

  12. TED GEORGE says

    I toured ” The Barn ” and the smell of ” Millage Proposal ” was overwhelming…

  13. Lois Golden says

    Thank you Deborah Larson for this well-articulated piece. I also enjoy your wonderful contributions and glimpses of history of the Mount Clemens Public Library postings.
    Keep up the good work, Ms. Douglas. Few retired elected officials understand government finance as you do. Perhaps your presence is a bit intimidating, but hopefully the Council is professional enough to understand facts and not take issues personally.
    It is in everyone’s best interest to preserve Rochester’s important history. Visitors, diners and shoppers flock to villages and cities for their charm and ambiance. That revenue helps local businesses flourish and in turn brings more revenue to a municipality. When too much is gone, decline sets in and often sends leaders scrambling for ideas to bring back the charm, often at a cost. Here is hoping Rochester can find a way to preserve its history and culture and the revenue from tourism.

    • ” Few retired elected officials understand government finance as you do ” My my ! O.K. then let’s just cut to the chase : Who shall pay for it ? Whom does it benefit ? How much more millage can you squeeze from the tax payers ?

  14. Donna Renshaw Ellis says

    If it is now a historical landmark and it definitely should be then it should be restored. Then made into a museum highlighting Rochester and surrounding areas history in agriculture. It was a very important to the farmers that lived and are part of Rochesters history. My Great Grandfather, Grandfather, Father, and Uncle’s are part of that history as are many in the area. And as the rural areas are disappearing farming history should not.

  15. Donna Renshaw Ellis says

    Counsel should look at the success of the the thumb octagon barn museum. It is in Gagetown Michigan. They have had great success with the agricultural museum thier. And in reference to how it should be discribed it has always been called a elevator why should that change

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