By Celeste Huttes
Charming though it may be, the small farming community of Atlanta, Illinois, seems an unlikely destination for international tourism. But every year, visitors from around the world stop at the J.H. Hawes Grain Elevator Museum to travel back in time.
“It’s amazing – we just had three people here from Australia,” says Jim Coleman of the Atlanta Historical Preservation Council, which operates the museum.
Located just a block off historic Route 66, the elevator was once a hub of grain storage and merchandising. Today, it is a working museum where visitors can learn about agriculture, transportation and commerce at the turn of the 20th century with exhibits such as the farm-to-table journey of corn flakes.
The warm wooden structure, painted a bold brick-red, stands in stark contrast to the sleek steel cylinders used for modern-day grain storage.
“You don’t see lumber like this anymore,” Coleman says. “This elevator is a monument to agriculture in this area 100 years ago – and today.”
With a 30,000-bushel capacity, the elevator opened its doors in 1903 to embrace a new era of large-volume grain commerce. After thriving for decades, the business closed in 1976 amid growing demand for greater storage capacity and advances in transportation and technology.
The elevator would be little more than a faint memory today were it not for the vision and perseverance of a group of local citizens led by Deane May.
“The city was talking about burning it down in 1988,” says Jim’s wife, Marge, a fellow council member. “We started researching the history and found that there just weren’t elevators like this anymore.”
And thus, the Atlanta Historical Preservation Council was born, and members began the monumental task of restoring the elevator. Their efforts earned the elevator a listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991.
With a new lease on life, the elevator once again opened its doors to the public on July 17, 1999 – this time as a museum. Along with the elevator, the museum site features a scale house, engine house and a 1927 boxcar staged where a railway once connected Atlanta to larger grain markets.
A donated period scale and a building once used by the Cracker Jack Co. sit on the original foundation of the scale house, where untold wagonloads of grain have been weighed.
The heartbeat of the operation is the brick engine house, which was carefully reconstructed using materials from the period. Today it houses a restored 1920 10-horsepower Fairbanks Morris gasoline engine that drives the conveyer belt.
Inside the elevator, a vintage wooden farm wagon sits on two elevator dump logs, which act like a teeter-totter, to demonstrate how gravity was used to empty grain from wagons into a pit under the floor. Twelve-inch cups positioned along a conveyer belt carried the grain from the pit to the top of the 60-foot-tall building, where a spout dropped the grain into one of six storage bins.
“You have to give Hawes credit – the elevator was sophisticated in its day,” Jim says. “Elevators still use the same system today to take the grain up.”
What you won’t find at a modern-day elevator is the sense of nostalgia you’ll feel at the J.H. Hawes Elevator, one of the last of its kind in the country. As Marge Coleman says, “It’s wonderful to know you helped bring history back to life.”
Tour the Past
From June through August, the J.H. Hawes Grain Elevator Museum is open to the public on Sundays from 1-3 p.m. Tours may also be arranged by appointment by calling (309) 830-8306.
Special educational programs are available for school groups in grades 4-12. And if you’re looking for an unforgettable venue for a special event, the elevator is available for rental.
All tours are free. Donations are welcome and are used to continue restoration of the elevator. Learn more at www.haweselevator.org.