HARMONY — Behind every great Chosen Valley city there's likely an old grain elevator that helped make it that way.
Efforts are underway in Harmony to preserve and restore its elevator, the 1879 McMichel Grain Elevator at the crossroads of U.S. Highway 52 and Minnesota Highway 139, at the head of the town's main street.
The undertaking has been spearheaded by the Harmony Area Historical Society, which created the elevator restoration committee to coordinate a plan to restore the elevator and submit it for inclusion on the National Registry of Historic Places.
According to Cliff Johannessen, president of the Harmony Area Historical Society, restoring the elevator has been a target for the historical society since it formed in 2000. But plans didn’t get serious until around 2015, after the organization concluded its project to install Harmony history signage across town.
"By then, the elevator project had been on our periphery for a long time," said Johannessen. "So we thought now is the time to address it in a serious way."
The organization started applying for grants for the project in 2016, and got its first one a year later from the Harmony Area Community Foundation. The $10,000 award will be used for site cleanup, critical work and signage.
This year, the group secured another key grant for $3,000 from the Minnesota Historical Society, which Ralph Beastrom, treasurer for the historical society, said will fund the eligibility research to get on the National Register of Historic Places.
The company Pathfinder CRM out of Spring Grove is contracted to do the eligibility review, which is expected to be concluded this year.
Harmony's historical society has also consulted with the Preston Historical Society and the city, which managed to get the Milwaukee Elevator placed on the national registry in 2006.
Beastrom said getting the elevator on the national registry is critical for the restoration because it gets them access to Legacy Grants through the Minnesota Historical Society. Grants of that size would be needed to cover building assessment and construction work costs.
City partnership helps jump-start the process
During its last meeting on Aug 13, the Harmony City Council voted to move forward with the elevator restoration. Paperwork is now processing to confirm the transfer of the property from the current owners, Jeff and Barb Soma, to the City of Harmony.
According to Johannessen, a development agreement between the city and the historical society would then have to be made, designating that HAHS is responsible for funding the project and the City of Harmony will insure the site.
The original plan was for the historical society to take on the project on its own, but Beastrom said the cost will be much greater than any previous projects they've taken on, including the $13,000 they spent on historical signage.
A long-term vision of the restoration committee is to turn the elevator into a kind of interpretive site where people can learn the history of the monument, Beastrom said.
“That’s why it’s important for us to have a lot of people involved, from organizations in town to ag companies and farmers who have history at the elevator," Beastrom said. "We want community people involved in this whole process."
Cleaning out the inside of the elevator will be the next step once the property has been legally transferred, said Beastrom, and any safety hazards will be addressed.
Once initial moves have been cleared it could still be a waiting game to hear about getting on the national registry, which both Beastrom and Johannssen think is likely considering the elevator holds both community and agricultural significance.
"Agriculture is the reason this town exists," Johannessen said.
He said the elevator was originally built about a half mile south of where it is now, and a town had started around it. But a few years later, when the railroad came through, the elevator was moved to be on the tracks.
Local author Amy Hahn, who has a historic preservation certificate, wrote a report on the elevator restoration project, documenting its rich history and how that history qualifies the site for tax and grant benefits.
Allowing the elevator to deteriorate over time would mean giving up on a significant landmark for Harmony, Hahn said.
"When they are removed from a rural landscape they are gone forever, and with their exit they take with them an important part of history," wrote Hahn of historic elevators. "They are a physical remnant of a community’s roots, of its hardworking farmer heritage, and a constant reminder of what a rural farming community is, of who its people are."
Restore to what
Beastrom said that because they are still early in the process, the project has received more community interest than it has support.
"We need to get more people on the committee," he said. "That's number one right now."
They need more voices on the committee to help decide on structural decisions for the elevator, and what period should serve as the model for restoration.
"It was tin at some time, but it was wood originally," he said. "And some of our pictures suggest the roof was shaped different early on."
One surefire way that people can help is to bring in an any old photos they have of the elevator. One or two photos could help them at least clarify its dominant color, which they believe to be red.
"One of the problems we have is there aren't any pictures that we're aware of, of the elevator when it was first built," said Johannssen. "Nobody just takes a picture of an elevator, so it just happens to be in the pictures of other things."
Anyone interested in supporting the restoration project can attend the next committee meeting on Sept. 24 at the Visitors Center in Harmony.