Old black and white photos fascinate me. Especially the ones that showed how people lived and the work they did. They tell a story and depict history more than mere words can.

The real early ones from this area show proof that the early settlers really did live in sod houses. Small and very compact, it’s hard to imagine they were used for much more than shelter when the prairie weather was too harsh. Others have a more rambling design, as if they added a room whenever expansion was necessary.

I really enjoy seeing what the people wore. It amazes me how often the choice of color was white. How did the ladies keep those long, white dresses clean on the dusty streets? Men wore suspenders or suit coats, even on what appears to look summer days. It did get hot back then!

The pictures often show men working at jobs that no longer exist or have been eliminated through modern technology. The mail was delivered on bicycles, coal shoveled off train cars into a shed, only to be shoveled again onto wagons.

Winter days were spent cutting ice from the frozen river and hauled to the icehouse. (Yes, my town really did have one back in the day. Now that would be a job that would cool a man twice!)

Stores were crammed full, items were even hung from the ceiling. Butter churns, milking buckets, bolts of cloth, barrels of coffee beans for roasting and grinding–if something needed to be done back then, it was up to you see that it got done.

Train depots would gather a crowd. The town gossip probably was there just to see who was getting on or off, and who greeted whom and how. Farmers often loaded livestock on the same train that brought in their farm equipment. That is how things work–money it, money out.

Elevators line the railroad tracks giving farmers options for selling grain. (Photo courtesy of the Orange City Historical Society.)


Merges and changes made this elevator obsolete. The first cooperative was formed November 1907.

While there, he may have stopped at one of the elevators along the way to see if they were purchasing grain. He had options–close to a dozen independently owned elevators lined the tracks. Their success in business depended on the service, friendliness and the offering of fair prices. If there was any hint of discrepancy or carelessness, the business owner knew the farmer could take his business elsewhere. Competition is a good thing–it keeps everyone striving to do the best job they can.

Cooperatives didn’t crop up until a few decades later. Towns were proud of their local cooperative and it was an honor to be chosen to be on the board of directors. Businesses grew and changed to meet the needs of their shareholders; accountable to those they served, they often communicated on a first name basis. They knew which church they went to, where their farms were located and what breed of livestock the farmers were raising. They knew which farm wives were baking cinnamon rolls, and often showed up for a cup of coffee that day!

Since those first cooperatives were organized in our area over a hundred years ago, things really have changed a lot with the merging of the many elevators. First two elevators, then three, before joining with another cooperative that had already had merged with four others, until finally, the local cooperative is so big the main office is located somewhere near Timbuktu.

One by one, privately owned elevators started to disappear. Independent and private ownership of elevators have become scarce. Consolidation, agreements and partnerships are the norm. Sadly, competition seems to have disappeared and replaced with a “where else can you go?” mentality.

Renae B. Vander Schaaf, freelance writer, lives on a real working farm in northwest Iowa, and authored a book titled "A Place Of Refuge". Contact her at [email protected].