Kenmare ND - Upside Down Under

Real People. Real Jobs. Real Adventures.

Upside Down Under

By Marvin Baker, a new weekly column in The Kenmare News


A grain elevator pioneer...

Posted 5/01/18 (Tue)

Chances are if you grew up in North Dakota, you were raised in a town that had at least one wooden grain elevator structure.

Up until the mid 1980s, there was also one of those prairie skyscrapers at the corner of Ninth Street and Main Avenue in Bismarck, where I believe a St. Alexius Hospital parking lot now sits.

These elevators dotted the prairie for more than 100 years and now they are quickly disappearing and more modern, concrete silos are going up in their place.

But those new, modern elevators, which some people call granaries, will never replace the nostalgia of the old wood elevators with rail cars sitting on the side track.

There are plenty of those elevators still around, but these days, you kind of have to look for them.

One of them is on the south side of Hazen. It’s completely operational and as the years go by, it’s becoming more of a rarity across North Dakota.

In the early 1980s, the Farmers Elevator of Hazen loaded partial unit trains on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe main line. They shared a unit train with Beulah and Golden Valley.

When rail cars were delivered, usually eight or 10, BNSF gave the elevator staff 24 hours to load the cars. Seldom did BNSF pick those cars up in 24 hours. Sometimes the loaded cars sat there for several days.

Meanwhile, coal trains of 120 rail cars passed by that elevator every day, sometimes three times a day, but they didn’t stop to pick up the grain.

One of the employees in that elevator often became agitated when he would see those loaded coal cars go by after having worked nearly around the clock to get his grain cars loaded.

Ervin Drath was a longtime employee at the Farmers Elevator of Hazen. He was getting up there in age in the early ‘80s and one of his hands would shake uncontrollably, but he was there every day taking care of the customers, answering the telephone, writing out scale tickets, sweeping the alley floor and even taking money to the bank when it was warranted.

And when it came time to load rail cars, Ervin, well into his 60s, was climbing up and down those cars as if he were a teenager again. You could tell, it was hard for him to do that, but it was his pride and nothing was going to get in the way of Ervin’s pride.

He usually took a nap on his lunch break, but during working hours, you couldn’t ask for a more loyal, cordial, professional or prompt employee.

The board of directors at the Farmers Elevator of Hazen were a lucky group to have a gem like Ervin Drath working there. He was also the kind of individual who was more honest than you’d expect the local pastor to be.

He was just an incredible personality who was just doing his job day to day and enjoying life.

He had minimal education, but he knew more than anybody about fertilizer, chemicals, grass seed and even dog food that was sold at the elevator.

When it came to grain that was getting dumped, it didn’t take him long to figure out if someone was trying to hide sprouted or cracked kernels. He just had a knack for finding those things before he even took the dockage report.

Ervin was a gift of a man. There aren’t a lot of people like him in this world and I’m pretty sure every resident of Hazen liked him, respected him and invited him to their house for dinner.

He was like the old wooden structure he worked in every day, resolute, and standing tall on the prairie.

Sadly, Ervin passed away on Dec. 29, 2015 at 95 years old. When he was younger, he farmed and raised animals, like traditional farms used to have, a few chickens, a few turkeys, a dozen dairy cows and hogs.

When he moved to town in 1974, he went to work at the local elevator until he retired in 1989.

How do you replace people like Ervin Drath? You don’t. You try to learn as much as you can from him, mimic his words and actions and make your best attempt to be just like he was.

It was easy to see the benefit of his demeanor. Everybody liked him, he didn’t make a lot of mistakes and he was an awesome teacher.

Ervin Drath was a true North Dakota pioneer, just like the grain elevator in which he worked. Every trip through Hazen and every elevator on the prairie, is a reminder of  Ervin. In fact, every time you see a wooden grain elevator standing tall on the prairie, think about Ervin Drath and what he contributed to the community of Hazen, to Mercer County and North Dakota.