East Main Street in Belgrade runs in a stick-straight line parallel to the railroad track – that is, except for a rather pronounced jog near its intersection with Oregon Street, where the landmark once known as “Big Red” still stands.
The now-white beacon, which operates no longer as an elevator but as the Nutrien fertilizer plant, is perhaps the most visible reminder of the grain industry that grew the city, and to what Ronald J. Iverson referred to in his 1965 history of the city as “Belgrade’s role as the wheat-shipping king of the world.”
“Big Red” was built along the Northern Pacific rail by Bozeman pioneer and grain merchant Nelson Story in 1891, a pivotal year in Belgrade’s history for a number of reasons. It was then that the school district was created to support the townsite, and when the Ferris addition in the southeast portion of the city near Story’s elevator was platted. The structure went up before Main Street existed, but would prevent the road from following a strictly linear course when it did come through.
Story’s decision to build his 250,000-bushel capacity elevator for $100,000 was savvy. Like Belgrade pioneer Thomas B. Quaw, he knew that the townsite’s proximity to the railway portended the growth of Belgrade’s grain industry.
The late Wilbur Spring Jr., whose grandfather George W. Spring homesteaded four miles northeast of Belgrade in 1885, said in a 1983 interview with The Bozeman Daily Chronicle that, “The first buildings were grain elevators and feed stores, then a hardware and a grocery like any other boom town. The real boom in Belgrade took place from about 1890 to 1912.”
Part of the boom included construction in 1902 of the Gallatin Valley Milling Co.’s flour mill, which Iverson describes as “Belgrade’s principal industrial plant for more than half a century.” Competitor Nelson Story had his own flour mill in Bozeman, and the Belgrade elevator he owned helped supply it, according to Bill Guffey, who worked in the building from 1978 to 2004 and has studied its history.
Around the turn of the 20th century, Belgrade was the largest grain receiving center between Seattle and Minneapolis. Iverson’s book, Princess of the Prairie, includes a quote from the Sept. 2, 1902, edition of The Gallatin Farmer and Stockman stating, “Belgrade is once again the scene of a hustling grain business. The streets are daily crowded with loaded wagons of the various cereals which are lined up along the side tracks awaiting their turn to unload, from early morning until late in the afternoon. Last year Belgrade made a wonderful record in grain shipment, but his year bids fair to greatly surpass all preceding records.”
Activity now around the distinguishable landmark is nothing like it was back in the day. Photos from more than a century ago depict farmers waiting with their heavily laden wagons in long lines to unload what they had harvested on their area farms. As fast as “Big Red” and the four other Belgrade elevators that existed filled up, they were unloaded into waiting rail cars to be shipped away. A photo caption accompanying a Bozeman Chronicle story from the 1980s about Belgrade’s history as a grain depot tells the story simply: “Wagons brought wheat into Belgrade and the railroad took it away.”
More than 100 years ago, Belgrade’s elevators, including “Big Red,” provided a tremendous service to farmers in the western part of the valley and points beyond. Numerous historical accounts document the long hours of travel farmers made by wagon to deposit their grain in Belgrade, but those grueling trips would have been even more arduous if the men had to go all the way to Bozeman on bad roads.
The elevator remains an important fixture in the town’s identity, says Planning Director Jason Karp, noting that it is pictured on the city seal and has served as a navigation landmark. Indeed, Keith Mainwaring, who says there were no street signs in the 1960s when he first moved to Belgrade, remembers directing people to his home on the east edge of town by telling them to “turn left at the red elevator, go two blocks south, take a left, go three blocks east.” Mainwaring is now working on a mural of the Belgrade Bull, but has incorporated “Big Red’s” image into the work.
The other elevators in use during Belgrade’s agricultural heyday have since been lost to fire, perhaps making the survival of “Big Red” even more significant. It’s been that way for at least 50 years, according to Mainwaring, who remembers responding to a fire in the adjacent office building in the late 1960s when he served on the volunteer fire department. The blaze was easily extinguished, but Mainwaring remembers the fire chief calling to check on his crew and saying he wanted “to be as far aways as possible” if the structure burned down.