A century of history to commemorate 100 years at
Equity Elevator and Trading Company in Wood Lake, Minnesota 1912 – 2012

Article written by Melanie Gatchell and updated by Anne Anderson in 2012

According to early records, the first settlers came to Wood Lake Township in 1869.  They built homes and stables for their horses and cattle and began to till the soil with a breaking plow.  They endured many hardships because of much snow and blizzards blowing across the prairie during the winter that threatened to take back the land. There were 47 persons granted Government patents for homestead lands in the Township.  In 1875 the population of Wood Lake Township had grown to 167 and in 1884, when the railroad tracks came, there were nearly 400 people—the 1885 census showed 401 people living in the township and village combined.  Its population in 1910 was 292, making it rank fifth among Yellow Medicine county villages.  

The homesteaders had made a great deal of progress in the raising of small grains since the early 1870’s, and with more prairie land under plow, they were at the point where they needed a shorter haul for the cash grain crops which they wished to sell at a dealer’s place of business, which naturally was on a railroad.  When word came that the new rail line from Hopkins to Watertown, SD was to cross Wood Lake Township, a flurry of business and building started late in 1884 and continued at an even grater pace in 1885.  The Pacific Elevator Company had a grain buying station ready for the first delivery of grain in 1884, then a second and third elevator were built.  The population of Wood Lake had grown to 643 people in 1890.

Equity Elevator and Trading Company (which started operations in already existing elevators) was organized July 3, 1912 but didn’t receive its charter until September 12, 1912.  Erick Johnson was the first manager, and served for 25 years, retiring in 1937.  He was followed by Max Henke, Albert Henke, Olaf Nyland, Mrs. Frances Werner who was assistant manager and bookkeeper, Delmar Marquardt, Don Zimmer, Virgil Brown, Robert Fiegen, Roger Hansen, Aaron Coe and current interim manager Maynerd Rauk.  In 1925 a feed mill was put into operation.

In 1919, there were 5 elevators operating in Wood Lake in what was then known as elevator’s row.  On the east end, there was the Allas Elevator managed by J.F. Rodeck, The Great Western Grain company elevator which was managed by S.C. Fitch, then the Pacific Elevator Company managed by Doc Shaw and the 2 elevators operated for Equity Elevator.

Business conditions in Wood Lake during the 1930’s were about the same as everywhere else in the county, with lack of rainfall, the depression and the general bankrupt condition of the area bearing down hard on the enterprise and optimism.  Living came hard, and even dying was no bargain.  The Yellow Medicine County Benevolent association signed up 1,100 members.  This was a mutual insurance company, binding each member to give one dollar in case of the death of a fellow member.

Equity Elevator voted in 1932 to discontinue its dividends on flour, feed and coal, and sell on a smaller margin of profit.  Corncobs were selling for about as much as corn brought in 1932--$3 per load of cobs, not a cheap fuel either.  More wood was cut for fuel than ever before.  The farmer was receiving 18 cents a bushel for corn and paying $10 per ton for soft coal.

Because of the decrease in grain receipts, both the Great Western and Wood Lake elevators closed their doors.  While at one time there were 5-7 elevators in Wood Lake, Equity Elevator and Trading Company was now the lone facility in this line of work and it took over The Great Western Grain Company elevator and the Pacific.

The elevator constructed a 120,000 bushel capacity concrete elevator in 1950, reaching 138 feet into the air.  At the time, it was the highest structure in Yellow Medicine County. In May of 1959 approval was given to build six 15,000 bushel steel grain bins for more storage—they were put to use in November of 1959.

The elevator bought the land it is built on from the C.N.W. Railroad in 1966.  A new Shanzer grain dryer was constructed in 1966.  In September of 1968 a fertilizer blending plant was constructed with additions added in August of 1971 and September of 1972.  In February of 1973, a 200,000 bushel annex was approved and later built in 1973.  During the fall of 1974, a fourth addition was added to the fertilizer plant.  In January of 1976 the block building across the street was bought to be used for equipment storage and a much-needed shop.  In 1977, a new office addition was added.

More storage silos were added in 1978 which brought the total elevator storage capacity to 746,000 bushels.  A second grain dryer was added in 1980 with sped up corn drying time.  Since then other additions have been made: a new fertilizer building, feed mill and large grain bins have all helped to optimize the elevator’s business.  Today, the total capacity for the Wood Lake site is 1,700,000 bushels.

In its first quarter century of business, the elevator paid dividends of over $300,000 to its members.  A statement made by the close of business June 30, 1934 showed dividends for that year at $5,955.22, not a bad figure considering the poor crops and low grain prices.  The dividends for the previous year had been $9,082, and for the five previous years were $88,487.95, or an average of $17,697.59.  Total number of shares outstanding in 1934 was 290, with a par value of $25 and a book value of $150.64 per share.

In a statement prepared for the annual meeting of the elevator in 1971 showed patronage dividends of $15,972.84 with a total of dividends, 1913-1971 of $979,025.56.  The total of both patronage and interest dividend payments for the years since its founding until 1971 was $1,078,525.86.

Sales for the 1971 year of operation totaled $2,768,000.61.  Total assets were $910,757.79, including $216,539.36 in buildings, land and equipment.  And all of this accounting and bookkeeping was done before the first computer arrived at the elevator in 1990 or so which was a 286 pioneer.  In 1992, all of the bookkeeping was transferred to the computer to make the business of the elevator more efficient.

In 2000, the elevator added a 350,000 bushel steel grain bin.  In 2003, the Westside Implement building and land were purchased where the shop, additional office space and store (selling farm related products and pet foods) are today.  That same year there was an overhead feed loadout added.  In 2005, there was a facility expansion adding a grain dryer, conveyer system, catwalk and bin.  In 2006 and 2007 there were additional bunkers added for storage.  

The office was remodeled in 2009 and the meeting/break room was properly given the name the ‘Century Room’.  In 2010 and 2011, there was a feedmill project where a state-of-the art feed roller mill and super deck screener were added at the elevator.  In 2011, 40 years of service by long-time employee Ron Gabbert was celebrated by having ‘Ron Gabbert Day’.  As of the 2011 fiscal audit report (prepared by Jim Gerber for the annual meeting), Equity Elevator and Trading Company had $18.975m in Total Assets, $4.192m in Total Patrons’ Equity and Sales of $36m with 23 employees and 7 board members.       

But the history of Equity Elevator and Trading Company is not complete without mentioning that the grain elevator is more than the place where farmers buy and sell grain.  It is a beacon that alerts others to the presence of a town from miles away.  It dominates not only the landscape of rural towns, but also the social life of those who live and work there.  The elevator is a place to get the grain prices, find out the weather forecast, buy some dog food, read the auction bills, drink some coffee, eat peanuts, exchange gossip and tell jokes.  Rural people need the social context of the small town.  It helps to establish their identity as part of a larger community.  As far as the small towns not relying on agriculture, ask any local merchants how good business is when farmers have no money to bring to town.

Elevators are a part of life in rural Minnesota.  The logo for Equity Elevator is two hands shaking.  Those hands don’t just represent deals being made, they represent the elevator and the community working together to strengthen the community from which they live and work—a pact, if you will, a promise for a better tomorrow. 

Be proud that you are a part of this great tradition of a farmer owned cooperative.  Your support and patronage are what has kept Equity Elevator and Trading Company here for 100 years. We must maintain support and a sense of history and community through our past.  If those early settlers knew what the future held in store for this town they would be proud and want each of us to live life as they did—rooted in tradition but taking risks to make a better tomorrow.