by Michael R. Allen
I discover the Nutrena Feeds Elevator by coincidence. My friend Angela and I decide to take a trip to Peoria, Illinois in October 2003 to follow a lead that I have on the shuttered Kelly School. Upon arriving at the school, we discover that the school district is using the school for a haunted house, and we cannot find anyone who might be able to let us inside the empty school. We briefly investigate one of the few remaining buildings of a mostly-demolished, long-closed Pabst brewery. This building and its stinky “Chlorine Room” is of little interest to us, so we move on to pleasant driving through the streets of this city.
Peoria in autumn is quite lovely; its ecclectic brick buildings sprawl along the tree-lined banks of the Illinois River with grace. The compact layout of the city gives it a nearly perfect quaintness. This quaintness is reinforced by the vintage nineteenth and twentieth century architecture there: the Beaux Arts Commerce Bank building dowtown; the elegant and archaic Marquette Hotel with its proud neon sign; the hilly north city neighborhoods with rambling late Victorian homes and flats; the robust, underused industrial buildings and warehouses of South Adamas Street. This is a slice of purely Midwestern small-scale urbanism, and it’s refreshing as the sun begins to set and the sky turns gold.
Before the sun gets too low, I spot what seems to be a grain elevator off of South Adams Street near a hydraulic rail bridge that spans the Illinois River. Seeing broken windows, I urge Angela to join me in getting a closer look. We come upon the elevator, see that it sports signs advertising a cement company and a yard full of mulch piles. It’s obviously no longer in use for storing grain. We notice the fading signs that advertise “Nutrena Feeds.” I recall that Nutrena is a subsidiary of Saint Louis-based Ralston Purina.
Sensing that permission is wise for this building, we go over to a nearby cement kiln and find the last worker right as he is closing up the yard. We ask if his company owns the elevator. He says that it does. We ask if we can photograph the elevator. He says that the elevator is condemned by the city, so we probably wouldn’t want to go inside, but there’s no problem if we go onto the property to take pictures.
Of course, he probably does not have the authority to grant permission, but his words provide enough cover that we go forth and document the Nutrena Feeds Elevator. We find that the elevator is structurally sound, although its concrete staircase has a few broken spots and lacks adequate handrails. There is also an open 14-story shaft that used to be the track for the “manlift,” a handle-and-foot-rest-only contraption that lifted workers to the top of the elevator. A partly-mummified, party-decayed cat is curled up under one grain pipe. Mostly, though, the elevator is clean and relatively safe. The elevation equipment seems intact and undamaged. Unlike buildings in St. Louis, this one has no graffiti at all. There are ladybugs everywhere, and the strong stench of decaying grain lingers on most of the few floors up to (most of our visit is spent climbing stairs to reach and leave these floors).
The basement is filled with about three feet of water, and contains a skeleton of indeterminate species. Upon seeing this, we decide to leave to investigate some of the nearby riverfront area at the foot of the bridge.
As of June 2005, the grain elevator still stands in the same condition as it did on my first visit.