Asbestos is Not Chicken Feed
“Ninety-three years ago I would have been able to walk up this thing… brand new and shiny,” I thought, looking down what used to be a sturdy steel staircase, “not anymore…”.
Mind back in the present and focusing on the abandoned feed mill around me, I stepped lightly from a steel girder onto thinly poured concrete. It popped and cracked sharply beneath my weight. Clearly, this was a place that would keep me on my toes–literally–testing whether the next step would send me to the ground.
Spaces Where Floors Should Be
“This building seems a bit too eager to murder you,” my brain said to my legs as the floor ruptured again causing me to instinctually grab the window frame next to me, long left open and long without glass. Somewhere in the slums nearby an ice cream truck mockingly blasted its incessant jingle, its sound ricocheting through the spaces where walls once stood.
Bits of machinery, brickwork, and concrete consistently rained into the urban forest as I worked my way higher through the complex’s well-aged workings… two mill buildings, three sets of elevators, and ruins of several other buildings that resembled warehouses, offices, a power plant. Outlines of yet more buildings marked the exterior of standing structures, hearkening back to a prosperous time at the edge of living memory, when this was part one in a string of grain elevators, flour mills, and other agro-industrial buildings.
Inside, a bit of yellow sunlight lit the floating dust around the hole in the floor I was crawling through, those glowing particles hovering above the floor that was formerly accessed by a nearby spiral staircase, one that seemed too rusted and twisted to be part of the building around it.
At the top of the staircase, a dilapidated sign still brags about the famous “Red Comb Feed” that was produced here, this ruin that used to be called “The Hales & Hunter Company.”
The earliest mention of Hales & Hunter I could find was in a chicken feed catalog from 1906, but it is clear that the construction of this complex had not wrapped up before the second half of 1917, presumably with the central brick building that is in such terrible condition today.
One might assume, given the state of the walls (not that there are many to judge) that the only reason this structure still stands 186 feet tall is due to the thousands of pounds in steel equipment still bolted to its superstructure.
They seem to serve as a sort of skeleton: a role reversal.
Before ground broke here, Hales & Hunter was The Edwards & Loomis Company, but the company changed its name soon after construction started on its Chicago plant to Hales & Edwards Company. It adopted the name we call it by today some time later.
Construction of the complex was actually delayed from its projected opening date of January 1, 1917 because of national steel shortages. You see, this was the time the American military was building its forces up in preparation for its entry into World War I. The brick building that was to constitute the main feed mill on the site had only 5 of its planned 12 levels completed when the contractors ran out of good steel.
This stunted construction might have been a contributing factor to the extremely shoddy build quality; it is possible that the steel shortage (and other shortages like it due to the war effort) motivated the builders to make girders thinner, meaning they would be able to hold less weight. Hence the thin concrete floors and warped steel superstructure.
Open for Business
When the plant finally opened later on in 1917, it had a footprint of almost 12,000 square feet and was outfitted with modern, automatic equipment that is found in modern grain elevators.
Although the building was thrown together, its insides were cutting edge.
The transfer elevator, a shorter brick building that opened before the rest of the plant in 1916, featured three steel roof grain bins, could load 24 train cars in an hour and take on materials from 4 train cars in the same time. Hales & Hunter also boasted a drying plant (essential for any operation involving grain to prevent it rotting in the bins) that could dry 50,000 bushels daily and store 1,000,000 bushels.
On April 30, 1917, as the work was being completed in Chicago, Hales & Hunter’s old plant suffered from a major fire. Its twin elevators burned for 30 hours. Firefighters reported that the grain bins “acted as flues” that fed the fire, eventually consuming the iron and wood buildings. No doubt, the loss of the plant encouraged the new construction to hurry to continue operations.
By the next year the company had not only finished the complex as planned, but was already expanding and upgrading plant equipment.
A periodical in the industry, ‘Flour and Feed’, praised the plant as “mammoth” and highlighted the “large line of unique machinery” that had recently been installed.
‘Mammoth’ is as great a word for Hales & Hunter today as it was in 1918… that much was clear, if none of the history of the site revealed itself to me while I wandered those fragile hallways and skyways. Lovers of spiral staircases ought to treat Hales & Hunter as they would a cemetery, considering the rusted carnage of swirling, yet practical works of art.
Funnels, bucket elevators and screw-drives were half bolted, half twisted, sometimes severed and had fallen off of, onto and into in every building. Half of the building seemed to flout gravity while the other half made up doubly.
It is hard to say how long, exactly, the buildings have been vacant; they were discarded slowly, like its neighboring mills and elevators. One by one, they went out of service. I can tell you that Cargill bought the Hales & Hunter Company in 1968 and the last mention of its products I could find dates to the mid-1980s.
Drawing conclusions from the buildings’ respective conditions, graffiti found inside and the business facts, I would conjecture that Cargill shifted all operations from this location to another between 1969 and 1973. One photograph from 1976 (below) shows windows missing, graffiti on the elevator, and a flatbed truck in front of a smokeless power plant stack.
Entirely Ignored, For the Best
The history, as it often seems in locations that resemble bombed-out ruins, was distant and out of focus. I couldn’t hear the trains unloading or smell the grain dust float up from filling silos… I was too late. Yet, the ice cream truck still sung its song in the distance causing an otherworldly juxtaposition that kept me cognizant of the time. It was late for the building and this adventure. The sun was setting, and just as sure as every building is constructed it will someday soon succumb to gravity, the elements, and time.
Before gravity could show me the same unkindness as the building around me, I showed myself down and out onto the ground where this factory will, someday soon, rest in a twisted pile beneath a gray cloud of dust.