Prior to the advent of the grain elevator, grain was handled in bags rather than in bulk.
Grain elevators are a common sight in the grain-growing areas of the world, such as the North American prairies. Larger terminal elevators are found at distribution centers, such as Chicago and Thunder Bay, Ontario, where grain is sent for processing, or loaded aboard trains or ships to go further afield.
Buffalo, New York, the world's largest grain port, during the first half of the twentieth century, had the nation's largest capacity for the storage of grain in over thirty concrete grain elevators located along the inner and outer harbors. Many of which remain are presently idle, but a new ethanol plant started in 2007 will use some of the elevators to store corn. In the early 20th century, Buffalo's grain elevators inspired modernist architects such as Le Corbusier, who exclaimed, "The first fruits of the new age!" when he first saw them. Buffalo's grain elevators have been documented for the Historic American Engineering Record and added to the National Register of Historic Places. Currently, Enid, Oklahoma holds the title of most grain storage capacity in the United States of America.
In farming communities, each town had one or more small grain elevators that would serve the local growers. The classic grain elevator was constructed with wooden cribbing and had 9 or more larger square or rectangular bins arranged in 3x3 or 3x4 or 4x4 or more patterns. Wooden cribben elevators usually had a driveway with truck scale and office on one side, a rail line on the other side and additional grain storage annex bins on either side.
In more recent times with improved transportation, centralized and much larger elevators serve many farms. Some of them are quite large. Two elevators in Kansas (one in Hutchinson and one in Wichita) are half a mile long. The loss of the grain elevators from small towns is often considered a great change in their identity and there are efforts to preserve them as heritage structures. At the same time, many larger grain farms have their own grain handling facilities for storage and loading onto trucks.
Grain elevator operators buy grain from farmers, either for cash or at a contracted price, and then sell futures contracts for the same quantity of grain, usually each day. They profit through the narrowing basis, that is, the difference between the local cash price, and the futures price, that occurs at certain times of the year.
Before economical truck transportation was available, grain elevator operators would sometimes use their purchasing power to control prices. This was especially easy since farmers often had only one elevator that was within a reasonable distance of their farm. This led some governments to take over the administration of grain elevators. An example of this is the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool. For the same reason, many elevators were purchased by cooperatives.
A recent problem with grain elevators is the need to provide separate storage for ordinary and genetically modified grain to reduce the risk of accidental mixing of the two.
An interesting problem the old elevators had was that of silo explosions. Fine powder from the millions of grains passing through the facility would accumulate and mix with the oxygen in the air. A spark could spread from one floating grain to the other creating a chain reaction that would destroy the entire structure. (This dispersed-fuel explosion is the mechanism behind fuel-air bombs.) To prevent this, elevators have very rigorous rules against smoking or any other open flame. Many elevators also have various devices installed to maximize ventilation, safeguards against overheating in belt conveyors, legs, bearing, and explosion-proof electrical devices such as electric motors, switches and lighting.
Grain elevators in small Canadian communities often had the name of the community painted on two sides of the elevator in large block letters, with the name of the elevator operator emblazoned on the other two sides. This made identification of the community easier for rail operators (and, incidentally, for lost drivers and pilots). The old community name would often remain on an elevator long after the town had either disappeared or been amalgamated into another community; the grain elevator at Ellerslie, Alberta remained marked with its old community name until it was demolished, which took place more than twenty years after the town had been annexed by the City of Edmonton.
An elevator row is a row of three or more grain elevators hence "Elevator Row".
In the early days of Canada's Prairie towns, many of which once boasted dozens of elevator companies all in a row. When there was a good farming spot being settled, many people wanted to make some money by building their own grain elevators, bringing many private grain companies. With so much competition, almost immediately, consolidation began and many small companies were merged or absorbed. In many elevator rows there would be two elevators of the same company. Small towns bragged of their large elevator rows in promotional pamphlets to attract settlers. If a town was lucky enough to have two railways. It was to be known as the next Montreal. With the cost of grain in the 1990s so low many private elevator companies once again had to merge causing many of the "prairie centennials" to be torn down. Because so many grain elevators have been torn down, Canada only has two surviving elevator rows, one located in Warner, Alberta and the other in Inglis, Manitoba making them the last surviving "Elevator Rows" in Canada.