Why History Nebraska will demolish the grain elevators at Neligh Mill State Historic Site
By Jill Ebers Dolberg, History Nebraska Interim Executive Director
August 2, 2022
Perhaps you have seen in the news that the History Nebraska Board of Trustees voted in July to demolish the grain elevators (but not the mill itself) at Neligh Mill State Historic Site. This may seem like a shocking choice for a historical organization to make, but we want to offer some details on the decision to show that the choice was not made in haste.
Without a doubt, the elevators at Neligh are historic. They were built in 1886 and 1899, and operated producing flour and other milled products for almost 100 years until they were no longer safe or clean enough for food production, at which point they were given to the state.
The elevators were listed in the National Register of Historic Places in the early 1980s, but during our ownership they have not been open to the public, nor have we invested in them in terms of repairs. They came to us wrapped in tin, which is typical of the age and property type.
The way the buildings were joined together, however, caused a problem at the roofline where the water tended to pool. Since the buildings were largely used for storage only on the first floor, the leaky roof caused damage that was not immediately apparent. When recently we sought a bid for repair, we were taken aback by the $172,000 estimate, which would yield a weather-tight envelope to a building we did not feel was safe for visitors.
The estimate got us thinking about our four options: 1) Continue to do nothing (no cost); 2) Repair the roof and flashing ($172,000); 3) Adapt for another undetermined use (cost unknown, but high); or 4) Demolish ($134,000).
We solicited comments from the public, starting with a well-attended public meeting in Neligh in March 2022. Comments ran the gamut from “keep it as it is” to “demolish it,” but overwhelmingly the public indicated that while the Mill itself has a lot of significance to the community, there was less attachment to the elevators. People did tell us that if the elevators were to be demolished, they wanted us to interpret them so the public could understand how they were used.
Our findings were presented to our Board of Trustees in April, and public comment was heard there as well. After discussion, the board requested that we hire a structural engineer to do an analysis of the wheat elevator to see if it could be retained after having the corn elevator demolished. The reasoning was that the milling of wheat flour was the more significant contributor to the Mill’s story. We hired two structural engineers to look at the property.
The first, after a cursory look, indicated the wheat elevator could likely stand, but indicated there would be additional costs involved, and recommended a more comprehensive look by a structural engineer.
The second structural engineer wrote a thorough report documenting evidence of rot and termites, and structural beams that were either missing or failing. The report provided an estimate for the known observable issues if rectified ($350,000 – $650,000, not including demolition costs), cautioning us that additional problems would undoubtedly be identified as work progressed.
The second engineer’s recommendation was that in this case, the preservation of the elevators did not make much sense; ultimately the cost would outweigh the benefit, as the building would still not be safe for public use. Access to anything above the ground floor is made via ladders and steep and narrow steps with no handrails, and floors have holes throughout to allow for past and current chutes for moving grain.
It should be noted that a committee of interested preservation professionals communicated with staff and the Board of Trustees expressing their concern that the elevators were a significant part of the Neligh Mill complex, and that it would be inappropriate to remove them.
After much discussion at the July board meeting, the Board of Trustees reached a consensus that it would be an inappropriate use of the agency’s limited funding to spend such a large sum on the repair of a building that ultimately could not be made safe for public use. The Trustees did charge the agency to record the buildings so that we can interpret what was there, and have a record of the structure in photographs and drawings.
It was a difficult decision to make, and the weight of it could be observed in the Trustees’ demeanor. In the days after the vote, we received a surprising letter from the last owner of the elevators, Keith White. He stated, “I would like to commend you for your vote to remove the old grain elevators located north of the Neligh Mill. Your vote was the right thing to do for the preservation of the mill and your responsibility to the taxpayers of Nebraska.”
(Photo: Neligh Mill State Historic Site, Neligh, Nebraska. The mill itself is in the foreground; the elevators are the metal-clad buildings in the background.)