MY EXPERIENCES IN THE SUNFIELD ELEVATOR by Theo Lenon
As I try to put these ideas and thoughts together after a lifetime in Sunfield in business here it seems as if my mind is so full of events and interactions with people and business that everything else is crowded out. I cannot divorce myself from the events and if it sounds a little like I’m bragging, take the advice of a sign I saw recently that said, “All right, let him go, just so he doesn’t lie about me.”
How did I get into this town and into the elevator business? It is the little things that pop up in your life that change the whole course of events. One Sunday late in the winter I came over to my father’s place out south of town. I was lying on the floor back of the stove as kids used to do it. That was the best place in the house. I picked up the Sunfield Sentinel for which I have ever been grateful, for it told that Smith Bros. had bought out George Triphagen’s elevator down here. The thought flashed across my mind, “Maybe I could get a job up there.”
I had just lived through a very hard winter on the income of three or four cows. Mrs. Lenon had been sick all winter and we had a little boy about a year and a half old. Had I admitted it, I was as flat broke as you could possibly be. I said to my father, after reading that, “I’ve a notion to go over and see if I could get a job working in the elevator”. I would go over to see George Smith at Woodbury, one of the Smith brothers. Dad said, “Why don’t you do it?” So the next morning I went to see George.
George said to me after we had talked a little bit, “I’m coming down Saturday of this week to Caucus”. I met him in the street between the bank and the drugstore. He had been over and talked with Griff Weippert at the bank. Griff had told him that he thought I was a pretty good sort of a fellow. I hired out to him right then for three months, April 1 to July 1 at $18 a week. That was the start of it.
We opened the elevator April 1, 1922. The day was a son-of-a-gun. We moved into town with horses and wagons into the house across from where Dr. Berg lives now. There had been an ice storm with broken tree branches and tangled telephone wires---a most miserable day.
Bright and early I walked down to the elevator to meet the man I was to work for. The elevator was not opened up yet. I walked back over to the pool room, waiting for the man who was to be my boss. Soon a man came walking down across there, carrying a grip in his hand. I thought that this must be the man. I followed along but the man kept walking past the elevator and started scaling lumber from a big pile down that way. After a while the eight o’clock train came in. Getting off the train was Leo Hynes, George Smith, David Smith Sr. and Elwin Dell.
They spotted in a carload of cement at the elevator. My first job was helping the unloading of those 94# bags of cement. We got it unloaded by eleven o’clock and they got on the eleven o’clock train and went back to Woodbury. The man appointed manager was Ezra Dell, an old hand in the elevator business.
The railroad had come through Sunfield in 1888 and about 1895 a man by the name of Frank Nims had built the elevator and had John Palmer working for him. John Palmer was one of the slowest men who ever walked. He was a large man with a heart as big as an elephant and everybody took advantage of him. Palmer worked for Mins for several years. Nims wanted to sell out and he did so to a co-op of people around town with John Palmer as manager. It lasted about a year and a half before they went broke. The co-op sold the elevator to George Triphagen.
John Palmer promptly ruined Triphagen. Triphagen was a big pussy man and an awful windy talker---I guess I followed him that way. Palmer opened a sort of an elevator in a kind of a warehouse building at the west end of Main Street. He would stop every load of grain coming into town and overbid the market. Then he often gave a check with no money in the bank. Soon after Smith Bros. bought the elevator, Palmer’s building burned down. John Palmer’s son had the record of enlisting in the army in WWI at the age of twelve. He had lied about his age when he enlisted at Grand Rapids. About the time he was scheduled to go oversees, Palmer got the boy released. There was a great deal of publicity about it.
My first customer at the elevator was Stub Walsh. He bought a sack of flour and paid cash. The second customer was Lon Walker. He bought a sack of timothy seed and had it charged. One afternoon Ezra Dell went to Lansing on business and left me in charge of the elevator. I sat on the porch all afternoon, answered the phone once and sold 10 cents worth of bug poison for potato bugs. That is about as low as you can go in business.
I want to comment about the Smith Brothers, David Smith and George Smith. I always had a tremendous amount of respect for David Smith. He was the kindliest man and the best man with his employees that ever lived. He had one bad habit. I got wise to that right away. If I went home at noon and was feeling kind of dozy from maybe running around too much the night before, I’d tell the boys I would lay in for a nap of about an hour but if Mr. Smith called up they were to tell him that I had said I was going out in the country. I did not want him to be worrying about my health. Mr. Smith would say, “Now, Theo, don’t work so hard”.
He had a great philosophy and it is as true as can be. When I would have any troubles I would call Dave Sr. and I would explain to him what my problem was. He always had the same answer. A lot of people would give you a long, windy solution. He would always say, “Well, Theo, I think you had just do the best you can with it”. That has proved to be the best solution to most problems.
Dave Smith gave me my start in the elevator business. After the depression the Velte part of Smith Bros. Velte stock became for sale. Mr. Smith said, “I felt that you should have some stock in the company”. I told him I did not have any money to buy it. The Velte shares were offered at $6 a share. He said, “I’d like to have you get a hundred shares. We’ll go down to the bank and leave the hundred shares right there and I’ll sign your note for $600 and you can work and pay it off as you can”. That was what I did over a year or two. That was looking after my interests. That was the type of fellow he was.
George Smith was another character. He was almost entirely dependent on his brother, David. I remember one thing that he told me that stood by me a long time. A few days after we had opened the Sunfield elevator, George came walking in one morning while I was weighing some grain in the hopper scale that is still in the elevator. He asked how the scale worked and I showed him. He said, “Theo, if there is ever any question of the weight, always give the farmer the benefit of the doubt.”
When Smith Bros. bought the elevator from George Triphagen they paid $8 thousand. It had a capacity of about 4,000 bushels. For the $8 thousand there was no coal yard, no feed mill, no lumber yard---just the bare elevator. It was operated by a horse driven sweep for power. It now has an 850,000 bushel capacity and that is increasing. Not a building that was there when I started working is left there now.
We got in a load or two of beans there in the spring and we decided we would hand pick them out. From the town we got four women to pick beans. I remember Maggie Lyons, Beckie Meyers, Minnie Franks and her daughter, Lillian. In the fall we bought quite a lot of beans and put on a full force of 16 women picking beans. Triphagen had installed a big gasoline engine. Every time we started up to take in three or four bags of grain we had to climb up on the big flywheels and bring it back against compression and then touch off the igniter and away it would go with a racket that let everybody in town know that we were working.
When the depression came along, women were crying for jobs. I told Mr. Smith that we had a big bean crop and a large labor supply---a lot of women want to pick beans. (Bean picking was sorting out the dirt and other foreign particles as they passed in front of the operator on a canvas belt). I suggested that we start two shifts from 8 to 4 and from 4 to midnight. The women made from $1.50 to $2.00 a day. They were tickled to get that for it meant a lot to them then.
After the C. K. & S. Railroad discontinued we moved the Coats Grove elevator to Sunfield. A man from Lansing did the moving. We installed a modern feed mill in that elevator. I had been general manager of the company for a period after David Smith’s death. When Larry Smith came back from his Army service he was ready to get into the elevator business. He became the manager of the elevator in Lake Odessa. The company wanted Hugo Hammerslag and I to either buy the business or sell our interest to them. I suggested that we divide the company. Hugo was a first class negotiator. He made a deal in which Smith Bros. would continue in Lake Odessa and he and I would organize a new company to operate as the Sunfield Farmers Elevator Co. That was in the early 1940’s. Prior to that the firm had purchased the lumberyard and we had the oil distribution concession. I could see that coal was giving way to oil. Hugo, my son, Richard and I owned the common stock of the new company. We had seven preferred stockholders. They were Roy Pumfrey, Harold Bishop, Kyle Stambaugh, Walter Brown, Alton Gunn and John Bosworth.
We operated eighteen or twenty years as the Sunfield Farmers Elevator Co. Meantime we built several more storage silos and installed the dryer. The morning after election day when Eisenhower was elected president, our elevator that had been moved from Coats Grove burned. That was 1952. Then we built a new elevator to replace it with a modern feed mill. It was about that time that we split the company. We had a congenial arrangement with Smith Bros. and things went fine between us.
I found out a long time ago that as farming goes, so goes the grain elevator business. Larry Smith and I frequently discussed the business over breakfast coffee. He suggested that someday the business should again go under one management. Once he asked me what would be a satisfactory figure for the purchase of the Sunfield Farmers Elevator business. I thought for a while, pulled out a napkin and gave him a figure. I said I thought I could persuade Mr. Hammerslag and Richard to sell at that price. Larry asked for two or three days to think it over. In a few days, he said “we are going to take it”.
I have been asked many times to explain that move. We wer not in any financial stress at that time though we were not making any big money either. I was 65 years old and I was scared that I might become incapacitated with a stroke or heart attack and in the settlement, some of my friends who have trusted me over a long period of years might have gotten hurt. I think I lost my nerve and that was the reason I sold back to Smith Bros.
Back when I started working for Mr. Smith and at best for around $23 a week as the second man in charge, I found that some men from this area were going to Grand Rapids working on the railroad, making up to $175 a month. Every time they were back in town they would stop in and tell me what they were doing and the money they were making. Finally I went to Grand Rapids and applied for a railroad job. They said “Come back in May and we can probably put you on as a brakeman. I told Ezra Dell about it. He said “I wouldn’t do that! In just a few months now I am going to quite and I am going to recommend you for the manager’s job.” Ezra had offered to quit the previous year but Mr. Smith had persuaded him to stay another year so that I would have more elevator experience before the job was offered to me. I decided I would rather be the boss of Sunfield’s Elevator than to be a brakeman on the railroad.
In 1945 or ’50 there was an elevator for sale in Fowlerville and I went down to look over the situation. The grapevine spread it around that I was going to quit and buy an elevator. At that time business was not good and farmers were not making any money. David Smith drove to Sunfield to see me to discuss the rumor he had heard. He was fond of me and at the thought of my leaving, some tears ran down his cheeks. I said “Dave, I’ll stay as long as you do”. He lived some tens years after that and was 86 when he died. Had I gone to Fowlerville that would have been a mistake.
The first beans we bought were from Cramer Bros. from one of the farms that Ken Smith now owns. I remember those beautiful beans in the latter part of August. The beans sold for $5 per cwt and farmers thought they were in heaven with that price. We used to load 400 bags of beans to a carload. Now they load a thousand. After the depression we had poor land in this area as compared to what we have today. Farmers worked the land when it was too wet and with poor machinery. Very little fertilizer was used. In one year we took in 35,000 bushels of wheat. That would be half a day’s run now. One year we took in 3,500 bushels in one day. Mr. Smith called me and asked where we got all that wheat. 20 bushels of wheat and 50 bushels of shelled corn to the acre was about par for the course then. One year we sold more wheat back to the farmers (government wheat) for feed than we had taken in at harvest. I have bought wheat in my time for as little as 35 cents a bushel and for as much as $6.50. Oats have sold for 10 cents a bushel and beans for 90 cents a hundred. Wool has been as low as 8 cents a pound.
I remember when wool was so cheap that Loren Thorp decided he would not shear his sheep at 8 cents. He let the flock go through the season and the next year he had double the weight of wool and the price had gone to 15 cents, so he won on that one. Our bean business increased from 15,000 bushels to 365,000 bushels in a period of 20-25 years. Better farming methods made possible the higher production. In the old days we didn’t even buy corn. That market has moved up to half a million bushels. In those early days we sold one carload of fertilizer in the spring and our competitors sold a carload. In the fall we sold 75 tons or 5 carloads. The farmers did not sow fertilizer in the spring. That compares to the thousands of tons of fertilizer that are used in this area now.
If I had not made mistakes I might be well to do today. The elevator business was poor and I wanted to get into something where my competitors were not chewing at me all the time. So I opened the pig hatchery out south of town. John Lich Sr. warned me not to do that. He said “You can’t make that work”. I wouldn’t listen. My competitors had said that was the best idea ever and asked why they had not thought about it first. Later I wished they had. We operated for a while and seemed to be going all right but all at once I noticed we were losing money. Hogs were cheap and feed was high. Our books showed that we were losing $500 a week. That is enough to tie a knot in a small business. We held a board meeting and Mr. Hammerslag asked what I proposed to do about such losses. I said we should sell the hogs and take our losses. Hugo offered a motion to do just that and never mentioned it again. If I had listened to John Lich it would not have been so bad.
Another time after we had put the new bean plant down there I got it in my head that I wanted to handle red kidney beans. So we started to buy red kidneys. Of all the troubles you could get into, we had them. It was a wet fall, the farmers threshed the beans wet and the dirt stuck to the beans and we couldn’t get the dirt off. Every time we tried to do anything with them they split. From my best estimate we lost $30,000 in two years from that deal. Before I got into that, Eldon Post, who was a smart operator at Charlotte, had said when we were talking about red kidneys, “It will not work. You can’t handle those colored beans in your plant. You have to have a separate plant with special handling”. He had tried it and quit. But I thought I knew it all.
A grain elevator man can influence the community he lives in. I worked out some ideas over a period of time and it pleases me to say that some of those ideas made the farmers more money than the company ever made.
Larry Smith started out in the fertilizer business in a big way at Woodbury and pushed the use of anhydrous ammonia. That program made the farmers a lot more money than he ever made for himself. I’m sure he made a profit out of the amount of money added to the farmers’ revenue was a lot more. That is what I mean by the right type of elevator management in the community doing a tremendous amount for the farmers. Back years ago the wheat raised around here was the poorest stuff, mixed varieties and some of it half chess, quack grass seed and cockle. Now nobody sees any cockle. I stumbled on the idea that we could bring in certified wheat seed and improve the crop. Farmers were reluctant to buy the high priced seed wheat and would plant whatever was available. I found that I could import certified seed from Canada at a price that would allow me to trade the certified seed with the farmer. The first year I sold 3,200 bushels of treated certified seed. I had a little speech I made to farmers about using this better seed. At the time my daughter was working in the office and learned the pitch. When she was home in the evening, working around the kitchen she would recite the speech. I can see her doing that yet. The next year we sold 11,000 bushels of certified seed. Instead of raising 20 bushels per acre, wheat yields have gone up to 50, 60 or 70 per acre.
Another time the price of wheat went up to $1.72 and nobody thought it would go down. We made a deal with the bank where if the farmer wanted to hold his wheat for a better price the bank would loan a dollar and a half and the farmer could bring his receipt and get that money. A lot of them did it. The price of wheat started down and the farmers were paying interest and storage. Several of them sold out at 85 cents a bushel. I found out a long time ago that greed causes a lot of losses.
I would like to speak a good word for the people who worked for me all down through the years. All of them were good people.
Mr. Hammerslag and I had an argument that I would not speculate on the Board of Trade with any of the company money and anything along that line would be done on our own. Sometimes two or three of us would go in together for a little market speculation. I think it always turned out the same---we lost money. I was in on the wheat market and I was making money really fast and the price was going up. Finally I took my profits and got out. But the think is addictive. After a bit I got it in my head I’d like to buy about 20 thousand bushels of wheat and carry it along for a year and I can tell you what happened. It went down a dollar a bushel and I was out $20,000. I vowed I would never try it again.
As I see it the next big crisis in this country is going to be over water. Millions of acres in the West have been broken up and put into crops where nature never intended they should be. Water is being consumed as if it were going out of style and that is faster than it can be replenished. When the crunch comes, Michigan, with the Great Lakes, should be in an advantageous position.
Over the years I have developed some ideas about doing business, things that have stood me in good stead. It has always seemed to me that the more one does for others, the more ones own income is likely to be. Maybe that is the biblical reference of casting your bread upon the waters.
We are constantly surrounded with opportunities but we must have the vision to recognize the opportunity and the courage to accept them. Know what you are doing all the time and you will not make many mistakes. Too often we add two and two and come up with the answer of three or five.
In working for the other fellow I have found that it pays to do a little more than is expected. Recognition will follow. I have told young people that when applying for a job that they should be well barbered. With a haircut and a shave you are half dressed up. I have never taken a customer to the bar. If you do that you will have lost control.
Never lie to a customer or shade the truth. It is all right to windjammer around and have fun with customers but when the chips are down and you are doing business, make your word good even when it may cost plenty.
About 25 or 30 years ago I decided I wanted to go out and see the world. I never took a trip in my life but what I felt it furthered my education. I felt that a good trip was as good as a year in college. I never pick up a newspaper but what I see a picture or read about places where I have been. The hatred of the peoples for each other in the Near East is not matched anywhere in the world.
We had an auditor from Grand Rapids who had traveled a lot and every time he came in to do some work for us, he would tell me about trips he had taken. Also I talked a lot with Eldon Post, who was a widely traveled man and through these men I got the fever. It is something like deer hunting. When you get back you say you will not do it again. But then you talk about it after a while you get the fever and you find it is addictive. The End
MEET YOUR NEIGHBOR---JOHN JOYNT
That was the headline of a feature story of the RED ROCK NEWS of Sedona, Arizona in late April.
People of Sebewa might raise an eyebrow of question at that until they remember that Wesley Joynt was named after his father and began using that name when he left this community.
At age 75 this year, he surprised his neighbors in Sedona by taking a 5,000 mile motor bike ride to Florida to visit his sister and husband, Mr. and Mrs. Elmer Gierman in Bradenton. The previous September he had made a similar trip to Oregon.
Wes, as we knew him, came to Sebewa with his parents, brothers and sisters around 1912 from Hope, a tiny town near Midland. They lived on the “Cloverdale Farm” as John had proudly lettered it on his round roofed barn, the old “Greiner Place” on Bippley Road near Sunfield Road. That move added four pupils to Mrs. Jennie Weippert’s school enrollment at District #4, Sebewa Center.
After Sunfield High School Wes did a stint at General Motors Technical School and then worked at Oldsmobile. In 1935 after a boyhood of lung difficulties he had a “massive lung hemorrhage” and as soon as he was able, left for the more favorable Arizona climate.
At Tucson he says “I just stumbled into the building business”. He built a house he said he was too poor to own, so he sold it and built another and soon found himself in the construction business.
During World War II he built three prison camps. Brothers William and Gerald joined him for a while before leaving for other business interests. In 1937 he bought a run down cattle ranch but kept to his primary interest in motors. He owned and flew an airplane, ran a stock car race track in Tucson, helped sponsor the Tucson soap box derby for three years.
A few years ago he and his wife, Isabel, owned a sailboat they planned to use for a trip from California to the West Indes. Untimely beaching of the boat foiled those plans and a European trip was substituted. In Europe they bought a VW Camper and leisurely visited most of the western European countries from Portugal to Lappland, traveling about 50,000 miles.
After returning to Sedona, Wes reentered construction and with his brother-in-law, Gary Graham, built 25 apartments. For 5 ½ years he was manager for Pima Savings in Sedona. Things seem not to stand still when John Wesley Joynt has a hand in them.
Over the years he has made occasional visits back to Sebewa. William Joynt has died. Gerald Joynt lives in Birmingham, Michigan and Muriel and Elmer Gierman spend nine months of the year at their home in Bradenton, Florida and three months at St. Louis, Michigan near the home of their daughter, Mrs. Richard Green.
Last update November 16, 2013