In 1878, Red River Valley businessmen Henry A. Bruns and Henry G. Finkle built the first steam-powered grain elevator in the United States. The Red River Valley became known for wheat in the 1870s, and the Bruns and Finkle grain elevator helped to establish the region's dominance. In its first harvest season, the grain elevator handled almost 250,000 bushels of wheat from more than 5,000 wagons.
In 1871, Henry A. Bruns left his family home in Iowa to look for business opportunities on the frontier. He decided to set up a store in the Red River Valley after hearing that the Northern Pacific Railway was planning a route to the area from Lake Superior. He arrived at a tent camp near the Red River with goods to sell, and he soon partnered with one of the men already living and selling out of the camp, Henry G. Finkle.
Later that year, the Northern Pacific Railway announced that it would build a stop in what is now Moorhead. Bruns and Finkle moved their store to that location in September 1871. In March 1872, they constructed a two-story building with a roof, one of the first frame buildings in Moorhead.
The Bruns and Finkle general store was very successful, but Moorhead would not have needed a grain elevator if Bruns had not promoted wheat production in the region. During the winter of 1871-1872, Bruns brought 500 bushels of seed wheat to Clay and Norman counties. The region's first crop was devastated by grasshoppers, but by 1873, the Bruns wheat was successful, and he shipped a carload to Lake Superior for milling.
In 1874, Bruns built his own flour mill in Moorhead. The mill was also successful, producing high-quality bread flour. Bruns's flour, which sold under the "Belle of Moorhead" label, was awarded first premium at the Minnesota State Fair for two consecutive seasons. Bruns's goods, including his flour, were sold to construction workers building the Northern Pacific and Canadian Pacific railroads.
By 1878, wheat production in the Red River Valley was exceeding the capacity of the Bruns flour mill. To store the excess wheat, the region required a grain elevator. That same year, Bruns and Finkle built one, the first steam-powered grain elevator in the area and in the United States.
Although the Bruns and Finkle grain elevator was necessary, it was also controversial. The Northern Pacific Railway wanted to discourage competition between the neighboring cities of Moorhead, Minnesota, and Fargo, North Dakota. They advised Bruns and Finkle not to build their grain elevator right away. The railroad wanted a single, larger grain elevator to be built that could serve both cities. But Bruns and Finkle ignored this request and built their grain elevator immediately.
The Bruns and Finkle grain elevator was very successful and had a positive effect on the region. Bruns received most of the acclaim, and Moorhead elected him mayor in 1881, re-electing him twice.
Becoming interested in more speculative ventures, Bruns ended his partnership with Finkle in 1882. After cutting ties with Finkle, Bruns built a short-lived business empire in Moorhead. He invested in large and risky prospects like a bank and first-class hotel, betting that other railroads would route through Moorhead. When they did not, he lost his entire fortune. In 1893, he moved to Minneapolis, where he reportedly worked as a cheese clerk and lived a quiet life until his death.
The Bruns and Finkle grain elevator changed hands several times during the 1890s, and in 1903, both the elevator and the related mill were purchased by Dwight Baldwin. Baldwin had the elevator cut in half and had part of it moved closer to the mill. The process of moving the elevator was difficult and took weeks when it was expected to take only days.
For a time, the grain elevators and mill remained important to the area's wheat industry and notable Moorhead landmarks. In the 1910s, however, both halves of the original elevator were destroyed by fire. The last remaining part of the Bruns and Finkle elevator, then known as the Baldwin elevator, burned down in 1919.
"Baldwin Elevator is Burned." Moorhead Daily News, January 30, 1919.
"Elevator 'A,' " Moorhead Daily News. July 16, 1903.
Engelhardt, Carroll. "Henry A. Bruns: Failed Frontier Entrepreneur." Minnesota History 48, no. 2 (Summer 2002): 92–104.
Illustrated Album of Biography of the Famous Valley of the Red River of the North and Park Regions, Including the Most Fertile and Widely Known Portions of Minnesota and North Dakota. Chicago: Alden, Ogle and Company, 1889.
Lamphere, George N. "Wheat Raising in the Red River Valley." Farm Implements 14, no. 1 (January 1900): 29–36.
During the winter of 1871–1872, Henry A. Bruns brings 500 bushels of seed wheat to Clay and Norman counties. This act jumpstarts wheat production in the Red River Valley and leads to a need for the Bruns and Finkle grain elevator.