Painting old time Grain Elevators

Bruce SelyemThis Richland, Mont., elevator, stands proudly against a blue Montana sky. Mark Gilleland is a painter whose specialty is making elevators like this one look like new.

In 1948 Mark Gilleland, an industrial arts major at Montana State University in Bozeman, went to work doing industrial painting for a local company, Tschache Brothers. The job paid $1.00 an hour with a $.25 per hour bonus if the employee painted all summer. Those were good wages for a college student.

After he graduated in 1952, Mark accepted Tschache’s offer of a full time position and during his 42-year tenure, as the company branched into other areas, Mark’s responsibilities grew and diversified. Still his recollections of his early years working on a two-man paint crew are some of his most memorable. “We painted bridges, water and radio towers, schools, the Lake Hotel in Yellowstone National Park, most of the town of Fort Peck, Mont., and of course grain elevators.”

In the years before OSHA and hydraulic lifts, two men could paint a grain elevator, office and drive shed, and install two small signs in 45 to 50 hours. One man painted and the other did the groundwork. The most tedious and time-consuming part of the job was the set up.

The men rigged block and tackles with either a swing stage or bosun chair depending on the nature of the job. For minor repairs and spray painting they used a chair. However if the repairs were extensive to the cribbing or siding or if they were painting signs, they used a swing stage because it would accommodate two people, tools and materials. If no one was available during the day to send up food and water by rope, they took that too as the swing stage was extremely heavy and moving it was very hard work.

For minor repairs and spray painting, the man on the ground controlled the lift. As he raised it, the other man made repairs and prepared the wood or metal surface. Once the repairs were completed the ground man would start to lower the lift while the painter, working from top to bottom, applied the first coat of paint. Mark describes this as “the dirtiest job you ever saw.”

“You wore two layers of clothes, a hat, and a respirator over your nose and mouth. And you smeared heavy Vaseline on your face. After a day of painting, the exposed parts of your body were covered with red, gray, yellow or aluminum colored paint. Other unexposed parts were also affected as paint filtered through your clothing. On most jobs there was no access to showers as we slept sometimes in work trailers and sometimes in the elevator itself ” rarely in motels.”

The sprayer worked with two hoses, one from the air compressor and one from the pressure tank of paint ” both on the ground. Painting a 30-by-30-by-65-foot elevator, office and drive required about 40 gallons of Glidden oil paint (the company’s brand of choice).

The tank held 15 to 18 gallons and the ground man made sure to have enough paint in the tank to complete one or two sides before the painter started to spray. Paint came in 5-gallon pails and though it seldom happened there could be variations in the tint.

Once he started spraying, the painter could reach an area just over 10-feet wide by swinging the chair slightly from side to side. Now as paint on wood elevators fade, two stripes on each side indicate where the painter slightly overlapped the previous swath.

Meanwhile the ground man would have to lower the painter at just the perfect speed. This was an art in itself. In an effort to stay as cool as possible the men tried to work fast enough to follow the shade around the perimeter of the building.

Signs were added once the elevator had been painted twice. A sign company would perforate a stencil using a pounce wheel. Lettering could be 3 to 6-feet and larger and each stencil was reusable.

On a quiet day with little wind, the painter taped or tacked the stencil to the side of the elevator then swung a sock filled with flour or lamp black (depending on the color of the siding) against the holes in the stencil. The powder filtered through the sock and the stencil and left the outline underneath of what was to be painted. Signs were all painted using a brush. This process was the easiest part of the job though Mark says it could get boring after a long day.

The era of painting wood elevators began to fade in the late 1950s as the use of concrete and steel became more prevalent. Junior Tschache once told Mark that the company had worked on about 1,500 elevators. Mark didn’t paint all of those, but as he pages through his photo album of black and white elevator pictures, the list of names he painted is impressive ” McCabe, General Mills, Montana Elevator Co., Greeley, Gallatin Valley Milling, Osborne McMillan, GTA and Peavey·

During his career Mark traveled in five states ” Montana, South and North Dakota, Wyoming and Minnesota ” and was gone from home and family most of every summer. Now that he has been retired for 18 years, he still has mostly positive memories. “I didn’t get much of a retirement package, but I stayed so long because the work was interesting. When I went to work in the morning I never knew what I would be doing that day.”