Photographer captures feed mills in book

Jim Harger
Grand Rapids Press

Grand Rapids — As an industrial photographer traveling across Michigan, Dave Hanks often stopped along the way to photograph the feed mills in each of the towns.

Hanks, 81, said he was fascinated by their visual impact on the rural landscape. Located five or ten miles apart, usually alongside a railroad siding, the tall structures piqued his curiosity.

“I was impressed with them as a photographic subject. I didn’t know what was going on inside,” Hanks said.

Hanks recently published a 208-page coffee table book called “Down by the Feed Mill: The Past and Present of America’s Feed Mills and Grain Elevators.”

Over the years, Hanks said he drew curious questions from mill operators and townsfolks when he would set up his Hasselblad and start taking pictures.

As Hanks started talking to the mill operators, he was invited inside, where he was struck by the machinery used to clean, dry, grind and distribute the local farmer’s crops.

As an industrial photographer, Hanks said he convinced the mill operators he was not going to hurt himself by exploring their mills.

He also learned about the “Three D’s” of feed mills.

“They’re dirty, dusty and dangerous,” he said.

He learned to recognize the difference between a bean and corn elevator.

“I even learned to judge their age by the type of foundation,” he said.

Over the years, some of the feed mills he photographed disappeared as their owners went out of business. Others, such as one in Rockford, were converted into restaurants and shops. Another feed mill in Courtland Township has been converted into a home.

Most of the photographs in Hanks’ book are black and white.

“A mill looks shabby and dirty in color,” he said of his subjects. “In black and white, it has a certain dignity.”

Although most of his photographs were shot in West and mid-Michigan, Hanks said his book is being well received nationally. “I was just interviewed by a chap in Nebraska.”

“Down by the Feed Mill” is not Hanks’ first publishing venture. In the late 1960s, he and his wife, Marilyn, published a pictorial essay about Leonard Avenue titled, “The Old Road to the Lake.”

In 1970s, they published a book about Michigan stage coach stops called “On the Michigan Stage.”