Some days in downtown Buffalo, the smell of Cheerios fills the air. On a hungry afternoon I followed the smell to General Mills, one of the few remaining factories in production along Buffalo’s waterfront. Other giant industrial monuments stand as a testament to a part of Buffalo that is no longer. At one point, these monolithic structures made Buffalo the largest exporter of grain in the world, and by way of the Erie Canal, made New York City the major port of the United States.
Jack Donnelly came to the booth in Buffalo to share stories about growing up in the First Ward, the neighborhood at the base of Buffalo’s grain silos. Like many of his neighbors, Jack came from a traditional Irish immigrant family and grew up learning to fight in the neighborhood. After taking up boxing at the age of 9, he boxed his way through his teenage years, his service in the Air Force, and later as a professional, where he fought Bobby Scanlon and Paola Rosi. Jack’s mother was his biggest fan. He told us that she often was the only woman ringside. In those days, men went to matches in suit and tie, women went downtown Buffalo in white gloves, and Jack spent his winnings on looking sharp with new hats and shoes.
Jack’s family and many other Irish immigrants moved to the First Ward for the jobs created by the construction of the Erie Canal. In 1825 the Canal was opened, making the long trip from the grain rich Midwest to the East Coast shorter. Before the Canal, grain traveled down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans. It was then taken by ship to the East and Europe. Sometimes the grain traveled by wagon through the Appalachian Mountains.
When the Canal was opened, grain could bypass the mountain range, reaching its destinations with much greater speed and at a much lower price. In Buffalo grain was transferred from the larger lake boats to the smaller canal boats. During the 1830s, the quantity of grain handled in Buffalo had increased ten fold. The work was dangerous and exhausting; the grain was loaded onto the back of workers most and carried from ship to ship.
In 1842 a retail merchant by the name of Joseph Dart invented the first grain elevator. The invention enabled a steam-driven belt with attached buckets, to lower into the ship’s hold, scoop the grain up, and lift it to up to the bins where it was stored. Although the work was difficult, some of the city’s last scoopers came from four generations in same line of work.
In February 2003, grain scoopers of Local 109 unloaded their last shipment. Highway End Films documented the very last day of grain scooping.