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Grain Scoopers of Buffalo

Posted on Sunday, August 24th, 2008.

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.

8 Responses to “Grain Scoopers of Buffalo”

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  • Dear Michael; You’re right. The family came from Ireland and went to Scotland to work in the coal industry in Coatbridge. I do know that my father offered to take his father nicknamed “Scotty,” who, by the way, played the accordian (squeeze box) at taverns or gin mills in the neighborhood like The House of Quinn with his brother David, a fiddle player (very good, by the way) my uncle has an old vinyl recording of the two – fascinating! Anyway, my dad offered the trip all expenses paid and Scotty said no. He said, “I left there for a reason.” They came here in the 20s and 30s. The story goes that Scotty’s sister came first and sent for her younger sister. They came to Canada and crossed the Peace Bridge with the elder sister telling the younger to pretend she couldn’t speak so her brougue wouldn’t be detected. There are so many stories from all of our families that need to be told. I am sorry to hear of your uncle’s passing. We honor their memory by repeating the stories. It’s all good. Cheers, Patsy

    Comment from patsy donnelly on February 26, 2012 at 11:14 pm - Reply to this Comment
  • it says irish jackie donnelly but im sure his parents came from coatbridge in scotland and he is a cousin of my father terry donnelly who sadly passed away in september 2006

    Comment from michael donnelly on March 16, 2010 at 7:48 am - Reply to this Comment
  • It is really great to hear about your shared memories of the boxing days in Buffalo. The First Ward is such an incredible area of the city, so steeped in our country’s history of immigration and the grain industry. Thank you for your comments on the blog. Patsy, please send my regards to your father Jack.
    Chaela Herridge-Meyer
    Mobile Facilitator, StoryCorps

    Comment from Chaela on March 3, 2009 at 7:56 pm - Reply to this Comment
  • Dear Ron;
    Thank you for your comments. You’re right, my father “Irish” Jackie Donnelly was one of the greatest fighters. I remember your brother and met him and talked with him when I attended OLV High School. He would stop by the Coffee Pot and talk with me about my dad and all that happened. My father has told me many stories about those days. He always said that your brother was rich enough to train at the ‘good’ gyms. I remember your family at the hall of fame induction at Salvatore’s Italian Gardens. I think there were 300 fighters there that night. Tony Barbera’s son Tony and I almost rang the Singer’s Gym bell on display just to see what would happen. Can you imagine? Cheers, Patsy Donnelly

    Comment from Patsy Donnelly on February 24, 2009 at 1:00 am - Reply to this Comment
  • Jackie Donnelly was one of the greatest fighters in the world. He fought my half-brother Bobby Scanlon for the NYS Lightweight Title in 1960. Both of these fighters should be in the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. Each spent a lot of time helping the youth of the area. Jackie spent countless hours at the Babcock Boys Club and trained many fighters. Bobby was a guest referee at many charity events when he fought in California where he became “Fighter of the Year for Northern California” in 1957. This story regarding the old first ward and the shipping industry is especially interesting to me because my father was an officer on the Kinsman Independent…. the lake boat being unloaded.

    Comment from Ron Ashburn Jr. on January 7, 2009 at 1:23 pm - Reply to this Comment
  • Thanks for the memories! Born in the old First Ward in 1934, I can remember the vast amount of shipping coming and going from Buffalo. My Great grandfather was a sailor on the lakes in the 1850s, and my Grandfather, William H. Fizpatrick built many of the homes between Seneca and Abbott Roads. (He was also Democratic County Chairman for Erie County!!!) Before the advent of the St. Lawrence Seaway, and long after the Erie Canal gave way to the Railroads, the port and railroads busselled with transshipment of iron ore, coal, grain, etc, and the milling industry thrived. I believe one of the buildings shown was the Larkin Building. Rolled Oats was another cereal milled along the docks

    Comment from W. Daniel Fitzpatrick on November 24, 2008 at 5:55 pm - Reply to this Comment
  • Laura,
    It was an honor to hear the stories of the First Ward and then be able to visit the area. Thank you for coordinating these interviews. I think this part of Buffalo really captures the history of the city, and our country.
    Thank you,

    Comment from Chaela on September 5, 2008 at 12:14 am - Reply to this Comment
  • Thank you, Chaela, and thank you to StoryCorps for helping preserve the oral history of the Old 1st Ward. An impoortant generation that helped feed the nation is passing, and a new generation is looking for their roots.
    It’s an honor and a privilege to work and live among these folks who built and are still building our nation.

    Comment from Laura Kelly on September 4, 2008 at 9:07 pm - Reply to this Comment

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