Feely era is over at elevator
P.H. Feely and Son Elevator hauled its last load of corn earlier this month.
Oh, the elevator, the most prominent structure in downtown Farmington for the past 112 years or so, will still be around in the years to come. It will even continue to carry the Feely name. But for the first time since 1894 it won't have a Feely behind the counter.
The Feely family sold the elevator Nov. 17 to Doug Gilbertson, a Farmington native and the owner of grain elevators in Randolph and Nerstrand.
There has been some uncertainty about the elevator's future since Don Feely died Sept. 3. Don and his brother Greg took over the business after their father died in 1979, but it was Don who ran the operation on a day-to-day basis.
It did not take long for Greg to realize there was no way to keep the business in the family once Don died.
"We were doing some work in there for probably a month or so," he said. "The people that were always helping Don had full-time jobs and I have a full-time job too. We were putting things together as well as we could and it just couldn't be done that way, especially with the harvest coming on. We just had to make that decision."
Deciding to sell was not easy, but finding a buyer was. Gilbertson, who grew up two streets from Greg and Don in Farmington, was interested in buying even before Don died following a long struggle with kidney cancer. He contacted the family while Don was still undergoing treatment.
"At the beginning it was just kind of a process that we were going through. It was at the end when everyone was just sitting around and talking over the issues of being in business in one family that long and challenges that the new owner was going to be up against in an area that wasn't as agriculture-based as it used to be," Feely said. "At that point it got to be more personal and that was just a little harder to take.
"It was not at all easy."
Gilbertson, whose uncle owned the long-closed Gil's Farm Service elevator in Farmington, did not know the Feelys well growing up but he played sports against them. He wanted the elevator to remain in business, he said, because it still serves a significant population of local farmers.
Gilbertson knows a thing or two about running elevators. He studied agribusiness at Dakota County Technical College in Rosemount and he currently owns elevators in Randolph and Nerstrand.
"I've been in the business my whole life," Gilbertson said. "I bought Randolph in 1983. I've been in that market for a long time dealing with customers from Farmington and south.
"They're good people to work with, the farmers," he said. "It's a business that's always going to be there."
Gilbertson isn't worried about Farmington's farmland disappearing beneath new developments.
"I know enough local farmers and the need for storage is going to be there for quite some time," he said.
Gilbertson has put a new floor into the office area of the Farmington elevator since he took over earlier this month, but that's about as dramatic as the changes are going to get. Gilbertson sees little reason to make major changes to a business that has been successful for more than a century.
That includes keeping the business' name, at least after a fashion. Gilbertson will drop the "P.H." from the beginning of the elevator's name and the "and Son" from the end, but he's keeping the Feely name.
"It's got good recognition. It's been there for over 100 years and it's well liked in the community," Gilbertson said.
Patrick H. Feely came to Farmington with his parents in 1861. He opened his business, now believed to be the oldest independently-owned grain elevator in Minnesota, at Second and Spruce streets in 1894.
The original elevator was destroyed by fire in 1895, but Feely leased land from the Milwaukee Railroad to build the elevator building that still stands in downtown Farmington.
The business was officially incorporated as P.H. Feely and Son Inc. on Aug. 1, 1927. Patrick served as president. Until this month, Feelys had run the elevator ever since.
The business has changed over the years. Over time different crops became dominant, and more recently the elevator expanded into other areas to help make up for a loss of farmland.
"So much of what we do now has changed," Don Feely said in a 2003 Independent story on the elevator's history. "We still do grain, but instead of concentrating on livestock feed we're doing pet food. Instead of field fertilizer and seed, we have lawn fertilizer and feed. It's all changed with the times."