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Hassard Elevator

This article was published in Heartbeat magazine. Read the entire magazine here.

Hassard Elevator celebrates 100 years in business

By Joann Pipkin

Hassard ElevatorNorth of the capital city, Highway 54 leads us through rural Missouri’s heartland. From fertile bottoms to gently rolling hills, the dust flies on this early summer day as farmers work the fields. 

The road winds east from Mexico before our journey heads to the northeast corner of the state, past Mark Twain Lake. Along the way, hogs, cattle, sheep and even horses gently fill in the landscape around well-kept homesteads. 

Here, hard work and determination stand tall alongside a century-old tradition that makes Hassard Elevator thrive amid the very hands that put it on the map. 

Rail by Hassard ElevatorFor generations, the Benson family has carried a legacy built in 1918 by Harvey Benson and seven other farmers in the unincorporated community of Hassard, just east of Monroe City on Highway J, in Ralls County. 

Through every depression, drought, flood and war since, Hassard Elevator has persevered lending more than service to their farmer-customers. Today, Harvey Benson’s descendants cultivate the business he first helped establish. Son Don Sr. “Rink” along with grandsons Donnie and Danny and great-grandson Aaron are humble servants to a community bound together by a hundred years worth of tradition.

The Early Years

A spry 90 years young, Rink Benson begins the story. 

Hassard Elevator the early yearsHarvey Benson was one of seven farmers in 1918 to join forces in forming the Hassard Elevator Company. At the time, the elevator’s capacity was 8,000 bushels; it’s estimated cost of construction was $7,500. With each of the founding farmers owning large acreages of wheat, the farmers simply wanted an elevator to help hold their crop. 

Harvey would go on in 1926 to buy the others out.

“I’m assuming they went broke,” Rink explains of his dad’s business partners. “Then, my dad bought the whole thing out in order to protect his investment.”

Nestled alongside the railroad, in the elevator’s early years, the Hassard community boasted a train station, general store and even a school. 

Harvey Benson’s farmstead was tucked away across the highway from the elevator. 

“The office for the elevator was actually in Grandpa’s basement,” Donnie says. “A lot of the paperwork wound up in the attic. They bought rabbits and stuff like that and then traded them to the guy down the road for something else. (Grandpa Harvey) dealt in a lot of things besides grain for a period of time. He was also in the trucking business, hauled livestock and coal and fertilizer.”

During that era, wheat and corn was a mainstay for the community’s farmers. Corn was chopped by hand, hauled from the field by wagon and fed to livestock. After binding and chopping, wheat was sent through a thrasher and shipped out by rail to flour mills.

“You can imagine chopping up a 28-bushel wagon full,” Rink says. “That was a standard wagon box. How much work there was involved in that!”

Locals as many as two or three miles away would haul their grain to Hassard Elevator. 

In 1934, Harvey had the opportunity to sell out his elevator business. Yet, after a potential buyer failed to return his phone call, he maintained the operation.

Electricity around 1937 or 1938 was just the beginning of the technological changes Hassard Elevator would accept.

Then, from 1943 to 1946, when Rink’s brother, Harvey Jr. “Buck,” was in the service, the elevator business shut down. 

“My dad just closed the place up,” Rink recalls. “I don’t know why, but he was just so down about that all taking place. 

A self-professed hard worker, Rink took to shearing sheep. The young man also learned to drive a truck while the family business was shut down. Then in his teens, it was a trade he continued through the family’s elevator business even through his retirement.

With Buck home from the service, the elevator re-opened in 1947. While Buck managed the family’s farm, Rink worked at the elevator. 

For nearly a decade and a half, Harvey, Rink and Buck took strides to grow the family’s elevator business. 

Soon after the end of World War II, the U.S. government began loaning farmers money on their corn. Harvey purchased a corn sheller. 

“We went out to different farms and shelled the corn and hauled it in to the bin sites. When the government got involved in it, each county had a big bin site that we’d take the corn to. That’s why all these bins here are put up in conjunction with all of this,” Rink explains as he points to an old photo. 

Five bins in the old wooden elevator, as well as an additional 10, 1,000-bushel bins in the elevator’s annex housed the grain. 

An Unplanned Succession

Born in 1928, Rink says he really started working at the elevator when he was 6 years old. “We lived right across the road in a two-story house,” he recalls.

While he spent day in and day out working in the trade his father crafted, it wasn’t until Harvey’s death at age 68 in early Nov. 1963 that Rink became fully immersed in the business of Hassard Elevator.

Hassard Elevator - Benson Men

"That’s when my brother and I officially took over. That was really a very difficult time,” Rink notes.

With no preparations made by way of will or trust for what would happen to the business if Harvey died, Rink and Buck were left with virtually no guidance — and no funding.

“The money that he had to operate the elevator was in his name,” Rink says of his father. “When he passed away, everything went to probate. I didn’t have access to any money.”

And with no access to capital, Rink says it was impossible to operate the business. 

With bean harvest nearing completion, farmers were ready to start collecting on their beans. Nine children of his own – including young Donnie and Danny — Rink felt the pressure. 

That’s when a man named Elmo Ravenscraft with Production Credit Association (PCA), FCS Financial’s predecessor, stepped in after learning of the Benson’s situation. 

“He came up and looked everything over,” Rink recalls. “He said, ‘How much do you want,’ which shocked me deeply.”

That initial meeting serves as the beginning to what has become a more than 50-year relationship with FCS Financial. 

"That could have been a huge turning point for this business,” Aaron states. 

“It could have been the end of it,” Donnie chimes in. 

“Oh, it would have been the end of it,” Rink adds. “If the PCA hadn’t come to Hassard, I wouldn’t be here right now, if they hadn’t come to my help.”

Since then, Rink Benson has only continued to foster the relationship first built back in 1963 with FCS. The Benson’s purchased a farm in 1964 with help from PCA, and additional expansion projects over the years have also been possible with their assistance. 

A Growing Business

Hassard Elevator todayIn the years that followed the mid-1960s, the growth of Hassard Elevator’s business was fueled much by Rink Benson’s blood, sweat and tears.

In 1966, the elevator added four 20,000-bushel bins, which was the first expansion for the business since Harvey’s death. Yet, that project wouldn’t have been possible without selling six of the bins that had been erected in 1956. 

“A guy bought six of these bins, a farmer here,” Rink explains. “He got a helicopter in St. Louis. They flew all these bins out here with the helicopters.”

A local Monroe City newspaper reporter captured photographs of the bins being transported. 

During this time, it was common for the Benson’s to build the bins themselves as the business expanded. Neighbors, too, would lend a hand. 

“They were just good friends and good customers,” Donnie says. “I could name off a lot of people that have helped us build bins over the years.”

Rink adds, “The loyalty of the customers seemed to grow right with me after my dad passed away. There has to be some outside success for this thing besides just me, and that has to be with the people that live in this area.”

While many of those customers have since passed on, Rink credits them with the success his business has realized over the years. 

Hassard Elevator - Communication is keyDuring the 60s, Donnie and Danny found themselves working at the elevator through high school.

Donnie recalls Rink tossing he and Danny into railroad cars to clean them. They often encountered hobos, and Rink insisted on his wife providing a meal for them. Of course, she obliged.

Expansion came to Hassard in 1971 by way of a building project along the south side of the operation’s property. 

After high school, Donnie worked as an electrician and later at the elevator, while Danny attended college at Northeast Missouri State University in Kirksville where he studied general agriculture. He returned to the family business in 1975. 

With drought plaguing the area, the 1980s brought especially challenging times to Hassard. Rink’s brother Buck also passed away in 1980. He was just 62. 

“It was tough,” Rink notes. “I really don’t know how we survived other than we had the loyalty of our customers.”

Donnie adds, “We took our equipment down to nothing. We were down to junk, just trying to survive. We couldn’t hardly fix anything. We certainly couldn’t buy anything.”

Donnie and another one of his brothers left the elevator for a time, taking other jobs. “We just cut the expenses right down to just nothing, and somehow we made it,” he says. 

“We got through that, and I think the droughts and high interest were the two main things that stick in my mind,” Danny says. 

Amid the economic obstacles, two more 50,000-bushel bins were added for storage in 1980 and 1984. 

The Expansion Era

Anxious to leave the trials and tribulations of the 80s behind, a new decade fired tremendous growth for Hassard Elevator. 

1990 became a huge turning point for the business. Danny ran across an article in a farm magazine where he learned about Grain Service Corporation in Atlanta, Georgia. 

Hassard Elevator - checking grain

“We still work with them today,” Aaron explains. “They taught dad how to hedge grain and trade the basis.”

Working with the brokerage service for risk management ultimately was key to Hassard’s continued success in grain marketing. 

In 1990, the operation went from a back-to-back marketing grain elevator to a hedging elevator, explains Aaron, Danny’s son. Back-to-back simply means farmers would sell their grain to the elevator, and then the elevator would sell the grain to another buyer. The difference between the two prices was the margin by which the elevator operated. An elevator that uses hedging as a marketing strategy needs an agricultural lender who understands the process and who can also help provide assistance for needed grain storage.

Aaron adds that risk management came at a time when technology was rapidly advancing. Equipment became faster and more efficient alongside the growth farmers themselves have realized in their own operations.

Facility expansion has been constant for Hassard since the early 1990s. A new office was added in 1992, while building projects were launched in ’93, ’94 and ’97. 

Rink’s initial retirement also came in 1993, but, “I couldn’t stand it,” he says. He re-joined the operation, driving a truck until 2009, and finally retiring at 80 years old. The 1993 move shifted primary management responsibilities to Danny and Donnie.

Aaron worked for two different grain companies after graduating in 2001 with an agriculture business degree from Missouri State University in Springfield. He joined the business in 2003. 

The elevator continued expanding its facilities into the 2000s. Building projects brought additional storage space in ’01, ’04, ’06, ’07 and ’09. 

And, 2010 through 2014 brought expansion to the elevator’s east drive. The old elevator was torn down. A truck shed was added in 2012. New bins were built in 2013 as well after a tornado took out some of the facility’s older, smaller bins. After a 2015 shop fire, a new machinery shed and shop were constructed. 

The Benson’s are quick to give credit where credit is due. While adding risk management to their business helped increase customer service and add to their own bottom line, they know working with FCS Financial has been a great fit for their operation.

“We have to buy the grain,” Danny explains. “We have to have a place to put it. Then, we absolutely have to have a (lender) to work with us so we have money to pay the farmer. That’s big.”

An Avenue for the Future

From shear hard work to determination and forethought, the Benson’s are quick to credit Hassard Elevator’s success to their dedicated employees and the farmers they serve.

“When other people are putting out fires, we’re working, and we work alongside of them. Dad taught us years ago to never ask somebody to do something you wouldn’t do yourself,” Donnie says. 

No matter how many times the Benson’s have been asked what they can attribute their success to, time and time again, they pointed to Rink and the lessons he taught them growing up.

The youngest of the Benson’s to join the operation, Aaron realizes the sacrifices the generations before him have made for the betterment of their current operation. 

While Hassard Elevator has changed ten-fold from the one Harvey Benson helped build in 1918, today’s generation realizes more change is certain to come with those that follow in their footsteps. 

Danny says communication is key to the business’ ability to adapt to the changes taking place in today’s ag world. “We might sit down and talk for hours about things that are going on and about what we might need to do differently,” he says.

As Harvey Benson’s death brought uncertain change for the elevator’s future, his followers are confident they have a solid transition plan moving forward. 

“We went to great lengths to protect (the business) for the generations to come,” Donnie explains.

Kathy Dean, long-time employee Hassard ElevatorAs Danny transitions much of the elevator management to Aaron, Donnie’s role of plant manager shifts to Bill Franklin, who joined the team in 2014. Additionally, Aaron’s cousin, Whitney Bichsel, has assumed much of the office responsibilities as a long-time employee, Kathy Dean, cuts back to part-time. Aaron is quick to credit Kathy for her dedication to the elevator business and to its customers. 

Whitney Bichsel - Hassard elevatorWhether at the coffee shop in town or church on Sunday, the Benson’s prevalence in their community is a testament to the legacy built first by their fore fathers. Working alongside their farmer-friends and customers has been key to creating Hassard Elevator’s centennial. 

A Lesson in Hard Work

Despite the nature of any business, operating for a century is a feat worth celebrating. And, it is one Hassard Elevator doesn’t take lightly.

Customer Lowell Schachtsiek of Palmyra has done business with Hassard Elevator since 1965. His own father and grandfather were patrons even in the late 1930s. 

“They’ve always treated us well,” he says, noting a time he sent a partially frozen load of soybeans to the elevator. 

Lowell also recalls how Donald (Rink) would unload trucks at the elevator until 10 o’clock at night. Rink would then stay until 2 in the morning sifting through grain tickets, only to start the process all over again the next day. 

If the combines were rolling, farmers would find the elevator open for business — even on Christmas Eve, Lowell says. 

“This is a work ethic,” Danny explains. “Dad instilled that in all of us, and that’s a major key.”

The amount of risk involved in farming today is massive, he continues, just from shear input costs. 

Monroe City farmer Tim Gottman and his brother have farmed together since the early 1990s. 

He notes Aaron came to their farm to explain how risk management could help their operation.

Today, the Gottmans work with Hassard Elevator as a receiving point in their grain-marketing program. 

“It takes a lot of pressure off of me,” Tim explains. “We can work hand-in-hand so there are no worries. When you’re sending your landlord a check, you want it to be correct. They’ve helped me simplify my grain marketing needs.”

In addition to the added management and peace of mind Tim gets from working with the Bensons, he’s beyond grateful for the kindness and support his family received a couple of year’s ago after losing his son. 

“They were among the first to show their support,” Tim says. That won’t soon be forgotten. They’re the kindest people I’ve done business with.”

From hard work to integrity and love of fellow man, it’s a bit of “forceful foresight” as Rink calls it that has brought the business full circle, all the while building a legacy bound by family, farming, faith and friends.     

“Opportunity,” Danny echoes. “And, we serve a great God. Along with work ethic, Mom and Dad taught us that honesty and integrity were paramount. You just treat people like they want to be treated. Fair and honest.”

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