Against the Grain: Repurposed Silos You Can Visit in Illinois

Next time you drive past a silo in rural Illinois, don’t assume it’s filled with grain. Instead, it may be stocked with beds, breakfast or rock climbers.

Popping up like little country skyscrapers, the grain silos and elevators that dot Illinois’ farm fields aren’t always holding grain. The sturdy metal storage structures are trendy for upcyclers who are now converting them into bed and breakfasts, wall murals, art studios, and even climbing walls. Here are some of the cool ways to go silo-seeing in Illinois:

Silo Sleeping

The Has Bin Guest House, a grain silo that’s been converted into an adorable B&B, stands near the small town of Alvin, a 10-minute drive from Danville. While most of the guests are city dwellers from Chicago, some have come from as far away as Germany to stay in the secluded but homey space, equipped with both antique decor and modern amenities such as Wi-Fi and television.

Since the guest house sits near train tracks—and freight trains go by in the middle of the night—ear plugs are provided on the nightstand (although some guests find the sound soothing). It’s a nice place to stay after a day of kayaking on the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River or antiquing in Danville. Baked goods and other surprises are supplied by the hosts, Mary Kay and Stan, who also deliver a tailored breakfast (the choices: “cheesy and eggy” or “sweet and syrupy”).

As the sun sets, take a comfortable seat on the back deck, build a fire, and watch the woodpeckers, goldfinches and nuthatches. Because of the remote location, the stargazing is exceptional on a clear night.

Silo Art

Artist Ray Paseka sees grain silos as giant canvases. In Mendota, he and his team painted a giant ear of corn—68 feet high by 20 feet wide—on 31 aluminum panels which they attached to an 80-foot-tall grain silo near the center of town. The final product, Mendota Gold, debuted in August 2018.

The silo art can be seen from many areas of the city, including the Amtrak station, so passengers see it as they pass through town. At night, it’s lit up. A New York Times Magazine writer saw it during a cross-country train trip, and in a March 2019 story, called it “the single best thing in the United States.”

Paseka has dozens of other grain silo design concepts in the works (including one of Abraham Lincoln), and is scoping out spots in nearby counties. The silo art could be part of a bigger plan by North Central Illinois ARTworks to create an art path along Interstate-80.

A turn-of-the-century grain storage building in Sycamore is now a place where visitors can buy art, take art classes or attend events. Folk artist Valerie Weberpal of Harvest Moon Designs opened The Crib on her family farm in the summer of 2019. A rustic red elevator shaft is in the center of the building, and you can still see the chutes where they used to drop the grains.

Silo Climbing 

A grain elevator and four silos became mountains to climb at the Bloomington gym Upper Limits.

Three new routes were added in 2019 to the silo’s 115-foot outside wall, although most of the climbing is done inside the silos’ 65-foot indoor walls, which have more than 30 rope routes. Even the grain elevator’s former loading dock area is a climbing room.

As interest in climbing grows (it will be a new Olympic sport during the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo), Upper Limits has expanded to accommodate demand. The gym just added a number of new rock climbing and rappelling classes, so you can train to do their most daring stunt: a 120-foot rappel off the top of the grain elevator.

Silo Tours

Tours are held between 1 and 3 p.m. on summer Sundays at the J.H. Hawes Grain Elevator Museum, a fully restored 1903-era structure in Atlanta that’s on the National Register of Historic Places.

The wooden grain elevator still works, even though it hasn’t been used for grain since 1978. Visitors can climb the wooden ramp to enter the elevator and see how grain was weighed, tested and stored a century ago. Reservations are strongly recommended.