Slowly, steadily, the messy cleanup of debris from a massive grain elevator fire in Clinton, Minn., late last month continues.
Most of the scarred scrap metal strewn about the site had been picked up and moved out as of last week, as had the grain that spilled out amid the smoke and flames.
But two weeks after the fire drew scores of firefighters from neighboring communities to the western Minnesota farm town of 400 people, a feeling of uncertainty lingers:
So will Wheaton Dumont Co-Op Elevator, which owns and operates more than a dozen grain elevators in western Minnesota and the Dakotas, rebuild the structure that once dominated the town's skyline and served as a magnet for area farmers?
For now, it's up to the insurance company.
"It's too early to tell," said Philip Deal, general manager of Wheaton Dumont. "Emotionally we want to rebuild. Everyone wants to see us rebuild. But at the end of the day, it'll have to come down to a business decision. We're confident insurance will treat us right. But with that said, insurance may or may not be good enough to put it all back to the way it was."
Minutes after the fire started, the town and surrounding communities rallied to tamp down the blaze. Firefighters from a dozen nearby cities rushed in, as did local farmers eager to deliver water. Bonnie's Home Town Grocery made sandwiches for firefighters and emptied its shelves of water and Gatorade. A local convenience store delivered free breakfast pizzas.
"We knew we'd come together in a time like that, but we didn't realize how many people would come together," said Mayor Greg Basta. "So many people showed up. It was pretty amazing. Every small town in western Minnesota has one of these elevators. People get what it means to us."
The company hopes the insurance claim will be resolved by the end of August.
The Clinton grain elevator holds slightly more than 1 million bushels, or about 2% of the company's total capacity. The wooden sections that burned could hold about 160,000 bushels, but several steel tanks, which hold about 1 million bushels, were not damaged.
In the days since the fire, farmers who would normally stop at the Clinton site have been diverted to the company's elevator in Graceville, 7 miles north and with a capacity of 10 million bushels.
From a big-picture perspective, the fire has been more of an inconvenience for the company than a catastrophe. But for the community, it's been devastating.
While small, Clinton is a city on the move. It boasts a brand-new assisted living community and is in the midst of a $7 million project to improve roads, sewers and the water treatment facility.
But it's the elevator that brings outside traffic and spinoff business to town.
State politicians recognize its importance, too. Gov. Tim Walz was among several state officials who paid a visit to Clinton last week to inspect the damage.
Deal said the company is unsure when a decision on rebuilding will be made. One complicating issue is that the industry is struggling with a lack of replacement supplies, where the wait time for things such as replacement conveyors might be six months after the order date.
"I get [the town's concern]," Deal said. "The elevator is part of the core of the town. It's one of those key businesses that brings traffic. We understand that.
"Unfortunately, in the long run, we have to make business decisions. We understand how important it is to a small community, though. We don't want to see that go away."
Reid Forgrave • 612-673-4647