The Wooden Grain Elevator: An Endangered Prairie Icon

At one point in the 1930s, over 5 600 wooden primary grain elevators dotted the western Canadian prairie, along with hundreds more in the United States. Distinguished by their vertical rectangular shapes, arched tops, and wood-crib design, these buildings rose an average of 60 m (200 feet) above the surrounding flatlands (as well, the annexes where the offices were located were also cribbed). Grain elevators are the most iconic architectural legacy of central North American agriculture, especially on the Canadian side of the border, and are a direct product of the spread of railways across the prairie.Trains were necessary for farmers to get their grain to market, and warehouses were needed to store the grain to make it possible to load into boxcars. Loading grain by hand into boxcars proved to be both labour-intensive and time consuming. Elevators changed that immediately, providing an efficient, mechanically-based forum for deposition, storage, and distribution within the same building.While elevators date back as far the 1840s, elevators began being built en masse in the wood crib style between 1890 and the Great Depression. Rail companies granted licenses to grain companies and farming cooperatives to build elevators directly along the rail line at stations.

For most of the 20th century, it seemed every single prairie town along a railway, regardless of the size, had at least one elevator, if not two or three. Over time, however, industries consolidated: agriculture became more mechanised; farms got larger; rural residents moved into the cities; many small towns died off and automotive transport of goods to larger centres became more important, which meant less business for rail lines; branch railways closed as rail companies became further and further rationalised.A large portion of the numerous branch lines are either defunct or completely removed.And when they go, so does the need for a grain elevator. Many times, industry consolidation and/or age necessitate closure of elevators. Some are simply abandoned; some are demolished entirely. Just this past week, two more elevators in the Saskatchewan towns of Parkbeg and Mortlach saw their demise.One startling statistic says it all: in 1961, the province of Alberta had 1 642 functioning primary elevators.50 years later, there are a mere 79 elevators in this style left in operation; the rest abandoned or removed. Saskatchewan, the largest wheat-producing jurisdiction on the continent, had 3 030 primary elevators in 1950 and 2 750 in 1970; by 2004, that number was just 194.

As these wooden elevators have become an endangered species over time, many community groups across the central plains of North America, especially in the Canadian Prairies, have banded together to preserve these landmarks where possible. Some succeed; some don’t. As well, numerous groups and websites exist on the Internet which seek to photograph and document the remaining wooden elevators before they get destroyed. A visit to elevator preservation websites such as Vanishing Landmarks, Vanishing Sentinels, The Grain Elevators of Western Canada, and Vators, or a visit to the numerous elevator groups on Flickr, quickly reveals just how many elevators in the past handful of years have been removed not long after the photos on the various sites were taken.


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Until February 2010, the oldest elevator still in existence in western Canada was in the little burg of Fleming, Saskatchewan (the smallest community incorporated as a town in Canada, population 75) near the Manitoba border, dating back to 1895 .The elevator was long out of use but had been refurbished in recent years in recognition of its place in history and was the major tourist attraction in Fleming. Just a few months away from being reopened as a museum, it tragically burned to the ground in what was believed to be arson. Coincidentally, the Google Street View imagery of Fleming and its elevator went online that very week.


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Elevator rows (sets of four or more elevators at a single location) were a common sight across the Prairies, but are now all but lost to history. Containing five separate elevators, the Inglis Grain Elevators National Historic Site in Inglis, Manitoba is the only government-protected elevator row remaining in Canada, and one of just two rows left in total (a row of six elevators exists in Warner, Alberta but is unprotected and has lost many elevators already). The ‘Five Prairie Giants’ of Inglis date back to the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway line in 1922. The branch line is defunct, having closed in 1995 after four decades of threatened closures. Knowing that the end of the branch line would mean the end of the elevators’ working lives, residents of the village banded together to preserve the buildings and took over ownership of the elevators the next year, restoring them to their full glory as a tourist attraction. The row was declared a National Historic Site in 1996. A similar community-initiated grain elevator restoration project, and interpretative centre, the Canadian Grain Elevator Discovery Centre, exists at Nanton, Alberta, where three elevators from its row were saved.Other communities across the plains have also endeavoured to convert old elevators into tourist destinations such as museums and tea rooms.


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Without the protection enjoyed by the Inglis elevator row, the elevators of the Warner row are in decidedly worse condition from a superficial standpoint, although structurally sound. Three elevators have torn down since 1999 (hence the large gap between the five elevators on the south side of the railyard and the lonely United Grain Growers elevator on the north end), leaving six at the site. As with many elevators, most of the Warner row remains unmaintained despite appearing on the designated historic places register.


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Here at Arnegard, North Dakota, two elevators with annex silo and a conveyor belt stand by themselves, showing a fair bit of rust.


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This is the old United Grain Growers elevator (and outbuildings) in my grandfather’s hometown of Brookdale, Manitoba. Compare the elevator’s state in 2009 when this image was taken to its state in 2004 and you’ll notice how quickly it’s degrading.


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The elevator at White Bear, Saskatchewan (population 13 and home of the world-renowned White Bear Hotel, which is for sale and can be yours for less than six digits) does not appear to be long for this world. Have you ever seen a building as titled as that annex that hasn’t actually fallen over?


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Service at cost!


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Creston, British Columbia is one of just three communities in mountainous British Columbia that is home to a grain elevator, along with neighbouring Wynndel and, much further to the north, Dawson Creek. While Dawson Creek is actually located on the prairie as its sits to the east of the Rocky Mountains, Creston and Wynndel are right between the Selkirk and Purcell Mountains, located in one of the few valleys of southern British Columbia where large-scale grain growing is even possible. The two remaining elevators in Creston and the elevator in Wynndel date to the middle of the Great Depression, and the two in downtown Creston are in serious need of repair. Two of Creston’s elevators were demolished in 2007 to make way for a new housing development.The elevator in Wynndel is planned to be demolished by its owner, the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Speaking of Dawson Creek, this was the scene at one of its elevators in 2007, as the Pioneer/Louis-Dreyfus elevator, a relatively new edifice built in 1978, met its fate in a fire.Fires are a severe hazard in grain elevators.With such a large amount of very fine grain and flour dust in the air trapped inside the elevator, spontaneous combustion is a surprisingly common occurrence. The wooden building frames serve to accelerate the fires. The deadliest grain elevator explosion occurred in 1878 in Minneapolis, killing 18 people.

When it comes time to destroy old elevators, some are set ablaze and used as target practice for local fire departments. Others are destroyed using heavy machinery, such as the above elevator in Mendham, Saskatchewan.

Feudal Elevator Delivery Point

Source: Just a Prairie Boy, http://www.flickr.com/photos/justaprairieboy/3946411827/. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) licence.

In many instances, even in the most decrepit of conditions, the old wooden elevators have outlasted the town they served. Above is the abandoned shell of the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool elevator at Feudal, Saskatchewan. The elevator can be seen on the horizon for kilometres in any direction; one of the few indications that there was ever a town here at all.


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This massive elevator at Val Marie, Saskatchewan was built by the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool in 1967 and carries the Canadian Centennial logo on top. It needs a paint job to be certain, but is still in use.


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While the future looks bleak for many elevators, some are still in heavy use every day. Just look at how much the elevator in tiny Hargrave, Manitoba has been added onto the years even with a town population in the single digits. The original elevator can barely be made out!Hopefully in the near future we’ll see more stories like those of Inglis and Hargrave instead of Fleming and Mendham.

Further Reading

Inglis Heritage Committee (2007). Inglis Grain Elevators National Historical Site. Available at http://www.ingliselevators.com/features.html. Accessed 9 September 2011.

Irvine, D. (2011). Vanishing Landmarks. Available at http://www.dniwebdesign.com/vl/index.php. Accessed 9 September 2011.

Johnson, D. (n.d.). The Grain Elevators. Creston Valley Insurance. Available at http://www.crestoninsurance.com/the-grain-elevators.html. Accessed 9 September 2011.

Kopan, K. (2007). Pioneer grain terminal in Dawson Creek destroyed in huge fire. Peace River Block Daily News, 13 July 2007. Available at http://vanishingsentinels.blogspot.com/2007/07/pioneer-louis-dreyfus-elevator-in.html. Accessed 9 September 2011.

MacDonald, J. (2011). The Grain Elevators of Western Canada. Your Railway Pictures. Available at http://yourrailwaypictures.com/GrainElevators/. Accessed 9 September 2011.

Pacholik, B. (2010). Fire destroys historic grain elevator in Fleming. Regina Leader-Post, 9 February 2010. Available at http://www.vancouversun.com/news/Fire+destroys+historic+grain+elevator+Fleming/2541738/story.html. Accessed 9 September 2011.

Pearson, J.A. (2009). Vanishing Sentinels: Saskatchewan. Available at http://web.me.com/difdbs/Vanish_W_Sask/Welcome.html. Accessed 9 September 2011.

Storey, G. (2006).Grain elevators. The Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan. Available at http://esask.uregina.ca/entry/grain_elevators.html. Accessed 9 September 2011.

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