I can see grain elevators in the background of an old black-and-white snapshot I have of a bunch of us kids on the town swings on a patch of grass near the railroad tracks. The husband of my grade one teacher was an elevator agent. I think I remember that as a four-elevator town. I have old snapshots of both sets of grandparents with elevators in the background. My family moved to Winnipeg, the big city, when I was in grade school. I missed the prairie small towns where I had lived. In art class I once painted a picture of a row of elevators and telephone poles on a flat plain in front of a beautiful coloured sunset. It was my iconic prairie picture.
I thought of this recently after reading a newspaper story about the purchase of grain-marketing companies in Regina and Winnipeg. I’m no financial expert, and, personally, since I have lived in both Winnipeg and Regina, I have no preferences. I know enough Canadian history to know that Winnipeg and the Richardsons have been big in the grain trade since the early 20th Century, at least. On the other hand, Saskatchewan’s long journey along the twisting, turning road to prosperity allows me to root for that province as well.
What really attracted my attention, however, was a picture of some grain elevators in a Saskatchewan town that must have been taken last week. I see rather elegant rounded towers, possibly concrete, attached to each other in a group. Well, they do seem to be standing in the middle of a flat plain near some smaller buildings, and there does seem to be some lovely fading sunlight around them. But these are not the prairie grain elevators of my childhood!
So I got onto the internet do some research. I learned that the elevators I remember, the square ones, something like a tall house with a smaller peaked-roof house on top were called “cribbed” construction elevators, built of wooden slats called “wood-crib”. Apparently that design was also built only in Western Canada between the end of the 19th century and the 1930s. I found many pictures of the elevators I remember, and stories describing them as an “iconic “ image of the Western Canadian prairies. So I’m not alone as a former prairie girl in whose memory grain elevators are iconic features in small town memories.
I also learned that grain elevators were first invented in the 1840s by an engineer, Robert Dunbar and a grain merchant, Joseph Dart, based in Buffalo, New York. They moved grain back and forth through the Atlantic coast, the Erie Canal and the central plains area of the U.S. The major change with this invention was the “marine tower” and its “leg” which, basically, scooped grain up from a ship, farm wagon or, later, truck and carried it in “cups” up into a huge storage area. Then it could later be loaded into ship’s holds or railroad cars for further transportation. Before the invention of this elevator, grain was moved and carried in bags loaded on trollies and the backs of working men.
When you think about the settlement of the Canadian prairies, the connections of grain elevators with the railways becomes immediately obvious. There is no Erie Canal from the flat plains of central Canada. As soon as you start to study the history of the opening of the prairies, the Lake Superior grain ports, which were once called Port Arthur and Fort William and are now Thunder Bay, become important. The grain had to be transported from the plains of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta to the ships on the shores of the great thundering bay, in order to send it to larger markets in bigger cities in the U.S. and Europe. The history of the grain elevators and the railways become tied up together. Research into the history of the prairie elevators brings up names such as George Stephen and Sir William Van Horne who worked with John A. Macdonald in building the CPR across the prairies, and Mackenzie and Mann who built the Canadian Northern Railway in Ontario. The Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan notes that the early “wood-crib” construction was a standard set by the CPR as a condition of grain merchants obtaining a licence to build an elevator along the CPR tracks. Farmers brought the grain by wagon or truck, the vehicle was weighed before and after, the grain was loaded into the elevator to be later poured through a pipe into a railroad car and transported east for sale.
This early period of grain elevators, the railways, the settling of the prairies and the development of the grain trade continued through the First World War. In the 1920s farmers’ co-operatives also began to enter the business. As I read this part of the history, I recall other iconic names from my childhood, the Pool name on the sides of many small-town elevators, just above the names of the towns we drove through and the name United Grain Growers. A book written by W.A. Irwin in 1929 described this period as follows: “The pool is the world’s largest farm, the world’s largest shipper of wheat, the Biggest Business in Canada – and it was built by the Man Behind the Plow”. It mattered to those involved.
There are also museums, and I have to say that I am really happy to hear that. One of them is in Inglis, Manitoba, and has been declared a National Historic Site of Canada. The internet picture shows a row of five elevators lined up alongside a railroad track. The track is described as the “former” Canadian Pacific Railway track. Another is the Searle Grain Company Grain Elevator Site Complex in Rowley, Alberta. This site is located adjacent to two other elevators, the United Grain Growers and the Alberta Wheat Pool elevators, and these also form a row of elevators with vestiges of rail bed.
The Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village, near Edmonton, also has an elevator that was apparently owned by the Searle family and then was bought out by the Saskatchewan and Alberta Wheat Pools in the 1970s. By then the number of “wood-crib” elevators was declining. The rural world of the prairies was changing, as everything does. Fortunately, some museums preserve the iconic memories of an earlier, and amazing, time when the Western Canadian prairies were settled.