Grain elevators, which have been variously referred to as prairie icons, prairie cathedrals or prairie sentinels, are a visual symbol of western Canada.
Grain elevators, which have been variously referred to as prairie icons, prairie cathedrals or prairie sentinels, are a visual symbol of western Canada. Numbering as many as 5758 in 1933, elevators have dominated the prairie landscape for more than a century with every hamlet, village and town boasting its row of them, a declaration of a community's economic viability and a region's agricultural strength.
As the first step in a grain trading process that moves the grain from producer to worldwide markets, the grain elevator was a strictly utilitarian building, designed to receive, store and ship grain in bulk. At first considered to be "nothing to inspire delight," it was French architect Le Corbusier who, in 1922, hailed the elevator's stark simplicity and unadorned geometric shape as the ultimate example in architecture of form following function.
Building the Standard Elevator SystemThe logistical problem of getting producers' grain into railway boxcars was first addressed by farmers shovelling their grain into 2-bushel sacks which they then transported to a loading platform along the rail line. There, they emptied the sacks into a waiting boxcar, a back-breaking and time- consuming job. The industry needed a means of storing and shipping grain quickly, and small, one-storey wood frame warehouses erected by farmers were inefficient. The CANADIAN PACIFIC RAILWAY (CPR) demanded larger, vertical warehouses that could take advantage of the fluidity of grain especially when acted upon by gravity. To elevate the grain a mechanism known as the "leg" was devised, an endless belt with cups or scoops attached. It was the leg that gave the name to and determined the shape of the grain elevator.
By offering free land rental the railway encouraged private companies to build standard 25 000-bushel elevators complete with a leg driven by a steam or gasoline engine and equipment to clean grain. The hundreds of standard grain elevators built to these specifications ensured the uniformity of the cultural landscape.
Canadian flour milling companies were the first businesses to respond to the railway's offer. As settlement spread quickly westward, other companies - many of them American, such as the National Elevator Company and Searle Grain Company - negotiated with either the CPR or the CANADIAN NORTHERN RAILWAY and the GRAND TRUNK PACIFIC RAILWAY to build elevators along a line of railway. National built only along CPR lines while Searle built along those of the Canadian Northern. As the number of these "line" companies and their elevators grew, producers suspected collusion between the railway and elevator companies. The Grain Growers' Grain Company (later called United Grain Growers) in 1906 was quickly followed by farmer co-operatives in Saskatchewan and Alberta, which undertook the construction of their own elevators. With the formation of these pools in all 3 provinces by 1924, the number of elevators took another leap forward. (SeeGRAIN GROWERS' ASSOCIATIONS.)
Types of ElevatorsDespite the CPR's demand for standard elevators, there was considerable variation in profile, height and storage capacity of the earliest elevators, especially in Manitoba. The first grain elevator, a wooden, silo-like building, was constructed in 1879 by William Hespeler at Niverville. A more familiar form made its appearance in 1881 at Gretna when Ogilvie Milling Company built a wooden, square, 25 000-bushel elevator. While companies like Ogilvie preferred an elevator with a pyramidal roof and a centrally located pyramidal-roofed cupola, others opted for an offset cupola. Yet other companies chose a gable roof with a gable-roofed cupola. Although some companies in Saskatchewan and Alberta preferred a pyramidal- roofed elevator and cupola, by the 1920s most companies were building the standard, or traditional, 30 - 40 000-bushel elevator with a gable roof and a gable-roofed cupola. Dimensions varied according to bushel capacity but were typically 33 x 32 feet, which gave the elevator a height of more than 80 feet. No other building dominated the skyline as did the elevator.
Annexes, permanent and temporary, were built to add storage capacity. Rectangular wood crib annexes, usually with a gable roof, were designed as permanent facilities. Most were constructed as separate buildings but, in the late 1920s, some were adjoined to the elevator. Early crib annexes held approximately 30-35 000 bushels; those built in the 1950s held 60 000 bushels. Another permanent type of annex was the twin elevator, an older, smaller elevator that was moved alongside a newer, larger elevator. Many older elevators escaped demolition by being twinned.
The balloon annex, which appeared in the 1920s, was designed as a temporary facility. A one-storey wood frame building, it was constructed of 2" x 8"s strengthened by 2 or 3 rows of 6" x 6" strong backs. Not as sturdily built as crib annexes, these tended to sag after a time - hence the term "balloon." Also temporary was the loxstave annex, which was built during World War II. Its octagonal structure of tongue and groove 2" x 6"s dovetailed in the corners was not as strong as other annex types and has largely disappeared from the landscape.
A more recent annex type is the metal bin. Typically holding 30 000 bushels, bins became common in the 1970s. Not compartmentalized as are other annexes, metal bins are most cost effective for large volumes of a single type and quality of grain.
Building a Traditional Elevator
All elevators, despite variations in shape and bushel capacity, shared 3 architectural elements: the elevator, the driveway and the office/engine room. Grain companies drew up building plans but often contracted out the construction.
A dozen men might be needed to build an elevator. The crew would arrive on site prepared to stay a month or more. Its first job was to lay the cement foundation pads, followed by the walls. Because grain can weigh up to 60 pounds a bushel it was extremely important that the elevator be made strong enough to withstand the lateral pressure placed on the bin walls. Wood crib construction employing either 2" x 6"s or 2" x 8"s laid flat and spiked together on the lower walls and 2" x 4"s on the upper section gave the elevator its formidable strength. As they built the walls the crew had to be careful not to "miss the cribbing" or let one side get ahead of the other in the overlap sequence. If this happened, the timbers had to be pried apart and the crew started over. Once finished, they nailed on wood siding and sawed the overlapping corners flush. Some companies preferred metal sheeting to wood siding. The crew's last job was to paint the entire structure. Until the late 1960s all elevators were painted CPR red except those that were metal clad. Afterwards, companies chose corporate colours to identify their elevators.
The driveway, built separately from the elevator, was of frame construction. Because elevators ride up and down according to the weight of the grain inside, a "telescope" or framed sleeve was constructed 24 inches above the driveway roof to allow the elevator to rise or fall independently of the driveway.
The office, typically measuring 18 feet x 22 feet, was located about 20 feet from the elevator. The engine for the elevator equipment was located in the basement. The risk of fire meant that most offices were metal clad; some were made of brick.
Elevators were constantly upgraded as new technologies were introduced. Original gasoline engines were replaced with electrical equipment; truck-dumping mechanisms were improved; larger scales and larger and longer movable loading spouts to facilitate the loading of hopper cars were installed; wooden legs were replaced with metal ones; and new driveways to accommodate longer trucks were constructed.
A town's Railway Avenue boasted an architectural landscape that included a row of elevators, railway stations, water towers, pump houses, stockyards and freight-loading ramps. All were indicative of a way of life that revolved around prairie rail transportation. The first of these structures, the elevator, is the last element to have survived.
Consolidation of delivery points in the late 1950s made the construction of larger facilities necessary. Wood composite elevators incorporated annexes for a capacity of about 175 000 bushels. Their familiar design and location along elevator row ensured that they blended into their communities. They were built until the mid-1980s.
The first major change in elevator design came in the late 1970s. Experimenting with new designs and new materials, the ALBERTA WHEAT POOL constructed a 170 000-bushel pre-cast concrete "Buffalo slope" elevator at Magrath, Alberta, in 1979, followed in 1982 by a "Buffalo 2000" built at Lyalta. A 90 000-bushel steel elevator with 2 steel bins of 30 000 bushels each was built at Etzikom, Alberta, in the 1980s.
In the 1990s grain companies concentrated on building slip- form concrete silo Agro centres designed as high capacity, high throughput terminals. Handling close to 50 000 tonnes, these behemoths can load a hopper car in less than 10 minutes, ensuring that an entire train of 52 cars can be loaded in a single day. This capability means that the terminals have to be built far beyond town limits.
Contemporary IssuesOnce rising above the horizon every 8 to 10 miles, a day's travel for a farmer using a horse and wagon, the grain elevator is fast disappearing. As early as the 1930s, falling farm incomes led to rural depopulation. In the 1950s, rising expectations, improved roads and mechanized farm equipment accelerated this trend. Although the rail network and the primary elevator system remained stable, fewer people working larger farms meant that many small branch lines became unprofitable. Rail companies sought permission to abandon them. In 1977, the Hall Commission recommended the abandonment of large sections of the rail network. Deregulation of the railways and the demise of the Crow Rate in 1996 have led to major rail line abandonments. Amalgamation of grain companies and "saw-offs," the sale or swap of elevators to mutual maximum advantage, have also reduced the number of elevators.
Demolition firms hired by grain companies use track hoes and occasionally explosives to bring down the elevators. For communities there is a real sense of loss. The smaller the community the greater the tax base the elevators represent, and so an elevator demolition can result in serious economic stress.
Bleak though the prognosis might be for the survival of the traditional grain elevator, not all elevators will disappear. Prior to the 1990s a number were sold to producers for personal storage. Companies re-adapted others to bulk fertilizer storage. Today, heritage groups are looking to preserve their elevators, recognizing that demolition is symbolic of the passing of a way of life. Preservation, though, is not an easy task. Neither grain nor rail companies tolerate protracted negotiations. Communities often lack planning and money, resulting in many waking one morning to find demolition crews already at work.
Despite these hurdles, a dozen communities in Alberta have saved their elevators. Historic designation programs offer incentives to individuals and groups seeking to maintain the built heritage of their communities. In Manitoba, for instance, the federal government has designated as a National Historic Site a row of 5 elevators at Inglis.
What Goes On Inside an Elevator1: Grain trucks are driven onto a receiving scale in the driveway.
2: The grain is dumped into the pit, or boot.
3: The agent selects a bin and starts the motor that powers the leg.
4: As the grain is carried over the head of the leg it is dumped into the distributor. The agent directs it to the appropriate bin spout that sends the grain into a pre-selected bin.
5: To ship grain, the agent opens a bin so the grain runs into the back pit. The grain is then re-elevated and deposited into an overhead bin. From there it is dumped into the garner and hopper scale for weighing. The grain is then lowered into the back pit from where it is re-elevated and dropped into the car spout.
Inside the office, the agent conducts dockage and moisture tests to determine the grade of grain and writes a ticket or receipt as payment to the producer. The agent is almost constantly busy. Over the years he has handled many different products in addition to grain--fruit and vegetables, binder twine, oils and greases, barged wire, coal, flour, and lumber. At the new Agro centres, agents also sell fertilizers and herbicides.
Terry Johnson and Brian Milne, "Twilight of a Prairie Icon," Canadian Geographic (September/October 1997); Lisa Mahar-Keplinger, Grain Elevators (1993); Brock Silversides, Prairie Sentinel: The Story of the Canadian Grain Elevator (1997).