Rural grain elevators — silent sentinels vanishing from the prairies


by Bruce Cherney (part 1) 
The image is indelibly etched into people's minds — a tall unbending sentinel stretching skyward abruptly emerges at the edge of a wheat field whose grain-laden heads bow before the wind. It is the only large structure to break the monotony of this ocean of grain and grass. Its whiteness or deep red offers a stark contrast to the golden ripening wheat or the yellow of canola flowers. On the side facing on-coming railway traffic, large black, block letters, proudly proclaimed the community it served. 
For decades, the country elevator has been synonymous with the prairies, but today it is very much in decline. It's symptomatic of our times that bigger has become better, and the wood-crib-style country elevator is being replaced by concrete high-volume, high-throughput elevators in central locations. Still, the country elevator is deeply entrenched in the history of the Prairies, harkening back to a time when wheat was king, and farmers called it “prairie gold.” And if wheat was king on the prairies, grain elevators stood over the golden domain as the symbolic guardians of its monarchy.
The elevators have been called by various symbolic names, such as “castles of the New World,” “prairie giants,” “Gibraltars of the  prairies,” “towers of silence,” and “silent sentinels of the prairies.”
The traditional wooden elevators owe their origin to an era when the initial attempts were made to turn the prairies into a commercially-viable grain-growing region. The farmers in the fledgling province of Manitoba made their first shipment of wheat to an eastern market in 1876. It wasn’t much — a mere 857 bushels — but it was the harbinger of large-scale shipments to the four corners of the globe. 
The shipment of red fife was assembled by Higgins & Young of Winnipeg for Steele Brothers of Toronto, who had found themselves short of seed after a poor Ontario harvest. 
Upon arrival, R.C. Steele met David Young of Higgins & Young “Dealers in Boots and Shoes, Crockery and Glassware.” Hardly the type of company one would associate with wheat, but the firm accepted the commission to collect 5,000 bushels of wheat. 
From October 13 to 21, 1876, Higgins & Young placed the following advertisement in the Manitoba Free Press: "Cash for choice wheat for export to Ontario ... 80 cents per bushel." 
With so much cash offered, farmers scrambled to fill bags with as much wheat as they felt they could spare. G.R. Miller of Kildonan managed 204 bushels, making him the largest contributor. All 857 bushels and 10 pounds was tied into 412 bags for shipment to Toronto. 
The fact that Manitoba was able to grow quality wheat created quite a stir in the East. It renewed interest in westward settlement, and other merchants were eager to purchase more wheat from the province. 
In the next year, 20,000 bushels were collected for shipment to Liverpool, England, another sign of the future of the agricultural enterprise, as most of the wheat grown on the prairies was later destined for export.
All the early trade in grain was conducted by general merchants as a sideline to their normal retail operations. 
It is felt that the first merchant to deal exclusively in grain was W. J .S. Traill in 1879. In 1880, the Winnipeg Directory showed six grain dealers in Winnipeg, two in Portage la Prairie, one in High Bluff and another in Niverville. 
Prior to the city’s connection to the United States by railway in 1878, grain transportation was usually by ox cart to Winnipeg and then by steamboat to Fisher’s Landing, Minnesota. From there, the wheat was sent by rail to Duluth where it was loaded onto a lake vessel and shipped to Sarnia. It’s last leg was another rail journey to Toronto.
But the grain trade really took off when the CPR’s transcontinental railway arrived in 1881. By 1883, the line extended from Fort William at the head of Lake Superior, through Winnipeg and beyond to Regina, providing an all-Canadian route for the export of grain. 
The first prairie grain to cross the Great Lakes was on the barge Erin, chartered by James Richardson & Sons of Kingston, Ontario, with its eventual destination being the overseas market. This family would later rank among Winnipeg’s business elite and have a major stake in the success of the grain market. 
Eventually, Richardson elevators were incorporated into the Pioneer line, with Richardson family members serving as company presidents. By 1921, Pioneer elevators numbered over 100. 
Today, the Richardson-owned Pioneer Grain Company Limited is the largest private elevator company in the West. By comparison, the UGG operates about 75 per cent of all the elevators that remain and is now a public company. 
Ironically, the United Grain Growers Limited, which started out as the Grain Growers' Grain Company, had nothing to do with elevators. It was only after the Manitoba government's inept foray into the elevator business that the UGG (name change in 1917) came to own elevators. 
The first train carrying Western wheat was shipped from Portage la Prairie to Fort William for trans-shipment to Montreal and Liverpool in 1885. 
It was in this period that the ubiquitous grain elevators that came to symbolize the Prairie landscape got their start. At first, they were little more than temporary storage sheds. After 1879, grain merchants built flat warehouses and elevators to store their grain. 
The first elevator in Western Canada was built in 1879 in Niverville, Manitoba, and was financed by William Hespeler, who was instrumental in bringing Mennonites to the province in 1874, men and women who knew from their experiences in Eastern Europe how to work the hard prairie soil. The elevator was a round structure, not the typical four-sided structure that one now associates with the prairies. The grain elevator was built by a railway siding and operated until 1904. It held up to 25,000 bushels of grain.
The first square elevator was reputed to have been built in 1881 by A.W. Oglivie & Company in Gretna, Manitoba, and was patterned after similar American structures. “This type utilized an endless cup conveyor, known as a leg, to raise the grain, which was dumped into a pit from the farmer’s wagon, to bins from which it could be more easily loaded by spouts and gravity into boxcars, placed alongside the building” (Small Farmers, Big Business, and the Battle over the “Prairie Sentinel,” by Karen Nicholson, Manitoba History, Spring/Summer 2003).
The elevators were initially built about 16 kilometres apart to accommodate the travel of a single farmer’s wagon to the elevator and return to the farm over the course of a day. The wagons were weighed in a driveway on a scale before the grain was dumped into the front pit and then re-weighed after emptied to determine the weight of the grain delivered.
(Next week: part 2)