In the Beginning:
When my grandfather homesteaded in 1909 in what was to become the Meyronne district, there were no roads, there was no railroad. Everything – mail, groceries, supplies, harness, wagon repairs, even machinery – had to be freighted from the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) mainline to the north, three days one way northeast to Moose Jaw or two days one way northwest to Morse. And yes, the grain the farmers grew also had to be freighted by horse and wagon over those same routes to either Moose Jaw or Morse.
That changed when the CPR, in 1912, started building the line from Weyburn clear across the province to Shaunavon. The “steel” arrived at Meyronne on September 3, 1913. Everyone was ecstatic. No more long-distance freighting. Now everything, including passengers, came and went by train.
Right behind the railroads came the grain companies building elevators to buy and ship wheat. Names like Patterson, Federal, UGG (United Grain Growers), Saskatchewan Cooperative Elevator, Parrish and Heimbecker, Pioneer, Olgivie’s, Blanchard’s, Province, Saskatchewan Wheat Pool – these and others were familiar to every town, to every farmer.
Grain elevators stood out on the prairie, visible for miles, hence the nicknames “Prairie Sentinel” and “Prairie Giants.” They were massive structures, standing 150 feet tall; the later ones, even taller. They were built of old-growth fir 2″x4″s, laid on the flat and nailed together with 6″ spikes. Within that giant structure was a belt with scoops that lifted the grain from the receiving hopper up to an assemblage of distributing spouts that poured the grain into vertical bins. The “annex,” a secondary storage bin, was built likewise, and reinforced round-about with 2″x6″s to withstand the tremendous pressure of the hundreds of thousands of bushels of grain stored within them.
Grain elevators were symbols of hard work, of perseverance in the face of adversity, of wealth and prosperity. They defined the prairie economy and skyline. Saskatchewan billed itself as the “Breadbasket of the World,” and a line of elevators every six or seven miles gave credence to that motto. Towns took great pride in their “Elevator Row.” Every town had at least three elevators, some as many as a dozen. The greater the number of elevators, the more the townspeople boasted.
Every child growing up in a prairie town has memories of those grain elevators. Here are two.
A trip to the elevator always began with Dad coming into the house and announcing, “Quota’s open.” A one-bushel quote meant he could sell one bushel of wheat for every acre of wheat he had planted. He hauled the auger to the granary and loaded the old blue International 3/4 ton truck full to the brim. I got to go with him, a special treat when you are ten or so. We drove the 1/4 mile into town, clunk-clunked across the railroad track and along the dirt trail paralleling the railroad, past the Co-op Bulk Station where farmers bought diesel and oil and “purple” gas (therein lies another tale) and up the gangway into the elevator and onto the grate and scale.
To my ten-year-old mind, the elevator was a place of wonder and mystery encompassed by ritual. We got out of the truck. Dad and Mr. McCaslin, the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool Elevator operator, chatted about anything and everything – they were probably solving the problems of the world – while Mr. McCaslin weighed the truck and jotted the result into a book. That done, he said, “Okay, you can dump now.” Dad opened the hatch on the back of the box – if I was really lucky, I would be given that honour – and then activated the truck hoist. As the box rose up, the grain poured out through the grate into, into where? I stared down into the grate, trying to see where the grain was going. All I knew was that it was pouring into some dark mysterious place and somehow it was lifted up into the bins above. But which bin? How did Mr. McCaslin know where it was going? Meanwhile, he held his scoop under the golden stream until it was full and then dumped it into another scale. A bushel of wheat at optimum dryness weighs 60 pounds (forgive me using old-fashioned imperial measures but in the mid-1950s we knew nothing of metric). If that bushel weighs less, it is because it is contaminated with weed seeds. The weight of that measure determined how much the load was worth. That bit of information also was jotted down.
Once the last of the wheat was scraped out of the box, Mr. McCaslin weighed the truck again, the final figure needed to determine the value of the wheat we had just delivered. Truck full – truck empty = weight of grain / weight of one bushel (as measured above) = total number of bushels x price per bushel = a grain cheque and money in the bank! Who knew an elevator agent had to be a math whiz?
Mr. McCaslin’s son, David, remembers:
“Back then, grain was shipped in wooden box cars with sliding doors on the side. The doors had to be “coopered”, i.e., sealed so no grain could leak out. I have a lot of great memories about “coopering”! It was my first job as a teenager. My Dad (the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool) paid me $1.00 per car to “cooper.” A dollar’s pay for 45 minutes of work was big bucks for a thirteen-year old, way back in the day.
Dad would sometimes get five to ten boxcars at time. Having to stop and “cooper” the next car greatly slowed the process. I got quite skilled at it. Although it was pretty straight forward, it had to be done 100% correctly.
The CPR provided prebuilt slabs the width of the doors. Each slab weighed about 25-30 pounds and each door required about six to eight slabs. The process of loading slabs into the car and then nailing them in place took about 45 minutes. After the slabs were securely in place, the whole section was covered in sheets of industrial paper to ensure there was no leakage.
The last step was to get out of the boxcar after you had boarded up the doors. There was a two foot space at the top. You had to pull yourself up to the top (well over your head) and then slide sideways in order to get out.
Although it by no means qualified as a craft, I took great pride in it., The experience had a profound impact on my personal development. Among many things, it taught me about personal accountability, attention to detail and the importance of meeting deadlines. In hindsight, most significantly, it sparked the beginning of what became an adult relationship with my Dad.”
Grain elevators, like gambrel-roofed barns and church steeples, were such a part of the prairie landscape that we almost didn’t see them any more. Until they disappeared.
The 1950s and 1960s accelerated a decline that had begun during the Dirty Thirties. Highways were improved and now became the lifeline of prairie towns, replacing railways. Railway stations closed. Old people passed away and no young people took their place – they had fled to cities in search of education and work. Houses were shuttered. Businesses closed.
Many of the smaller grain companies had disappeared or been bought out by the big ones – Pioneer, Cargill and the Wheat Pool (now Agrium). By the 1990s, grain companies were building centralized monster concrete high-capacity inland grain terminals; they were more efficient and cost-effective. Farmers traded in their three-ton trucks and invested in semi-trailers to haul grain the 20, 30 or 40 miles to the terminal.
Some elevators are still in use. Some were purchased by farmers and moved to their farms where they continue to serve. A few others have been converted into museums. Some crumble in place, abandoned, rotting, falling apart, home to pigeons and rodents. Most were tipped over and burned, a raging conflagration so intense that the outsides of houses a quarter-mile away were hot to the touch. The few remaining townsfolk cried as they watched what had once been a source of pride reduced to a pile of ashes. It was the end of an era.
As the grain elevators disappeared, so did the villages, visually if not in fact. Now, as you drive through southern Saskatchewan, you can’t tell if that cluster of trees and houses a half-mile or so off the highway is what was once a town or is merely a very large farmstead.
To those of us who remember, that vacant space pains.
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