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January 11, 2018: A Disappearing Prairie Icon


Grain elevators, prairie sentinels, prairie cathedrals -- all synonyms for the large structures that have dotted the Canadian prairies for more than a century.  I recall when traveling across the plains as a boy, you could spot these wooden towers at great distances -- often 20 or more miles away -- providing welcome relief to the otherwise flat landscape.  Each elevator was a storage facility that marked the location of a prairie town; the larger and more plentiful elevators were in a given location, the larger and more prosperous the town.

elevator 2

The business of the prairies is agriculture and mechanisms needed to be developed to get the bountiful grain crops to world markets.  After some experimentation with bagging the grain, it was soon discovered the most efficient way to get prairie crops to market was in bulk and via the railways.  Elevators were always built on a railroad spur and farmers would transport their grain by truck or wagon to their nearest elevator for storage.  Soon thereafter the grain was uploaded into train boxcars and transported to port cities (Vancouver, Churchill and Thunder Bay) where it would be loaded onto ships and sent around the world.

elevator 3

In time, metal and concrete annexes were added to the old wooden elevators, increasing their storage capacity.  These had the advantage of being nearly impervious to insects and rodents and, although more expensive initially, their low maintenance and longevity caused the grain elevator market to move in that direction.  While it makes good business sense, this caused a change in the prairie landscape.  Many of the older wooden grain elevators were torn down and replaced with huge concrete and metal monstrosities that tower over the land.  To me they have less asthetic appeal, but I understand they are an improvement to the overall agriculture industry.

elevator 5
(hybrid of older elevator structure and modern annexes)

elevator 6

Fortunately there is a move to preserve some of the older grain elevators, like the ones you see at the top of this post, so I am hopeful they will not entirely disappear.

elevator 7
(modern grain elevator complex)


Images (6)
  • Old style prairie grain elevator, Nanton
  • Old style prairie grain elevators, Nanton
  • Hybrid grain elevator, Moose Jaw
  • Hybrid grain elevator, Dunmore
  • Hybrid grain elevator, Dunmore
  • Modern grain elevator, St. Agathe

Twitter: @DrFumblefinger

"We do not take a trip, a trip takes us".  John Steinbeck, from Travels with Charlie

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