How have Grain Elevators evolved through time and what is their use today?
Story by Lee Hart

Consider that at the turn of the last century (late 1800s / early 1900s), the most common means for farmers to get their grain sold involved the back-breaking job of shovelling grain into two-bushel burlap sacks and then dumping those bags into a railway boxcar. Any idea that improved the process was a good one.

So when the first commercial grain elevator appeared on the scene in the late 1870s - it was an odd looking short, round structure that held about 25,000 bushels, built by German-speaking Mennonite settlers at Niverville in southern Manitoba - the proverbial seed was planted to find a better way to handle, store and move grain.

As the 1900s approached, improved designs for grain handling began to emerge. Largely influenced by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) - the first major transporter responsible for collecting and transporting Western Canadian grain to market - a "standard plan" for grain elevator design was developed. The CPR, for the sake of efficiency, was demanding that these vertical warehouses be built. The company offered free land rental beside its tracks and encouraged private companies to build standard 25,000 bushel elevators.

The first of the standard plan elevators were fifty to sixty feet tall with mechanisms powered by steam or diesel engines. W.W. Ogilvie Milling Company is believed to have built the first standard-plan elevator in Gretna, Manitoba in 1881. The main storage structure was constructed of dimensional lumber for strength, with the boards stacked or cribbed with overlapping corners. Bulk grain was delivered to and dumped into a receiving pit, while an endless cup conveyor carried grain up and through the structure (known as a leg) where the grain was deposited into various bins. While there were always ongoing improvements to the inner workings of the elevators, the concept and external design of grain elevators remained relatively unchanged for more than seventy years.

As settlement and grain production spread across the prairies, so did the emergence of what's often been referred to as the "the prairie sentinels" or "the prairie icons" - the standard plan grain elevator. As grain companies and producer-owned, grain handling and marketing co-operatives known as "pools" developed, they all needed a presence along the rail line to handle their customers' grain. That led to most prairie villages and towns having what was known as elevator row. Elevator row was a section of siding connected to the main rail line either within or near the centre of town with two, three, four or more elevators owned by respective companies. The community of Vulcan in southern Alberta is believed to have held the record with twelve elevators in its elevator row in 1956.

Starting with only a handful in 1900, by 1933 there were as many as 5,758 elevators across Western Canada. That number held fairly true, with a few losses over the years, as Statistics Canada reports 5,348 primary elevators in 1958. But the decline was starting. By 1977 the number had dropped to 3,739.

The long-standing primary, country prairie elevator became the casualty of progress and efficiency. Elevator design and capacities began to change. In the 1970s, for example, the then Alberta Wheat Pool experimented with a different concrete structure known as the Buffalo Sloped Bin with capacity to hold 170,000 bushels or more. Railways were switching from boxcars to hopper-style rail cars for moving grain - elevators needed improved loading facilities.

Another major factor was that rural western Canada had for several decades been depopulating - towns and villages were losing their populations. Road systems and truck transportation had improved. Farms became fewer but larger. As this was happening rail companies began looking for improved operational efficiencies, earmarking thousands of miles of branch lines for closure.

In the 1990s, again, fewer, larger amalgamated grain companies turned to building high-capacity, concrete silo grain terminals that could handle 30,000 to 50,000 metric tonnes of grain and be able to load fifty or more rail cars in a day. The heyday of the country elevator had drifted into the proverbial sunset.

Today it is estimated there are only a few hundred of the old wooden prairie elevators still standing across Western Canada. Some are just abandoned, others have been sold to local farmers, while many have been converted into museums, or community arts centres and meeting facilities.

The demise of the country elevator - being almost able to see the next elevator row from one community to the next - is clearly a by-gone era... but it doesn't mean the grain has stopped moving. In their stead is a network of some 340 high volume primary grain handling facilities across Western Canada with capacity to handle about eight million tonnes of prairie grain, oilseed and pulse crop commodities. As these facilities can load a hopper car in a matter of minutes, grain shovels and burlap sacks have been relegated to a footnote in history. ?

As a journalist for more than 40 years, Lee Hart has focused on reporting on and commenting about the Canadian agriculture industry for the past 30 years. A former field editor for Country Guide Magazine, he has been a writer and editor for Grainews for the past 15 years - based in Calgary, AB.