Like many Albertans, Stan Eichorn will never forget the tremendous screech of tearing wood as track hoes clawed at the heart of his community, or that moment of disbelief when Stettler’s Alberta Wheat Pool elevator eventually toppled. As the honeycomb of wood bins split open and dust rolled out in great choking plumes, he knew he was witnessing not only the loss of an icon but the end of an era.
So when Stettler’s 1925 Parrish and Heimbecker grain elevator and feed mill were slated for demolition in 2003, some eight years later, Eichorn took action – though “people questioned my sanity,” he says of his decision to buy the elevator and its coal shed, one of only two remaining in Alberta. “It was my 94-year-old uncle who told me what the shed actually was,” he admits, “and how grain elevator agents also sold coal that they weighed on the scale in the elevator.” A successful agrologist who returned to the family beef operation a decade ago, the energetic 60-year-old was struck by how quickly our collective memory can forget a way of life.
A spurt of elevator construction in the late 1920s signified the peak of Alberta’s agricultural boom, and by 1934, 1,755 elevators were dotted along the province’s rail lines, linking communities whose lives revolved around the grain industry. But by the late 1990s, branch rail-line closures, the end of the Crow Rate (fixed, pro-rated freight charges for transporting grain) and shifts in the industry’s economy of scale were signalling the demise of the wooden country elevator – that proud symbol of Alberta prairie and parkland. By 2005, less than 150 of the 27-metre-high behemoths loomed on their original sites, most of them inactive. Today, large, concrete, silo-type structures have, for the most part, replaced the traditional gable-roofed wooden grain elevators. The lonely relics of past glory that remain have either been modifed for continued use in the grain trade and are privately maintained by farmers or, in the case of only a precious few, are preserved as museums and interpretive centres. Still others stand weather-beaten and abandoned in various states of disrepair.
Mirroring Eichorn’s struggle against time, the town of Alliance is another important bulwark against a vanishing way of life in Alberta’s rural communities. Here, Agricore United still operates its traditional 75,000-bushel wooden elevator, built in 1957 by the Alberta Wheat Pool. “The Alliance elevator is certainly not obsolete,” says Gord Lewis, the town’s elevator agent for 35 years. “It pays its way, handling about a million bushels a year,” and enables locals such as Mary Wold to travel only 13 km to haul their grain, unlike farmers elsewhere. “We’re really happy about it,” says Wold as she dumps grain from her truck over the pit on the elevator’s work floor, just as she has done for decades. So is Alliance mayor Muriel Fankhanel, who notes that without the Agricore elevator, “taxes would go up.” Just as important, though, is that Alliance has preserved what has been lost elsewhere: the elevator as the soul of the community. This is what Stan Eichorn and others involved with Alberta’s burgeoning heritage grain elevator movement are fighting for. And thanks to their efforts, a growing number of restored symbols of rural pride are opening their doors to the public, each with its own story, history and memories.
The small community of Scandia took an early lead in resisting this loss of the past when, in the late 1980s, the local Eastern Irrigation District (EID) Society restored a 1927 Wheat Pool grain elevator on its original railway site as part of an outdoor agricultural museum. Today, EID board member Holly Johnson recounts how, in 1934, the Bow Slope Shipping Association built its stockyards near the town’s Alberta Wheat Pool elevator and how before the stockyard scale house was built, animals had to be weighed on the elevator’s scale. “Imagine flocks of sheep being driven up a ramp into the elevator while the men struggled to keep them corralled,” she chuckles. Its stories like these that bring history to life, she says, and why oral-history interviews with former elevator agents are so important.
Another success story can be found in Mossleigh, where three elevators owned by Parrish and Heimbecker (P&H) were meticulously maintained by elevator agent Reno Bexte, a fervent believer in the preservation of elevator history. When P&H wanted to close two of the three in 2000, Bexte encouraged his cousins Ian and Eric Donovan to purchase both, and “we jumped at the opportunity,” says Ian. “Out on the prairie, most of the old elevators are missing. But now, as you come over that hill, you see a little gem.” The Mossleigh structure is indeed a treasure, a minimally modified elevator row from the early 1930s. Painted the mustard shade characteristic of P&H, it has a rare, octagonal annex built for wartime storage in 1941. But the Donovans’ commitment in Mossleigh also set an example for others in the community. When P&H finally closed its doors here in 2006, management of the company’s third elevator was taken over by Monty Beagle, owner of nearby B&B Agriculture Service. And today, “we have a pact among the three of us,” says Ian Donovan: “None of them will ever go down.”
Stan Eichorn is not the only Alberta farmer to buy an elevator, either. A short distance northwest of Drumheller, on an abandoned branch rail line through Kirkpatrick, the Andrew family uses its 1928 Alberta Wheat Pool elevator – a dramatic silhouette against the stark landscape of the badlands – for grain storage. Farther north, in the lush parkland at Bentley, cars line up on the grass behind the now privately owned 1977 Alberta Wheat Pool elevator during the local fair and rodeo each August. The elevator acts as the movie screen for the community’s old-fashioned drive-in.
Unfortunately, given that grain companies prefer to demolish rather than sell their elevators, not all communities or individuals are successful in their attempts to preserve them. Those who are must generally overcome significant obstacles. So back in 2003, when Stan Eichorn first approached Parrish and Heimbecker about purchasing the Stettler feed mill and elevator (the last P&H-owned feed mill still standing in the province), he was delighted to find the company receptive. Specialists in the animal feed business, P&H opened the building in 1920, and its 80-kilogram bags of chop had been a mainstay of mixed farming in the area. But the mill had been closed for some time and, its equipment gone, was slated for demolition along with the elevator. The elevator’s machinery was in running condition, though, and Eichorn soon had a deal. The elevator was his for a dollar, and P&H threw in the $12,500 it would have spent on demolition to support Eichorn’s dream of turning it into an interpretive centre. Two years later, Eichorn founded the P&H Elevator Preservation Society, now 80 members strong, to take over ownership and development of the heritage site.
However, heritage designation of historic structures usually requires ownership of the land as well as the building, with the land on which grain elevators sit generally owned by a railway. And, as Eichorn has discovered, acquiring land from the CPR or CN can be a long and tortuous process. Still, he remains undeterred. “Somehow it’s going to work,” he says of his upcoming plan to buy the land from CN. For inspiration he turns to fellow elevator preservationist Bob Caine, who, starting in 2000, led the Alberta Legacy Development Society’s campaign to save the former Alberta Wheat Pool elevator at Leduc.
“It was pretty tense,” says Caine of the Leduc society’s struggle. “There were times when we thought we were done for, that there was no way around the financial obstacles.” First, the preservation group raised a $20,000 bond in the fall of 2000 for Agricore United to cover the company’s lease with the CPR. Caine then approached the CPR, a convoluted process that took him from Montreal to Winnipeg to Calgary. Finally, more than 12 months and $110,000 later (and after an arduous appraisal process and logistical complications that included easements to give the CPR access to the rail line and struggles to obtain mortgage loans and member loans with indefinite payback schedules), the society was able to buy the land and seek heritage designation. “It was nothing short of a miracle,” says Caine, who still takes delight in the fact that former premier Ralph Klein attended the elevator’s heritage designation ceremony on May 15, 2003.
Obviously, restoring an elevator and opening it to the public as a heritage site or museum is a major undertaking, one that requires vision, planning, stamina, perseverance – and money, lots of it. Yet communities are increasingly rallying behind their heritage elevators, and the provincial government – by way of the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation – is doing its part through significant funding for grain elevator conservation. But even so, says Eichorn, it remains a costly business, one best undertaken in phases with endless bouts of fundraising. As Ernie Halun, president of the group now in the process of preserving the Krause Milling Co. grain elevator at Radway, says, “We just take it one step at a time. We’ve cleaned the elevator and restored the exterior paintwork, hired a heritage consultant to research its history and prepare an interpretation plan. Next we need to raise funds to install sprinklers for fire suppression and to put the plan in place. Only then can we open our doors.”
Lorraine Foesier of the Rowley Community Association is equally familiar with the ups and downs inherent in the process of preserving grain elevators. “We were really rolling in 1988,” she notes, when the three grain elevators in Rowley – a tiny hamlet that is a museum in itself – were used as a backdrop for the Canadian film Bye Bye Blues. Back then, Stettler’s Alberta Prairie Railway Excursions train brought thousands of visitors to the town. But recently, the train’s route was shortened (its last stop is now Big Valley, 28 km away), problems with vandalism have been discouraging and Rowley’s elevators, designated as heritage buildings by the province in 2003, require immediate re-roofing. The timing is unfortunate. As Foesier points out, Alberta’s boom economy means the costs of meeting Canada’s national standards and guidelines for conservation “are rocketing and it is harder to find contractors to do the work.” Nonetheless, even after 20 years of fundraising and hard work, Foesier’s passion for grain elevators is infectious and her dedication unshakable. “Somebody has to look after them,” she declares.
Surprisingly, perhaps, there are people ready to do just that across Alberta. The geometric patterning of the solid-wood cribbing in Mayerthorpe’s 1966 Federal Grain Company elevator was what caught Doug McDermid’s attention the first time he saw its interior. Today, McDermid is president of the town’s Country Elevator Society, formed in 1997, and is working to restore the elevator and develop its annex as an interpretive space – with solar LED lights in the cupola to welcome evening travellers. Ninety-year-old Hilbert Lechelt, the town’s grain buyer from 1949 to 1974, is one of many residents who are more than happy about the project.
In its heyday, “it was a nice elevator,” Lechelt recalls, with bins that had hoppered bottoms – meaning the grain didn’t need to be shovelled as it did in the older elevator where he began his career. As for stories, “I’ve got plenty of them,” he adds, like the day a storage annex was moved alongside the elevator in 1972. “Do you know what they used to move it along the rails?” he asks. “Soap. And the kind that worked best was Ivory.”
Back in Stettler, Eichorn puts a pot of coffee on in the office where the agent once bought grain and farmers purchased supplies, discussed crops and the weather or played a round of crib. He knows his group has a decade-long project ahead, but “we’re in it for the long haul,” he insists. Phase one has seen the building stabilized and the roof’s cedar shingles and coal shed’s siding replaced. (“We spent two years finding drop-siding to match the original,” notes Eichorn.) Next up: two thirds of the roof and the flooring in the three-storey feed mill need replacing.
Although it’s still in the early planning stages, the mill floor will eventually serve as a display centre for showcasing the rich history and importance of agriculture in the area. Eichorn already knows that the elevator’s site in Stettler has one major advantage: the 25,000 people who ride the vintage Alberta Prairie Railway Excursions train each year who will hopefully visit the elevator as part of their heritage experience. As he sees it, “the grain elevator is a beacon: it attracts people to learning about the past.”
Historian and heritage consultant Judy Larmour lives on a grain farm near Rimbey.
The province-wide Alberta Grain Elevator Society (AGES) welcomes all new members; - the only qualification is an interest in grain elevators. The organization shares information, tackles technical conservation issues and promotes grain elevators as an educational venture and tourist attraction. “It’s grassroots network groups like AGES that are so important in advocating strategies and lobbying for financial support for the preservation of grain elevators as a national symbol,” notes Natalie Bull of the Heritage Canada Foundation, opening speaker at the AGES annual conference earlier this year. To sign up: http://www.grainelevators/alberta.ca
For more information about historic and currently operating grain elevators, the following communities are home to entertaining and enlightening museums and interpretive centres.
- St. Albert
- Big Valley
- Meeting Creek
- Paradise Valley
- Calgary Heritage Park
- Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village (Highway 16 east of Edmonton)
- Alberta Central Railway Museum (near Wetaskiwin)
- Heritage Acres Museum (north of Pincher Creek on Hwy 785)
For information about Alberta’s Grain Elevator Society (AGES), the province’s premier grain elevator preservation organization, visit www. grainelevatorsalberta.ca.