The small town of Leader was the first stop in our spring 2014 Saskatchewan grain elevator tour. Located in the southwest corner of the province not terribly far from the Alberta border, it’s home to one traditional wooden prairie sentinel. Under threatening skies we explore and document the building, the first of many we’d visit this five day long weekend. It was grain elevator nirvana and it started here.
At one time the Saskatchewan was home to some three thousand plus grain elevators, or approximately half those in all Western Canada. Today, that number has shrunk to just over five hundred. The majority are the traditional wooden elevators, some still in use, some abandoned, along with a number of concrete or steel inland terminals. We don’t have much interest in the latter at the moment, and rather came to document as many wooden examples as we could in the time we had (it was a hectic weekend). Compared to Alberta, which has perhaps two hundred and fifty examples, Saskatchewan, with almost double that, is a wooden grain elevator explorer’s dream.
The example seen in this report was built in 1966 for the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool. That company, formed in the mid-1920s, ceased to be in 2007. That year they purchased rival Agricore United (from an earlier amalgamation of the Alberta and Manitoba Pools plus United Grain Growers), becoming grain giant Viterra. Mergers and acquisitions are the norm in this industry, as you can see. Viterra, as of 2013, is now owned by Richardson International, who owns the Pioneer Grain Company. And so it goes…
The Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, or simply “the Pool” was a farmer owned co-operative and went on to become the largest grain handling company in the province. A large majority of the elevators we’d explore this weekend were at one time associated with this company.
As far as wooden elevators goes, this one is fairly modern. It’s not uncommon to find examples from the 1910s or 20s but there are also a lot of newer ones. No matter when built, the overall design, appearance wise, changed little over the years. On average the age of the extant wooden elevators in Saskatchewan is much younger than those in Alberta, For example, of the one’s we’d explore this trip, most were from the period 1950-1980. In Alberta, it seems that those from 1920s era are most common. None of this really means anything anyway, we like them all regardless of age.
As some unknown date, (late 1990s?) the building was sold to the Great Sandhills Terminal company. This organization also has a second much larger and newer concrete and steel terminal just east of town. It’s not known if the wooden elevator is used for grain car loading or not. Perhaps it’s a back up elevator supplementing the larger facility? Or maybe it was temporary, put to use while they built the other complex? Who knows? Research continues and of course our readers are invited to comment if they have something to share.
In old documents the building is refereed to a Saskatchewan Wheat Pool “B”, (highly) suggesting that the company had a least one more elevator in town (elevator “A”). It was not unusual for a company to have multiple “vators” at one loading point, so this seems pretty much a no-brainer. Other elevators were once located nearby too, we know that, but exactly how many existed at any one time, and who they belonged to is a bit of a mystery at this point. We’ll keep digging and no doubt there will be updates to this article.
There is a small yard here and sitting in front of the building were a couple rows of grain cars. Recall, we don’t know if the elevator was being used to load cars, so were they waiting to be filled here (or have been filled) or were they simply being held for loading elsewhere? Or lastly were they filled elsewhere and are waiting to go to market? I am sure we’ll find out soon.
All the cars seen were former Canadian Government grain hoppers built in the 1970s, now in private hands and part of a lease fleet. These cars were originally built for one simple reason: in the 1970s there was a shortage of grain cars. The boxcars then in use were close to retirement but the railways were reluctant, no they refused, to buy new modern hoppers given the grain trade was at best a break even proposition for them. The Canadian Government and later the Alberta and Saskatchewan governments as well, bought huge fleets of new cars (1972-1994), essentially giving them to the railways to use.
These old war horses are looking beaten and battered and are probably near the end of their service lives. Many of them are covered with graffiti and while I am not fan of this sort of vandalism, one of the works caught my attention, a stylized farmer, complete with a sprig of wheat in his teeth. It’s a bit of stereotype perhaps, it none the less made me chuckle some.
Sitting in front of the elevator, and completing the scene, is an example of the ubiquitous Saskatchewan grain truck. Every farm had one like this. This model is a Chevrolet C-series medium duty, and it and the GMC equivalent, were very popular and we still see lots of them in use today. They were built in the 1970s and 80s.
The tracks seen in front belong to the Great Sandhills Railway. The company was formed in 2009 when they acquired this former CPR branch. The line sees service perhaps a couple times a week, give or take. It’s some 180kms long from end to end and starts at a point near Swift Current, then heads roughly northwest into Leader and beyond to Burstall, very close to the Alberta border. When under CPR ownership there used to be some additional branches off the line but these were abandoned prior to the the takeover by the present company. The lines in use today are the former Empress and Burstall Subdivisions respectively and were built in the years 1911-1923 – rails reached Leader in 1913. The majority of traffic hauled is naturally grain, along with products related to the oil and gas industries. They also make money storing excess rail cars and nearly every siding we saw was stuffed to overflowing.
On this trip we documented some of the the locomotives owned (or leased) by the Great Sandhills Railway and these will be the subject of their own report sometime soon. You can see one of them parked in front of the Great Sandhills Terminal concrete elevator which is just outside Leader (pic below). We did not study this elevator itself – maybe when it’s older we will but today it seems too “new” to interest us.
This is our first Saskatchewan grain elevator article, but there will be more. I think we saw perhaps something like fifteen to twenty of them.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date of adventure: May, 2014.
Location: Leader, SK.