The small town of Pennant is another stop on our spring 2014 grain elevator tour of southwest Saskatchewan. We spend five glorious and wonderfully chaotic days exploring back roads in the area taking in as many “Wheat Kings” as we can in that time. I still haven’t added up just how many we documented, I’d day 15-20, give or take a few. Included in the tally is the fine elevator seen here.
This is a former Saskatchewan Wheat Pool facility built in 1957. It replaced a smaller elevator from 1916 that was built on this same spot. One part from the old structure was incorporated into the new – the annex which was built next to the original elevator the year before and retained when the new one was built.
An annex was a economical way to add extra capacity to an elevator complex. They are quite common in fact and most elevators we come across, it seems, have one. Older examples are typically wood-cribbed like here, whereas newer ones might consist of metal bins. Their function is the same regardless.
It’s not known when this building was last used by the SWP. Today it’s in private hands and appears to be used as a producer loading site. Simply, that’s where a farmer or farmers load cars directly, bypassing any commercial grain companies or brokers. Sometimes these “producers” will purchase an old elevator to use for this purpose, like here. The old SWP sign has been painted over but the town’s name, traditionally applied to every prairie sentinel, is still plainly visible. You always knew what town you were in.
The earlier elevator on this plot of land was built for the Saskatchewan Cooperative Elevator Company which was absorbed by the SWP (officially Saskatchewan Cooperative Wheat Producers at the time) in the 1920s. Both were farmer owned collectives.
Over the loading track you’ll notice a suspended cable above the cars, which is a safety feature. A worker simply ties their body harness into that cable which prevent them from falling to the ground should they trip and fall.
The “Pool” as it came to be known, grew to become the largest grain handling company not only in the province but the entire country. Nearly every town in Saskatchewan that had rail service, and that was a lot of them, also had an SWP elevator. Interestingly, most of the grain elevators we’d explore this trip formerly belonged to that company – I guess this makes sense since there were more of them to begin which means more would be expected to survive. Also, I understand the SWP kept many of their traditional small town wood-cribbed elevators in service longer than others, which must account for at least some of those seen today.
The SWP joined with Agricore United, itself a company that came about due to the mergers of the Alberta and Manitoba Pools and United Grain Growers, becoming the firm Viterra in 2007. Mergers and acquisitions, as you can see, are the norm in the grain industry and and fact, the other companies mentored involved in the Agricore United-Viterra transaction (AWP, MWP, etc) where themselves the products of even earlier mergers. In 2012 Viterra was disbanded and its assets split among several companies. The SWP ceased to be a farmer owned cooperative when it joined Viterra.
At one time other prairie sentinels used to stand in Pennant and in the grass by the train tracks we even find what appears to be the old foundation of one. These elevators were built in the years 1912-1916 for various companies and all eventually came under control of Pioneer Grain. The last mention we can find of them is in the early 1980s.
The railcars directly in front of the elevator include a government grain hopper (the red-ish one). A huge fleet of these cars were built in the 70s and 80s using taxpayer money, to help alleviate shortages at a time when the railway’s themselves were unwilling to purchase them. Grain handling did not pay well, so both the CPR and CNR saw little reason to make that investment. Instead they relied on the good ol’ government to do it for them. Many of these cars are nearing retirement age.
On the next siding over is a string of tank cars. These are simply in storage awaiting a call to work. Many industries that are served by railways are cyclical in nature and at times there will be more cars then there is demand. In those cases, many unused sidings are turned into temporary storage tracks, like the one seen here. Many short lines in particular make extra money doing this, including the Great Sandhills Railway (GSR), who owns the track here.
The railway came though Pennant in 1912. This is a former CPR line (along here, the Empress Subdivision) which once ran from Bassano Alberta to Swift Current Saskatchewan with connections to the railway’s mainline at each end. In addition, there were several feeder branches off the line. Today, the track has been cut back and travels from Swift Current to a point near the Alberta border. Freight hauled of course, includes grain, along with commodities tied to the petroleum industry. Storing freight cars also helps pay the bills. The GSR, which has operated the track since 2009, seems to being doing okay and I am told they runs trains a couple times a week.
The village of Pennant today is home to some 150 souls and was founded in the early 1910s when the railway came through. In times past it was a bustling community, but today is a quiet place.
Saskatchewan is a grain elevator hunter’s dream and there are far more of them here then in our home province of Alberta. Close to double the number I’ve been told – it seems that nearly every town we visited in the province had one. This higher density did not make each discovery any less interesting. Exploring every one was a wonderful and exciting experience. While documenting grain elevators was the main thrust of this trip, we also took time to check out ghost towns, old schools, interesting bridges, historic buildings and many other things. We only scratched the surface. Expect more SK posts soon.
You may have noticed the beer can seen in one photo. That brand of beer, Pilsner aka Old Style Pilsner, Saskatchewan Champagne or simply Pil, is frequently associated with the province and is often the fodder for jokes. Many outsiders consider the beer swill, but I don’t find it that bad.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date of adventure: May, 2014.
Location: Pennant, SK.