It’s May 2014. Connie and myself are on whirlwind back road tour of southwest Saskatchewan. Our goal this trip was to capture all things old and abandoned. We visited ghost towns, forgotten farms, photographed old bridges, explored old rail lines. And then there were the grain elevators. There are still a fair number of them left in the province and we wanted to see as many as we could in the time we had, a short five days. Among those “prairie sentinels” we explored and documented is the one that is subject of this report, which was found in the tiny community of Coderre.
The building was constructed in 1924 for the Saskatchewan Co-operative Elevator Company. That organization, two years later, was folded into the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool (aka SWP). Both were farmer owned collectives. At one time, the SWP was the largest grain handler in Canada and nearly every town that had rail service in Saskatchewan had an elevator belonging to that company. This was their “A” facility – at the peak they owned other elevators in town, each refereed to alphabetically.
The SWP ceased to be after 2007. That year it merged with a rival, (Agricore United) to become the firm Viterra. It was no longer farmer owned after this point. As of 2013 Viterra has been split up and has been acquired by number of firms. Many grain handling facilities were picked up by Richardson International, who also owns Pioneer Grain.
According to some sources, in the mid-1950s this elevator was rebuilt. The work done apparently was so substantial that some would argue it’s a completely new structure. I can’t say for certain what exactly happened at the time, so until I know more, it’s best I don’t comment. We invite input from our readers if they should know.
The Pool, as it was often called, closed this facility in 1990. The nature of the business was changing: the small prairie town elevator network and the rail system that carried the grain to market were by the 1990s, looked on as inefficient. Taking their place were large inland terminals. Instead of loading a few railway cars at a time, these could fill dozens and dozens in one pass or sometimes even an entire train’s worth. Most of these newer grain terminals were built in the mid to late 1990s and early 2000s, concurrent with the closing of most small elevators and grain handling branches, and were located alongside busy mainlines often far from the grain producer. In the old way, the trains came to the farmer. Now it’s been reversed and they are often required to travel long distances to get their output to market.
At some point after closing the building was acquired by a local group and is now used as a seed cleaning plant. It’s not known if the elevator ever had an annex, a side structure used to increase capacity. If it did, I have found no evidence of it. I guess the volume of business at this location was never that great.
In addition to this building, there used to be three other elevators in town, all built in 1926.
The first belonged to Lake of the Woods Milling Company. The Saskatchewan Wheat Pool acquired the elevator in the late 1950s and with that it became their “B” facility. It was used up until 1984. Another elevator here once belonged to Alberta Pacific Grain. That firm was acquired by Federal Grain in the 1940s. Federal’s Saskatchewan operations were then taken over by the Pool in the early 1970s. This became the SWP “C” facility until it too closed in 1984.
The last elevator belonged to a series of owners (Searle Grain and Federal Grain are two names you may recognize) before becoming a Saskatchewan Wheat Pool facility in the early 1970s (via its purchase of Federal). This became the SWP’s “D” elevator which was closed in 1980.
Via mergers and acquisitions (a common occurrence in the industry) the SWP ended up owning every single elevator in Coderre. Interesting!
You’ll notice in one picture a left facing arrow on the railway-side wall of the elevator just above the loading spout. This told the train crew to spot the cars to be loaded to the right of the structure. The siding was built on a slight grade and this allowed each car to loaded and then rolled aside when full. The arrow points downgrade.
Few grain elevators today rely on gravity to move cars. Most use a cable and winch system or some, a company owned locomotive or specialized rail car mover.
The Canadian Pacific Railway built a branch to Coderre in the mid-1920s. The line came in from a point near Swift Current and headed east before arriving here. For a few years the community was temporarily the end of track. Around 1930, the branch was extended further east, to a point just south of Moose Jaw. This line was the CPR’s Shamrock Subdivision. It was never a terribly busy section of track, given the small population in the area (and resultant small grain output) and and even at the peak, trains only operated a few times a week. Passenger service was once provided by a coach tacked onto the end of a freight. The line closed in the late 1980s and today there is very little remains to tell us it ever existed.
Coderre as a village dates from in the mid-1920s. It obtained this status with the coming of the railway, although people had lived in the area prior to that. Most early settlers were French speaking. The town was named after one residence, who ran the local post office.
At one time there were several thousand traditional wood-cribbed grain elevators in the province of Saskatchewan. Now there are perhaps five hundred left. Most were lost due to changes in the grain industry that took place in the 1990s – recall: small elevators were replaced by larger structures, there was a mass abandoned of money losing grain handling branch lines and there were consolidations within the industry (a simple explanation to a much bigger and complex issue).
Of those elevators that have survived, many are used for grain storage by locals farmers. Some are now seed cleaning plants, like this one. A few are still used to load rail cars. Some are museums or historic sites and some are abandoned. All are interesting.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date of adventure: May, 2014.
Location: Coderre, SK.