Picture Butte, a small town located just north of Lethbridge, is home to one traditional wooden grain elevator, which is today’s subject. This massive structure, long since closed down by it’s original owner, but today being used by a local farmer to store grain, sits alongside an abandoned rail line. Thankfully many old elevators that would have otherwise been demolished, this one included, have found work as convenient storage facilities such as this.
Found nearby was an old Studebaker truck, a fitting prop for this photo series.
This was a former Alberta Wheat Pool (AWP) facility. The building was constructed in the 1950s – most sources seem to agree it was 1954 – and replaced an earlier 1920s era structure (a pair of twinned elevators according to some old pictures), that sometime prior, so perhaps the year before, burned to the ground. The old AWP elevator pair were not the only ones to be destroyed in this event and several others nearby, belonging to a number of different grain handling firms, also fell that day. The whole elevator row was wiped out as the fire spread from building to building. It’s not known what caused the disaster.
Fire was always a big concern for elevator owners and operators and they took many steps to ensure it would not happen. But if one broke out, rare but it happened, given just how flammable the wooden elevator itself was, as were its contents, they would often burn with such an intensity that they’d usually get completely destroyed. There was usually no saving an elevator once it caught fire.
The AWP or simply the “Pool” was a farmer owned cooperative formed in the early 1920s and went on to become one of the largest grain handling firms in all Canada and certainly the largest in the province. It merged with a rival in the late 1990s loosing its collective status in the process. This “new” company, Agricore, in quick succession went on to merge again and again, eventually morphing into a company call Viterra, which has since been broken up and its various components picked up by other firms. The elevator was closed, I understand, just before the turn of the last century, so around the time the AWP ceased to be. The elevator is still painted in the old Pool colours.
It’s not clear when the current owner acquired the building. Soon after it closed I presume, otherwise it would have likely been torn down instead. Once one of the large scale grain companies was done with an elevator they were quick to sell or demolish it.
At some point, likely not that long ago (relatively speaking) several large steel-bin annexes were added to the building. This increased its capacity without sacrificing any functionality. Were these put in place by the AWP or the new owner? That’s not clear. This elevator was set up to fill two tracks worth of cars at one time (note the extra loading spout), which helped make it more efficient. Many older elevators had only a single loading track.
The design of the traditional wood-cribbed grain elevator remained fairly static over the years and from the 1910s, if not a bit earlier, to the 1970s and a bit beyond, all looked much as this one did. It was amazing how long lasting the design was. Visually and operationally they were all basically the same no matter how young or old they were. Newer examples however, post World War Two, tended to be a bit larger in size. This one in fact looks almost “chubby”.
At one time there used to be several other elevators in Picture Butte but their lineage is a bit hard to trace. All date from the mid-1920s and all burned down in the 1950s, as you recall, but most if not all were then replaced by newer structures. Firms represented include Ellison Milling and Alberta Pacific Grain. Photos from the late 1970s show a Parrish and Heimbecker elevator along the tracks, which may have been the former Ellison (post-fire) facility. P&H bought that firm in the mid-1970s, so it’s all plausible. Research is ongoing and as always, we’d love to hear from any experts on this subject.
This structure is one of approximately two hundred and fifty traditional wood-cribbed elevators still standing in the province. At the peak, in the 1930s, there was of almost 1800 of them across Alberta. Most of those standing today are owned by farmers, as is this one, and make for good grain or seed storage facilities. Some are located in or are used as museums, a very small number are used as designed and continue to load rail cars, some are simply abandoned. Modern grain elevators are steel and/or concrete structures, most of which date from the last couple decades. Where as the small town elevator might load a few cars at a time, these monsters load sometimes a whole train’s worth in one pass.
Parked around the the elevator were a number of combines and tractors and nearby a late 1940s to early 1950s Studebaker 2R series truck was found. This make is pretty rare, so this was a nice find. Studebaker stopped making trucks in late 1963 and quit producing cars in early 1966. The company had a Canadian factory in Hamilton Ontario.
The track that used to run past the elevator is the CPR’s former Turin Subdivision branch which ran from Coalhurst, near Lethbridge, to its namesake town, a distance of some 40km. This was principally a grain handling line which opened in the mid-1920s and was closed in the late 1990s, although I understand the track remained in place for some years after.
The years 1910-1930 were a boom period when it came to prairie branch line construction. Track was laid with reckless abandon, heading in every direction of the compass. If a town existed, no matter how small, it’d get a rail line. Where there was no town, they’d build a line anyway hoping people would soon follow. The period 1995-2002 saw most of these lines pulled up. Interesting, they rushed to get them all built and years later rushed to close them all down.
Picture Butte has a population of some 1600 people. The town was established with the coming of the railway in the mid-1920s. There is a historically interesting former sugar beet processing facility there, not totally abandoned but being used for other purposes, which I would like to explore at some time. Its large concrete silos are the only things in town taller then the elevator seen in this report.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date of adventure: August, 2014.
Location: Picture Butte, AB.