The subject of this article is a fine old grain elevator found on farm north of Fort MacLeod Alberta. Formerly located in the small community of Woodhouse, not terribly far away, this tall and imposing structure was moved to this current location in the 1970s. We’ve been invited by the owners, the Vandervalk family, to check out its inner workings, an offer we most definitely can’t refuse. Let’s get dusty!
The age of the building is a bit unclear at this point. Some people we’ve spoken with say it’s from the 1910s, while the old fellow that purchased it and moved it here, seems to think the 1920s. We’ll keep digging. Regardless, it was originally constructed for the Bawlf Grain Company (or the Nicholas Bawlf Elevator Co., after one of its founders). That organization dates from the first decade of the twentieth century and was a modest player in the Canadian grain industry. At its peak it owned perhaps a hundred elevators across the prairies. The Bawlf Company was amalgamated into the Federal Grain Company in the early 1940s.
The elevator was moved to it’s present location in the early 1970s. It was presumably closed some time before that, although no real solid data on the what’s and when’s of its past have come to light. It purpose here was to store grain prior to it heading to market.
Moving the elevator must have been quite a task. It’s not like these tall somewhat top heavy buildings lend themselves well to traveling down narrow prairie back roads. The trip was around 25kms and given it was done at a crawl, took much time. And what a sight it must have been! A slow moving monster ready to steamroll over everything in its way. Watch those low power lines!
The very faint lettering of the Bawlf Grain Company can be seen on one side of the building bleeding through the red paint. This makes it the only elevator that this author has found so lettered – a rare beast indeed! Also hard to see, Federal Grain lettering can be see on another side but it was too faded to be seen in our picture.
Woodhouse was located along the CPR’s MacLeod Subdivision which came through the area in the 1890s. This line, traveling south from Calgary to its namesake town of Fort MacLeod on that railway’s southern mainline, was for most of its history a sleepy grain gathering branch. The line was closed in the mid to late 1990s although all the elevators in town were long gone prior to that event.
The community of Woodhouse (was) is located between Granum and Claresholm and today is nothing more than a few scattered houses along the old rail line just east of the #2 Highway. Blink and you’ll miss he place. We stopped there to check out some elevator foundations that remain from the old days. Did one belong to this elevator?
In addition to this structure, there used to be a number of other elevators in Woodhouse (sources say perhaps four). These belonged to such notable grain companies as the Alberta Wheat Pool, National Grain and Alberta Pacific Grain. It’s not clear when these ones were built but for most, one can assume it was in the early to mid-1910s. It’s also not clear when all were closed down and torn down, but data hints it was in the early 1970s.
Federal Grain ceased to be in the early 1970s and was split up among a number of other grain firms. It’s believed this elevator was closed shortly before that event. Local farmers afterwards had to travel, but not terribly far, to either Granum or Claresholm. Today, a large inland terminal in Fort MacLeod is the nearest grain outlet but that complex bears little resemblance to the small town elevator we’re discussing here.
From a peak of perhaps eighteen hundred traditional style wood-cribbed elevators in the province, there are now two hundred and fifty or so of them left. Few are used in the traditional sense. Others still have been abandoned. Many however have been acquired by farmers, some left in the place where they were built and others moved to farms as this one was, and are used as grain storage facilities.
While we’ve always known a little of what it takes to make a grain elevator operate, we’ve never really seen it first hand. The Vandervalks were kind enough to demonstrate it to us.
We’ll explain how the whole thing works, briefly – grain is brought in via a truck (and in the old, old days, by horse and wagon) and is dumped into a grate covered hopper under the driveway. It’s then sent, via a lifting system, to a distributor in the cupola and then directed to one of any number integral bins. To empty a bin, say to load an outgoing truck or back in the day, a rail car, the contents are dumped into the lower hopper (again) then travel up to the top (again) only to be directed, via that distributor to the loading pipe located on the outside of the building.
There are two scales, no longer used, that once weighed, separately, incoming and outgoing grain. The lifting leg is simply a series of buckets on a long vertical conveyor belt. In the old days it was powered by a gas engine located in in a separate building (because they were a fire hazard). Today an electric motor does the work. When operating, and they showed it to us, all the machinery is surprisingly quiet. And does that belt move! Be stupid and it’d yank your arm off before you knew what happened.
The loading driveway once was pass through style (as all elevators were so outfitted). Today, one end has been blocked off, which means trucks entering have to back up. No worries there, these farm boys are experts.
To get to the upper workings of the elevator one has two choices, a ladder or a man lift, the latter essentially a scary-ass open air elevator powered by your arms. It only works if you’re your weight is close to that of the counter weight. If not you’ll have trouble either ascending or descending. It could even be dangerous – there is a foot operated brake but if you’re shooting up like a rocket or plunging to your doom – again it depends if you are heavier and lighter then the counter weight and again by how much – its presence might go unnoticed. Since I was too heavy to use the man lift, and too big to fit on the ladder (truth, I was too chicken – heights you know), Connie made the trip up to the cupola instead. Good, because the thought of using either didn’t sit well with me. She was able to use the man lift which required her to work hard on the down trip (she was somewhat too light)
From the elevator cupola there are great views, normally, to the east and west. If it were not for the haze this day that is, from forest fires burning elsewhere in North America, that obscured everything. What a horrible gray day!
The Vandervalks don’t use the elevator much anymore and it was empty on our visit. Given the huge volume of grain produced on the farm, giant steel bins, scattered all around the elevator, are more efficient and have a higher capacity and therefore are used instead. None the less, the old structure still has one advantage over any other storage system. If the grain is overly damp, which can be bad, the well-seasoned wood in the bins acts like a sponge and helps dry things out. A little while later and the grain stored here has the right moisture content.
While the building’s future, for now anyway, seems assured the family has mentioned it’ll needs some work in the future. Given it doesn’t really add much to the bottom line they may be reluctant to pump big money into the building. They truly care about the elevator, that was clear, but is sentiment alone enough to assure its survival?
Several cats, some friendly and social and others wild and skittish live in and around the elevator and farm. They’re usually used to keep mice and rodents under control.
We were joined this trip by good friends Jason and Rebecca Sailer, fellow elevators buffs. If you’re a history enthusiast and would like to join us on a trip, or would like to suggest a subject, just drop us a line.
Thanks again to the Vandervalks who allowed us free run of the place. This elevator is on private property and is not accessible without permission. But please don’t bug them, okay, they farm and already have enough to do.
If you’d like to know more about what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: July, 2014.
Location: Near Fort MacLeod, AB.