Saying a handful of people live in Esther Alberta might be a stretch. There’s not many here. Even at the peak, long ago, it was never a populous place. It’s a tiny dot on the map, always has been, on some lonely back road, middle of nowhere stuff, seen and visited by few…you get the idea. Many old buildings can be found in the town site (all private property by the way). Towering over everything, the tallest thing around, is a grain elevator. A lonely grain elevator, long unused. This will be our subject for today.
First things first: the town. The immediate area, the rolling plains in the far east part of the province, was opened up to settlement, and grain farming, in the early 1910s. Of course First Nation’s Peoples had called it home for eons before that. The town of Esther itself, however, was not established until the mid-1920s, with the coming of the railway. The place flourished, for a moment or two (max population, a few dozen or so), before settling into a long slow decline. By the late 1970s, it was essentially the ghost town we see today.
Back to the early days – farmers had to ship their crops to market and with that a grain elevator was built in Esther, in 1925, in support of that. Its owner was the Alberta Wheat Pool and was one of the very first elevators (number three) constructed by that firm. The Alberta Pool, or simply “The Pool”, was itself a newly established company at that point, having only been in business for a year or two prior. The new railway brought the new town, which brought the new elevator owned by a new elevator company – lots of “new” in Esther’s early days.
A farmer owned cooperative, the Pool went on to become the dominate grain handling firm in the province and one of the largest in the country. At the peak they had hundreds and hundreds of rural grain elevators scattered around Alberta. If a town had rail service, no matter the size, they had a Pool Elevator. Almost a guarantee. The firm went through a series of mergers starting in the late 1990s and is but a memory today.
The Pool closed the Esther Elevator in the late 1970s, concurrent the closing of the railway line. The building was was not torn down, as was commonplace when having been shuttered, but instead was left standing. In the 2000s a local resident made attempts to transform the elevator, in fact the entire town site, into a museum of sorts. But progress has been slow. Red tape, lack of funding, so much work and one old fellow overwhelmed.
The building follows a typical pattern and looks very much like every other grain elevator of the era (thousands of them), seen across the the Prairies Provinces. It’s made of 2×6 boards laid flat. Talk about robust construction!
Esther’s Elevator, interesting, still wears the original Pool Mineral Brown paint of old. It never carried the later (1970s) blue/green scheme.
That this was the only elevator here (it was not odd for even small towns to have two or more competing facilities) tells us grain volumes shipped out of Esther, were at best, modest. In the long term, this this could only lead to closure. I’m sure everyone knew that and this would help explain why it was not repainted (not enough business to justify it). Even with that just said, it’s possible at times it was a busy place. There was at one time a couple annexes attached to the building, added sometime after it was built and increasing its capacity, but these are now gone, with only concrete pads to mark their location.
Esther’s elevator is the oldest Alberta Wheat Pool facility in the province today. It’s also one of a handful in the old Pool colours. The structure, recently, has appeared in a Molson Canadian Beer Commercial.
At the peak, around 1930-ish, there were some eighteen hundred wood grain elevators in the province. Today, there are some two hundred and fifty left, either in use (not many), used by farmers as storage facilities (a good number), as museums (a few) or simply abandoned (a few more). The elevator design remained fairly constant over many decades. One’s built in the early 1900s were visually and functionally not all that different than one constructed into the 1980s (after 1990-ish concrete/steel elevators became the norm). The peak of construction was the 1910s and 1920s.
The rail line here, the CNR’s Dodsland Subdivision came through, recall, in the mid-1920s. It was one of countless lines laid down across the prairies, by that railway and competitor CPR in the first couple decades of the twentieth century. In those days there was a railway building boom and both major players were caught up in it!
This line ran west from Biggar Saskatchewan, to Scapa Alberta and was built in fits and starts over many years. It travelled though some remote and sparsely populated county (it’s the same today). The line was lightly engineered meaning the railway must have known it was never going to amount to much.
The CNR tried to rid itself of this branch, a perceptual money looser, as early as the 1960s, but it wasn’t until 1979 before the government granted the okay. The Feds made it real difficult and this line was in fact one of the earlier ones they allowed to be pulled up. At the end, train movement were sporadic at best, grain being the only commodity hauled. It was always (mostly) a grain-only branch anyway. Footnote: the government forced the railways to hold on to the majority of “grain” branches into the 1990s.
We’re hoping to revisit Esther – we were rushed this time – to check out the elevator more, interior included, and to explore the town which we basically ignored. Plus truck crazy me knows there’s a nice old Kenworth Heavy Duty that deserves a bit of attention. In our best Arnie voice “we’ll be back…” We’re pencilling it in as we speak.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: July, 2016.
Location: Esther, AB.
Article references and thanks: Alberta Wheat Pool Records, Canadian National Railway Archives, TheCanadianEncyclopedia.ca, Book – Esther Community History.
The former town of Esther, elevator included, is private property and permission should be obtained before entering.