Almost every last town, village or hamlet across the vast Canadian Prairies was at one time home to a building much like the one we’ll be looking at today. Towering over everything, the flat expanse of the land, the community itself, they were always located in a prominent spot usually opposite or just down from “downtown”, always next to the rail line. Their purpose was quite simple, to process and ship out grain produced by local farmers and destined to customers all over the world.
Call them Prairie Skyscrapers, Prairie Sentinels, Wheat Kings or just a plain old Grain Elevators, they’re an iconic symbol of the west, reminding us that outside the big city, it was agriculture that drove the economy. And it still does in many ways. Most of these buildings have served their purpose and are long gone, replaced by modern grain terminals generally located far away from any communities. A few old ones still hang on however, for one reason or another, like the example here, found in the middle-of-nowhere Southern Alberta community of Skiff.
The elevator dates from the late 1920s. It’s owner was the Ellison Milling Company (founded early 1900s), a firm that had a small network of grain elevators scattered about the southern part of the province. It’s pretty typical in size and appearance, of the era.
Made from two by sixes stacked flat and interconnected by huge beams, there’s a lot of wood in these boys. Internally there are a series of bins for storage, all connected by the series of pipes, spouts, augers and a lifting leg (the elevator in grain elevator). Simple and robust, the design worked well. At some point unknown to us, two annexes, those structures flanking each side, were added. This was common place – built an elevator and add these as a way to increase capacity as business grew.
Trucks (and in olden days wagons) dumped their grain loads in the driveway. Rail cars would be loaded on the opposite side. During the busy harvest season, the place would run from dawn to dusk if not later. At slower times, when grain prices were low, or demand down, it would be a sleepy place. Some elevators sold heating coal to help bring in business during slack periods. Coal joke!
Grain cars, specialized box cars in the early days and later grain hoppers, would be loaded and moved out as needed. Sometimes every second day or so during peak business, maybe even more, and other times once or twice a week. Sometimes nothing would ship out for weeks.
In the mid-1970s the elevator was sold to the firm Parrish and Heimbecker. They’re a long established grain company (since around 1910), but generally a smaller player when compared to its many rivals. This firm painted the building in P&H yellow which it still wears today (albeit all faded now). Under Ellison it was cloaked in standard “elevator brown”. P&H used the building into the early 2000s (concurrent with rail line closing). It was soon after purchased by a a local farmer who uses it to store grain. Many grain elevators survive because frugal minded farmers scooped them up. Usually when done, they were often demolished.
When we said nearly every town had a grain elevator, we weren’t kidding. Most towns had many. In fact Skiff had two more, both belonging to the Alberta Wheat Pool (the biggest player in the province), and dating from the late 1920s and mid-1950s and torn down at the turn of the century.
There was once some eighteen hundred grain elevators in Alberta alone (and thousands and thousand more in the two other prairie provinces). Most dated from the early days, during a time of accelerated settlement, the period 1910-1930. Some, using the very same general design, but bigger as the years past, were built up until the 1980s. The wood grain elevator, be it from 1910 or 1980 were more alike than not.
With changes in the industry, consolidations, road improvements and branch line abandonments most of these facilities were closed down. Their replacements were large inland terminals often in far away places. In the old days, a farmer had to drive to town to sell his grain, rarely a long trip. Now, not so much. They might have to go a hundred clicks or more to do it. But that’s another story.
This transition from the old system to new only happened recently. As late as the mid-1990, most small town grain elevators were still in business and most prairie branch lines still in place. Fast forward a half dozen years and the opposite was true. The change was that quick.
Of the grain elevators that survive, some couple hundred plus in Alberta, the majority belong to farmers. Know for their cheap-ass ways (not saying that’s a bad thing at all), the buildings make fine grain storage facilities on a budget. A few, mostly in outlying or specialized crop areas, are still used commercially. Some have be converted to museums others simply abandoned. Most are still down by the tracks, or where the tracks were, some moved to farm properties.
Each year a few more elevators are lost, some out living their usefulness, some burning down (fire was a constant problem, always). This one, for the time being anyway, seems to have a solid future. The farmer keeps in full. It still has a job.
The railway line that passes has an interesting story. Built by the Canadian Pacific Railway (Stirling Subdivision) in the early 1910s, it was closed down in the early 2000s. For what ever reason the track was not pulled up, as was common when a branch line closed. In a moribund state, although used for time to store some railway heritage equipment (on the very elevator siding seen here), it’s since been reactivated. A new short line, 40 Mile Rail, established only months ago is again using the line and hauling grain.
The elevator siding is made from old rail sections that came from Germany (Rheinische Steel Works) in the early 1900s. On our visit, the railways track inspection speeder occupied the track (sort of, two wheels were on the ground). I suspect the new railway might end up using the siding for storage, or maybe they’ll put in a producer grain loading site.
Skiff was founded with the coming of the railway. In seems it wasn’t until the 1920s that it hit stride. Not long for long however. Soon on it was in decline and today is pretty much a ghost town with nary more than a handful of residents calling it home. Farms still dot the immediate area. The Skiff General Store, seen in one photo, in operation from the early days into the 1970s, is perhaps the only other notable building from early days, beside the elevator, still standing. The pair in the same scene paint a timeless picture.
The town’s named after a type of small boat (not making this up), its streets given titles like bow, tiller and rudder. Now you know!
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: October, 2016.
Location: Skiff, AB.
Article references and thanks: Saskatoon Public Library, Alberta Wheat Pool Records @ Glenbow Museum Archives, Jason Sailer (always great hanging out), Steve Boyko, 40 Mile Rail, University of Alberta Press.
The elevator and railway are private property. BIGDoer.com was on site with permission.