As old-school wood grain elevators go, this one, found in the town of Bentley Alberta is a relative youngster. Still, it follows a very traditional design and in construction, layout, function, so pretty much everything, albeit in a somewhat more massive form, it’s not all that dissimilar from ones much, much older than it. Dare I say one of the most iconic symbols of the prairies every town where grain was grown was home to one or more of these buildings. Something shy of two thousand of them once dotted the Alberta landscape. They were everywhere!
Now there’s but a small percentage left. Wholesale changes within the industry, starting in the 1980s and coming to a head quickly about a decade later, saw most of them demolished. In one stroke of the pen they were deemed too small and inefficient. Replacing them were huge steel or concrete terminals, so large as to make the grain elevator seen here, which was good sized for the era, seem like a toy. In spite of most being being lost, a few of these venerable structures managed to hang on, for this reason or that. A frugal farmer, bless his heart, has seen to the survival of this example.
This building dates from the latter half of 1970s. As is typical, it’s made entirety of wood – that’s a lot of timber! It’s made in a double composite design, meaning there are two large sets of integral bins flanking each side of the main structure. While still following a general design going back to the earliest days of the industry (1900 or so), this arrangement had a greater capacity than older examples and could accommodate larger grain trucks coming in use at the time.
It was not the first grain elevator on this plot of land. Preceding it was a much smaller structure from around 1920, which burned down some decades later, and a second much larger replacement elevator, which also met its end the same way. The one seen today replaced it. Fire, by the way, was an elevator’s worst enemy, what with all that flammable dry wood and grain dust, and in spite of the precautions taken many went up in flames anyway.
The building still carries the logo of its original owner, the Alberta Wheat Pool. The firm also owned the previous elevator spoke of, and the one preceding it, at least for a time having bought it early on from a rival firm (elevators changing hands was quite common). The “Pool”, founded in the 1920s, was the largest grain handling company in the province for much if its history. It’s only recently they ceased to be, after merging with a series of rivals.
In the mid-1990s the long established firm United Grain Growers, founded in the 1910s, took over but only operated the facility for a few years before closing it down on the eve of this current century. The company never repainted the structure. Interesting tidbit – UGG owned the very first grain elevator on this chunk of land, way back in the early days, and in more recent times went on to be one of the firms that merged with the Alberta Pool, which we touched on earlier.
Not torn down, the fate of many of these structure upon closing, it was acquired by a local farmer who continues to use it as a grain storage facility. Many old grain elevators still with us today were picked up on the cheap to be “repurposed” this way. (While most extant wood elevators are farmer owned, a small number are still in commercial use, some belong to museums, and some are abandoned). This building appears well used, so for the time being we can probably say it’s got a reasonable future. Today it’s one of perhaps two hundred and fifty wood grain elevator still standing in the province, down from a high of some nineteen hundred at the peak. A majority were lost were in recent times, the great wood grain elevator purge of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Just down the disused rail siding is a second elevator. This was for fertilizer storage and while next to the tracks was not rail served. It’s believed it’s from the 1950s, but no one we spoke with was completely sure.
Most grain shipping points had several competing firms and Bentley was no exception. In times past there were other grain elevators here owned by such notable firms as Alberta Pacific Grain Federal Grain, United Grain Growers and the Pool (a second facility inherited when a rival was acquired). No matter the owner or builder nor even date constructed most wood grain elevators were similar in appearance. The last of these other elevators was gone by the late 1990s.
The track seen passing in front of the elevator is the Canadian Pacific Railway’s Hoadley Subdivision. Built mostly the 1910s-1920s period, for at time under government control and operating as the Lacombe and North Western Railway, it was acquired by the CPR later that decade. This is one of a few branch lines in service today, the only customers seemingly a couple petrochemical firms north of Bentley. Trains run infrequently – as luck would have it however, we’d catch one a just down the line. The elevator still has its siding but rail cars have not been loaded since the ’90s.
Bentley was founded in the mid-1910s. Today it’s home to perhaps a thousand people. The local economy it tied to agriculture and petroleum industries. Nearby Gull Lake is a popular local attraction.
The train! Unbeknownst to us, there was a one on the branch and heading our way. We caught it at Aspen Beach, a couple clicks east, on our way to our next assignment (what a shot it would have made with the elevator). Taking us by complete surprise, luckily it was moving at a relaxed pace affording us the few seconds we needed with which to set up a shot. It was a short freight, all tank cars, perhaps no more than a dozen of them. Up front were some of the CPR’s yeoman service locomotives, ones used for local work, switching and like what we see here, for branch lines runs (what few are left).
Of the two locomotive one was an EMD model GP20C-ECO, #2321, out-shopped just a year or so ago (mostly a new unit with some old parts reused), and in the trailing position a GMDD model GP38-2, #3051, from the 1980s. Both are fairly common models on the CPR although their out of the way assignments means they’re not seen as often as their mainline counterparts. A chance meeting if there ever was one, in no time it rumbled out of sight. Had we not had other things to document this day, we’d probably have ended up chasing the train. Not like catching on on this line is an everyday occurrence. Oh well, glad we got a taste.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: November, 2016.
Location: Bentley, AB.
Article references and thanks: Town of Bentley Alberta, Jason Sailer, Canadian Trackside Guides.
The elevator can be viewed from public roads and green spaces.