The small community of Magrath Alberta is home to a nice and varied collection grain elevators from various eras. There’s four here, down over there where the tracks used to be. A couple are traditional wood “prairie sentinels”, one’s a fairly modern, albeit modest sized, concrete silo type elevator. And the last, which will garner a great deal of our attention, a strange monolithic beast of futuristic design, the very first experimental “Buffalo” elevator, many decades old.
First, the town. It was founded around 1900. Most of the earliest settlers here were aligned with the Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS, practitioners called “Mormons”). The location is a few dozen clicks south of the city of Lethbridge. Magrath’s population sits at about two and half thousand, with more on farms in the general area. Agriculture is big business here.
The oldest elevator here, well the wood structure at its core, dates back a full century. It’s painted in Parrish and Heimbecker colours, the firm’s logo still displayed on its sides. Originally built for the Ellison Milling Company in 1917, it was acquired by “P&H” when that firm took over all of Ellison’s operations in the ’70s. At some point P&H put in the metal “annex” bins, as way to increase capacity. The wood one on the opposite side, is older (probably 1920s-1940s era).
Ellison was a fairly small player in Canadian Grain Industry and most of their elevators were clustered in a area of Southern Alberta. Parrish and Heimbecker had a bigger network, covering all three prairie provinces, but was still considered a modest sized firm. P&H is still very much in business but they don’t own this elevator any more. It was sold to a farmer, who uses it to store grain, sometime in the early 2000s. This farmer actually owns three of the four elevators seen here today. And he even had another here, but it burned down some years back.
Next in line through time, is another wood elevator dating form around 1937 (the wood annex, we’re not sure). It was built for Alberta Pacific Grain, a company with a decent sized network of grain handling points across the province. Alberta Pacific was folded into its parent company, Federal Grain, in the latter half of the 1960s. Soon after, early 1970s, the Alberta Wheat Pool, the province largest grain handling firm, acquired all of Federal’s Alberta assets, including this building.
Later still, in the 1990s, the Pool was folded into the firm Agricore, who closed down the facility soon after. Empty for a bit, in the early 2000s, it was sold to the same farmer who owns all but one of the other elevators here. It’s used to store grain until price or market conditions are favourable.
While the building wears “Pool” colours, old Alberta Pacific lettering can be seen on one side, a very faint Federal Logo on another and on a third, the that of its last commercial owner, Agricore. It’s got some identity issues. The building, and the other wood one discussed, are two of perhaps two hundred and some change left standing today, down from a high of some eighteen hundred. A lot are used as grain storage facilities by local farmers. Like these ones.
Next youngest, in age is the Buffalo elevator, known variously as a Buffalo Bin, Buffalo Slope or Buffalo 1000, or some combo therein (another identity crisis). The name comes from the firm that designed it, Buffalo Engineering. The very first in a line of experimental grain elevators, in two distinctly separate models, “field tested” by The Alberta Wheat Pool. It’s made of concrete and not wood, a first, and rather groundbreaking on paper. Built to address the shortcomings of wood elevators in a modern world, the Buffalo was larger, more efficient and speedy in processing grain; and safer – fire was always a big issue with the wood ones.
From the start there were problems.
The precast panels used to construct most parts of the elevator were ill-fitting. The gaps between them, can be quite wide, often so wide that all the caulking the world couldn’t fix them, which allowed grain to leak out the bins. The problem is still there today. Second, the slope was not quite steep enough impeding grain flow at times. Three 1000 series were built over the next couple years before they abandoned the design. One other issue – they were costly.
Still, the Buffalo 1000/Slope/Bin should not be seen as a total failure. The ones built remained in use by the “Pool”, who commissioned them, for some time. Even into the Agricore era. In fact two of the three constructed are still extant and used to this day, the one here and another in Northern Alberta. I guess it wasn’t a total wash.
At the turn of the century, Agricore sold it to P&H, who only used it for a few years, who then sold it to that farmer fellow who keeps popping up. The building is well used and holds a lot! Grain leakage still happens.
A separate different looking Buffalo elevator design also made of concrete (but mostly cast this time) was developed from lessons learned from this earlier model. Even so, it also went pretty much nowhere. Three of these “2000” models were built in the 1980s, two of which still exist. Team BIGDoer visited one. See: Buffalo 2000.
The final elevator in Magrath belongs, interestingly, to the local Church of Latter Day Saints and we believe it operates as some sort of cooperative. Little information can be found on it – we called around and got pretty much nowhere. It’s believed to have have been built in the 1990s however (other reports say as far back as the late 1970s). If more should come to light, we’ll update things here. Something to add? Speak up!
This elevator is made from slip-formed concrete, a modern technique of construction oftentimes used in building grain elevators today – most modern ones are larger than this however.
Interestingly, the elevators here are not arranged in a line on a single long siding as was the norm. Instead there was two rows, each across the from the other.
There used to be other elevators in Magrath. Some dated back to the early 1900s with most gone by the early 2000s. One belonged to Ogilvie Flour Mills. I’m on the board of a group saving the very last wood Ogilvie. See: Ogilvie Grain Elevator Wrentham Alberta. That farmer, he comes up a lot doesn’t he, had one additional elevator here (ex-P&H, built 1918), that went up in flames, in spectacular fashion, in 2006. Didn’t we touch on elevator fires earlier? A fair number of wood elevators were lost this way over the years.
The railway used to run past these elevators. I don’t know if the LDS facility was used to ship out grain by rail, but the others seen here were. The line, originally built narrow gauge, came through in around 1900 and was known as the St. Mary’s River Railway Company, one of the “Galt” lines. The CPR took over around 1912 and converted the track to standard gauge. The line (CPR Cardston Subdivision) ran from Stirling in the east, connecting with the CPR’s north/south secondary line there, west to Cardston and for a time beyond. It was always a grain branch although other products, mostly related to the oil and gas industries, were also carried. The branch was mostly abandoned in the early 2000s although some track east of Magrath remains in place.
Enough talk, more pics please…
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: January, 2017.
Location: Magrath, AB.
Article references (and thanks): Historic Resources Management Branch of Alberta Culture and Tourism, Alberta Wheat Pool Records, Jason Sailer, Book: Challenging Frontiers – The Canadian West.
The grain elevators are private property. BIGDoer.com visited with permission. They can be viewed from public roads.