It’s a tiny speck on the map a mere stone’s throw from Calgary. The overused phrase “blink and you’ll miss it” applies here. We’re speaking of DeWinton Alberta, sort of hidden in a small valley and only accessible via a winding back road, a place not many people know of. Perhaps a dozen or so residents call it home, with more on acreages in the area and in “town” there’s a small store, the hamlet’s only business. There’s a decidedly rural feel here…very rural…yet no more than five or six clicks away is the big city, home to over a million.
There’s two fine “prairie sentinels” in De Winton. It’s what we’ve come to see. They’re old, historic and may have a troubling future. The buildings and the land their on, along with and a couple dwellings out behind are for sale. Who’s to say what new owners would do with them? Maybe nothing, maybe a lot…only time will tell. Not much use for the two, realistically so we’ll be watching the going’s on here with a bit of apprehension. The elevators are on private property and not publicly accessible, in case anyone’s wondering.
Let’s get this out of the way – what’s in a name? No one seems to agree on the spelling of the town. Some old papers call it DeWinton, a road sign is marked De Winton and yet another shows Dewinton. We spoke with some locals and near all agreed to disagree when it comes to this – it almost got heated at times – De Winton among the trio of choices, however, is leading by a small margin. In the spirit of détente (or is that dé tente) we’ll use all three, randomly. Google Maps does – zoom in on the town and see – so why not us?
Full disclosure…the history of these buildings, which we’ll speak of collectively as the pair, twins or the DeWinton Two (historically wise, they’re so heavily connected), is a bit…well…lacking. So little in the way of solid data, so many holes, so many missing pieces to the puzzle. It’s said the most southerly elevator dates from 1906, making it one of the oldest in the province and one of three pre-1910 still extant in Alberta today. In case you’re curious, the other two are from 1905 (Raley) and 1906 (St Albert).
There are some books and documents out there that state the south DeWinton elevator, as we’ll call it, is a couple decades newer. We looked up land records and it wasn’t touched upon there – not odd since many old buildings, rural ones in particular, are listed as “unknown” in the date field. These are often lost to time. Still, we think 1906 is most likely of all found.
Like all grain elevators on the Canadian Plains. it follows a fairly standard pattern and is built of 2x6s laid flat, tied together by huge beams and a billion nails. Talk about being overbuilt! A firm by the name of Richcraft is said to have built and operated it originally – a search turned up nothing on the company. Perhaps in the 1920s, perhaps earlier, another firm took over but no name is mentioned in the documents referenced. In the 1950s the firm United Grain Growers, one of the big boys of the industry with a huge network, was listed as operator. At some point circa 1980, or thereabouts, the elevator was closed. In the 1990s (?) it was acquired by a firm Diamond Fertilizers and modified to serve their needs.
Later still the elevator became an anchor building for a furniture factory which recently closed down. An odd re-purposing if there ever was one.
The elevator, recall, is pretty typical, maybe on the small side, save for the scale set up which is different from any we’ve ever seen. That raised office holds some of the weighing machinery. Research is ongoing and of course, experts are encouraged to chime in.
The second north elevator is somewhat larger. Like its neighbour, we don’t know much about it. One document mentions it being built in 1909 (with a big question mark beside it), where as a number of other sources say the 1920s. Since we know there’s only three pre-1910 elevators in the province, we surmise it must be that newer date or at least some date post 1910. We’re not confident in any of this.
The original owner is listed as “Hogg & Lyle” (nothing otherwise is known of the firm). It said to have traded hands, as grain elevators are apt to do, with the same UGG firm having it for a time in the 1950s and beyond . The firm Parrish and Heimbecker (another well known player) is also mentioned as having owned it pre-UGG but no dates are given.
UGG, no not the boot company, the grain firm, was a long time player and only went out of business (via mergers), in the early 2000s. P&H is still around.
Later, in the 1990s, the Diamond Fertilizer firm bought this one as well. They also operated as Catl-Lac Feeds or so some old signage on the one wall tells us. Later on, that furniture company bough this one too, the elevator being the north anchor for a building housing their main production area. So odd how they incorporated the elevators. “Our furniture factory could use some grain elevators!” Said no furniture factory owner. Ever. Yet, here it is. This elevator has been heavily modified inside and on the ground level.
Beside this elevator is the old office/drive engine shed. The one for the south elevator is gone. Factoid: it was practice to isolate the drive machinery from the flammable environment inside the elevator proper.
There used to be a third grain elevator in Dewinton. It lasted only about a dozen years in the 1920s/1930s. It’s not clear where it was located in relation to the current ones. We looked in the grass for an old foundation or something but found nothing. Pointless exercise I guess.
These elevators, incidentally, are two of some two hundred and fifty wood grain elevators left in the province today, down from a high of some eighteen hundred (!) at the peak in the 1930s. They’re a dying breed! Well into the 1990s there was a huge number of them standing (built 1910s-1980s and all looking much like these ones). Now, not so much. Most were destroyed during a period of consolidations and other great change within the industry. And we thought they’d last forever!
That wood working shop – what the? Well, it operated for a number of years and was kept busy making, restoring and refinishing wood furniture. They were big enough to require a good sized moving truck. The operation has recently wound down, the tools and machinery auctioned off shortly after our visit. Lots of reminders of this woodworking past can be found about the property, even inside the elevators (old chairs everywhere for example).
The main workshop floor is well worn, suggesting real heavy use – or reuse or that the wood working section is older than what was suggested to us.
Old trailers, both the pulled-behind-a-truck kind and the Ricky-and-Julian-live-in kind, can be found on the property. They’re used for storage.
The Canadian Pacific Railway runs out behind the elevators. This line dates from the 1890s and is the firm’s north/south mainline between Calgary and Lethbridge. It’s a moderately busy stretch of track and lucky us a train showed while we shot. And perfect timing too, just at sunset was upon us, made all the more incredible due to smoke from forest fires. The elevator siding is still in place, mostly, but disconnected from the main line. Grass hides most of it. At one time, interestingly, there used to be some heritage rail cars stored here (see: DeWinton De Winton Dewinton. That post, as might be obvious from its title, also touches on the name debate.
Seen on property, old trucks and cars, a former “Coast Guard” boat, miscellaneous metal and even a 1970s/1980s era “ten speed”. The usual stuff that accumulates in places like this. Some rare (in Canada that is) Mercedes L Series trucks languish in the back forty. Along with a huge number of metal chair frames.
DeWinton is named after a British Military Officer who it’s said established a ranch in the area. The town first makes mention in the 1890s. Back then Calgary was much further away. Historic MacLeod Trail, an early trade route, passes right through town.
An experiment. A fair number of the pics seen were shot on a tiny mirroless camera, Connie’s camera (Pany GX85), outfitted with lenses off our Minolta film camera. While the results are nothing short of amazing – damn those old lenses are something fine – the combo can take on fabulously ridiculous proportions. That’s one front heavy rig!
The elevators, the land, some houses, they’re all for sale. We were planning on putting a link here, but we see the listing was pulled a couple days back. Maybe sold? Hmm, the mind races – we’ll make some calls. Still, for further information, contact Commercial Realtor John Fraser, at Royal LePage.
More elevator tours…
Alberta Wheat Pool Menaik.
Prairie Sentinels – Woodhouse Alberta – Vandervalk Farm.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: August, 2017.
Location: DeWinton De Winton Dewinton, AB.
Article references (and thanks): Realtor John Fraser, Alberta Register of Historic Places, Jason Sailer, Book: Place Names of Alberta,
The DeWinton Grain Elevators are on private property. BIGDoer.com visited with permission.