Nanton Alberta is located south of Calgary along Highway 2. Looking much like any other small prairie town, it stands out today in that it’s home to four grain elevators. Perhaps that wouldn’t be so odd some years ago, but now these prairie sentinels are pretty rare and finding even one standing is quite a special treat. Thank goodness someone had the forethought to save them.
There are three former commercial grain elevators here and one smaller seed cleaning plant. The former have been saved by a historical society and tours are offered in the summer. The latter I believe is still operating and while located nearby it is not part of the exhibit (the date it was built is known).
Those who study these structures will instantly recognize an elevator’s pedigree by its “company” colours. While the original owners names have been painted over, the orange seen on one makes it a Pioneer. This company was one of the big players in the Canadian grain industry and their trademark day-glow orange paint could be seen adorning elevators across the prairies. This elevator was built at an unknown date but we do know at time it belonged to The United Grain Growers company.
To increase capacity, an annex was added to the elevator at some point.
Just to the south of the Pioneer elevator is an old coal shed. These used to be very common and many households used domestic coal for heating or cooking. It would be brought in by boxcar and hand shovelled into he shed though the large doors seen in the picture and the coal would then be sold to homeowners and businesses alike. Later coal fell out of favour as many people switched to natural gas and electricity. By the 1950s demand was waning and so many of these sheds were demolished. However a few hung on into the 1960s and even into the 1970s, as there was still limited need for coal in some areas
By the early 1980s it was over and it’s possible the few sheds that were left after this were converted to equipment storage and may even owe their survival to this. The Mossleigh elevators, not terribly far away from Nanton still have their attendant coal shed as well. I am not sure of any others, but welcome feedback on this.
It’s not clear where the coal was sourced from but one could presume the Crowsnest Pass given the close proximity of it to Nanton. It’s also possible it was brought in from the Red Deer River valley near Drumheller. Coal from that area, as I understand it, was superior to Crowsnest Pass coal for domestic heating and cooking. One thing is for certain, unloading the coal must have been a dirty back braking job.
To the north of the Pioneer elevators are two prairie twins, marked in the colours of the Alberta Wheat Pool. Sometimes if extra capacity was needed, they would build a second elevator right beside the first, instead of an annex. While this cost more it meant a greater flexibility. These two date from 1927 and 1936 respectively.
The Pool as it was called, was another of the major players in the industry. After several mergers, the remains of it exist today in a company called Viterra. They still own elevators but these ones are large concrete terminals holding a whole trains worth of grain.
You’ll note these elevators have an extra set of loading pipes and these would allow them to fill two rows of rail cars for greater efficiency. One set of cars would be loaded next to the elevator and another set on a second track set further back. There is a capstan and pulley system here which allowed them to spot the cars at a loading area, dragging them past as each one was filled. Some elevators used tractors to push the cars, accomplishing the same thing.
At various times in history there were a number of other elevators nearby and a picture for example from the 1980s shows a third AWP down the tracks past the seed cleaning plant. I believe there may have been one or two other Pioneer elevators and in the far past, some from independent companies. We take some time to explore some of the elevator’s details – the doors, windows, loading pipe, pigeons that congregate on the building – that sort of thing.
Grain elevators were often the tallest structures in town and Nanton’s are no exception. They tower over downtown, and theys can be seen from far away.
There is an old stock car here, placed on a short stretch of track. At one time cattle travelled to market by train – hard to believe I know. By the 1960s trucks had taken over most of this market, although I believe that some cattle was moved by the railways into the early 1980s. I love how they painted the car in the same colours as the elevators. The history of this car is not known.
The rails used on this siding dates from 1903 and 1908. This might seem odd, but actually rails last a long time and one can occasionally come across lengths that are just as old, on out of the way lightly used sidings and branch lines. Railways always get good use out of their equipment and plant.
The abandoned rail line here is the former CPR MacLeod Subdivision. This branch used to extended from Calgary south to Fort MacLeod and it served a number of small towns like Nanton. Some the subdivision is still used, a section from Calgary to just north of High River. Opened in 1890s most of the line was abandoned in the late 1990s – by then the only products being moved was grain – not a profitable endeavour by that point. This author had a chance to witness some of the last revenue movements on the line at various times in 1996 and 1997 but any photos I took seem to have gone missing (perhaps they’ll turn up).
After viewing the elevators we decided to walk around town a bit, for exercise and to see if there was anything else interesting to study. Near the south edge of town we spotted an old farm house off in a field. I love photographing them as they always have such a wonderful melancholy vibe. Nearby was an old farm truck, a Dodge B series that dates from the late 1940s or early 1950s. It looks complete, almost like it’s ready to be driven away.
Not far away we found an Buick, a 1970 LeSabre I believe. I am a big fan of these old land barges and recall when cars like this were commonplace – back when gas prices were cheap and the cars big and roomy and powerful. There was little worry about things like fuel economy and pollution control. We were so naive back then.
No stop in town would be complete without visit to the Nanton Candy store. It’s a heavenly place with all manner of hard to find and rare goodies available for purchase. It’s like being kid all over again and there are many yummy things here that I have not seen since I was quite young. Such memories! And we walked out with our share of goodies.
Nearby we find an ancient sign on an equally old building, advertising some paint. The view from here, with the old building, the sign and the elevators in back harkens back to a different time. While it’s 2012, all these conspire to make it feel like it was long ago. Nearby we find some well-rotted hold overs from Halloween on the door step of a house.
We passed by the Auditorium Hotel. A fascinating heritage structure, it’s been in continuous operation since 1902. We’ll make it a point to stop in there one day. I found the back of the building interesting and two old doors, clearly original, hint at their past purpose. The lower one is a coal door, and the upper is for hay. Back when the coal was used to heat the place and the hay was for horses of those visiting the establishment. I believe this was the purpose of the doors anyway, based upon seeing other hotel buildings of that era with a similar setup.
On the way back we check out that old house again, and the huge 1970s or 80s era Lincoln that sat nearby.
The Nanton Candy store can be found on the web, here.
If you wish more information on this place, by all means contact us!
Date: December 2012
Location: Nanton, AB.