The Canadian Grain Elevator Discovery Centre, a museum located in Nanton Alberta, showcases the once common prairie sentinel. These buildings, at one time, could be found all across the west – near every town in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, it seemed, had one or more – but today few remain. Included in that short list of survivors are the three grain elevators seen here (well, technically four) which sit alongside the roadbed of an abandoned railway line not from the town’s core.
The first elevator is actually comprised of two buildings placed side by side, and is known as a twin. The one on the right, when looking at it from the train track side, dates from 1927. It’s the smaller of the two buildings, by a fraction. The second elevator was constructed beside it in 1936.
These buildings wear the company colours of the Alberta Wheat Pool, a former owner and the firm that constructed them. You’ll notice they have the town’s name emblazoned across them. You always knew where you were on the prairies by simply looking at a grain elevator.
The Alberta Wheat Pool (AWP), or simply the Pool as it was often known, was at one time the biggest grain handler in the province. Joining up with some competitors, starting in the late 1990s, they have since been merged out of existence.
The orange elevator next door once belonged to Pioneer Grain – that’s their company colours – a good sized player in the Canadian grain industry, known today as Richardson Pioneer. We have not been able to verify exactly when the structure was built. Some sources say the late 1910s, the early 1920s, others still, later that same decade. Based on its appearance, size and layout that seems close anyway, it’s an oldie. Some people we spoke with mentioned the building once belonged to the firm United Grain Growers (elevators changing hands was quite common in the industry).
The annex on the one side, it’s believed dates from the 1940s. These sorts of additions were an easy way to increase the capacity of an elevator.
The Pioneer still has its coal shed. Elevator companies, besides marketing and distributing grain, also had other business side lines, including the sale of coal. At one time, before electricity or gas was commonly available in rural areas, that fuel was used to heat and cook with. The market for it dried up for the most part in the 1950s and 60s and to find an extant coal shed today is pretty rare. We know of only a few others.
Both elevator complexes at some unknown date were modified, with a second loading station being added on a second parallel track, in an effort to make the filling of cars more efficient. This meant that two groups of grain hoppers could be loaded at a time, instead of one.
You’ll notice a winch capstan in the one photo at the base of the twins. This acted on a cable which was used to move the cars as they were filled.
South of the Pioneer is a small elevator, built in the late 1950s, and not part of the museum. This is a seed cleaning plant and was not ever used to load rail cars even though it sat alongside the tracks. Most aficionados wouldn’t consider it a true elevator.
At one time there used to be many other elevators in Nanton, all of them long gone. The lineage of most is rather sketchy and is lost to the winds of time. Anyway that’s really beyond the scope of this article.
While elevators across the province were being torn down at an incredible rate in the 1990s and early 2000s, someone had the forethought to save these ones, that work finally coming to fruition in 2010 when the Canadian Grain Elevator Discovery Centre opened. On our visit, we toured the inside of the buildings but unfortunately all photos shot there turned out pretty bad.
Outside a fellow had brought in an old engine, which was typical of those that once powered the machinery inside these buildings. He got the old beast running after a good deal of fiddling.
The museum’s elevators are three of roughly two hundred and fifty extant wooded grain elevators left in the province, as of the writing of this article. At the peak, in the 1930s, there were some seventeen hundred! Some are museums like what’s seen here and have a good future. For others however, those used by farmers for grain storage, those that are abandoned and others, the outlook is not as rosy. More will fall, that’s certain, especially for those whose usefulness has come to an end (we known of many).
The track that once passed here is the CPR’s former MacLeod branch that ran south from Calgary through Nanton, and many other small prairie towns, on its way to Fort MacLeod. This line was constructed in the 1890s and closed roughly a century later. We lost a lot of grain handling branch lines, this one included, in the 1990s and early 2000s, due to consolidations and changes in the grain industry and the resultant wholesale abandonment of those lines.
The museum group has built a short stretch of track in front of the grain elevators. Rather then place a grain hopper or boxcar here, they’ve for some unexplained reason, even the people working there did not know why, have placed a stock car there instead. Now these were also common in the old days, but would not have occupied the grain loading tracks. I scratch my head…
Nanton was founded in the early part of the twentieth century. The town today is home to a couple thousand people and has a very nice historic downtown, the museum we spoke of, and another that focuses on airplanes. And a candy store! Can’t forget that!
If you like grain elevators…
Prairie Sentinels – Woodhouse Alberta – Vandervalk Farm.
Prairie Sentinels – Neidpath Saskatchewan.
Prairie Sentinels – Coderre Saskatchewan.
Prairie Sentinels – Three Hills Alberta.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: June, 2014.
Location: Nanton, AB.
All the places seen in this report are publicly accessible.