An article by Chris & Connie.
There is an old wood-cribbed grain elevator in Plenty Saskatchewan, which we’ll be looking at here. These once common buildings, which could be seen all over the prairies, are pretty few and far between today, most of them having been torn down in the last couple decades. This one is even more unique as it’s still being used to process grain for loading into rail cars.
The building can be found right in town. It’s sits alongside a sleepy railway branch line and is in fact the furthest customer at the extreme east end of this stretch of track. There has been an elevator on this exact spot since the 1910s. The current building is from the early 1960s – some reports say it was rebuilt from that old elevator, but research suggests it was an entirely new replacement building constructed on the same plot of land.
The elevator complex has two steel bin annexes on the west end, recent additions from the last twenty years or so. The two wood annexes on the east side are much older (exact date unknown). An annex, by the way, was a cheap, easy and very common way to increase a facility’s capacity. Note one of the wooden ones has remnants of some old faded lettering on its sides.
The previous owner of the building was the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool. This firm was founded in the 1920s but has roots that go back a decade or so before that – a predecessors firm was the Saskatchewan Cooperative Elevator Company, who in fact built that older elevator we spoke of earlier. The Pool was for most of its history Canada’s largest grain handling firm and they had hundred and hundreds of elevators across the province. Always a farmer owned cooperative, they merged with a rival less than a decade ago and are no more.
In the early 2000s, the Pool sold the elevator to a small farmer owned operator, Prairie West Terminal. That group was absorbed recently by the Canadian Wheat Board, once an arm of the government but now privatized. The CWB itself was recently acquired by an investment group, G3 Canada. Prairie West had several elevators outside the one in Plenty, all in the same general area, and now CWB/G3 facilities. Most were wooden elevators, but one was a huge inland terminal made of concrete, located not far away and is seen and discussed briefly in this report.
The Plenty elevator is listed as handling Barley only which makes it a sort of niche market facility. There is room, according to the company, for twenty or so railcars to be loaded.
There used to be three other grain elevators in Plenty, all built in the 1910s and closed by the 1980s. Grain companies from the past once represented here include United Grain Growers, Federal Grain and Searle Grain. Via mergers and acquisitions, a common occurrence in the industry, the Pool by the 1970s ended up owning all these others. A firm having more than one facility in any one town was not all that odd.
A traditional wooden elevator still being used today is pretty rare. There used to be several thousands of them in the province back in the day, built from the early 1900s well into the 1980s. Every town had one or more. Today there a four hundred or so left. Most are in private hands (many sitting alongside former rail lines) and are often used for grain storage by farmers or farm groups, a few are museums, some are simply abandoned.
The concrete elevator outside town, which we visited only briefly, account a time crunch, dates from the 1990s. It originally belonged to partners PWT and Agricore (merged Alberta and Manitoba Pools), later Agricore United (with the additions of United Grain Growers). PWT took it over completely in the early 2000s. Recall, it’s a CWB/G3 property now. The grain industry is always in flux, if that’s not obvious already.
This loading point is referred to by the railway as “Prairie West” or simply as “the Concrete”. Able to fill a complete train’s worth of grain cars in one pass, these sort of high-throughput loading terminals are now the norm. The transition from small town wood elevator, starting in the 1990s, to these behemoths, was brutal and swift (a true paradigm shift to use that overused phrase). Thousands of the old ones were torn down in the span of a few years.
The track serving both elevators belongs to the CPR and is their Kerrobert Subdivision built in the early 1910s. This stretch of track runs from its namesake town in the west, where it connected with other lines, all the way to Plenty. There are rails still in place beyond but they’re not used and are likely to be pulled up soon. Trains runs on an as-needed basis, depending on grain markets. Lucky us, we happened to catch one. This line is one of the few traditional grain branches still in operation and one of a tiny handful not run by short line company (who are generally seen as more efficient operators).
Prairie West has a small fleet of railcars, some of which were seen at the wooden elevator. These are old Government grain hoppers built in the 1970s. Battered, rusty and still wearing old logos, they are nearing the end of their service lives.
Plenty Saskatchewan was founded around the time the railway arrived. Grain farming held great promise and the place was heralded as the “Land of Plenty”. Today, some hundred and twenty or so people live in town.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: June, 2015.
Location: Plenty, SK.
Article references: Prairie West Terminal, Canadian Pacific Railway records, Book: Land of Plenty.
The elevators are not publicly accessible but can be viewed from nearby roads.