May 2016– As we travelled across Saskatchewan the challenge was to photograph Grain Elevators. I was looking for the wooden grain elevators, known as the prairie icons, prairie cathedrals or prairie sentinels that were not always clearly visible from the Trans Canada Highway. Now that I am home, and researching about the elevators I have learned that in the 1930’s they numbered close to 6,000 on the prairie landscape.
The heritage value of the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool Elevator is listed as:
- those elements that reflect the use of the elevator and annex for grain handling, including machinery for weighing, elevating and cleaning grain
- those elements that reflect grain elevator architecture including its wood crib-type construction, wood siding, and the “sloping shoulder” profile of the elevator building
- siting of the elevator and annex in their original location adjacent to the railway right of way.
The logistical problem of getting the grain into railway boxcars was first addressed by farmers shoveling their grain into two-bushel sacks, and then transporting to a loading platform along the rail line. They then emptied the sacks into a waiting boxcar, both back-breaking and time-consuming. The industry needed a means of storing and shipping the grain quickly, and small, one-storey wood frame warehouses erected by the farmers was inefficient.
The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) was actively promoting larger, vertical warehouses. To elevate the grain, a mechanism known as the “leg” was devised an endless belt with cups or scoops attached. By offering free land rental the railway encouraged private companies to build the standard 25,000 bushel elevator complete with a leg driven by a steam or gasoline engine as well as equipment to clean the grain. Until the early 1960’s the grain elevators were painted red- the corporate colours of CPR. It was the leg that gave grain elevators their name, determined their shape and set the standards for the uniformity and landscape icon.
As our two day drive progressed across Saskatchewan and as we passed small farming towns, I would look for the train tracks, and then suggest that we head into the town to find the historic grain elevator. The Methodology proved successful, as I now have a portfolio of photographs of elevators. I now understand the workings of a Grain Elevator, and know the engine/office is located at the top of the elevator. I still question the reason for the shape. Why in the wooden grain elevators is the engine in a structure that resembles a “house” with a pitched roof?