Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Remembering the Farm: The Era of Wooden Elevators

Canadian One Dollar Bill 1954
The picture on the back of the 1954 Canadian $1 bill was always a favourite of mine. The narrow gravel road could have been anywhere in the province, with the telephone lines on one side, the power lines farther out in the field on the other side, steep narrow grass-filled ditches and the grain elevator in the background.

The wooden grain elevator, of which hundreds dotted the landscape at regular intervals, was part of my boyhood.  Originally towns (and elevators) were located every 7 miles or so along the railway tracks so that farmers would not have so far to haul their grain in the days of teams and wagons.  Saskatchewan Wheat Pool (SWP), a farmer-owned cooperative, had by far and away the most elevators which were all painted a dull red until sometime in the 60s when they modernized them all to silver.  I felt we lost a bit of our history when that happened.  Little did I know...

1935 calendar.
SWP issued a calendar showing their governance districts and all their elevator locations.  Every year there would be fewer locations as small centres closed, a result of better roads and increased numbers of farm trucks.  As rural communities died, the elevator and post office were usually the last services to go. You will never read the names on the calendars but you may be able to see the frequency of towns along the rail lines.  And note too the disappearance of branch lines.

1975 calendar

When I started school at Cavell, 2 1/2 miles from home by road, 2 miles cross country, the same one-room school my father attended, there was still a railway station, post office, general store (with 10 gallon manual gas pump), two churches and two elevators, both SWP.  One elevator was soon moved to act as an annex to the other so there was only one "elevator agent".

When my Grandpa Johnson quit farming in 1955, Dad bought his '49 Merc one-ton with a hoist.  Up until then we hauled grain with two wagons behind the Massey 44 or one wagon with the team when roads were bad.  The elevator had a hoist to empty trucks and wagons that had none.
Typical elevator, now at North Battleford Western Development Museum

I liked going with dad when he hauled grain, especially in winter.  The two-story office building (silver, to the left above) was always toasty warm.  The water-cooled stationary engine was on the lower floor, connected to the leg by a wide belt which ran under the walk way between elevator and office.  The "leg" (see 3 in photo below) was an endless belt of metal buckets that "elevated" the grain to the top of the elevator, where is could be distributed to bins as desired. You knew when the  agent was loading cars and might have room for grain as you could hear the putt-putt-putt all the way to our farm on a quiet day.

Simplicity itself.  Other than the leg, it was all gravity flow
The picture above shows a top loading grain car.  In the "olden days" grain was shipped by boxcar which was loaded through the sliding side doors with a great deal of effort.  The inside was marked with lines for the allowable depth of grain depending on weight/volume with wheat the heaviest and oats the lightest.  So when someone says they are "full to the oat line" you know they are FULL.

The roads got better; three ton and five ton trucks replaced the one tons; towns got farther apart.  Cavell disappeared bit by bit and Dad started hauling to Landis, 7 miles away, which had two elevators, one SWP, one "Line" ie a corporation.  He didn't like the Pool agent there so hauled to the other elevator company.

The Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) handled all purchases and sales of wheat, barley and oats.  Elevator companies acted as their agents.  There were great advantages to this arrangement.  CWB was the sole seller of Canadian wheat on the world market and could demand a premium price.  Farmers were given an initial price up front and a final price at the end of the year so every farmer got the same money for every bushel sold whether in fall or spring.

As there was limited room at the elevators, farmers were allotted quota based on CWB sales and acres registered in the "Quota books".  In fall every one could haul 6 bushels per quota acre, then depending on sales and the availability of boxcars, extra quota would be announced throughout the year.  Excitement was learning that there were "six boxcars" on the elevator siding and  that the CWB had announced a 2 bushel increase in quota.  When everything worked the bins would be empty of last years crop by the start of harvest.  It didn't always work that way, of course.

SWP Elevator at Swift Current
Elevators continued to close and the remaining ones got larger.  Old putt-putt-putt was replaced by multiple electric motors, more bin space was added, dust collectors became mandatory.  They even got computers.  My Uncle Vince who was an SWP grain buyer for most of his working life called his computer Jennifer because it wouldn't bring him coffee either. (WKRP fans will get this). The picture above is a good example of the epitome of wooden elevator modernization.

About 30 years ago, the "Inland Terminal" became the new standard for grain elevators and the wooden elevator was doomed.  Sidings that would hold 50 to 100 grain tank cars cut railway freight costs compared to the days of collecting five or ten boxcars at a time.  Farmers any distance from these giant elevators found it cheaper to contract their grain hauling to commercial trucking firms.  Elevators closed and were torn down, branch lines closed and were pulled up.  the days you could look in any direction and see the next town or the next three towns because of the wooden elevators, were history.

In a cooperative, equity is a liability not an asset as it is owed to the members on retirement. As such it is not useful as security to a company needing money for expansion or modernization.  SWP was in a bind as it needed to replace its aging fleet of wooden elevators to be competitive.  As well many of its members were reaching the age of retirement.  Paying out all the equity owed would bankrupt the cooperative.  It became a corporation and all equity was converted to shares.  Do not ask how that turned out for older farmers.

Viterra Elevator at Assiniboia

Other farmer owned elevator companies were going through the same struggles and eventually Manitoba and Alberta Wheat Pools joined forces with United Grain Growers to form one company.  Which was then bought up by SWP, becoming Viterra in the process.  The days of farmer-owned grain companies were over in Western Canada.

Viterra is in process of being bought up by Swiss based Glencore, a commodity trading house giant with annual revenues in 2010 of $145 billion, which controls 3% of the world's daily oil consumption and 55% of the world's zinc and 36% of copper trade.

And I felt bad when SWP painted their dark red elevators silver.


  1. It's all called "progress," BF.

    If that's an example of progress, I would prefer to do without, thank you.

  2. Nice to find a fellow "prairie kid". Only one of the original three grain elevators is still standing in Culross, Manitoba (population 2), the town closest to the farm where I grew up. The elevator is (and was) white, and I always like the red Saskatchewan models better. :-)

    1. RB, I know about "progress". It is only different, never better.
      DH, thanks for dropping by. Your books sound like the kind my oldest daughter reads so sent you your blog link. Come round again.

  3. Not into grain elevators, but we have had a number of narrow gauge railroads in rural Maine. There are still a few around that have been preserved by railroad enthusiast.
    the Ol'Buzzard

  4. I lived for 11 years in Toronto, 1956-1967 and remember that Canadian Dollar. I remember admiring that scene so many times. Being a kid from the coast (Boston), I had never seen such a thing up close and personal. For my bi-centennial project I drove across Canada (I missed the Canadian Centennial because I was still in school). I remember the vast expanses across Saskatchewan. Really quite unlike anything I had ever seen.

    1. Fr. Paul, thanks so much for dropping by and commenting. I am glad you were able to drive across Canada in 76, including the prairies. There is a story of a Japanese student on a bus from Calgary to Regina just staring out the window. When asked what he was looking at, he relied "Nothing. I have never seen 'Nothing' before and it is wonderful."
      I have never been to Boston but to Beijing, Istanbul, Moscow. I prefer 'nothing' but Ukraine is the same size as Saskatchewan. Sask has 1 million people, Ukraine 45 million. Not much 'nothing' here.

  5. This was a good post, Papa.

    1. Thanks, Ky, for the approval. It was written for you kids so I am glad at least one of you saw it.

  6. My grandfather used to build these.I think he built the one on the dollar bill.I would like any info that is relayed

  7. His company was Elavator builders limited

  8. Gary, that is pretty much all I know. SWP used to have their own construction company to build and repair the wooden elevators. It was shut down years ago and I have no idea who might know anything about it.

  9. Life seems to be so that arranged that gains bring losses and losses bring gains.

    1. A stable world is constantly changing. You are right about that - losses and gains - and round we go again.

  10. Thank you for this fine post; very informative! I lived in a rural Alberta village as a youth during the '60's and early '70's, and I well remember the wooden elevators and railway branch lines. I miss what was present during that era, and with some reluctance accept those changes that are always inevitable.

  11. Bob, glad you liked the post. It is hard to see the world we knew changing around us but change is constant so we embrace it and move on, I guess.


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