Tower Records

Shooting the prairie giants

In 1980, when I was nine, my family moved from Calgary to Spruce Grove, just west of Edmonton. The small city still had a row of grain elevators, which from a distance almost resembled the Gothic cathedrals of Europe. Up close, they were so large and so colourful — and they immediately fascinated me. That same year, we drove to Disneyland, and I decided I was going to record the name of every town we went through by reading the grain elevators. After nearly 3,000 kilometres on the road, I was very disappointed that so few places in the western United States had them.

Eventually, we moved to Sidney, Montana, with its own row of elevators, and then down to Houston, which didn’t have any. After ­finishing high school, I returned to Calgary. One day, I went for a drive in the country and passed through the village of Champion, which had seven wooden grain elevators in the 1920s. I stopped and watched as they demolished one of the few that remained. All you see there now are some abandoned railway sidings.

Once iconic landmarks that might stand twenty-four metres or so — but seem much higher — vintage elevators could hold 30,000 or 40,000 bushels. At one point, there were nearly 6,000 of them in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. After what I saw in Champion, I decided to photograph as many of these tower­ing signposts of the prairies as I could before they all disappeared. Soon I was cruising back roads with my Nikon D610, guided by a map from the 1960s that showed all the old rail lines.

I quickly realized that many of the communities that I saw on my map didn’t even exist anymore. Once modern highways were introduced and the rail lines began to disappear, especially in the ’60s and ’70s, the old giants were more or less obsolete. As they went by the wayside, so did most of the other nearby businesses. The ghost towns I visited — spaced approximately thirteen kilometres apart, so that farmers with wagons could easily deliver their grain — underscored just how important the elevator was to Western Canada for generations.

There were some towns, such as Canuck, Saskatchewan, that had a handful of working elevators, as well as a handful of residents, as late as the mid-1980s. Today, Canuck has a population of zero — just empty houses, a couple of empty stores, and an empty street with grass growing over it. Sometimes, strong winds blow off the roofs of old elevators. In Dankin, there’s a weathered red one — Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, No. 834 — that leans as if it were in Pisa.

For a while, the freight subsidy known as the Crow rate benefited farmers and, by extension, grain elevators. But that was eliminated in 1995. As a result, over half of the structures that were still standing in 2000, many of them owned by co-ops, are now gone. For the most part, the ones that remain are privately owned. Every year, fires take about ten of these, and demolitions remove thirty to forty more, including what might have been the oldest prairie skyscraper still standing: the one in Elva, Manitoba, which was built by Lake of the Woods Milling in 1897 and came down this March. (For what it’s worth, Port Perry, Ontario, claims to be home to “Canada’s Oldest Grain Elevator,” but I haven’t photographed that one.)

When you hear stories from old-timers, it can sound like working at an elevator was the worst job in the world. There were long hours, dusty environments, and extreme temperatures. Yet most people seem to have more fond memories than bad ones.

Sites that still have their classic logos — like “Alberta Pool” or “Barnsley Co-operative Elevator Association” — are particularly captivating. A few of them even have their original scales, outhouses, and offices. I really have to hunt to find these locations. When I do, I try to imagine what life was like back in the ’50s. The farms were more modest in size then, yet they could support an entire family. Just as a couple of elevators could support an entire town.

I realize that many prairie communities are stronger than ever. But they nonetheless seem lonelier to me with fewer and fewer of their once mighty sentinels standing watch.