Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/8/2015 (740 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Summer is a season of road trips. For many Manitobans, the idea of driving across the prairie evokes a nostalgic image of a pastoral landscape. A black ribbon of asphalt is seen vanishing toward a razor-sharp divide between golden wheat fields and a brilliant blue sky. The horizon line is broken only by the angular silhouette of a soaring grain elevator, its familiar form appearing in endless repetition as the miles pass behind.
Today, those iconic wooden towers are becoming an increasingly rare feature in this idyllic image. At their peak, almost 6,000 elevators dotted the Canadian Prairies, sitting every 12 to 16 kilometres along the rail lines. Over the past few decades, as family farms and transportation networks have modernized and consolidated, the role of the local town elevator has been lost. Fewer than 10 per cent of those 6,000 are still standing, with only half of those remaining in operation.
Despite this loss, the grain elevator remains a lasting part of Canada's national identity. Its story is found in the DNA of rural life. Elevators have featured prominently in Canadian art and literature, on currency, postage stamps and even on government advertising used to lure European settlers west a century ago.
The first wooden grain elevator in Canada was built in 1879 in Niverville. It was a small, round building powered by two horses. Until this time, grain was stored in flat warehouses (one such example still exists in Brookdale) and brought to market in bags that were loaded by hand. The arrival of the railway presented an opportunity to ship Prairie grain to the world, but this would require a larger and more advanced system of transfer. In response, the modern grain elevator was born.
The most common early elevators rose to a height of 23 metres and were built using a system known as cribbing, in which two-by-four lumber was stacked on the flat, spiked together and dovetailed at the corners. This resulted in walls of solid wood that could withstand the industrial loads. When in action, grain would be delivered into a pit and then lifted by a vertical conveyor belt with cups attached, known as a leg. It was then deposited by gravity into bins, which eventually emptied through a network of ducts into a waiting rail car.
This automation transformed the grain industry, making elevators a conduit to the world and a centrepiece of the western economy. As towns grew up around them, they evolved into more than just buildings used for marketing grain; they became embedded into the identity of rural society.
Although the iconic form is closely identified with Western Canada, as a building type it was imported from the United States. The homogeneity and repetition of the identifiable shape, however, is unique to Canada, a result of the Canadian Pacific Railway offering free land to those who would construct elevators according to its standard plan. The first one would be built in Gretna in 1881. Only recently was it demolished.
It has been argued the characteristic design of the grain elevator represents Canada's only distinct architectural style. In the early 20th century, the fathers of modernist architecture, particularly those in Europe, believed the grain elevator embodied the ideals of their new movement. They saw its distinct shape, dictated by the physical movement of grain, as representing a true example of the modernist dictum "form follows function." Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus in Germany, praised the design for having "no sentimental reverence for tradition." In France, renowned architect Le Corbusier wrote, "Grain elevators are the magnificent first fruits of the new age."
The cultural value of Canada's grain elevators is embedded deep within our collective national story. Once purely functional structures, they are today a symbolic part of the Prairie narrative, representing the transformation of Canada into a modern nation, connected to the world.
With 90 per cent of this legacy already lost, some communities across the West are working to preserve their remaining elevators. In Inglis, Manitoba's last elevator row, made up of five buildings, has been designated a national historic site. A similar collection in Nanton, Alta., is now the Canadian Grain Elevator Discovery Centre. In Plum Coulee, the last wooden grain elevator built in Manitoba (1975) has become a museum and community centre. Dawson Creek's elevator in British Columbia is now a regional arts centre and gallery.
These successful examples of redevelopment represent the exception for the country's remaining historic elevators. Filled with a century of grain dust, the windowless buildings can be difficult to redevelop into places for people. Only with greater public awareness and engagement from federal and provincial jurisdictions will we realize the opportunity our historic grain elevators represent to local communities and the country as a whole. There is no blanket solution for redevelopment. To find success, all stakeholders must work together, responding to the unique conditions of each community.
For inspiration, we might look to the Maritime provinces, where a meaningful dialogue has begun to preserve the remaining historic coastal lighthouses, a very similar piece of our national history. Public awareness of preservation issues is high due to advocacy from Heritage Canada, provincial preservation societies and the National Trust, a non-profit heritage organization that has become a champion of lighthouse protection.
In 2010, the federal Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act was adopted, allowing community groups to nominate structures for heritage designation and work with Parks Canada to access funding and establish business plans for their redevelopment. Through this program, 74 lighthouses recently received heritage protection, and another 75 will likely be listed over the next two years.
Important steps are being taken to preserve Canada's built heritage on the East Coast. Lighthouses and Prairie grain elevators hold a similar place in Canada's national story. It is important we in the West follow the Maritimes' lead and begin advocating for similar preservation and redevelopment efforts for our remaining grain elevators, before the opportunity is missed and their story is lost forever.
Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group.