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This article was published 6/9/2017 (1267 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
They’ve been called prairie sentinels, serving for decades as architectural beacons on the horizontal landscape.
Grain elevators rose above villages and towns, with the name of the community emblazoned on their sides. They were essentially wooden bank towers, too, storing and distributing the grain that was the region’s financial backbone.
Over the last few decades, however, thousands of wooden grain elevators that once populated the Prairies have been torn down, relocated or burned.
Matt Bialek and his father, Randy, would like to save just one: a 35,000-bushel structure in Tyndall — a village located on Highway 44, west of Beausejour — one of the last working wooden elevators in eastern Manitoba.
"Agriculture has played such a massive role in our past," said Matt, 35. "It amazes me how in one or two generations we’ve lost such a huge portion of our agricultural roots.
"The disconnect between the present and past is so pronounced," he added. "We’re seeing such a monumental technical shift, what took generations to forget in the past is now being forgotten in a matter of decades. And if we don’t save history like this... in the next 20 years, we’ll have no concept of how we got to where we are."
The disappearance of grain elevators from the prairie landscape isn’t new. In the 1990s, the wooden structures began to be replaced (there were some 5,000 in the Prairie provinces in the 1930s) by larger facilities built mainly of concrete.
Gordon Goldsborough of the Manitoba Historical Society estimates there are only about 100 wooden elevators remaining in Manitoba, as they became casualties of the shift to larger farming operations. Five were demolished this year alone, he said.
"Agriculture, no matter what part of it you look at, it’s either go big or go home," Goldsborough said. "The farmers have to have great big equipment, they have to have huge tracts of land and, correspondingly, the companies that handle the grain need these enormous concrete terminals instead of little wooden elevators.
"We have a vanishing resource that was once ubiquitous. We should at least be mindful to keep some of them as a reminder of what used to be. Not every one, but at least some."
Of the estimated 100 remaining, many are inoperable or beyond repair. Some are privately owned. They continue to disappear because their life expectancy is closing fast.
The Tyndall elevator, built in the 1940s, has been in the Bialek family for more than 40 years, originally purchased by Matt’s grandfather, Ed, in the early 1970s. Randy Bialek used the elevator to dry grain up until about three years ago.
Now the Bialeks, along with the MHS, are trying to lobby local governments to help preserve the elevator. They’ve also made preliminary efforts to try and line up private sponsors and donations.
After first planning to relocate the elevator to Beausejour, the Bialeks have instead decided to try and turn the wooden structure into a living museum in Tyndall. That could cost up to $200,000, including walking paths and a community garden.
The project, called "Harvest Our Past", is also an attempt to preserve one of the last remnants of what was to be the first transcontinental railway across Canada, the Bialeks said.
After all, the line, which was built through Tyndall and Beausejour in the 1880s, was supposed to continue through Selkirk — then intended to be the Manitoba capital — heading out west. But aggressive lobbying from Winnipeg city fathers (and possibly some bribery) convinced railway officials and politicians to make a hard turn south at East Selkirk.
Still, communities in the region rose up around the elevators that dotted the land, each about 10 to 15 kilometres apart; or about the distance a farmer on a horse and wagon to deliver grain in a day at the turn of the century.
"When I was a young kid, there was an elevator every seven, 10 miles in our municipality," said Randy Bialek, a 63-year-old grain dealer. "Then either fire or demolition took all of them down. It’s just a piece of prairie history we’d like to keep alive if we can."
The Bialeks said they are prepared to donate the land on which the elevator stands, if the RM of Brokenhead will agree to a land swap. If their efforts to preserve the elevator are fruitless, it will be torn down.
Demolishing the elevator will be a last resort, the family said.
"In this day and age, people are looking for a connection to their roots... you get to see where you came from," Matt noted, adding many local residents still refer to the building as "my elevator."
"People look at the Tyndall elevator as their home beacon," he said. "When they look in the sky, they know they’re home."
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Randy Turner spent much of his journalistic career on the road. A lot of roads. Dirt roads, snow-packed roads, U.S. interstates and foreign highways. In other words, he got a lot of kilometres on the odometer, if you know what we mean.