In the small Manitoba town of Clearwater, a hundred-year-old grain elevator has recently been put back into operation by the Stewarts, a local farming family. Long considered hoary old icons of bygone days, these buildings are rarely thought of as relevant to 21st-century agriculture. Their ingenious and enduring construction, however, allows at least some of them to continue shouldering their traditional heavy load of grain crops and rural pride.
Travellers crossing the prairie quickly discover the charismatic presence of grain elevators, which punctuate the flat plains with vertical presence. Perspective seems to affect grain elevators more than other buildings: they are monumental from up close, but quickly vanish into miniature from almost any distance, dwarfed by vast skies and horizontal expanses. Conspicuous height is required by their function, which is to use gravity and ingenuity to efficiently store and convey large volumes of grain to waiting trucks or railway cars. Their immediate magnificence made them signposts of prairie community. Elevators are traditionally emblazoned with corporate or co-operative branding but also the name of the town or hamlet where they are situated. They have thus always performed a double function: anchoring the logistics of agricultural prosperity and visually announcing rural presence and community.
There are few buildings more iconic than the grain elevator, and even fewer that have experienced such drastic changes in connotation over the years. These structures were once scattered by the thousands across the west. In recent decades, however, the majority have fallen into disuse and been demolished to prevent their collapse into dangerous ruin. Noting that these monuments of economic success have become mementos of dying small-town culture has become a prairie cliche but nonetheless reflects the profound loss of community and identity that has swept the prairies since mid-century. A grain elevator that finds new life in agricultural productivity and not mere ruination offers a striking exception to the rule of decline. It also attests to the possibility of finding enduring value and utility in these buildings, and doing so, paradoxically, thanks to some of the same economic forces that sentenced them, and by implication small prairie towns, to atrophy from neglect.
Economies of scale and transport left the classic old buildings abandoned as historical artifacts. The fate of the elevators has always been intertwined with the evolution of rail transportation. By their heyday in the 1930s, as many as 5000 grain elevators appeared every 12 to 16 kilometers along the rail lines to serve local farmers, who would deliver grain by horse and wagon. Come mid-century, however, horse-drawn transportation was giving way to motorized trucking capable of carrying more grain farther distances. The CNR started closing and consolidating its rural branch lines in the late 1970s. Removing the rail lines orphaned the grain elevators that relied on them, and these old buildings were abandoned in droves. A scant several hundred remain standing today.
Of course rural communities had also grown up along the railroad lines, often around the grain elevators as local centres of commerce. The expansion of the railroad profoundly structured colonial settlement of the western provinces, and the contraction of that network challenged the viability and identity of the communities that had developed along with it. Over recent decades, a handful of prairie towns have managed to restore and preserve their elevators as heritage buildings, but only a very few have actually been reclaimed for farming.
Enter the story of the Clearwater elevator. It was originally built in nearby Crystal City sometime in the early 1910s, but was erected on poorly laid foundations and sat idle until 1916 when it was disassembled, moved down the line to Clearwater, and rebuilt. An astonishing amount of labour must have been required to achieve this undertaking. The elevator stands several stories tall and is massively built. Its soaring walls are solid wood six inches thick, and it is reinforced throughout with enormous tie beams.
This robust engineering is one reason it has been able to endure the passage of time. When the Stewart family took it over, engineers gave it a clean bill of structural health. This means the building was carefully used as well as properly built. Despite their massive construction, elevators can store such a huge weight of grain that it is possible tip the whole building if it is unevenly loaded. The grain bins are therefore filled alternately on the front and back of the building to prevent it from unbalancing or coming apart with the sheer mass of grain.
The railroad tracks servicing Clearwater were removed about four years ago, although train service was cancelled long before then. The building had stopped operating as a full-time elevator in 2001 when it was taken over by a feed company for use as a grain mill and as occasional storage for local farmers. The Stewart family was among those renting bin space in the building, and they had discussed for years the possibility of taking it over to put it back into traditional service. The Stewart farm, with 2000 acres in grain, is larger than the average Manitoba farm, which is about half this size. In addition to grain farming, the Stewarts also raise and feed several hundred cattle. The presence of the feed-milling equipment at the elevator made it a doubly attractive resource, inasmuch as it could meet their growing grain storage requirements as well as help feed their herd.
Modern shipping logistics have consolidated grain storage into fewer, larger facilities. Whereas the old wooden elevators typically had room for tens of thousands of bushels of grain, new elevators typically hold hundreds of thousands, and those at shipping terminals hold millions. So the Clearwater elevator has a very modest capacity by modern standards. It nonetheless holds far more grain than single producers of its era would have needed to store. If the consolidation of transit and storage facilities has tended to make these older, smaller buildings irrelevant, then farm consolidation offers them purpose again. Big family farms, such as the Stewarts’, operate on a far larger scale than their historical predecessors, and have storage needs that approach those of entire communities of a hundred years ago. The general obsolescence of these old structures has, at least in this case, been overcome by the very economies of scale and modernization that might otherwise have doomed it to neglect and decay.
No doubt in part because grain elevators are seen as relics of days gone by, the Stewarts were able to buy the old building for what Greg Stewart calls “a fraction” of the cost of constructing new steel granaries. Their biggest financial and administrative challenge, he reports, was finding an insurer who would cover the building against wind damage. Grain elevator construction experts certified its structural integrity in 2010, and it has been handling grain for the Stewarts ever since.
For all that farming has changed in the past hundred years, the basic problems grain elevators were built to solve – loading, storing, and unloading grain – remain the same. Modernist architecture icon Le Corbusier found inspiration in the perfectly simple utility of the grain elevator. Its ingenious use of gravity and the fluid properties of grain make its design seem almost inevitable in retrospect. Grain elevators are so called because their primary mechanical function is to elevate grain: a steam, diesel, or electric motor drives a conveyor belt that hauls grain upwards through the central “leg” and out through a distributor system into storage bins. Gravity then serves to unload it again. Pulling the correct rope or lever opens a trapdoor to release the grain, which flows down through the chutes like water.
Almost all of the functions of the elevator are operated with basic mechanical devices such as levers, pulleys, and counterweights. The building contains only two motors: one to lift the grain from the loading pit to the distributor head, and another to pull grain laterally to and from the annex, a secondary set of storage bins. This simplicity of design and function allows a hundred-year-old industrial building to remain productive and functional, despite its obvious patina of age and the decades of sedimented grain dust texturing its timbers.
Not that time has passed this place by. Rather, the elevator is a patchwork of tradition and modernity. From the vantage point of the office one can see both a screen saver sweeping across a computer monitor and the old manual rope-and-pulley lift workers use to haul themselves up to the upper reaches of the building. The weigh scale is digital, record-keeping and commodity prices are computerized, and a closed-circuit camera system keeps an eye on grain trucks are they are filled. The building’s antique mechanisms and rough construction are utilitarian proof of the continued need for its basic purpose but also provide an anachronistic backdrop to the 21st-century aspects of contemporary agriculture. In perhaps the best image of the last century meeting the next, this venerable building hosts the networking hardware that brings high-speed Internet to Clearwater. If the absence of steel tracks in the railway bed outside signifies a trajectory of economic obsolescence, the presence of fresh grain dust and ethernet cables proves that this building still has a productive and multi-faceted role to play in its community.
The decline of the grain elevators has long been associated with the crisis of rural identity, and their absence has become a nostalgic story of loss. In Clearwater, however, the Stewarts are proving that the history of farming can be a viable part of its present, and that the elegant engineering of the traditional grain elevator can still capably serve the modern agricultural world.