At the heart of each prairie town was the grain elevator


There are people who have a favourite camping spot and folks who have a favourite cafe for cinnamon buns.

And then there is Jim Pearson, who has a favourite grain elevator.

Pearson, who lives in Delia, Alta., said the elevator in Fusilier, Sask., near the Alberta-Saskatchewan border on Highway 51 is particularly endearing.

“It’s in the middle of nowhere … about 15 miles west of Major (Sask.),” he said.

“It’s a great elevator and it’s so absolutely naked. It’s just sitting there by itself. It’s this really cool sentinel to see when you’re coming into Sask-atchewan.”

As documented in numerous books and economic studies, the abandonment of branch railway lines and the demolition of hundreds of wooden elevators has had an immeasurable impact on small prairie communities over the last three decades.

Dozens, if not hundreds, of small towns were never the same following the loss of the local elevator.

Many fragile communities simply vanished when the elevator and railway line disappeared.

In the wake of the wrecking balls, prairie residents have responded with efforts to preserve remaining wooden elevators.

Others, like Pearson, have dedicated thousands of hours to chronicle their iconic place on the prairie landscape.

Pearson, runs a website called Vanishing Sentinels and has published three books on the remaining grain elevators of three regions of Western Canada: Alberta-British Columbia, western Saskatchewan and eastern Saskatchewan.

He can cite grain elevator statistics on demand.

“As of Sept. 29 (2013) … Alberta has 257 wooden elevators, 42 concrete and 12 steel. Saskatchewan has 462 wooden elevators, 77 concrete and 51 steel.”

Pearson, a graphic artist, grew up on a farm near Delia until his parents moved into town in the late 1970s. He moved to Calgary around 1980.

He returned to Delia in the 1990s and began to notice that elevators were disappearing across Alberta, but no one seemed to care.

In the early 2000s, the Alberta Wheat Pool elevator in Delia burned to the ground and the United Grain Growers elevator was demolished. Pearson and his father drove down to watch the UGG demolition and recover old wood for picture frames. He has never forgotten that day.

“They were taking a backhoe to it and just ripping the crap out of it. That really ticked me off and that really got this project started.”

Pearson estimates he has driven 60,000 kilometres over the last 12 years to photograph, map and record the history of elevators in B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Besides publishing books, Pearson has also established a small enterprise around his fascination with elevators.

He produces elevator calendars and postcards and has a line of miniature grain elevators made from card stock, which are replicas of UGG, Alberta Wheat Pool, Pioneer, P&H, Paterson and National elevators.

As well, because of his endless hours behind the wheel, Pearson is one of few people who can legitimately claim they’ve been in every corner of Saskatchewan.

“A lot of Star Trek fans always call Saskatchewan the undiscovered province…. I can honestly say now it’s not undiscovered because I’ve been to every single place, except south of Saskatoon, a little place called Ardath,” he said.

“There was an elevator there that was literally hit by a train. Somebody forgot to turn the switch to the mainline from the siding and the train came through there and literally demolished the elevator.”

At some point during his journeys, Pearson realized that elevators were much more than buildings that stored grain.

“They were the social centres for the town … especially in the early days when nobody had phones,” he said.

“You could always go in there and have a cup of coffee with the agent and find out who got hit by that hailstorm last night.”

Ernie Neubauer, who manages the Inglis Grain Elevators National Historic Site in Inglis, Man., one of the only remaining elevator rows in Western Canada, described grain elevators’ social function in a more colourful way.

“There was always a hotel right across from the elevator, usually. And a lot of guys would (joke) that there was more whiskey drank in the elevator office than in the hotel,” said Neubauer, who lives in Russell, Man., and worked as a grain buyer for the Sask-atchewan Wheat Pool in Evesham, Sask., in the early 1970s.

Pearson isn’t alone in his fascination with prairie elevators. About two dozen people from Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, who self-identify as “vatorologists,” spend a substantial amount of time, energy and money each year photographing and documenting western Canadian elevators.

“There are 10 to 15 that are super serious,” said Matt Tolton of Car-berry, Man. “Then there’s another 10 to 15 that it’s (a hobby).”

Tolton, who is studying agribusiness at Assiniboine Community College in Brandon, falls into the super serious category. He has witnessed five elevator demolitions and visited 99 percent of the elevators in Manitoba.

“I’ve been to almost every one that is remaining standing,” said Tolton, who has a website displaying his elevator photos, including pictures from obscure towns like Oberon and Mentmore in Manitoba.

“With the exception of a few south of Winnipeg, I’ve seen pretty much every one in the province at least once.”

Tolton said his passion probably began when he was a child in the 1990s.

“I went with my dad to the Cargill elevator that used to be in Sidney, Man., to pick up feed for our pigs. I remember being little and waiting in the truck and just being fascinated.”

Tolton said it’s important to chronicle the existence of elevators be-cause many more will be destroyed in future years.

“Like everything else, once they’re gone they’re gone,” he said.

“They were such important fixtures of the prairie economy. A lot of small towns died once they were gone.”

Last year Pearson was diagnosed was leukemia, which is now under control. Despite the serious illness, Pearson travelled to northeastern Saskatchewan this summer to complete his book on the elevators of eastern Saskatchewan.

With Alberta and Saskatchewan now done, Pearson’s next project is the remaining elevators in Manitoba.

He plans to partner with Tolton on that effort because the 13-hour drive from Delia to southern Manitoba is too onerous.

Nonetheless, Pearson is determined to record every elevator on the Prairies. After visiting hundreds of small towns, he learned that residents diligently document the history of local schools and churches but often neglect their grain elevators.

“What brought everybody (to small towns) in the first place?” he asked.

“It was usually the grain elevators.”

<b>THEN: Controlling the grain octopus</b>

In October, 1979, former Transport Minister Don Mazankowski announced the appointment of Dr. Hugh Horner, deputy premier and minister of economic development in Alberta, as grain transportation co-ordinator.

At that time, Mazankowski said the objectives of the new Grain Transportation Authority were to achieve a 20 percent increase in grain exports in 1979-80 and to help exports reach 30 million tonnes by 1985.

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