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Town strives to preserve ag heritage

INGLIS, Man. — Hundreds of small towns in Western Canada have a Main Steet and a Railway Ave.

But Railway Avnue in Inglis, Man. looks nothing like Railway Avenues in most prairie towns.

On the east side of Inglis, five wooden elevators stand adjacent to Railway Ave., which look out of place but special in a community of only 250 people.

The elevators haven’t been used since 1995 when the last train car was loaded with grain, but the buildings have been a national historic site for the last 20 years.

The Inglis Elevators, as they are known, represent an era of Canadian history when grain elevators were a common sight on the prairie horizon.

Inglis is one of a handful of communities that still has an elevator row and the only one to have five.

Marjorie McNeill grew up in a farming community in Alberta that had a row of five elevators.

“(But) I went back to my home town and all the elevators were gone. They just (had) a little plaque with an elevator and it was very, very sad,” she said.

McNeill sits on a local board responsible for preserving and promoting the Inglis elevators, which include a Paterson elevator, two Reliance, a Northern and a United Grain Growers elevator.

McNeill lives across the street from them but never gets tired of looking at the five “Prairie giants.”

“It’s just remembering your childhood and what it was like growing up on the farm and what a great life it was,” she said.

Four of the grain elevators in Inglis, Man., are almost a century old and are a national historic site.  |  Inglis Area Heritage Committee photo

Four of the grain elevators in Inglis, Man., are almost a century old and are a national historic site. | Inglis Area Heritage Committee photo

The structures, four of which were built in the early 1920s and the newest one in the 1940s, appear small compared to modern grain terminals but are particularly impressive inside.

The elevators haven’t changed much from the 1920s. Inglis was at the end of the line and the elevators were always under threat of closure, so the companies invested little in upgrades.

Besides wooden beams, elevator equipment that once moved grain to the bins and the distinct smell of old wood, the buildings are loaded with artifacts from an era when farmers delivered grain to the elevator with a horse and cart.

There are scales for weighing grain, antique equipment for measuring dockage and an old moisture tester that looks like something from a mad scientists’ lab.

One of the finest buildings at the site is the office for the Reliance elevators. The ceiling and walls are clad with tin that’s embossed with a maple leaf. The desk, telephone and clipboards hanging from the walls have an original feel and the office looks like something out of the 1920s or 1930s.

The Paterson elevator features a roomy annex, with more than enough room to host events. It has been used for concerts and workshops but the board hopes to book more cultural events in the space.

“We’re trying to diversify, diversify and diversify. Have a few different things that will draw people in,” McNeill said, noting they plan to build a wall in the annex to display art. “In creating this gallery wall, we hope to partner with arts groups…. to host events or do workshops.”

The board wants to encourage more use because the Inglis elevators do not attract a large number of visitors, despite their status a national historic site. Inglis’s location, 25 kilometres from the Yellowhead Highway in eastern Manitoba, likely deters visitors.

As few as 300 visited a few years ago. Last year, more than 700 people visited Inglis to see the elevators but heritage board members want to push that number higher.

Preserving the structures for future generations is another key goal for the board.

“Our five-year plan is literally painting one elevator per year,” said Judy Bauereiss, board chair.

The board members are volunteers and raising funds for the elevators is nearly a full-time job. They estimate it will require $62,000 annually for five years to complete basic maintenance.

Paterson Foods donated $15,000 to paint its former elevator and the Thomas Sill Foundation has committed $7,500, but more donations are needed.

Many communities across the Prairies struggle to maintain facilities like curling rinks, but Baurereiss hopes the agricultural community recognizes the importance and value of the Inglis elevators.

“The machinery companies and chemical companies are building on the heritage of these elevators and thousands like them (in Western Canada),” she said. “Without the grain industry and the elevators, none of the other (developments in the ag sector) would have happened.”

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