Bold vator mission comes to a close

Alberta man dies after dedicating his life to protecting the heritage of country grain elevators on the Prairies

More than 17 years ago, when Jim Pearson was having dinner with his parents, he had a sudden notion.

He’d been angry since the 9/11 terrorist bombings in New York City several months earlier. A few days after the attack his mother had surgery for breast cancer.

Several weeks after 9/11, the Alberta Wheat Pool elevator burned to the ground in his hometown of Delia, Alta., a village 45 kilometre northeast of Drumheller. And then in July, 2002 Delia’s United Grain Growers elevator was torn down.

It was too much for Pearson. He told his parents he was seized by a special mission. He was going to local libraries to learn more about Alberta’s historic wooden country grain elevators, once numbering more than 1,700 but down to just a couple of hundred in 2002. His initial goal was to create a map showing the location of every one of them, past and present.

“I believe the combined anger and emotions he experienced by the 9/11 tragedy and the loss of Delia’s elevator was the catalyst that channelled his focus to help him create what eventually became Vanishing Sentinels,” said Pearson’s younger sister, Carmen Davis.

Her brother had been diagnosed a few years earlier with Asperger syndrome, a form of autism causing significant difficulties with social interaction.

“He suffered bullying, self-doubt and depression most of his life and it was a tremendous relief for him to finally have an understanding of himself,” said Davis.

“He embraced the diagnosis and basically said to the world, ‘this is me, like me or don’t. Accept me or don’t, but this is me.”

Within a few short years her proudly eccentric brother, who was also a passionate Star Trek fan, had not only created his Vanishing Sentinels website, but also documented thousands of country grain elevators. At his own expense, he vigorously collected information anywhere he could, from libraries, academic and corporate books and reports, provincial and national archives and hundreds of one-on-one interviews.

Along the way he self-published four books. Pearson, a schooled graphic artist, also meticulously created hundreds of card stock grain elevators and calendars, which he brought with him to countless presentations at schools, historical societies and local museums.

“I remember walking into a conference room and seeing a table full of miniature grain elevators,” recalled Jason Paul Sailer, a Lethbridge architectural technologist and president of the Ogilvie Wooden Grain Elevator Society, which is working to preserve the 94-year-old Ogilvie Flour Mills grain elevator in Wrentham, Alta.

“As soon as he saw me, he stuck out his hand for a handshake. I had to ask him about the card stock elevators. There were literally hundreds of them on the table, different colours, companies, sizes, and all handmade.

“Jim mentioned he was intrigued with our Wrentham project and if we ever needed anything he would gladly help. He offered to put some advertising on his web page for us, which we accepted — anything to help us get the project rolling.”

Pearson also made himself available whenever he got wind that another grain elevator was facing imminent demolition. He would immediately load up his car and race to the doomed sentinel. He eagerly chatted with media to spread the message of preserving the iconic structure’s memories and historical importance for future generations.

By this time Pearson proudly labelled himself a “vatorologist” and led a small but dedicated community of writers, photographers and grain elevator enthusiasts who followed his inspiration to preserve the memories of the iconic vator, the pioneer symbol of Western Canada’s quest for prosperity on the untamed and unbroken prairie.

Along the way every vatorologist was in awe of Pearson’s knowledge, commitment, perseverance and courage in the face of constant adversity.

“For him, specifically, it was all about the grain elevators, those prairie sentinels once so common out this way but now few in number and with most but a memory,” said Calgary writer Chris Doering, co-owner with his wife, Connie, of the heritage journalism blog site, Off The Beaten Path with Chris & Connie.

“He’d think nothing of driving hours across country to get the photos, to get the facts. It had to be done. With no one else stepping up, it became his to do.

“He was an inspiration.… We originally thought him crazy but now see he was a visionary.”

Pearson, revered by thousands for his never-ending quest to “save the past for the future,” died Dec. 30 at his Drumheller, Alta., home at the age of 57.

He had been seriously ill for the past few years, but never wavered from his mission. Just six weeks earlier he enthusiastically accepted an invitation to speak at a grain elevator photography show in Olds, Alta.

Hundreds of family members, friends, vatorologists and Trekkies gathered for Pearson’s Jan. 11 memorial service in Drumheller. The Trekkies, noting Pearson was the man who designed the Starship Enterprise monument at the Vulcan Tourism and Trek Station in Vulcan, Alta., came in full costume to salute their friend.

“I’ll never look at it (Starship) the same again,” said Trekkie Russell Skeet, a morning news anchor for Golden West Radio in High River, Alta.

“There’s already a move afoot among Jim’s friends to have a plaque made to be placed on the base of the Starship to commemorate Jim.”

As for the dozen vatorologists who attended the memorial service, they later assembled down the main Badlands highway at the ghost town of Dorothy for a tribute photo near the threatened ancient country grain elevator.

“His work was unprecedented,” said Matthew Tolton, a Manitoba grain elevator enthusiast who joined the gathering in Dorothy.

“I was honoured to be able to collaborate on his Manitoba book and contribute photos. I intend to carry on his passion with Manitoba’s elevators, but his shoes will never be filled.”

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