Grain Elevators: Vanishing Giants of Canadian Prairies

This summer during my epic road trip to and from Northwestern Ontario, I attempted to stop and take pictures of all grain elevators along the way. On the eastward portion of my journey, I traveled with my sister, Sharon. We were taking our Mother’s remains back to Kakabeka Falls, Ontario. Mom’s wish was to be buried next to my dad. My sister and I were fulfilling her wish.  (I wrote a series of posts related to my mother’s passing which can be read starting here.)

As we began our journey, I warned her I was going to stop and take pictures of every grain elevator I saw along. She said she was game and indulged my fascination. Well, for the first couple of days anyway. On day three her indulgence was beginning to wane. I still squealed with delight when a grain elevator came into view in the distance. But more and more, I made excuses to not stop; too far off the road was the main excuse.

Going east, we had a bit of a time constraint, as we needed to be in Kakabeka by a certain date. Which meant, that sadly, I had to pass by a few grain elevators along the way without stopping. 

 I told myself, I would get it on the way back. But, I didn’t follow the exact same route on the way back, and sadly missed some. Which, in my mind, just means another road trip will be required.

Vanishing Giants

These vanishing giants are a testament to a bygone era when the prairies were populated by farmers who owned a manageable piece of land, where they could grow grain and support their families. The grain elevators dotted the landscape every 8-13 km (5-8 Miles), the distance of a good day’s haul by wagon. Some towns, depending on the number of nearby farmers, boasted more than one or two grain elevators.

Grain Elevators Carievale, SK
Grain Elevators Nanton AB

Driving down the highway, you can see the grain elevator, before any other sign of the towns presence. In the towns, they sit along the railroad tracks next to a street aptly named Railway Ave.

Small towns along the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific rail lines were thriving, small towns that were home to these farmers who worked the land for generations. The railway was the means by which these farmers got their grain to market. 

But times changed.

Grain Elevator, Cabri SK

New farm technology allowed one farm to work larger pieces of land. Small family farms sold to larger run operations.

But the biggest blow of all came from the railroad companies. Citing budget cuts, the railways closed down rail lines that served many of these small communities and their grain elevators. Those small towns have sadly lost most of their population.

The Old grain elevators that served as beacons on the prairie landscape are being lost. Many have been taken down. Some luckily are still in use and served by the rail lines that still traverse the Canadian Prairies. Modern metal structures, that don’t have the same romantic visual appeal replaced some of the old wooden structures.

Where they are still standing, they are weather-worn. Their colours and lettering are fading, boards are drying, and gaps are appearing. Their only inhabitants, pigeons.

Grain Elevator Waseca SK

A New Life for Grain Elevators

There were a couple that I saw with for sale signs and it made me wonder if someone could turn old industrial buildings and water towers into homes, why couldn’t it be possible with an old grain elevator. I think it would be amazing to live in a repurposed old grain elevator. Think of the views.

And with this question in mind, I came across a paper written by Ali Piwowar. In her Architectural theses, titled, Living heritage: Re-imagining Wooden Crib Grain Elevators in Saskatchewan, she addresses the possibility of repurposing these prairie giants into useful public space. Wouldn’t it be amazing if in every small town still boasting a grain elevator the community could turn it into a useable space? She gave an interview with her which aired on CBC Radio, you can read it or listen to a short video in which she explains her idea. 

But I digress, now to return to my travelogue.

Grain Elevators on the Red Coat Trail

On our third day of traveling, we were driving East on the Red Coat Trail. A number of the highways in Canada have a name derived from historical significance. The Red Coat Trail is named after the early Northwest Mounted Police (renamed The Royal Canadian Mounted Police in 1920).

These historic trails have signposts indicative of their names. This picture I took of the Red Coat Trail sign depicts a Mountie wearing the original pillbox hat. 

Sharon enjoyed this historical significance and consequently I was able to cash in on it. Here’s how it played out. 

When we were approaching Redvers, Saskatchewan. I did my usual squeal of delight at the first sighting of a grain elevator. By this time, she was beginning to roll her eyes, and I thought I might be passing this one by as well.

When we drove into town, what should greet us, but a large statue of a Red Coat Mountie with the pillbox hat sitting atop his horse, just like the one depicted on the signposts.

Mountie with a Pillbox hat
Red Coat Trail signage

Now my sister was getting excited. Of course, I wanted to please her, so I pulled off the highway and into the parking lot next to the Information Centre, which was inside an old log cabin with the statue in front.

While we were taking pictures of the statue a lady came out of the cabin. We chatted with her for a moment, and she mentioned they had Saskatoon Pie and ice cream on the coffee shop menu. My sister and I looked at each other and smiled. We gave in to the temptation of a berry pie neither of us had tasted in years.

Saskatoon Pie and Ice Cream

We had a nice visit with the locals, and after our pie and ice cream went out to the car to hit the road again, as we wanted to make it into Manitoba before stopping for the night.  Once in the car, and our seat belts fastened, I had my hand on the ignition and turned to my sister as the engine came to life.

“So, can I take some pictures of the grain elevator now?”

Grain Elevator, Redvers Saskatchewan

She laughed, considering I had buttered her up with a Mountie statue and pie, “Definitely,” was her reply.

In contrast, when I was traveling home alone, I did not have the same time constraints and I was able to indulge my desire to stop at every grain elevator along the way. And stop I did.

I will share a few more pictures of grain elevators in coming posts about my summer travels. So stay tuned, another post will be coming at you next week, in keeping with my travel theme Thursdays.

In the meantime, leave me a comment and share with me a story of a grain elevator from your life and travels.

Is there something in your travels, that always draws you, and you never tire of?

8 thoughts on “Grain Elevators: Vanishing Giants of Canadian Prairies”

  1. Hi Kelly, enjoyed this beginning of the road trip ! I have no experience with prairie life, but I do love the grain elevators. When I travel, I am always fascinated with doors ! Traveling to Mexico, I have been obsessed with tile flooring, and in the Mediterranean I was always looking for mosaics. The more colour the better in all cases !

    1. Hello Barenda,
      I love doors too. I’ll go through my pictures and see what I have and post them for something beautiful on Mondays. Having traveled to Italy and Bulgaria I share your fascination with mosaics. I was always amazed at where mosaics could be found in ancient buildings. Sadly, some of the colours have faded with the centuries, which is to be expected I guess.

  2. In the town where I grew up, Bashaw Alberta, I am sure there were five elevators.
    They were all made out of 2 x 4’s, one on top of the other so the walls were all 4 inches thick. Just think how many houses the wood from one elevator could build, and also the quality of wood would be much better than what most anything is built of now.
    Thanks, Kelly for sharing one of your passions.

    1. Hello Deanne,
      Wow, 5 grain elevators, at least there is still one there. (yep, I googled it).
      Yes, the quantity of wood required was astronomical. But in those days, the extend of forests in Canada, most likely seem inexhaustible. We know better now. I wonder if the wood was recycled at all. It would be cool to meet someone who boasts their house was made from the recycled timber of an old grain elevator.


  3. Great shots, Kelly. I love travelling across the prairie landscape. I hope we can make another trip like that before we get too old! 🙂 Perhaps Phil and I should consider a train trip? Thanks for posting these beauties. xx

    1. Hello Caren,
      I hope you can make another trip like that too, and I can do it with you. LOL
      I miss you both and I’m so looking forward to next fall.
      Big hugs

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