Like most Sask. grain elevators fade, some get new life

Saskatchewan’s remaining grain elevators hold a rich history of trade and culture. Some cities preserve them.

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VAL MARIE, Sask. — Inside the historic Val Marie field elevator, Alex McPhee begins to open the main gate through which farmers would have entered to unload their grain trucks.

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As he lets the outside in, late afternoon sunlight shines through the ancient relic, revealing its nearly 100-year-old wooden cradle construction and a small mound of bald poop. -mouse.

“It’s healthy, but it also has a few tenants,” McPhee remarked in July while explaining the operation of the elevator, located in the southwest of the province. “But yeah, that’s all way cooler than the office.”

Unlike the typical death knell of most wooden grain elevators in Saskatchewan, the one in Val Marie has taken on new life.

A committee of passionate volunteers worked together to salvage the exterior and stabilize the building. Now they got funds to work inside and clean it up, including bat droppings.

“They come with a vacuum truck and all the equipment we need to vacuum up the last 30 years of dirt. It will not be usable, but insurable,” said McPhee, chair of the Val Marie elevator committee. “In a way, especially people coming from larger centres, this is all post-apocalyptic. But for me, it’s a bit of untold history that is symbolized by these incredible old buildings. And that’s why I’m really, really happy and excited that ours is being taken care of.

While the Val Marie grain elevator received a fresh coat of paint, hundreds more collapsed or burned, taking with them a rich history of trade and culture.

Prairie Heart Maps cartographer Alex McPhee in his office on July 19, 2022 in Val Marie.
Prairie Heart Maps cartographer Alex McPhee in his office on July 19, 2022 in Val Marie. Photo by KAYLE NEIS /Regina Chief’s Post

No place is more obvious than in Saskatchewan. At their peak, there were over 3,000 wooden elevators in the province. It is estimated that there are now around 400.

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In towns like Rouleau, which once had seven grain elevators, none remain.

The last burned down in November 2021 after the private owner began making upgrades, according to city administrator Guy Lagrandeur. The cause remains unknown, he said.

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“It was kind of a sad story,” he said. “It’s a bit sad for the city because Rouleau was written on one side and Dog River on the other. Tourists always come to visit Dog River and they are a bit disappointed that the elevator is gone.

Rouleau had been the filming location for the popular Canadian sitcom Corner Gas, depicting the fictional town of Dog River.

What remains is the Dog River Howler, the hotel, and the homes of two fictional characters. The police station was demolished for public safety reasons, as was the set. The old food store burned down, later replaced by a new building.

“It’s just kind of a sad situation,” Lagrandeur said, adding that the city has no control over what happens to the buildings.

He said there were no plans to bring back aftershocks.

“Little by little, it will be forgotten,” he says. “It’s going down. Sometimes we get a phone call, explaining why we didn’t jump on it, but then I have to explain that it has nothing to do with the city.

What happened in Rouleau has become commonplace in many communities across the province, especially with respect to grain elevators.

Although many beacons remain standing, most are on the verge of collapse. It is rarer to find them converted into museums or visitor centers.

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“Many are preserved because the current owners don’t want to see them fall,” McPhee said. “There are no resources to convert them into real attractions.”

The Hepburn country lift, however, managed to thwart the odds.

Located 47 kilometers north of Saskatoon, the elevator has been converted into a museum, providing a glimpse into Saskatchewan’s past.

According to a brochure, the museum recognizes the contributions of farmers and organizations for their role in the development of the agricultural industry.

Similarly, the Paradise Valley elevator, located in Alberta near the Saskatchewan border, has been converted into a museum.

Administrative manager James Warren said it was renovated in the early 1980s after the train tracks were removed.

He said the community had raised funds and received grants. Since then, Paradise Valley has seen a steady increase in visitor numbers.

“It’s a tourist attraction for us; we don’t have much in the village,” Warren said. “It’s very important for us here.”

The Val Marie grain elevator which has seen some recent exterior repairs.
The Val Marie grain elevator which has seen some recent exterior repairs. Photo by KAYLE NEIS /Regina Chief’s Post

Ali Piwowar studied this importance for his masters in architecture.

Through research she completed in 2015, she highlighted the cultural and historical significance of elevators. Even though they have been replaced by concrete terminals, better suited to today’s economy and transportation network, photographers and history buffs continue to document them.

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Piwowar suggested that some communities should preserve their elevators.

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For those who cannot, she recommended that some be moved to Regina, where they could be used as part of a larger community space in the old rail yards.

In her report, she said the lifts could be redeveloped into shops, offices or hotels, with community gardens near the base.

“The project would promote prairie identity,” she wrote. “The wooden elevators would enliven Regina’s skyline, embodying a living heritage of the collective past and future.”

McPhee said most cities lack the capacity to put together a tourism strategy given their small size. Local volunteers can do wonders, he says, but the level playing field is not fair.

Val Marie has a small advantage, he noted, given that it is next to a national park and has an active volunteer base.

“To keep this kind of thing standing here, where it can actually serve as a signature attraction in a tourist town, it’s really special and awesome,” he said. “That’s what drives me.”

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