As I travel across the Canadian Prairies in search of scenic photo opportunities, I’m amazed and saddened by the number of ghost towns, abandoned farm homes and dilapidated grain elevators lost to the climate, the economy and the evolution of society. Yet they draw me in. I wonder about the lives lived inside those walls, where that old car was driven, what mysteries might lay behind that old tractor or that dearly-loved Prairie icon – the wooden grain elevator.
As western Canada was developed during the 20th century, the building of the transcontinental railway was pivotal in making the Canadian Prairie region the breadbasket of the world. The railway transported the workers as well as the immigrants that built the farms along its route. This “ribbon of steel” also transported goods to settlers and subsequently took their produce to markets in Eastern Canada and beyond, as well as to western ports. Jan Volney, co-author of my book Prairie and Beyond (turnstonepress.com) provides further insight into the importance of the railway in developing the west. He adds: “It also imposed a pattern to settlement on the arable land. The villages, towns and cities that were spurred to develop were sited so that the farmers had roughly a half-day’s cart ride to the nearest depot for shipping produce. That distance is about 13 km. Unlike in other areas of Canada, where water courses dictated settlement patterns, the railway really channeled the human influence on the Prairie landscape. A special feature of several Prairie settlements was the grain elevator built beside the tracks. Today, several of these grain elevators remain, and one can use them as beacons along the highway to indicate the approach of a village long before the access road appears.”
The grain elevator was strictly a utilitarian building designed to receive, store and ship grain in bulk so that it could facilitate the movement of goods from producers to world markets. The design of the grain elevator followed a rather unsophisticated style which varied from one grain company to the next. However, the elevator’s stark simplicity and rather plain geometric shape was hailed by the French architect Le Corbusier as the ultimate in architecture of “form following function.” Some have even called grain elevators “Prairie cathedrals.” The grain elevator became the symbol or icon of the Canadian Prairie.
Between 1900 and 1930, the number of grain elevators on the Prairie exploded from 450 to nearly 6,000. Today, in the shadow of enormous modern elevator complexes, only about 850 of those thousands remain. These wooden grain elevators, uniformly spaced along the tracks, are being replaced with concrete structures at more infrequent junctures, since trucks can cover hundreds of kilometres in a few hours of driving. It wasn’t long ago that I noticed that one of my favorite elevators along the Yellowhead Highway had disappeared. As I travel, I often look for familiar landmarks and, on this particular occasion, I didn’t see the old elevator in the village of Mozart, Sk. Speaking of which, this prairie hamlet, named after the classical composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, was rather famous for a town of a few dozen people, having been covered by the television stations of CBC, CTV and even the famous program, Who Wants To Be a Millionaire! At any rate, I drove a few more kilometres, then turned around and backtracked down the highway thinking I had simply missed it, but it was in vain. After it had been withdrawn from service in 2000, the Mozart grain elevator was demolished in August of 2001. Fortunately I had captured an image of it back in the winter of 1999 guided by one of my favorite maxims, “Get it while you can,” made famous by beloved rock star Janis Joplin. When I see something that interests me, I often make a point of stopping and creating a photograph immediately. Otherwise, the next time I encounter the same subject or situation, it will invariably be different, either because the light will have changed dramatically for the worse or, as in this particular case, the elevator was simply nowhere to be found!
To read more of Mike Grandmaison’s feature “Prairie Giants” please pick up the Summer/Fall 2014 issue of OPC today, or subscribe!