Why I Miss the Local Elevator

The elevator agent in his office was at the heart of the community, 1950s. (Glenbow Archives, Photo: Glenbow Archives, NA-4510-707.)

The elevator agent in his office was at the heart of the community, 1950s. (Glenbow Archives, Photo: Glenbow Archives, NA-4510-707.)

It’s when the grain is ripe for harvest in late August or early September that I miss going to our local Alberta Wheat Pool elevator the most. Jumping off the combine and going to the elevator to have its friendly agent, Bill, run a moisture test on a grain sample and discuss the state of the crop was one of my jobs on the farm. When I arrived in Alberta in the 1980s, drinking coffee and shooting the breeze with the neighbours while the elevator agent was busy, was part of the culture, but the old-timer grain farmers could smell change the air. How right they were.

Our closest local elevator, a single composite wood crib facility constructed in 1963, at Eckville, closed in 2001. Since then we rarely visit an elevator. Now we have our own moisture tester, analysis market conditions using the internet, and have our grain trucked from the bins in the yard to the inland terminal at Lacombe or further afield—selling grain over the phone and having it trucked to a concrete silo is not much fun!

Alberta Wheat Pool at Eckville, (Photo courtesy of the Alberta Heritage Survey 79-R0240-13.

Alberta Wheat Pool at Eckville (Photo courtesy of the Alberta Heritage Survey, 79-R0240-13.)

In past decades farmers were in and out of the elevator office in a rhythm that reflected the farmer’s seasonal activity. A major reason to go to the elevator was to update the permit book, which kept a record of the type, quantity and grade of grain delivered as well as the number of acres seeded to various grains, and the acreage assigned to each grain for quota purposes. Canadian Wheat Board regulations required that all grain sales, even to local users, be recorded in the permit book.

The permit book had its origins in the quota system on cereal grains introduced during the Second World War. Beginning with the crop year 1941-1942, farmers were only able to deliver limited amounts of grain, based on their acreage, at certain times. The quota system, administered by the Wheat Board, was designed to prevent the clogging of the grain handling system at a time when production exceeded available markets. It continued after the war in an attempt to give each producer an equal opportunity to sell his or her grain at the Wheat Board price for the crop year.

A farmer’s pay check and hence his loyalty to one grain company over another was ultimately determined by whether he could get space in the elevator to deliver his quota of grain. If there was room, some farmers preferred to haul to the Alberta Wheat Pool or United Grain Growers elevator, lured by the promise of patronage dividends on deliveries in relation to the companies’ profits for the year.

Many farmers made a point of being at the elevator office often, not only to find out what was going on but to establish a good relationship with the agent. They sometimes helped out when the agent was especially busy. In years when the harvest was plentiful, railway box cars were often in short supply and elevator storage space was limited, bonds of friendship, along with a reputation for reliable delivery and honesty might ensure one’s grain would be taken in before the neighbour’s.

There were a thousand and one reasons why a farmer might be at the elevator other than when he was delivering grain. He bought coal and flour throughout the year, seed in the spring and from the 1950s, fertilizer. He might be in to check prices, find out if there was space in the elevator for his grain or pick up a cheque for grain previously delivered. Farmers needed the use of the scale at the elevator for inter-farm grain sales, and the elevator agent usually obliged.

UGG promoted a new image of their agents as the dispenser of free advice: “How to get the most from your UGG agent,” Country Guide, August 1961, pag e 41. (Reproduced with the permission of the Glenbow Archives.)

UGG promoted a new image of their agents as the dispenser of free advice: “How to get the most from your UGG agent,” Country Guide, August 1961, pag e 41. (Reproduced with the permission of the Glenbow Archives.)

There was no need for a business excuse to go to the elevator. On wet days farmers dropped in to see who else was there, play crib or just to complain about the weather. The elevator office was a good place to catch up on local gossip: who had bought a new tractor, who was selling out, who was renting land from who, and to gauge the relative condition of neighbouring crops, as well as shifting land and machinery auction prices.

Farmers gravitated towards the elevator they dealt with and elevator agents played host to groups of farmer-customers in their cramped offices during visits to town. The elevator agent, urged on by his company to network and increase sales, was part of the community, involved in social and sporting events. At Forshee, a long forgotten elevator siding between Rimbey and Bentley, Harry Proudfoot, a U.G.G. agent from 1946-1968, was a member of several athletic teams, and helped his farmer neighbours during haying season and other times when grain deliveries were slow.

Back in the 1930s when elevator agents often had the only radio in the district, broadcasts were a lure for farmers, who might hope to catch more than the day’s grain prices. In the 1990s farmer went to the elevator to catch the farm weather cast and to watch world-wide commodity trading on cutting-edge computers. The farmers gathered whiled away hours discussing every farming topic under the sun. The agent would go off to receive a load or two of grain, and they would often still be there when he returned from the driveway.

A somewhat idealized artistic perspective on the importance of the grain elevator to the business of the prairie town. Country Guide, March, 1933, page 10, (reproduced with the permission of the Glenbow Archives.)

A somewhat idealized artistic perspective on the importance of the grain elevator to the business of the prairie town. Country Guide, March, 1933, page 10, (reproduced with the permission of the Glenbow Archives.)

From the mid-twentieth century, much of the farmer’s economic news, social connections, information about the latest cropping practices, and even family activities and entertainment came through the elevator office as grain companies vied to be foremost in the farmers’ lives and keep their business. All grain companies, especially the farmer-owned Alberta Wheat Pool and United Grain Growers, pushed the image of the grain elevator as the stable symbol of rural life.

It ended for us in 2001. We knew it would happen. We saw elevators topple all over the province after 1995. When Eckville went down in a cloud of dust we did not go to watch. Now in 2014, the Canadian Wheat Board is no more: there are no quotas, no permit book. We market our own grain. Like so many others in the farming community we have lost a connectedness with fellow grain producers and direct involvement with the grain handling system that really was centred in the elevator office.

Written by: Judy Larmour.

10 comments

  1. Great historical perspective. I can relate to it from a farming point of view, but now as a municipal administrator…. I miss the elevator(s) because of the loss of tax base in small communities and the bustling economy they brought to town.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Katherine. I must admit I’ve never considered the loss of an elevator from the perspective of a municipal administrator. I’m guessing that Elevators were a major source of tax revue for many smaller towns and villages that don’t have many commercial or industrial properties.

  2. Great article! I remember back until my parents sold out in 1977 going to the Alberta Wheat Pool in Delia, and sometimes hauling grain to Craigmyle and Michichi. My project Vanishing Sentinels started after we lost Delia’s Pool due to a major fire in 2001 and watching our UGG/Agricore come down in 2002. At least myself and several others are trying to keep the memory of these iconic structures alive!!!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Jim. A lot of people were effected by the sudden loss of their local grain elevator. They were all landmarks.

      I remember going to my uncle’s farm near Kindersley, Saskatchewan as a child several times a year. His home-quarter was adjacent to a CNR line and the village of Neitherhill was about 2 miles east of the farm yard. I remember Neitherhill having two elevators, one being a Pioneer. They both towered on the horizon–Neitherhill was barely visable without those elevators. My brothers and I would sometimes try and walk to them as children–seriously underestimating the distance to Neitherhill because of their size.

      I don’t remember the first one coming down, but I was on the farm the day they tore down the
      Pioneer. I could see the whole operation clearly from the yard. I remember the elevator kind of bouncing when fell. It didn’t come apart, however. The wood-cribbing even held as they started tearing it apart: I think I remember the workers using an excavator to smash it into pieces.

      They then ploughed the tangled pices of elevator into a huge hole dug beside the tracks and burned what remained. I could smell the fire from the yard. The ash smouldered for days before they buried what was left. It was all surreal experience.

  3. I especially liked this one. Thanks for the good work on the series on elevators, I am planning on sharing them with future interpreters who work in our grain elevator at the Ukrainian Village, to give them some perspective on how people felt about the local elevator.

    NB: On this one the tag is misspelled as “Grain Elevaotrs” instead of “Grain Elevators”. Please keep them all in one place so I can easily link to them for future referece!!!

      1. It is the Bellis #2 Home Grain Company Elevator from Bellis, AB (betwen Smoky Lake and Vilna on the highway to St. Paul), built in 1920-21, with a capacity of more than 25,000 bushels.

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