For nearly 125 years, a wooden grain elevator towered over the town of Elva, visible from miles away and distinguishing the community as an economic hub in the Canadian Prairies.
The structure endured frigid cold, beating rains and harsh sun, but after decades of neglect, its owner has announced plans to dismantle the country’s oldest “prairie castle”, closing a chapter in the region’s history.
For communities like Elva, the loss of an elevator, once used to store grain from surrounding farms for transport by train, marks the last straw in their decline, said the head of the Manitoba Historical Society.
“When you lose the post office, the church and school, maybe you can tolerate those. But the grain elevators were often the reason why many towns existed in the first place,” said Gordon Goldsborough. “To see the elevator go is kind of the last hurrah for the town.”
Typically, wooden grain elevators meet one of two fates: they are either destroyed in a large fire or demolished. But Troy Angus, who bought the dilapidated Elva tower last year in a municipal auction, hopes he’s found a third option.
in to video posted to YouTube, Angus details how his company plans to carefully dismantle the structure, with the hope of reclaiming an estimated 15,000 board-feet of wood beams, old metal scales, door hinges and thousands of pounds of nails. Angus also bought a second elevator nearby, which he plans to also dismantle.
“There’s no way these buildings are going to be demolished, nor are they going to be restored to their former glory,” he says in the video. Decades of neglect and a lack of “simple preventative maintenance” mean the elevator cannot be saved.
Built in 1897, the Lake of the Woods Milling Company grain elevator has large holes in the tin roof, which allowed moisture to build up, warping and rotting the wood.
Goldsborough agreed that Angus’s initiative is the “best possible outcome” for the ailing structure.
“Most elevators are just tipped over crushed into pieces and hauled to the landfill and forgotten, he said. “The pieces of this one are going to survive. And the story it represents will be remembered, because there are tangible pieces of it left.”
In the last year, nine elevators were destroyed in Manitoba, a trend mirrored throughout the Prairie region. Preserving the structures is difficult, and the scale of farming has shifted dramatically in recent generations: the elevator in Elva has capacity for 25,000 bushels, but the largest steel elevator in the province can hold 1.5 million bushels.
“The newer steel ones are less expensive to maintain, and so there’s really no advantages of these old elevators, other than nostalgia,” said Goldsborough.
Manitoba once had more than 700 wood elevators, but only an estimated 124 remain, half of which are still in use.
Goldsborough suspects a handful of the elevators will remain in the future, including a row of five in the town of Inglis that have been preserved. Once the elevator in Elva comes down, the country’s oldest elevator will be in a museum outside the Manitoba town of Austin.
“We’re watching a transformation of the landscape in real time,” he said. “They’re just so symbolic of western Canada. Nothing on the landscape came close to that grand scale. There’s really nothing like those elevators.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism