When I was a kid, it was a common sight to see tall wooden grain elevators all across the prairies, often two or three in a row, with a few connected sheds, next to a railway track, usually in or near a small town. When I asked my mom or dad about them as we were driving to see relatives in Saskatchewan or Edmonton, I was told it was where wheat and other grains were stored until the trains took it away. That was about all I knew, and I never bothered to find out more.
Until my son was thirteen. He decided to grow a few dozen stalks of wheat and some of canola in our basement under a grow light for the science fair, comparing different growing conditions, and as a good mom, I tried to support him in his project. One of our adventures was to go out to one of the still-operational grain elevators in Indus, a few kilometres from our suburban home.
Here we were given the royal treatment! Perhaps the elevator operator was impressed that a city kid was interested in agriculture, but for whatever reason, we got a personalized tour of the operation, and there is way more to an elevator than the apparent wooden box. The inside is a machine.
To begin with, the ramps leading into and out of the unloading area are not mere ramps. They are scales that can weigh the truck as it enters, full of grain to be delivered, and again as it exits, giving the operator the weight of grain brought in. Next, of course, the grain needs to be sorted and graded, so the operator can determine into which of several sections of the elevator the grain will be placed. Then, as the name implies, the grain is elevated with a series of buckets on a conveyor belt to the top of a tall storage bin, of which there are several inside the elevator. Finally, when the train arrives on the tracks on the opposite side of the elevator, a chute can be opened t fill the train car with the correct grain.
Who knew? The unassuming grain elevator is an amazing piece of technology.
As rail lines spread across the province, grain elevators sprouted like mushrooms after a spring rain. Railways and agricultural production were inexorably linked. Examples of these “Prairie Sentinals” will be on display during our event. The Alberta Wheat Pool grain elevator at the Big Valley and the P&H Elevator at Stettler will be on display at Rails and Tales this summer. Check it out: you’ll be surprised at the complexity of the humble grain elevator