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Prairie gold: Alberta's grain elevators reimagined to bring a new cool to old sentinels of the pool

'We've gone from all this history to almost nothing and we've almost forgotten where we've come from. So how does it make me feel? It makes me feel very, very sad.'

'We've almost forgotten where we've come from'

Three grain elevators still stand along the railway in the southern Alberta town of Nanton. (Lori Stuart/Canadian Grain Elevator Discovery Centre)

The one in Raley stands set against a backdrop of the Rockies in southern Alberta. In the hamlet of Acadia Valley, near the Saskatchewan boundary, it's a tea-house. And in Nanton, Alta., there are three. 

Alberta's grain elevators, those iconic symbols of the Prairies where harvests were weighed, sold, stored and shipped by rail, are now being reimagined. 

"I'm a history nut," admits Leo Wieser. 

The new president of Nanton's Canadian Grain Elevator Discovery Centre is musing about the future for the trio of elevators that still stand in the town an hour south of Calgary. 

"How can we make this more of a cultural centre? The orange elevator is a museum but how can we repurpose the grain elevators to make them, say, an auditorium or an art gallery?" said Wieser.

This grain elevator in Nanton, Alta., has been converted into a museum. (Lori Stuart/Canadian Grain Elevator Discovery Centre)

He said there are different numbers circulating about how many elevators are left standing. 

"Numbers peaked in the 1930s with 5,758," he said. "By the time we hit 2019, we [were] down to 352 elevators for all of the western provinces." 

Wieser estimates that there are probably fewer than a hundred that are still standing in Alberta, and just over a dozen that are recognized by the province as historic resources.

"We've gone from all this history to almost nothing and we've almost forgotten where we've come from. So how does it make me feel? It makes me feel very, very sad," he said. 

Kerry Atkinson is proud that, 20 years ago, Leduc was able to save the one in that community from demolition. 

"The rumours started going around town that they were going to close and take down the elevator," said Atkinson, the museum co-ordinator at the Leduc Heritage Grain Elevator

Kerry Atkinson, museum co-ordinator at the Leduc Heritage Grain Elevator, takes visitors on tours back in time. (Adrienne Lamb/CBC)

A group of concerned citizens, including Atkinson's parents, formed the Alberta Legacy Development Society and through bake sales, book sales and other community events raised the $140,000 needed to buy the elevator and land . 

The Alberta Wheat Pool elevator, a 30-metre tall, single composite wood crib elevator with 32 bins, was built in 1978. 

"The elevator was the focus of town. If you needed to know something, this is where you came. I tell everybody it's the social media of the early years."

Today, Atkinson acts as caretaker and tour guide for a stretch of railroad at 52nd Avenue and 47th Street, where six other elevators once stood. 

Take a tour with museum coordinator Kerry Atkinson of the Leduc Heritage Grain Elevator. 1:45

You can see more from the Leduc Heritage Grain Elevator on this week's edition of Our Edmonton, Saturday at 10 a.m., Sunday at noon and 1 p.m. on Monday on CBC TV and the CBC GEM. 

"They speak to our agricultural heritage," agreed Kathryn Ivany, a City of Edmonton archivist.

But elevators dotted the landscape in big cities as well, she added.

"Edmonton was a hub, servicing the communities around us," she said. "And wherever there are railways, you will find elevators." 

Ivany estimates that over the years, the capital city was home to hundreds of elevators, mills and agricultural storage buildings. 

In this photo from about 1900, grain elevators and mills dot the railway line in what is now Edmonton's Old Strathcona neighbourhood. (City of Edmonton Archives-EA-10-268)

"There were a lot of little suppliers that had their own elevators," she said.

Those were eventually bought by bigger companies and consortiums, which then consolidated and knocked down all but a handful through the capital region, she said.

Ivany said one of the legacies of that period is Ritchie Mill, a former flour mill located at at 10171 Saskatchewan Drive, the end of Steel Park in Old Strathcona, which has been converted into offices and meeting rooms. 

Others have been restored and converted into museums or tourist attractions. These include the St. Albert Grain Elevator Park, the Spruce Grove Grain Elevator Museum and an elevator on display at the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village near Vegreville, Alta.

Part of a mural by Leduc artist Jeanine McIntosh. It was completed in 2018 in the basement of the interpretive centre next to the grain elevator run by the Alberta Legacy Development Society in Leduc, Alta. (Adrienne Lamb/CBC)

About the Author

Adrienne Lamb is an award-winning journalist based in Edmonton. She's the host and producer of Our Edmonton featured weekly on CBC TV. Adrienne has spent the last couple of decades telling stories across Canada.

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