28 July 2022
My job sometimes takes me on the road and this time it was a field crop demonstration close to Roblin, Manitoba. On the way home I stopped at Inglis and took a tour of Prairie Giants, a row of five beautifully preserved wooden grain elevators at the end of an abandoned railway line. Just like the railway, the grain elevator was a simple and very effective way to solve a problem.
My great grandfather homesteaded close to Minto, Manitoba. At harvest, when he threshed his grain, he would put it in burlap sacks and take it by wagon, to a flat warehouse. That’s where they’d pile the sacks and, when the train arrived sometime later, they’d load them onto a boxcar.
The problem is the grain. It’s not a dead cargo like coal or potash. It’s a seed, a living, breathing thing in a state of suspended animation that will wake up and sprout if it gets warm and moist. This is what happened up against the wall in a warehouse under a pile of burlap sacks. Sprouting, and sometimes mold infections, ruined the grain quality.
The grain elevator solved the problem. A farmer drove his wagon into the collection house where the grain was dumped out the back and into a sump below the floor. A series of belt scoops lifted the grain and dropped it down a sorting pipe into one of several bins used for storing different types and different grades of grain.
When an order came in, the elevator operator would move a boxcar into place and fill up a delivery hopper in the elevator with grain from one of the storage bins. The grain was weighed and dropped back into the sump where it was lifted to another delivery pipe that filled the boxcar. The beauty of the elevator was that the first grain into the bin was also the first grain into the boxcar so it was a straight line delivery from the farmer’s wagon to the customer at the other end of the railway line. Bulk handling was the way to go. There was no need for the burlap sacks and the grain was kept cool and dry.
The elevator operator graded the grain, paid the farmer, kept all records and loaded the cars. This made him as important as any of the other town professionals. Like the doctor, the lawyer and the teacher, it was an important social position.
At our museum we have a wooden boxcar that received countless loads of grain over its life, perhaps even from one of the Inglis Prairie Giants. Its wooden slats are held in place by a steel skeleton that made for a safe container to carry loads of grain through long distance in harsh weather. It moved the grain from seller to buyer and ultimately to the consumer at the kitchen table.
Modern grain handling works in much the same way. A grain elevator is still a way of sorting and sending grain as efficiently as possible while a modern grain hopper car is a cylindrical tank, loaded from the top and emptied out the bottom into a waiting terminal elevator. It accomplishes much the same thing, keeping the grain cool and dry while providing that straight line delivery from a farm truck to the end customer whether that’s a milling company in North America or a ship waiting at the port.
The people of Inglis have done a marvelous job of preserving this stage in the history of grain handling and maintaining a memory of a central part of life in a prairie town. It starts with someone recognizing the disappearance of something that we take for granted and having the vision to preserve a reminder of its importance and to keep telling the stories of its value.
This is what museums like theirs, and like ours, are for.