Papercraft replica of the Alberta Wheat Pool Elevator in Midnapore in front of a copy of the Midnapore I Design Brief 1975. Papercraft elevator designed and built by Jim Pearson of Vanishing Sentinels. Available for purchase at http://vanishingalberta.ca/crbst_29.html
There’s something about grain elevators. It should only be fitting that the thing which kicked off this whole project was my pursuit of memories of the old Unifeed elevator. Looking back, these old buildings are emblematic of everything I’ve discussed here: changing times, urbanization and the ethereal meaning of landmarks. And while much of what I’m exploring in these articles has been largely ignored, elevators have been exhaustively explored by a whole assortment of people: writers, photographers, artists, teachers, academics, journalists. They have appeal.
From studying old Midnapore, and specifically the feed elevator demolished in 2004, it quickly became apparent that that elevator, a landmark for everyone I knew who grew up anywhere in The Deep South in the 1990s, wasn’t always alone beside the railroad tracks. A second smaller elevator occupied the space just north of the feed elevator, where Fish Creek Nissan is now. And this second elevator was actually older and arguably more iconic. Of course the “second elevator”, having been demolished in July 1989, before me or most of my family or friends lived in area, and with no evidence of it in the area, may as well have not existed at all. For my generation, memories of “the grain elevator” were for the Unifeed elevator. So what was this earlier elevator?
The Midnapore grain elevator was built in 1926 by Parrish and Heimbecker Ltd.; in 1929 the elevator was purchased by the Alberta Wheat Pool. The first station agent and the one whose name constantly comes up in reference to the elevator was F. Vivian Gough, who served from August 1929 to October 1962. Following him were Frank J. Crossie (1962-1976), Merle D. Kober (1976 to 1980), T.D. Somerville (1980-1982), Kober again (1982-1983) and finally Frank L McKay (1983- 1985). The station handled 10, 560, 941 bushels (267, 273 tonnes) from 1932-1988, with a high year of 1, 022, 029 bushels (24568 tonnes) in 1978-79, and a low of 14, 476 (358 tonnes) in 1936-37, during the Great Depression (thanks to one Red Larkins who recorded all of this information many years ago, and whose notes I took all this from; they are now located at the Glenbow Museum Archives in their Alberta Wheat Pool fonds).
Of course, by the 1980s, the area was completely different. Midnapore’s annexation was followed by development, which pushed the farm fields further and further away from the elevator. By 1986, the communities of Midnapore, Sundance, Shawnessy, Millrise and Shawnee Slopes were well established and built out, and inJuly of that year the elevator was closed. Naturally, the viability of an elevator in this area must have been questioned, though perhaps it’s not quite that simple:
Letter from farmers to the Alberta Wheat Pool complaining about the Pool’s handling of the elevator closure, in 1986. Text transcription of the letter available here.
Considering that the feed elevator managed to remain for another 15 years, when development of The Deep South would more than double, making the area even more urban, there may be more to consider. The outrage from local farmers regarding this closure suggests this too, that the elevator was in fact still viable; further, the next closest elevator was Indus or Okotoks, much further away. Regardless, the unilateral decision on the part of the Wheat Pool to close the elevator with little fanfare was obviously a poor one, considering the bad blood it managed to stir up. At the end of the day though, it hardly mattered; we know how the story ends.
A change in the times becomes immediately apparent comparing Calgary Herald articles about the demolition of the Wheat Pool Elevator in 1989, to the demolition of its more modern cousin, the Unifeed elevator, in 2004. The former is legitimately mourned, a symbol of our history being tragically destroyed; the latter agnostically meditated upon, presented as news for the parts of society, or parts of ourselves, that are supposed to pay service to these sorts of things before moving on. Before the city turned over enough that we effectively grew up, it seems there was a lifestyle and community that provided a sense of belonging. That might be a little cynical and misguided though; the Pool elevator’s demolition was in editorial, while the 2004 article was at the bottom of the front page. Further, their demise lead to a host of memorial projects. For example, the demolition of the Unifeed elevator in 2004 not only lead to my own project. Writer and photographer Joshua Soles noted in his book Changing Horizons that the elevator’s demolition only showed how urgent his project to record these landmarks had become. And teacher Jennifer Johnson George, whose own reflections that the Unifeed elevator was demolished to little fanfare unlike the Wheat Pool Elevator a generation earlier, led to a massive project with her students to share, study and preserve the legacy of these towers, becoming “The Elevator Kids” and reflecting on history and community meaning.
Photo of Midnapore Grain Elevator circa 1979, from The Calgary Herald Archives. Taken from the article “Gallery: The roots of Calgary’s annexed neighbourhoods” located at http://www.calgaryherald.com/news/Gallery+roots+Calgary+annexed+neighbourhoods/5818843/story.html Regarding Midnapore, the caption includes the line “for years, it was remembered by its grain elevator”, something which I do not dispute. I do dispute that the photo is from 1979, as the feed elevator which was located just south of the grain elevator should be visible on the left side of the photo, which leads me to believe the photo was taken before 1962, when the feed elevator was constructed. Reprinted with permission of The Calgary Herald.
The Unifeed elevator was certainly a distinct building, and was fairly unique in terms of elevators; most of them resembled something similar to the Wheat Pool Elevator. Yet it seems most area residents just remember the feed elevator as some anachronism: this large, almost mysterious thing that most area residents who moved in following development, meaning nearly all of us, didn’t engage with as anything else. I doubt many who recall it would praise it as beautiful or iconic, no matter how much some of us miss it. Yet, the Wheat Pool elevator, and the thousands of elevators just like it, remains an icon of the Canadian Prairies, even as their demise is steadfastly chronicled. There is a further irony with the elevators, in that as they become less iconic as their numbers dwindle, they are also arguably becoming more treasured; projects like Vanishing Sentinels were born out of this theme. Which brings me back to where we started: there’s something about these elevators. So what is it?
“Sighting the grain elevators at Midnapore signified nearness to the big city. A few miles ahead stood a sign reading, “You are now entering the city of Calgary”, but we had no need to read the sign”-Betty Sherwood, from the Journal of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern Alberta, Volume 22 No.2
The meaning and history of elevators has been exhaustively reviewed elsewhere, and I would hardly know where to begin in attempting to explain their esteemed status. There are a few basic points though. One is their elegant design: fairly symmetrical and often colourful (the feed elevator, with its colliding angles and plain white exterior, was less elegant and arguably less iconic this way). Another is their strong community presence. An elevator was the tallest thing in a small town, and became instantly identifiable and notable for this reason alone. Furthermore, since each Pool elevator had the town’s name boldly painted on the side, the elevators must have been a source of pride for area residents: a landmark, community hub and entrance sign all in one.
Was the elevator the most iconic structure in Midnapore? Possibly, though I would also consider the Lacombe Home, the two churches and the barn, all of which are more architecturally unique than the elevator was, and most of which are still around. Yet, there is something about the elevator. Almost every town had one similar, and fewer have them now than ever before. And now, there are so many more things in the Deep South, yet does any of it compare? Will any of it manage to inspire communities, memories and artwork long after it is gone? Besides the guy who goes around painting old Sears stores, I don’t see as many examples of suburbia inspiring us, or providing us with meaning. Elevators were, at the end of the day, built primarily for the purpose of moving grain. Yet they blended form and function to become something much more. We should hope all of our endeavours have similar results.
Papercraft elevator from Vanishing Sentinels showing the rough location and place of the original Alberta Wheat Pool- Midnapore grain elevator along Macleod Trail; some forced perspective was used, though the elevator was a little smaller and further back.