Wheat Kings: Vanishing Landmarks of the Canadian Prairies

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9781550462494: Wheat Kings: Vanishing Landmarks of the Canadian Prairies

As the twenty-first century marches forward, the country grain elevator rapidly nears extinction. These classic wooden structures once used to store grain are being torn down by the hundreds along with thousands of miles of railway branchlines. A proud and honored way of life is coming to end.

Wheat Kings is a lavishly illustrated and poignantly written look at the passing of the traditional northern prairie grain elevators and the communities and railcars that served them. The book includes photographs of grain elevators from numerous small prairie towns. Also included are images of the region's train stations, churches, farms and commercial buildings, many abandoned.

The book is organized by six concise essays. These include:

  • Wheat Kings: brief history of grain elevators
  • Of Peddlers, Pullers and Tramps: the prairie railroad system
  • Something Big on the Horizon: concrete high-capacity super elevators
  • McMahon - Hard Times on the Prairies: a forgotten town
  • The Last Harvest: an elevator comes down
  • Buffalo Bones: the end of the railroad grain cars.

Wheat Kings is a chronicle of the end of an era as witnessed by one of North America's best-known and most-respected railroad writers and photographers. This book is sure to fascinate railway enthusiasts, transportation historians, and anyone interested in the changing worlds of farming and railroading.

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About the Author:

Greg McDonnell's writing and photography have been praised by rail enthusiasts across North America. Each new book by Greg McDonnell is a major event in the large railfan community, and Boston Mills Press is proud to be his publisher. Greg is a featured columnist for Trains magazine. His acclaimed large-format pictorials include Canadian Pacific, Signatures in Steel, Heartland, U-Boats: General Electric's Diesel Locomotives, and Passing Trains. He is currently at work on a new book and overseeing a Masters of Railway Photography book series for Boston Mills Press. He lives with his wife and three sons on the edge of a ravine overlooking the Canadian Pacific Railway's Orr's Lake Hill.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Wheat Kings

Streaming in the driveshed doorway, the hot midday sun cuts a shaft of white light through the haze of grain dust that fills the Manitoba Pool elevator at Gretna. Resident sparrows hop across the worn wooden planks that form the driveshed floor, picking at spilled grain and twittering in concert with the incessant chatter of the No. 1 loading leg. The aged wooden structure quivers and dust shakes from every seam and joint as the leg, an enclosed vertical conveyor that runs up the spine of the elevator, scoops grain from a pit beneath the floor and carries it upward.

It's the consummate prairie experience: stepping into an aging country elevator and savoring the rich aroma of new wheat and old wood; listening to the chirping birds while trading stories with the manager; watching battered old grain trucks arrive and talking bushels-per-acre, moisture content, dockage, and the politics of farming with the drivers. It's marveling at the maze of garner levers, slides and scales, legs, cups, boots and belts -- and choking back the dust as the manager puts them all into motion to move the latest load of grain from the receiving pit to storage bins. It's wood-slab walls lined with neat rows of tools, shovels and brooms, and yellowed posters that warn of the dangers of fire, spell out the specifics of boxcar and hopper loading, and shout CHILDREN NOT PERMITTED in bold print.

The country elevator is a noisy, dirty, and at times unsafe place, and yet it has an undeniable appeal. An unassuming structure designed as a facility to store and handle grain, the simple country elevator has eclipsed its intended role and become a prairie institution that has been woven into the social and economic fabric of the Canadian heartland. From the great elevator rows at places like Carstairs, Innisfail, Vulcan and Zealandia, to lonely granaries at unpopulated delivery points, the familiar gabled profile of the humble grain elevator has become a fixture on the prairie landscape. For more than a century, the country elevator has not only defined the Canadian prairies, it has afforded all who care to venture inside one, a passageway to the heart and soul of prairie life.

The office door slams and the sparrows flit up into the rafters as a man in dusty coveralls and a sweat-stained ball cap crosses the driveway. He pauses at the large steel wheel that controls the distributor at the top of the No. 1 leg, rotates it to align a dust-caked arrow with the number 12, and disappears down a narrow wooden corridor that leads to the back scale.

The work floor is covered with loose grain and the wood-slab walls are thick with cobwebs and decades of dust. Long wooden garner levers reach down from the ceiling and an old Fairbanks-Morse scale reposes in front of a giant wooden hopper that receives grain from the overhead bins. The big sliding door to the outside is pushed open, but all but a few rays of daylight are obscured by a forty-foot boxcar spotted for loading.

The loading spout, a serpentine chain of bottomless buckets, reaches deep inside the empty car. CP 124047 OATS-BARLEY-FLAX-RYE-WHEAT. The car number and load levels for various grains are stencilled on the wooden boards that line the inside of the car, and the exact profile of the previous load is clearly defined by a thick layer of dust.

In the dim yellow light of bulbs encased in explosion-proof fixtures, Ted Schmidt secures the loading spout to the top rail of the grain door that seals off the lower portion of the boxcar doorway and initiates a time-honored ritual practiced in thousands of prairie elevators for over a century. With the tug of a garner lever, the loading begins.

A deluge of grain pours from an overhead bin and a choking cloud of dust envelops the room as the scale hopper fills with two-and-a-half tons of amber grain. His face half covered by a dirty paper mask intended to make the air at least breathable, Schmidt fusses instinctively with the ancient scale and deftly manipulates the garner and hopper levers. In 4,800- to 5,100-pound portions, he carefully measures out fifty tons of No. 2 red wheat. Sampled, scaled and dropped into the pit, it is lifted by the polished-steel scoops of the leg and carried to the top of the elevator, dumped into the distributor and directed down the car spout. With a loud rush, a surging torrent of wheat, some 2,200 bushels of it, spills into the dark interior of the aging CP boxcar.

Reinforced with ribs of band iron and tension-nailed into position, the heavy cardboard grain door holds back the swelling tide of grain. An improvisation devised in the last century, the grain door handily converts a boxcar into a vehicle capable of transporting loose grain -- something it was never designed to do. Grain doors have evolved from rough-hewn wood slabs nailed across the doorway, to the corrugated-paper-and-band-iron Steel-Corr doors stocked at Gretna. However, it's an invention that's had its day. The grain door market is vanishing and the art of coopering a boxcar, once practiced at every elevator on the continent, is becoming a forgotten craft.

The boxcar has been a staple of the grain trade since the first sheaves of export wheat were harvested off the prairie, but in 1996, CP 124047 is a rolling anachronism. Although the Canadian grain-box fleet totaled over 20,000 cars as late as 1974, their days were numbered. By the 1980s, covered hoppers capable of carrying twice as much grain, and able to load and unload in a fraction of the time, banished the venerable grain box from all but a handful of lines unable to accommodate heavier cars. A decade later, barely a thousand grain boxes remained in service, with most of their number assigned to CN's Churchill line. Standing axle-deep in the weeds at Gretna, the 124047 and its twelve companions are among just 158 forty-foot grain boxes left in CP service.

Their riveted flanks streaked with rust and coated with years of road dirt, the CP forty-footers wear the battle scars of more than four decades of duty like a badge of honor. Scrapes, dents and patches of fresh paint bear testament to the rigors of uncalculated millions of miles racked up wheeling prairie harvests to the Lakehead and to tidewater ports. The human touch is evidenced by grab irons polished to a shine by the grip of a thousand gloved hands, but there are biblical overtones to the tiny green shoots that sprout from germinating grain lodged in door sills and fatigue cracks in the steel sides of the cars. Scrawled in fading chalk on the side of CP 18563, a single word speaks volumes: West.

Tired coil springs creak as they slowly compress under the weight of another load and the entire carbody of CP 124047 groans in protest as the elderly car takes on fifty tons of Thunder Bay grain. Ted Schmidt scribbles the particulars of the shipment on the mandatory Canadian Grain Commission "I-90" tag that must accompany the car and staples it to the weathered placard board affixed to the car door. Car number, shipping station, date, destination, grain, grade, dockage, etc. -- the I-90 documents every detail. Nowhere, though, does the government form provide for notation of the most critical information. For the 124047, and indeed for all 158 surviving CP grain boxes, this is the last harvest.

It's week fifty-two on the Wheat Board calendar, and July 31, just days away, will mark not only the end of the crop year, but the official abandonment of CP's six remaining "boxcar branches," the Dunelm, Shamrock and Neudorf subdivisions in Saskatchewan and the Lyleton, Russell and Gretna subs in Manitoba. With that, the vintage grain boxes will be out of work. Their final orders have already been issued. Upon unloading at Thunder Bay, the cars will be waybilled to Mandak in Selkirk, Manitoba, and cut up for scrap.

Seemingly oblivious to the historic occasion, Ted Schmidt labors on, loading car after car, following a procedure little changed since the Ogilvie Milling Company erected a 25,000-bushel elevator just up the

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