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Today, Western Canada's grain elevators number in the hundreds, and are torn down with little notice.

GPSundeen/Getty Images

Two wooden grain elevators in a Saskatchewan field mark what’s left of Lepine, an abandoned town about 100 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon. The elevators are rotting, their windows broken. The railway that once served them is gone, save for the parallel scars it imprinted on the land. Those ghost tracks are visible on Google Earth.

The elevators make for great photos, but not much else. Now, the family that owns the pair is appealing for help to save Lepine’s dilapidated Prairie staples. “Does anyone know a group who specialize in Canadian history?” Candice Bauer, who said her father and an uncle own the elevators, asked on Twitter in January.

This plea for preservation is familiar in the Prairies, where the collective number of country elevators in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta peaked at 5,758 in 1933. They defined the West’s economy and skyline for decades but have become obsolete, replaced by larger and centralized facilities. Today, the wooden structures number in the hundreds, and are torn down with little notice. Few bear heritage designations. But saving fading elevators is about more than emotional attachment and historical significance, and that is why elevators like those near empty Lepine are likely to disappear.

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“There must be a grassroots initiative and desire to save [a community elevator],” according to Ali Piwowar, who studied the tangible and intangible cultural heritage of grain elevators in Saskatchewan for her master of architecture. "There are some people who will need to take that leadership role. And if a community is not gung-ho about it, that’s fine for that community.”

Preservation enthusiasts, Ms. Piwowar said, also need to figure out how a reborn elevator will serve its local community. It must have purpose.

Ms. Piwowar’s research focused on Indian Head, Sask., a town about 70 kilometres east of Regina. Its elevator row peaked at 12 grain elevators and a flour mill, she wrote. Only two were still operating when she proposed a pre-emptive rescue strategy five years ago. Ms. Piwowar narrowed plans to what was once an elevator belonging to the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, which dominated grain handling in the province for decades.

After consulting community members, Ms. Piwowar identified three purposes for a revived elevator in Indian Head: community space, perhaps for a bakery or coffee shop, a tourist information centre and guest suites. She created images detailing the concept. She also proposed moving elevators like those in Indian Head to Regina, where more people could access the historical structures.

Her Indian Head revitalization plan, however, never took root. The town’s last two wooden elevators have since been demolished. Those elevators stood a better chance of second life than those in Lepine. The Lepine pair is in extreme disrepair, crumbling skeletons off Highway 41. They need to be rebuilt, not refurbished.

There were more than 3,000 wooden elevators in Saskatchewan back when farmers were short on transportation options and grain yields were significantly lower. By September, 2018, just 427 of those old-school elevators were still standing in the province. Eight wooden elevators have been tagged as municipal heritage properties and two as provincial heritage properties, according to the province’s Ministry of Parks, Culture and Sport.

Heritage status, however, cannot protect against everything that threatens elevators. The Fleming grain elevator – one of the two that sported provincial heritage status – burned down in 2010, but its designation has not yet been repealed, the ministry said.

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The disappearing elevators underscore how grain production has ballooned in Canada, and how farmers are able to haul more grain for greater distances. Today’s concrete elevators dwarf yesterday’s wooden landmarks. National Trust For Canada, in 2016, put the country’s wooden grain elevators on its list of top 10 endangered places. At the time, it noted only 23 had received heritage designations.

The 5,758 wooden elevators that decorated the Prairies in 1933 had an average capacity of 33,475 bushels, according to a 1992 report from John Everitt, then a professor in Brandon University’s geography department. This capacity translates into roughly 911 tonnes, assuming the bushels were exclusively wheat. (The amount of bushels in a tonne varies depending on the type of grain.)

By way of comparison, there were 352 elevators servicing Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta at the end of 2019, according to the Canadian Grain Commission. The average capacity at these elevators is about 22,218 tonnes.

The agricultural production explosion has, in some cases, saved little elevators. Some farmers have purchased or leased the local elevators, giving them exclusive access to storage space that once served their entire community. But farmers have also burned down abandoned elevators on their property; old elevators are fire hazards, rodent playgrounds and unsanctioned roadside attractions that are unstable.

Meanwhile, old elevators lost a key champion last year. Jim Pearson, an Alberta man who researched and mapped these Prairie icons, died in 2019. Indeed, Saskatchewan does not have updated figures on the number of wooden elevators in the province because it relied on Mr. Pearson’s research.

Preserving history is expensive, which is why so many more wooden elevators will be lost. Nine wooden elevators once populated Nanton, Alta.'s elevator row, according to Diane Wilson, chair of the Canadian Grain Elevator Discovery Centre. (The organization is specific to Nanton.) Townsfolk raised thousands of dollars two decades ago to save the last three wooden elevators. Roughly 200 tourists visited the orange Pioneer facility that serves as a museum last year, she said.

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Adult admission is $12, which is not enough to keep the operation afloat. The non-profit relies on fundraising, primarily access to casino cash once every four years. It raises about $52,000 at that two-day affair, Ms. Wilson said. Some people on the board believe the organization should focus on preserving just one of the elevators. This calculation underscores how difficult it is to preserve history.

“It is up to us to keep them,” Ms. Wilson said.

Back in Saskatchewan, Ms. Bauer’s Twitter plea for help did not result in a solution for what is left of the Lepine elevators.

“I will look at helping to take on the project by finding a lumber reclaimer/salvager to take it down if need arises," Ms. Bauer said in a message Friday.

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