The dry, arid winds of Saskatchewan hammer against my left arm. My hand is curved into a wing-like shape as I hang my forearm out the driver’s side window. I entertain myself with the magic of lift. It’s late September and I’m watching the yellow dashed lines extend into the horizon. The highway is empty and the land is flat. I stare at the small formation of clouds in what has to be one of the worlds biggest skies and breathe in the smell of gravel roads and fresh cut fields.
Driving through the Saskatchewan prairies can at times feel like you’re completely alone in the world. You begin to notice things. Things you might have overlooked, things you might take for granted. You notice your head swivelling slowly, scanning the horizon and looking for something, but you’re not sure what. When your eyes spot it, you pull over. Jutting out of the miles of flatlands is a wooden skyscraper.
The Saskatchewan Grain Elevators
While they may not break any world records for building height, and they sure aren’t the most sophisticated pieces of architecture. They’re different. And they’re disappearing one at a time. The Grain Elevators of Saskatchewan are an endangered species. What was once a common sight across Saskatchewan has now become an opportunity to see an era fade into the history books. Something people may someday see in pictures but never get the opportunity to see with their own eyes.
Chasing Prairie Skyscrapers
During my recent travels throughout Saskatchewan I made an effort to find as many of these dying creatures as I could. The Grain Elevators of Saskatchewan offer a unique look at an important time in human civilization. These wooden castles helped feed the world. Before elevators, grain was hauled in bags and towed by horse and carriage. The idea of modern farming we see today didn’t begin until the late 1800’s with the invention of the Grain Elevator.
The Elevators are in my blood
My Grandpa was one of the thousands of labourers who helped construct the Grain Elevators in Saskatchewan throughout the mid 1900’s. He died at a fairly young age due to lung complications caused by breathing in mass amounts of grain dust throughout his life. This was a danger that was unknown back in those times. While I never really got to know him, I do know that some of the elevators built with his hands still stand today. Others he worked on have met their fate on the ground which they proudly stood over for decades.
The Grain Elevators Are Vanishing
In the 1930’s there was said to be over 3,300 grain elevators in Saskatchewan. That number has plummeted to roughly 450 in recent years. It’s my hopes that more will be done to protect and preserve these unique pieces of Saskatchewan history. Unfortunately they’re being demolished at an alarming rate due to concerns for safety and cost of maintenance. Some call them Tinder Boxes, others call them an Eye Sore; however, there is growing support to save them. Many communities are coming together to protect them.
Protecting the Prairie Elevators
It’s an uphill battle, but the local Saskatchewan community is coming together to try their best to protect the grain elevators. The Western Development Museum in North Battleford currently has a working 1920’s elevator on display. Several small communities have also converted their elevators into museums and restaurantes. Rural communities with a strong enough voice continue to partner with the Saskatchewan Heritage Foundation to save their local elevator. This problem of the disappearing elevators isn’t unique to Saskatchewan. Alberta & Manitoba face the exact same problems.
The Prairie Skyline is Changing
Time is running short for the prairie skyline. Most of the wooden-cribbed grain elevators are showing wear and tear. The province of Saskatchewan is changing fast. Rural areas are growing smaller and smaller while the 5 urban city centres of Saskatchewan continue to grow each year. In response to this exodus, ghost town’s continue to be born.
I fully understand that there is no way for all of the elevators to be saved. Times will always be changing, and newer elevators are needed in order to meet the demand of a growing population. However, these elevators are a piece of the past, and a past that in my eyes is worth preserving. There is really no time like the present to see and photograph what’s left of the Prairie Skyscrapers. Chasing them can become an addiction and can easily be the basis to one of the greatest Saskatchewan road trips you’ll ever take.
For more about the problems facing the Grain Elevators check out the National Film Board’s documentary “Death of A Skyline“. I managed to find it online on Vimeo, and while it’s a little dated, you do learn a lot more about the locals plight. Be sure to check out some of the demolition videos, its oddly depressing to see them fall.