Piece by weathered and rusted piece, Canada’s oldest grain elevator comes down

A Prairie sentinel, believed to be the oldest in Canada, is taking its farewell bow.

The Lake of the Woods Milling Company grain elevator in the southwest Manitoba hamlet of Elva has shouldered thrashing rains and snow and withstood the baking sun for 125 years.

Now it is being eased into history, board by board and nail by nail.

A similar fate is coming to the former United Grain Growers elevator, built circa 1916, a stone’s throw from the Lake of the Woods one.

“It is sad to see these symbols of Prairie Canada come down, but I am pragmatic about it,” said Gordon Goldsborough, president of the Manitoba Historical Society.

“I realize we can only keep them if they serve a useful purpose. Having them standing there unused, rotting away, serves no one’s interest.”

The Lake of the Woods elevator, in the foreground, with the United Grain Growers elevator in the background, stand alongside the tracks in Elva. (Submitted by Gordon Goldsborough)

They had been abandoned for so long, their poor condition became a public liability, Goldsborough said.

Troy Angus, owner of the Den Authentic Barnwood, bought both structures last year at an auction by the Municipality of Two Borders, which was trying to recoup unpaid municipal taxes.

His business is to source, salvage and sell antique wood. Angus calls it “rural wood waste management.”

He started the deconstruction in January and is starting to resell exterior tin cladding. He outlines a five-phase deconstruction process on his website and said he is about halfway through the second phase, learning as he goes.

“This isn’t something that is really ordinary. There’s no textbook to follow on how to do this,” Angus said.

He had never taken on a grain elevator until last year, when he was invited to reclaim wood from one that had already collapsed in southeast Saskatchewan. Angus only needed to deal with Phase 5 then, which is removing nails, stacking and hauling.

Even then, it took a long time. A wooden elevator has as many as 2,250 kilograms (5,000 pounds) of nails.

“When these giants come down, it is a mountain of wood,” Angus said.

In most cases, the lumber and nails end up in landfills.

“For us to have the opportunity to intercept and collect upwards of 50,000 board-feet within a short time period was enough of a test to want to go ahead and give it another try,” he said.

Or in the case of Elva — two tries.

“It’s growing, every day, my appreciation for these buildings,” Angus said.

Niverville’s round grain elevator was built in 1878 and was Western Canada’s first commercial elevator. It was in operation until 1904. This photo is from 1911, when it was no longer in use. (Provincial Archives of Manitoba)

He’s had loads of people “coming out of the woodwork, you might say” to share nostalgic stories about growing up around those particular elevators or others.

“It’s just amazing, the connection that there is to these elevators across Canada,” Angus said. “There’s an emotional tie and that historical tie.

“This is the breadbasket [of the country] and these were a major staple at one time. They still are, but not the wooden grain ones as much.”

Built in September 1897, the Lake of the Woods elevator took the crown as oldest after the 1895 elevator in Fleming, Sask., burned to the ground in 2010, according to Vantage Points, a publication of the Turtle Mountain-Souris Plains Heritage Association.

The Lake of the Woods elevator is a squat style standard-plan design, common before 1910 when the taller style, used for the UGG elevator, became popular.

Three elevators in Niverville, circa 1911, illustrate different styles of early design. The round structure, far right, is from 1878, and the flat warehouse, far left, was popular during the early 1880s and 1890s. The elevator in the middle, built in 1904, is the squat type that was popular until about 1910 and the advent of the taller versions. (Provincial Archives of Manitoba)

But the first commercial grain elevator in western Canada was round. It was built in 1878 in Niverville, according to A History of Grain Elevators in Manitoba, by the provincial government. The first standard-plan elevator was built in 1881 in Gretna and demolished in the early 1990s.

Modern elevators of steel and concrete — less prone to fires and water leaks, more impervious to rodents and insects — have since taken over.

Modern elevators of steel and concrete — less prone to fires and water leaks, more impervious to rodents and insects — are now more common across the country. (Mike Zartler/CBC)

Both of Elva’s old grain elevators sit on a belt of grass sandwiched between a CPR line and the gravel path of Railway Avenue.

They are the last of what was four wooden elevators in a row, creating a skyline during Elva’s heyday at the turn of the 20th century.

The area remains a bustling grain community and is still served by the railway line, but grain is now stored three kilometres away in a multi-silo structure that opened in 2000 and was later expanded.

Elva is midway between the slightly larger community of Pierson and the town of Melita. Angus’s home and business is in Pierson, which made the project convenient and made it easier for him to assess the structures.

A photo card published by the Winnipeg Photo Company shows Elva’s grain elevators in 1910. (Winnipeg Photo Company)

Holes have let in rain and snow for decades, causing the foundations and the walls to deteriorate and giving the Lake of the Woods elevator a distinct lean.

Still, Angus believes the wood value “is going to be substantial,” perhaps with about 75 per cent of it salvageable.

The UGG grain elevator in Elva has holes that have let in rain and snow for decades, causing the walls to deteriorate and damaging the foundation. The LOTW elevator has been damaged the same way. (Submitted by Gordon Goldsborough)

Goldsborough, whose fixation on grain elevators has led him to document many across the province, said the wood can be magnificent, especially in the leg — the section where grain was raised from the base to the top.

It often has sculpted patterns caused by a century of grain abrasion, he said.

Getting to the leg is Phase 3, which comes after annexes have been removed. Phase 4 is when the elevators are gently laid onto their sides to further disassemble.

The motor, seen in the Lake of the Woods elevator office in September 2021, used to drive the leg. (Submitted by Gordon Goldsborough)

Angus is aiming to do that before the ground thaws — and Goldsborough is on standby.

“I hope I can be there. I’d like to witness the final hours of Canada’s oldest elevator,” he said.

The next-oldest, built in Austin in 1901 and later moved to the nearby Manitoba Agricultural Museum, will then take the mantle.

Some people say Port Perry has the country’s oldest elevator, built in 1874, but Goldsborough said it’s more of a warehouse-style design, not standard-plan, which is synonymous with the iconic sentinels.

“There’s also an old elevator in Edmonton but, again, not in a format that anyone would associate with the Prairie stereotype,” he said.