7-1 | Table of Con­tents | DOI 10.17742/IMAGE.NBW.7-1.6 | Powi­warPDF

Abstract | This essay exam­ines the tan­gi­ble and intan­gi­ble cul­tur­al her­itage of the wood­en grain ele­va­tors across the prairies. As wood­en ele­va­tors become obso­lete as a result of chang­ing agri­cul­tur­al tech­nol­o­gy, they are fac­ing neglect, aban­don­ment, and demo­li­tion. While these ele­va­tors were once pure­ly func­tion­al struc­tures, their unin­ten­tion­al mon­u­men­tal­i­ty has con­tributed to their rela­tion­ship with prairie peo­ple, fos­ter­ing indi­vid­ual and com­mu­nal iden­ti­ty. The wood­en ele­va­tors are explored in the con­text of the past, present, and future using archival research, site vis­its, and inter­views. The town of Indi­an Head, SK is a case study. The micro-his­to­ry of Indi­an Head per­mits an under­stand­ing of the rela­tion­ship between ele­va­tors and oth­er prairie towns. The con­cept of liv­ing her­itage is employed to inves­ti­gate the tan­gi­ble and intan­gi­ble cul­tur­al her­itage asso­ci­at­ed with grain ele­va­tors using a tem­po­ral frame­work. Liv­ing her­itage is both an action and theory—a way of think­ing and act­ing towards the past—which sets the stage for a mul­ti­fac­eted dis­course con­cern­ing place, time, and peo­ple relat­ing to the wood­en grain ele­va­tors across the prairie provinces. This essay sub­stan­ti­ates the impor­tance of the wood­en grain ele­va­tors to prairie peo­ple and pre­scribes an archi­tec­tur­al response for adap­tive reuse.
Résumé | Cet essai explore l’héritage con­cret et abstrait des ascenseurs à grain en bois au tra­vers de la région des Prairies. Au fur et à mesure que ces ascenseurs dev­in­rent obsolètes, un résul­tat des change­ments dans la tech­nolo­gie agri­cole, ils furent nég­ligés, aban­don­nés et détru­its. Bien que ces ascenseurs fussent autre­fois des struc­tures à but pure­ment fonc­tion­nel, leur stature mon­u­men­tale par inad­ver­tance a influ­encé les rela­tions que les habi­tants des Prairies entre­ti­en­nent avec ces-derniers, encour­ageant une iden­tité indi­vidu­elle et com­mu­nau­taire. Le passé, le présent et le futur de ces ascenseurs ont été étudiés par le biais de recherch­es d’archives, de vis­ites de sites et d’entretiens.   La ville d’Indian Head, SK est une étude de cas. La micro-his­toire d’Indian Head per­met de com­pren­dre la rela­tion entre ces ascenseurs et les habi­tants de villes des Prairies. Le con­cept d’héritage vivant est util­isé pour exam­in­er l’héritage cul­turel con­cret et abstrait qui est asso­cié aux ascenseurs à grains dans un cadre tem­porel. L’héritage vivant est à la fois un acte et une théorie ; une manière de penser et de se com­porter envers le passé, qui ouvre la porte à une dis­cus­sion com­plexe sur l’espace, le temps et les gens en lien avec les ascenseurs à grain en bois dans la région des Prairies. Cet essai four­nit des preuves sur l’importance de ces ascenseurs pour les habi­tants des Prairies et pro­pose une solu­tion archi­tec­turale pour une réu­til­i­sa­tion adaptée.

Ali Piwowar | Photographer

Architecture Engrained on the Canadian Prairies

Wood­en crib grain ele­va­tors across West­ern Cana­da define the prairie land­scape as a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of both place and time. The cul­tur­al heritage—tangible and intangible—of the ele­va­tors expos­es their impor­tance with­in the evolv­ing prairie cul­ture. While wood­en ele­va­tors were also con­struct­ed through­out the mid-west­ern Unit­ed States, the scale and vol­ume of the ele­va­tor net­work in Cana­da con­tributed immense­ly to the devel­op­ment of rur­al prairie com­mu­ni­ties in Alber­ta, Saskatchewan, and Man­i­to­ba. The grain trade indus­try pro­duced numer­ous grain ports on both the Atlantic and Pacif­ic coasts of Cana­da, fed by rail from ele­va­tors in the mid­dle of the coun­try (Clark 2).[1] For many prairie com­mu­ni­ties, the wood­en ele­va­tors evolved from mere func­tion­al struc­tures into mon­u­ments that fos­tered indi­vid­ual and col­lec­tive iden­ti­ties. The intan­gi­ble cul­tur­al heritage—events, actions, emotions—associated with the ele­va­tors expose the mem­o­ries and nos­tal­gia that have con­tributed to trans­form­ing these struc­tures into icons and place markers.

This essay first intro­duces the wood­en grain ele­va­tors in a his­tor­i­cal con­text focus­ing on the larg­er net­works asso­ci­at­ed with the ele­va­tors at a macro scale. Build­ing on this exam­i­na­tion of his­to­ry, I intro­duce the con­cept of liv­ing her­itage: the intan­gi­ble role that the ele­va­tors play to prompt a micro­analy­sis of var­i­ous per­spec­tives of peo­ple between past and present. The final sec­tion pro­vides an archi­tec­tur­al response that reimag­ines grain ele­va­tors as places for peo­ple, ulti­mate­ly revi­tal­iz­ing rur­al prairie communities.

The essay specif­i­cal­ly focus­es on the province of Saskatchewan, giv­en that more grain ele­va­tors were built there than in Alber­ta or Man­i­to­ba. The town of Indi­an Head and its Saskatchewan Wheat Pool ele­va­tor serve as a case study to define spe­cif­ic tan­gi­ble and intan­gi­ble traits and is the site for the pro­posed adap­tive reuse project that imag­ines the grain ele­va­tor as new spaces for the com­mu­ni­ty. The essay also includes pho­tographs and draw­ings that ges­ture in style and image to the intri­cate rela­tion­ships between place, time, and people.

 Historic Framework—the Rise of the Wooden Grain Elevator

There is lit­tle in Cana­di­an Archi­tec­ture that has not been import­ed from else­where. The grain ele­va­tor, how­ev­er, is one of the few build­ing types that was devel­oped in North Amer­i­ca and pro­lif­er­at­ed in both Cana­da and the Unit­ed States” (Fla­man 2).

The first wood­en grain ele­va­tors in Cana­da began to appear across the prairie provinces in the late 1880s fol­low­ing the con­struc­tion of the Cana­di­an Pacif­ic Rail­way. The rail net­work had a sig­nif­i­cant impact on the con­struc­tion of the grain ele­va­tors and the sub­se­quent devel­op­ment of rur­al com­mu­ni­ties in West­ern Cana­da. Ele­va­tors were built along the rail­way at 8- to 10-mile intervals—the dis­tance a farmer with a horse-pulled grain cart could trav­el from the fam­i­ly farm to an ele­va­tor and back in one day. The nation­al grain trade oper­a­tion depend­ed on the wood­en ele­va­tors as the ini­tial point of grain han­dling and on the rail­way for nation­al trans­porta­tion. The pros­per­i­ty of the agri­cul­tur­al econ­o­my in West­ern Cana­da was con­tin­gent on the abil­i­ty to move grain by rail.[2] The Cana­di­an Pacif­ic Rail­way also influ­enced the design and imple­men­ta­tion of the “stan­dard” grain elevator—its crib con­struc­tion, size and height, and installed mechan­i­cal equip­ment (Fla­man 3).

The sim­ple mono­lith­ic form of the wood­en ele­va­tor is derived strict­ly from its func­tion. The ele­va­tor weighs, cleans, and stores grain until it is ready to be shipped by train or truck. The use of grav­i­ty to facil­i­tate grain pro­cess­ing stip­u­lat­ed the sheer height and ver­ti­cal­i­ty of the ele­va­tors. The 2x6 and 2x8 wood tim­bers were stacked togeth­er with the ends over­lap­ping to cre­ate the “cribbed” struc­ture rec­og­nized for its strength and dura­bil­i­ty. Only slight vari­a­tions of the wood­en ele­va­tor design, most­ly vis­i­ble in the roof/cupola struc­ture, have been made over the past 100 years. Many wood­en ele­va­tors appear almost iden­ti­cal in form and mass­ing, which has also con­tributed to the town plan­ning of prairie com­mu­ni­ties: “A town’s Rail­way Avenue boast­ed an archi­tec­tur­al land­scape that includ­ed a row of ele­va­tors, rail­way sta­tions, water tow­ers… all were indica­tive of a way of life that revolved around prairie rail trans­porta­tion. The first of these struc­tures, the ele­va­tor; is the last to have sur­vived” (Ross).

The Polaroid pho­tographs in Fig­ure 1 illus­trate a degree of hon­esty through their blem­ished real­i­ty. They por­tray the “way of the past” and, in a sense, are trib­utes to the “glo­ry days” of the ele­va­tors. Like the grain ele­va­tors, the Polaroid pho­tos them­selves are ves­tiges of out­dat­ed technology.

Illustration LayoutsDec14Fig­ure 1: Polaroid Pho­tographs by Kyler Zeleny

The exten­sive agri­cul­tur­al her­itage across the Cana­di­an prairie was built from an econ­o­my ground­ed in wheat as a sta­ple crop (Gov­ern­ment of Saskatchewan). Around 1940, the agri­cul­ture-based econ­o­my of Saskatchewan began to be sup­plant­ed by min­ing and forestry (Phillips). This eco­nom­ic shift led to the replace­ment of the wood­en ele­va­tors with con­crete inland ter­mi­nals. How­ev­er, “[r]egarded pos­i­tive­ly or neg­a­tive­ly, the ele­va­tor still rep­re­sent­ed the essence of an agri­cul­tur­al exis­tence. Thus, when west­ern writ­ers and artists became inter­est­ed in local con­cerns, the ele­va­tor start­ed its ascen­sion into the realm of the sym­bol­ic” (Dom­masch 11). As Saskatchewan con­ser­va­tion archi­tect Bernard Fla­man states, “from an archi­tec­tur­al view­point, it is the grain ele­va­tor that best sym­bol­ized this impor­tant point in the social, eco­nom­ic and cul­tur­al devel­op­ment of the region, and pos­sess­es wider sig­nif­i­cance through its influ­ence and icon­ic form” (3).

A key social devel­op­ment in the ear­ly years of West­ern Canada’s grain indus­try was the found­ing of the Ter­ri­to­r­i­al Grain Grow­ers Asso­ci­a­tion in Indi­an Head, Saskatchewan in 1901. The Asso­ci­a­tion devel­oped out of farm­ers’ anger over the unfair mar­ket­ing and unequal val­u­a­tion of their grain (Gray 71). Its found­ing marked the begin­ning of farmer-owned and oper­at­ed ele­va­tors with stan­dard­ized grain val­ue and the estab­lish­ment of grain coop­er­a­tives in the prairie provinces.[3] “In no oth­er coun­try in the world have the grain grow­ers done so much to solve their own prob­lems as in our Cana­di­an West” (Clark 22). The harsh prairie con­di­tions pro­duced coop­er­a­tion, relent­less­ness, and pride in prairie pio­neers who worked both with the land and with their neigh­bours. These coop­er­a­tive traits con­tin­ue to be a char­ac­ter­is­tic of every­day life in Saskatchewan today.

Con­crete inland ter­mi­nals and steel silos have grad­u­al­ly replaced the wood­en ele­va­tors, giv­en out­dat­ed mechan­i­cal func­tion­al­i­ty, reduc­tion in rail trans­porta­tion, and the chang­ing agri­cul­tur­al econ­o­my (Ban­ham 113). Addi­tion­al­ly, the ampli­fied capac­i­ties in the con­crete ter­mi­nals result­ed in an increased ser­vice range for farm­ers in the area: “great grain ‘ter­mi­nals’ made of con­crete, with­out beau­ty, or mys­tery, sig­ni­fy­ing only indus­tri­al­iza­tion of agri­cul­ture, began to appear by the side of major high­ways. The old ‘ten miles to the near­est ele­va­tor’ was becom­ing a thing of the past” (Buta­la xv).

The num­ber of wood­en ele­va­tors peaked in 1938, with over 6,000 ele­va­tors with a com­bined capac­i­ty of 190 mil­lion bushels across the three prairie provinces (Ver­voort 182; Buta­la xiii).[4] Wood­en grain ele­va­tors con­tin­ued to be con­struct­ed until 1980. How­ev­er, few­er than 450 wood­en ele­va­tors remain stand­ing in Saskatchewan and no more than 100 are in active use.

At a large scale, the agri­cul­tur­al indus­try, nation­al rail net­work, and coop­er­a­tive grain trade busi­ness­es that col­lec­tive­ly pro­mote the devel­op­ment of wood­en grain ele­va­tors have pro­duced a tan­gi­ble con­nec­tion between prairie peo­ple and the land. This tan­gi­ble cul­tur­al her­itage is instru­men­tal in shap­ing the intan­gi­ble cul­tur­al her­itage asso­ci­at­ed with the ele­va­tors. With­in a more inti­mate con­text, the large trends pre­sent­ed here are devel­oped through per­son­al per­spec­tives and relat­ed val­ues in the fol­low­ing sec­tion on liv­ing heritage.

Living Heritage—Exploring the Intangible 

The ele­va­tor was more than just a tall build­ing, impor­tant for the mar­ket­ing of grain. There was an atmos­phere, an intan­gi­ble feel­ing attached to it, a feel­ing that is was a mean­ing­ful struc­ture in which mean­ing­ful work was being done. Even when not sell­ing grain, farm­ers tend­ed to loi­ter at the ele­va­tor, sens­ing from its oper­a­tion their role in the over­all scheme of prairie life. It appealed on many lev­els and to almost all the sens­es: sight, sound, touch, and smell” (Dom­masch 10).

Liv­ing her­itage reveals tan­gi­ble and intan­gi­ble cul­tur­al her­itage. While the term “liv­ing her­itage” has been used by var­i­ous enti­ties with dif­fer­ing mean­ings and have inter­dis­ci­pli­nary uses,[5] this essay focus­es on the con­cept as explored by San­dra Massey in Liv­ing Her­itage and Qual­i­ty of Life. The frame­work of liv­ing her­itage expos­es the tran­si­tion of the grain ele­va­tor from its pri­mar­i­ly func­tion­al role decades ago to its cur­rent icon­ic, mon­u­men­tal condition.

As a con­tem­po­rary frame­work for explor­ing tan­gi­ble and intan­gi­ble cul­tur­al her­itage, liv­ing her­itage bridges the gap between the cul­tur­al tra­di­tions of the past, cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty of the present, and cul­tur­al aspi­ra­tions of the future. Liv­ing her­itage is unique in that it ulti­mate­ly focus­es on the cre­ation instead of pro­tec­tion of her­itage val­ue over time. Liv­ing her­itage is both a method­ol­o­gy for a vig­i­lant eval­u­a­tion of the past as well as a cat­a­lyst for imag­in­ing his­toric struc­tures for the future.

The hybrid draw­ings in Fig­ure 2 use hand sketch­es over­laid on black and white land­scape pho­tographs begin to inter­pret the trans­for­ma­tive rela­tion­ship between the ele­va­tors and the prairie land­scape. They present a con­di­tion of “del­i­cate­ness” allud­ing to the way the ele­va­tors could blow away in the wind at any moment.

Illustration LayoutsDec14Fig­ure 2: Hybrid Draw­ings by Alixan­dra Piwowar

Massey’s work on liv­ing her­itage iden­ti­fies five key themes: change, mem­o­ry, nar­ra­tive, iden­ti­ty, and val­ue. Explor­ing each theme fur­thers our under­stand­ing of the impor­tance of grain ele­va­tors. Val­ue in her­itage is a com­plex ques­tion, pri­mar­i­ly because val­ue is gained through per­son­al or col­lec­tive per­spec­tives.[6] As such, her­itage val­ues have over­lap­ping and con­tra­dic­to­ry val­ues for any giv­en site. Table 1.0 below maps instru­men­tal val­ues and per­son­al and col­lec­tive sen­ti­ments from var­i­ous per­spec­tives per­tain­ing to the wood­en crib grain ele­va­tors. In her­itage, instru­men­tal val­ues are the plat­form on which the sig­nif­i­cance of an act or object (tan­gi­ble or intan­gi­ble) is built and sus­tained. If some­thing does not have instru­men­tal val­ue, it is not her­itage. The instru­men­tal val­ues of grain ele­va­tors gen­er­ate pur­pose and sig­nif­i­cance for the indi­vid­ual, the com­mu­ni­ty, the province, and Cana­da. The indi­vid­ual and col­lec­tive sen­ti­ments that stem from instru­men­tal val­ue con­tribute to an under­stand­ing that the impor­tance of the grain ele­va­tors is fun­da­men­tal­ly root­ed in one’s per­spec­tives and rela­tion­ships with the ele­va­tors on an emo­tion­al lev­el. These six per­spec­tives were derived from inter­views, archival data, and pub­lished mate­r­i­al. Fur­ther, the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the instru­men­tal val­ues and per­son­al and col­lec­tive sen­ti­ments were iden­ti­fied as top­ics of com­mon recog­ni­tion. The table com­pares and con­trasts peo­ple, val­ues, and sen­ti­ments as they relate to grain ele­va­tors in gen­er­al terms; it is by no means intend­ed to be exhaustive.








Past Present Past Present
Farmer[7] Eco­nom­ic Purpose Sense of Finan­cial Security
Gath­er­ing Place Sense of Community Sense of Loss - Abandonment
Place Mark­er Mon­u­men­tal­i­ty Sense of Iden­ti­ty and Belonging Sense of Sad­ness of a Bygone Era
Ele­va­tor Oper­a­tor[8] Eco­nom­ic Purpose Sense of Finan­cial Security
Place of Employment Place Mark­er Sense of Famil­iar­i­ty and Identity Sense of Famil­iar­i­ty and Pride
Haz­ardous Environment Sense of Fear
Indus­tri­al­iza­tion Use­less Structure Sense of Accomplishment/ Progress Sense of Annoy­ance at Dat­ed Technology
Gath­er­ing Place Sense of Community
Town’s Per­son[9] Eco­nom­ic Purpose Sense of Prosperity
Place Mark­er Mon­u­men­tal­i­ty Sense of Iden­ti­ty and Belonging Sense of Belong­ing and Pride
Com­mon­place Indif­fer­ence
Gath­er­ing Place Gath­er­ing Place Sense of Community Sense of Loss - Abandonment
Eco­nom­ic Purpose Sense of Hope for Finan­cial Security
Abo­rig­i­nal Peo­ples[10][11] Sym­bol of Colonialism Mon­u­men­tal­i­ty Sense of Oppres­sion and Inequity Sense of Oppres­sion and Inequity
Pass­er-by/­Tourist[12] Icon­ic Form Sense of Excitement
Place Mark­er Sense of Loca­tion and Distance
Haz­ardous Environment Haz­ardous Environment Sense of Fear Sense of Fear
Friends/Family of Indi­vid­u­als who Died in an Ele­va­tor[13] Grave Site Grave Site Sense of Grief Sense of Grief

Table 1.0: Map­ping Instru­men­tal Val­ues and Per­son­al and Col­lec­tive Sen­ti­ments (Piwowar)

Expos­ing vary­ing per­spec­tives and expe­ri­ences illus­trates the change of intan­gi­ble cul­tur­al her­itage of the ele­va­tors over time, a theme in Massey’s con­cept of liv­ing her­itage. Change affects her­itage through its threat of loss (Massey 6); how­ev­er, liv­ing her­itage rec­og­nizes change as inevitable and empha­sizes how the past is used in a con­tem­po­rary con­text (Massey 6). Change per­mits the real­iza­tion of pass­ing time and cre­ates an aware­ness of tem­po­ral­i­ty in tan­gi­ble and intan­gi­ble aspects of life. While the change in tech­nol­o­gy and econ­o­my leads to the dis­ap­pear­ance of the grain ele­va­tor, its cul­tur­al val­ue com­pels a response that enables the ele­va­tors to trans­form with time and persevere—to change and adapt.

In the con­text of liv­ing her­itage, the act of remem­ber­ing “construct[s] iden­ti­ty for our­selves and our com­mu­ni­ties” while “re-remem­ber­ing construct[s] new nar­ra­tives that under­score mutu­al oblig­a­tions” (Massey 6).[14] Mem­o­ry is acti­vat­ed when ele­va­tors are observed in the land­scape, pho­tographs, paint­ings, and mod­els, allow­ing his­to­ry to become part of the present. Each observ­er will incur mem­o­ries based on their indi­vid­ual rela­tion­ship with the ele­va­tors. For exam­ple, an ele­va­tor oper­a­tor may remem­ber details of mechan­i­cal equip­ment or near-death expe­ri­ences, while a vil­lager may remem­ber the sound and flur­ry of activ­i­ty res­onat­ing from the ele­va­tor. A farmer may remem­ber pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive grain-trad­ing expe­ri­ences, a First Nations Farmer may remem­ber hav­ing to wait at the back of the line until the oth­er farm­ers have had their grain processed, while a tourist may remem­ber the repli­cat­ed shape and promi­nent ver­ti­cal posi­tion of the ele­va­tor with­in the prairie land­scape. Mem­o­ries of wood­en ele­va­tors are imper­a­tive in defin­ing their value.

Liv­ing her­itage uses nar­ra­tives shared between peo­ple to ani­mate the present with the past, large­ly through remem­ber­ing. The diver­si­ty in per­spec­tive gen­er­ates count­less nar­ra­tives. For many Cana­di­ans, the icon­ic form of the wood­en grain ele­va­tor rep­re­sents Cana­di­an agri­cul­tur­al her­itage even with­out per­son­al expe­ri­ences; the wood­en struc­tures have been ele­vat­ed to the realm of pub­lic aware­ness.[15]

Shar­ing sto­ries leads to increased aware­ness of one’s iden­ti­ty and belong­ing. Liv­ing her­itage encour­ages val­ue in the past that cul­ti­vates iden­ti­ty. While the wood­en ele­va­tors were orig­i­nal­ly pri­vate struc­tures owned by grain com­pa­nies, their archi­tec­ture in the pub­lic realm embraces the col­lec­tive iden­ti­ty of each prairie town, pre­sent­ing the tan­gi­ble and intan­gi­ble cul­tur­al her­itage. Grain ele­va­tors are also indica­tive of the towns’ degree of eco­nom­ic pros­per­i­ty. Prairie peo­ple iden­ti­fy with the grain ele­va­tors: they “built them, ran them, relied on them, lived in them, and died in them” (McLach­lan 6). They are exam­ples of cul­tur­al infra­struc­ture that anchor local identities.

Grain to People—Re-imagining Grain Elevators 

Ele­va­tors mark ‘our place’ in the vast­ness of the prairie land­scape. Many of these ele­va­tors have already been demol­ished. We need an oppor­tu­ni­ty to mourn the pass­ing of the way of life, they once rep­re­sent­ed… So, too, must we rede­fine our ‘sense of place’ and our self-def­i­n­i­tion in response to our chang­ing envi­ron­ment” (Cole).

While archi­tec­ture is the phys­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tion of ideas, built form also presents a story—remembered or imagined—to its users through spa­tial expe­ri­ence. In this way, the archi­tec­ture of the grain ele­va­tor tells many sto­ries. The char­ac­ter-defin­ing ele­ments trig­ger these sto­ries.[16] Liv­ing her­itage requires com­mu­ni­ty involve­ment and com­mu­ni­ty-gen­er­at­ed ideas to nego­ti­ate the past in the present and future (Massey 7), as took place in Indi­an Head, Saskatchewan. New pro­grams for the adap­tive reuse of the grain ele­va­tor were gen­er­at­ed for the his­toric Saskatchewan Wheat Pool grain ele­va­tor in Indi­an Head. Ulti­mate­ly, this project proves that any stan­dard grain ele­va­tor, with the sup­port and involve­ment of the com­mu­ni­ty, has the poten­tial to be re-imag­ined as a space for people.

The com­put­er-gen­er­at­ed ren­der­ings in Fig­ure 3 point­ed­ly intro­duce imag­ined spaces. Per­haps rather aggres­sive­ly, this final series of images jux­ta­pos­es the two pre­vi­ous sets in both style and idea. The archi­tec­ture is root­ed in the his­toric tan­gi­ble fab­ric of the ele­va­tor, while the por­tray­al of the human inter­ac­tion sub­con­scious­ly intro­duces a con­tin­u­um of the elevator’s nar­ra­tive (the intangible).

Illustration LayoutsDec14Fig­ure 3: “Imag­ined Spaces” Ren­der­ings by Alixan­dra Piwowar

With­in the expan­sive set­ting of the open prairies, the loca­tion of the grain ele­va­tor adja­cent to the rail­way and on the edge of town is an addi­tion­al char­ac­ter-defin­ing ele­ment. Ele­va­tors are rarely far­ther than sev­en meters away from a rail line, most often on a sid­ing to per­mit through traf­fic on the main line while rail cars are being loaded with grain. The wood­en ele­va­tors typ­i­cal­ly sit between the rail­way and Rail­way Avenue (a com­mon street name in rur­al prairie towns). As the tallest struc­ture, the phys­i­cal rela­tion­ship with the town gives a sense of per­ma­nence. While only south­ern por­tions of the prairie provinces are flat, the image of the wood­en crib grain ele­va­tor con­nect­ing land and sky is dom­i­nant in prairie art and media.

The pri­ma­ry char­ac­ter-defin­ing ele­ment of the exte­ri­or fab­ric of the grain ele­va­tor is its sim­ple geo­met­ric form and fea­ture­less façades. The mod­u­lar shape of the ele­va­tor is derived from form adher­ing to func­tion. The typ­i­cal sloped-shoul­der roof (a design based on the spa­tial orga­ni­za­tion of the grain cribs with­in) cre­ates two dif­fer­ent ele­va­tions; how­ev­er, the shoul­ders of the ele­va­tor always face incom­ing and out­go­ing trains. The name of the town was also print­ed on the ele­va­tions so train dri­vers could iden­ti­fy their loca­tion. The name of the grain com­pa­ny was paint­ed on the oppo­site two ele­va­tions for farm­ers to ref­er­ence when trad­ing grain. As the form is the most iden­ti­fi­able ele­ment of the grain ele­va­tor, it is crit­i­cal that it remains pre­dom­i­nant­ly intact dur­ing the adaptation.

The inte­ri­or fab­ric, the com­po­si­tion of the grain bins through cribbed con­struc­tion, and the grain ele­vat­ing mechan­i­cal sys­tem gives form to the ele­va­tor. The unique tex­ture of the staked wood mem­bers and over­lap­ping cor­ners of the dis­tinc­tive cribbed con­struc­tion reveals the struc­tur­al integri­ty of the build­ing. The grain bins—vertical voids reach­ing six to eight sto­ries into the air—contrast with the vast hor­i­zon­tal land­scape. Remov­ing pieces of the cribbed struc­ture to cre­ate long hor­i­zon­tal slits cre­ates new open­ings for win­dows; they mim­ic the hor­i­zon­tal wood sid­ing on the exte­ri­or as well as empha­size the per­spec­tive of the sur­round­ing prairie and the hori­zon as one ascends to the top.

For the pur­pose of this research, the cit­i­zens from the com­mu­ni­ty of Indi­an Head were asked to re-imag­ine their ele­va­tor. A series of con­ver­sa­tions with res­i­dents iden­ti­fied a vari­ety of pro­grams: hotel suites, a tourist infor­ma­tion cen­tre, com­mu­ni­ty space(s), and a cof­fee shop. The pro­pos­al places two hotel suites in the shoul­der of the ele­va­tor with a cof­fee shop occu­py­ing the cupo­la at the top. The adap­tive reuse also pro­pos­es inter­sti­tial spaces with­in the grain cribs—spaces rarely expe­ri­enced by peo­ple. Com­mu­ni­ty gar­dens and a com­mu­ni­ty kitchen are also designed on the site, cre­at­ing a social and phys­i­cal con­nec­tion between the town and the site. Plac­ing the tourist infor­ma­tion cen­tre adja­cent to the com­mu­ni­ty gar­den and com­mu­ni­ty kitchen facil­i­tates the oppor­tu­ni­ty for res­i­dents to inter­act with vis­i­tors. Through mem­o­ries and nar­ra­tives, res­i­dents inform the expe­ri­ence of the vis­i­tor, there­by rein­forc­ing iden­ti­ty and belonging.

Re-imag­in­ing the grain ele­va­tor as a place for peo­ple ensures that the char­ac­ter-defin­ing ele­ments are sus­tained. The elevator’s dra­mat­ic wood­en atmos­phere cre­ates an inno­v­a­tive spa­tial expe­ri­ence through the addi­tion of floor plates and cir­cu­la­tion in the grain bins. The re-imag­ined ele­va­tor will be an impor­tant pub­lic space for the towns­peo­ple, estab­lish­ing a reminder of the past. The elevator’s liv­ing her­itage will con­tin­ue to con­nect prairie peo­ple to the land. Most impor­tant­ly, the adapt­ed archi­tec­ture will gen­er­ate social inter­ac­tion and strength­en community.

Monumental Canadian Architecture

Referred to as the most Cana­di­an of archi­tec­tur­al forms, the grain ele­va­tor is an icon­ic mon­u­ment on the prairies. Its promi­nent ver­ti­cal­i­ty stands in stark con­trast to the vast hor­i­zon­tal land­scape, inspir­ing ref­er­ences such as “prairie sen­tinels,” “prairie sky­scrap­ers,” and “light­hous­es of the prairies.” Famous mod­ern archi­tect Le Cor­busier referred to the ele­va­tors as “the cathe­drals of the plains,” while oth­ers sim­ply call them “vators.”

With time, the shift from func­tion­al­i­ty to mon­u­men­tal­i­ty has con­tributed to the con­scious­ness of the wood­en ele­va­tor at a nation­al and inter­na­tion­al lev­el. The tan­gi­ble and intan­gi­ble her­itage of the wood­en crib grain ele­va­tor to West­ern Cana­da points to its cul­tur­al impor­tance. On a large scale, grain ele­va­tors are a prod­uct of the coop­er­a­tive agri­cul­tur­al econ­o­my and nation­al rail net­work that shaped the province of Saskatchewan and Cana­da as a nation. On a small scale, liv­ing her­itage illus­trates the evo­lu­tion of the ele­va­tors from func­tion­al­i­ty to mon­u­men­tal­i­ty through change, mem­o­ry, nar­ra­tive, iden­ti­ty, and value—all deeply root­ed in prairie com­mu­ni­ties and their people.

Re-imag­in­ing grain ele­va­tors as places for peo­ple does far more than save the ele­va­tor from demo­li­tion; the re-imag­ined archi­tec­ture gen­er­ates old as well as new inter­per­son­al rela­tion­ships, eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ties, and a sense of com­mu­ni­ty. Engag­ing com­mu­ni­ties in iden­ti­fy­ing their unique per­spec­tives on the tan­gi­ble and intan­gi­ble cul­tur­al her­itage of the grain ele­va­tors allows for the real­iza­tion and devel­op­ment of pride, iden­ti­ty, and place-mak­ing in trans­lat­ing and artic­u­lat­ing their sto­ries from the past to the future. Re-imag­in­ing wood­en grain ele­va­tors can ulti­mate­ly revi­tal­ize prairie places.

Works Cited

Archibald, Robert R. A Place to Remem­ber: Using His­to­ry to Build Com­mu­ni­ty. Wal­nut Creek, CA: Altami­ra Press, 1999. Print.

Ban­ham, Reyn­er. Con­crete Atlantis: U.S. Indus­tri­al Build­ings and Euro­pean Mod­ern Archi­tec­ture 1900-1925. Lon­don, UK: The MIT Press, 1986. Print.

Buta­la, Sharon. “Absences.” Gone but Not For­got­ten: Tales of the Dis­ap­pear­ing Grain Ele­va­tors. Ed. Eliz­a­beth McLach­lan. Edmon­ton, AB: NeWest Press, 2004. xiii-xvi. Print.

Canada’s His­toric Places. “Grain Ele­va­tors in Saskatchewan Reg­is­ter Results.” Parks Cana­da 2014. Web. Dec 31 2014.

---. Stan­dards and Guid­lines for the Con­ser­va­tion of His­toric Places in Cana­da. Cana­da: Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Cana­da, 2010. Print.

Clark, W. C. “The Coun­try Ele­va­tor in the Cana­di­an West.” Bul­letin of the Depart­ments of His­to­ry and Polit­i­cal and Eco­nom­ic Sci­ence in Queen's Uni­ver­si­ty, Kingston, Ontario, Cana­da. Vol. 20. Kingston, ON: The Jack­son Press, 1916. Print.

Cole, Martha. “Ele­va­tors.” 2015. Web. Nov 1 2014.

Dom­masch, Hans S. Prairie Giants. Saska­toon, SK: West­ern Pro­duc­er Prairie Books, 1986. Print.

Fla­man, Bernard, Mau­reen Ped­er­son, and Garth Pugh. “Grain Ele­va­tors on the Cana­di­an Prairies: Nomadism to Set­tle­ment.” Doco­mo­mo Jour­nal 38 (2008). Print.

Gov­ern­ment of Saskatchewan. “About Saskatchewan.” 2014. Web. Nov 2014.

---. “His­to­ry: Agri­cul­ture & Food.” 2014. Web. Dec 29 2014.

Gray, Roger. “The Ter­ri­to­r­i­al Grain Grow­ers Asso­ci­a­tion.” Indi­an Head: His­to­ry of Indi­an Head and Dis­trict. Regi­na, SK: Wayne D. Schafer, 1984. [page range] Print.

Hart, Bob. “Indi­an Head His­to­ry and Agri­cul­tur­al Back­ground.” Indi­an Head: His­to­ry of Indi­an Head and Dis­trict. Regi­na, SK: Wayne D. Schafer, 1984. [page range] Print.

Hes­lip, Tara-Leigh. Inter­view by Ali Piwowar. “Indi­an Head Ele­va­tor Inter­view.” Oct 29 2014.

Indi­an Head. “Town His­to­ry.” The Town of Indi­an Head Saskatchewan 2014. Web. Nov 22 2014.

Mason, Ran­dall. “Assess­ing Val­ues in Con­ser­va­tion Plan­ning.” The Get­ty Con­ser­va­tion Insti­tute: Assess­ing the Val­ues of Cul­tur­al Her­itage (2002): 5-30. Print.

Massey, San­dra. Liv­ing Her­itage & Qual­i­ty of Life: Refram­ing Her­itage Activ­i­ty in Saskatchewan. Regi­na, SK: Her­itage Saskatchewan, 2012. Print.

McLach­lan, Eliz­a­beth. Gone but Not For­got­ten: Tales of the Dis­ap­pear­ing Grain Ele­va­tors. Edmon­ton, AB: NeWest, 2004. Print.

Mclaugh­lin, R. “The Grain Busi­ness.” Indi­an Head: His­to­ry of Indi­an Head and Dis­trict. Regi­na, SK: Wayne D. Schafer, 1984. Print.

Pete, Shauneen. “Grain Ele­va­tors in Abo­rig­i­nal Per­spec­tive.” [title of col­lec­tion or jour­nal] Ed. Ali Piwowar. [pub­lish­ing info] 2014. Print.

Phillips, Peter. “Econ­o­my of Saskatchewan.” Ency­clo­pe­dia of Saskatchewan. Vol. 2014. Regi­na: Uni­ver­si­ty of Regi­na and Cana­di­an Plains Research Cen­ter, 2007. [page range] Print.

Piwowar, Alixan­dra. “Liv­ing Her­itage: Re-imag­in­ing Wood­en Crib Grain Ele­va­tors in Saskatchewan.” M. Arch. The­sis. Car­leton Uni­ver­si­ty, 2015. Print.

Ross, Jane. “Grain Ele­va­tors.” The Cana­di­an Ency­clo­pe­dia. Toron­to: His­tor­i­ca Cana­da, 2006. [page range] Print.

Sep­ke, Robert. Inter­view by Ali Piwowar. “Grain Ele­va­tor Inter­view in Indi­an Head.” Nov 3 2014.

Ver­voort, Patri­cia. “‘Tow­ers of Silence’: The Rise and Fall of the Grain Ele­va­tor as a Cana­di­an Sym­bol.” His­toire Sociale / Social His­to­ry 39.77 (2006): 181-204. Print.


[1] “The grain ele­va­tor is one of the by-prod­ucts of the expan­sion of the wheat mar­ket from a local to a world basis” (Clark 2).

[2] Wheat con­ges­tion occurred when wood­en ele­va­tors stor­age bins were full and grain cars were not avail­able to ship grain (Indi­an Head, “Town History”).

[3] Alber­ta Wheat Pool, Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, and Man­i­to­ba Wheat Pool.

[4] Refer to “Tow­ers of Silence”: The Rise and Fall of the Grain Ele­va­tor as a Cana­di­an Sym­bol for fur­ther infor­ma­tion on the count of wood­en ele­va­tors at rel­a­tive dates (Ver­voort).

[5] The con­cept of liv­ing her­itage was orig­i­nal­ly intro­duced at UNESCO’s Con­ven­tion for the Safe­guard­ing of Intan­gi­ble Cul­tur­al Her­itage held in 2003 in Paris. Liv­ing her­itage has also been active in New­found­land and Labrador in research and teach­ings at Memo­r­i­al Uni­ver­si­ty and in ini­tia­tives by the Her­itage Foun­da­tion of New­found­land and Labrador (Her­itage Foun­da­tion of New­found­land and Labrador).

[6] For more on val­ues-based her­itage, see Ran­dall Mason’s Assess­ing Val­ues in Con­ser­va­tion Plan­ning: Method­olog­i­cal Issues and Choic­es, pub­lished by the Get­ty Con­ser­va­tion Insti­tute in 2002.

[7] For­mu­lat­ed based on archival research using Indi­an Head and Dis­trict His­to­ry Book and grain ele­va­tor pub­li­ca­tions at the Saskatchewan Leg­isla­tive Library.

[8] For­mu­lat­ed based on inter­views with Robert Sep­ke and Brad Kinchen.

[9] For­mu­lat­ed based on inter­views with Tara-Leigh Hes­lip, Lin­da Kort, Brad Kinchen, and Bruce Neill, as well as numer­ous publications.

[10] For­mu­lat­ed based on per­son­al cor­re­spon­dences with Dr. Shauneen Pete and Tara-Leigh Hes­lip of Indi­an Head.

[11] “The ele­va­tor was the phys­i­cal reminder that mer­i­toc­ra­cy was lim­it­ed to only cer­tain groups (with access to pow­er) and that the struc­tur­al bar­ri­ers to fuller par­tic­i­pa­tion in the econ­o­my were very real for First Nations Peo­ples” (Pete).

[12] For­mu­lat­ed based on inter­views with Kyle Franz and Bruce Neill.

[13] For­mu­lat­ed based on inter­views with Brad Kinchen and con­sult­ing Gone but Not For­got­ten by Eliz­a­beth McLachlan.

[14] See also A Place to Remem­ber: Using Her­itage to Build Com­mu­ni­ty by Robert Archibald for a dis­cus­sion on the con­scious­ness of the past through remem­ber­ing and re-remembering.

[15] Patri­cia Ver­voort dis­tin­guish­es the “‘Cana­di­an grain ele­va­tor’ as part of Cana­di­an His­to­ry because of its exten­sive use” (Ver­voort 188).

[16] The Stan­dards and Guide­lines for the Con­ser­va­tion of His­toric Places in Cana­da pro­vides a com­plete def­i­n­i­tion and expla­na­tion of char­ac­ter-defin­ing elements.