Plans have been made to significantly change the landscape in Niverville. One of the few remaining grain elevators in Canada will be torn down next month.
This elevator is so special because it was built to replace the one William Hespeler constructed in 1879 which was the first grain elevator in Western Canada. It was destroyed by fire.
Owner Grant Dyck from Artel Farms says the current facility was originally built in 1981 and served as one of the last of its kind.
In an email to Steinbachonline.com, Dyck writes, “At the time, it was among the largest of the wood only, open-roof construction. It had been built by a crew of local men that literally nailed it together from the ground up, 2x8, 2x6, 2x4 and so on. Someone who remembered the original building project mentioned that it had taken 27 rail car loads of lumber and one full rail car load of nails as building material. Originally these facilities dotted the prairies as there had been a grain act that stipulated that every farm should have access to one within; “one day's horse cart ride”. A great book that goes into further detail on this is the Merchants of Grain, how Canada’s pioneers and founding business’, farmers, developed the landscape.”
For many years, grain elevators have played a key role in farming across the prairies. That seems to have changed over the years.
Looking specifically at the facility in Niverville, Dyck says the elevator was not getting used enough to justify keeping the structure.
“The best thing you can do to them is to keep grain turning through,” he says, “Which, if we used it to its capacity, would be hundreds of trucks in a very congested community.”
That would also create a lot of dust and noise, which isn’t usually welcomed in booming residential communities. There was a time when Dyck was using railway cars for transportation and that brought about safety concerns at the railway crossing. He says the rail option is basically non-existent.
“Over the years, it has become increasingly difficult to get the CP rail to bring us cars, coming to a head in recent years where they made it financially impossible, pricing the option out of the market,” Dyck explains.
But why not sell the elevator instead of tearing it down? Dyck says he has entertained a number of options and feels strongly that this is the best option for the town.
“Over the years, I had entertained selling it to a number of companies seeing the opportunity of the rail access, and it being one of the last vestibules east of the (Red) river. Each time, as it is now, I didn’t feel it would be best for the town,” he says.
Dyck recognized the town was growing and that the growth would continue. This prompted the move to build their facility east of Niverville, respecting space for expanding boundaries. He feels this was a good move for his farm.
“One bin there is actually the useable capacity of the entire existing elevator consisting of 45 individual bins,” says Dyck. But he's quick to point out the uniqueness and strengths of a grain elevator, saying “One thing these older facilities are fantastic at is blending. Whether it be grade, moisture, or protein. I have spent many months “bartending” grain in the facility. To be honest, I am a little sad to see it go, as well. However, I have come to realize that even running a plant like this has become somewhat of a lost art. There is so much to know, and requires a bit of intuition with this style of building. It has become a difficult thing to train or teach. We have had some fantastic people work with us over the years that took that challenge on, but it is by no means glorious work. In fact, it can present some of the worst jobs at the farm when things go wrong; like a plugged leg for instance. That consists of working in confined spaces in unmitigated amounts of dust, and maybe the odd mouse.”
Even if someone would try turning the building into space for alternate uses, such as restaurants or bed and breakfasts, the building would still require constant maintenance. It also presents a large safety concern if not in use. Dyck says it has become a rite of passage for local kids to break in and try climbing to the top.
What about a heritage site? Such an important site in Canadian farming history would warrant some acknowledgment of the valuable work that happened at the location. While that sounds sensible, it might not be very easy. Dyck says he has not been approached for such a project, however, the cost to procure it and maintain it, would not be a sensible option.
“Frankly, I don’t think it would be the best thing for a booming community like ours,” he says. “So, it becomes a bit of a white elephant, we can’t continue to use it, and we can’t sell it for its intended purpose.”
Listening to Dyck speak about the history behind the grain elevator, his passion for people in his hometown, and his pride in the growth of Niverville, one can quickly tell that this decision was not made lightly. A lot of thought and consideration went into each step of the process.
“It is not lost on me that Niverville had the first grain elevator in Canada and arguably one of the last of its kind today,” says Dyck. “The original one is gone and it is difficult to find any mention of that one’s last days as things progressed and expanded. It seems fitting that this one gets a page in history now.”
The grain elevator will come down in October. Dyck says they have found one of the last and best specialists to take on the project. What will become of the land? Dyck has received a lot of interest from buyers and he is working with the town and listing agent on the intended future of the land.
“Indeed, it is the end of an era, however, I never would have thought it would overlook a brand-new school and rec centre,” he says. “It’s all quite impressive what’s going on around us. Having a farm and elevator in the town has presented challenges but also opportunity. We are trying to figure out our place in all of it.”