By Tim Kalinowski, Staff Writer
They are an iconic prairie symbol. They are our signposts in the landscape. They represent prairie pride, ingenuity and industry. And there are fewer and fewer of them each year.
Jim Pearson, founder of Vanishing Sentinels and a member of the Alberta Grain Elevator Society, has been on a quest the past 15 years to seek out, document and photograph grain elevators in the most isolated and obscure places, both to preserve their memory and draw attention to their plight.
For Pearson it all started in Innisfail in 2000.
“I went through the community on a Saturday,” remembers Pearson, “and there were five elevators. I came back through on the next day on a Sunday, and there were no elevators.”
They had all been demolished. The next year another two losses closer to home in his hometown of Delia, drove home the message to Pearson even further. One of the communities elevators burned down and a few weeks later another was knocked down by a wrecking crew.
“They just obliterated it,” recalls Pearson with sadness in his voice. “And we were sitting around having dinner and I was thinking I should do up a map showing where these were. It just kind of snowballed from there. These elevators are markers for our communities, and when they start tearing them out, like the road signs, you don’t know where you are. Elevators are the symbol of the prairies.”
Pearson’s response was to start Vanishing Sentinels.
“I see it as my mission to keep the memories of these places alive, because once they are gone they are gone. And like the song says, ‘You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.’”
Pearson and his fellow elevator enthusiasts have coined to a new term to describe what they do: They are “vatorologists,” studiers of elevators. And as with any passion, elevators entice, engross and inform Pearson and other enthusiasts perception of their lives. Pearson admits he has probably spent hundreds of hours and eaten up thousands of miles of road across three provinces in his neverending search for new and interesting elevators and their histories. He has written three books on the subject and taken tens of thousands of photographs.
“It has definitely turned into something that kind of went out of control,” acknowledges Pearson with a chuckle. “There are some really interesting ones. Like the Alberta Pacific at Raleigh. That was the oldest known standing elevator in Alberta. It was built in 1905. That it is still standing is absolutely amazing if you think about it. With the Alberta Pacific, there is only five or six left in the entire province.
“Another great one is at Ester, Alberta. It was the first one I photographed outside of my local area. It was like the beginning of my journey in a lot of ways. It’s a pretty interesting elevator too. It’s the third Alberta Wheat Pool built. It’s not exactly in spectacular shape, but it is classified, I believe, as an historical site. It’s the last of the original three still standing.”
Another that captivates Pearson is the Sask. Wheat Pool elevator in Fusilier. Pearson feels an almost paternal pride in that one, being the first vatorologist to discover it.
“Fusilier, Saskatchewan is one of the most interesting ones because it is a gray. It’s a gray Sask. Wheat Pool. It’s special to me because it was the first one I discovered in Saskatchewan. I was just traveling around in early January 2008, and I thought I would go to Consort and swing west. You’re driving up there and you don’t see much when all of a sudden there is this gray elevator standing right there.”
When Pearson looks at the decaying ruins of these elevators today, he sees beyond the current form to what it must have been like so long ago when they stood over bustling towns.
“They are a part of our history,” states Pearson. “Back in the early days the elevators might be the only place that had a telephone or telegraph. They were a social centre for the farmers. They were one of the places you get coal, and sometimes they even sold lumber or farm equipment. There were a major centre for business, and they also helped the tax base of the town out. The more elevators you had the larger the community got.”
Largely ghosts now of their former selves, these last prairie sentinels might be the only evidence left of the community that once surrounded them.
“Once they started ripping up the rail lines to the elevators the communities started to decline, and you saw a lot of other businesses leave. Then the school might close and post office goes, and it was game over. Some were maybe just like a one elevator town, maybe just a whistle stop like Gartley. Once these communities lost their elevator, in a sense they also lost their identity.”
Those wishing to learn more about Pearson’s work can visit the Vanishing Sentinels website at vanishingsentinels.ca.