Photographer documents Manitoba’s last wooden elevators before they’re gone

Winnipeg photographer Jean McManus’s photos will help Manitoba Historic Society to gather information and stories — with Co-operator readers to preserve the history of Manitoba’s once vast network of wooden grain elevators

Jean McManus wanted just one great photo of a wooden grain elevator when she set out with her camera in June 2014.

She didn’t know at the time that she would soon to be snapping pictures of every elevator in Manitoba.

“I retired and picked up a camera,” says the former cardiac nurse from Winnipeg, who wanted that first shot for a contest she was entering. “I did not set out to become knowledgeable about elevators.”

It was pursuit of the perfect photo that began her quest. She asked her husband, whose own hobby is mapping, navigation and GPS, to locate a few more elevators for her. Tighe McManus obliged and soon had produced a map of every grain elevator in the province.

The couple hit the road. In the past 18 months Jean has photographed 160 elevators at 132 separate sites. Any elevator qualifies as subject material, so long as there’s a wooden elevator at its core, she said. She has photographed all types of wooden elevators, including both those no longer used and those still in commercial operation.

“I have fallen in love with this project,” said McManus. Her goal now is to create a complete inventory by recording and photographing every elevator in the province.

“I believe that I have photographed all of the elevators that are still on rail lines,” she said. “We have a few sites that we still have to investigate that may have elevators that are in farmyards.”

Her photos have come to the attention of the Manitoba Historical Society’s webmaster and Journal editor Gordon Goldsborough who says what she’s done couldn’t be more timely.

“It’s very important. It captures something really unique. And it’s right at the cusp of what I think is the end for these elevators,” he said.

“She’s sensed an urgency.”

Statistics tell the tale. In the 1950s, there were over 700 grain elevators in Manitoba. Today, the total number is not precisely known, but is estimated at fewer than 200, including just 85 still in commercial use as of 2014.

These sites have been spared the wreckers’ ball of the past quarter-century. But they may not last much longer, predicts the historian.

“They are getting old,” said Goldsborough. “Many have been standing without any maintenance at all for a couple of decades. They’re reaching the point where they are a hazard and their owners see them as a liability and are tearing them down.”

McManus jokes that to see her photos “you’d think there was no paint in Manitoba.” But it is a sobering sight to return to some of the locations for a second look, and find the elevator gone.

“Eight more sites we visited have lost their elevators in the last year,” she said, adding these include an elevator at Carey (near St. Pierre), one at McTavish (near Rosenort), one near Glass, the Sperling elevator, two at Minto, and two former Cargill elevators at Swan River.

Living memory

Goldsborough’s worry is the history of this province’s grain elevators is soon going to be harder to find too. Much of the historic detail of these sites is still found only in the living memory of those who once delivered grain to these elevators — and they’re getting on in years too.

“A lot of the information about these elevators is in people’s heads,” he said.

There are archival records such as those found at Brandon University and University of Manitoba, he notes. But they are only a partial record.

That’s prompted him to begin a project to collect it in 2016 — and he needs Manitoba Co-operator readers’ help.

The Manitoba Co-operator will begin to publish a weekly ‘This Old Grain Elevator’ series featuring a photo of a wooden grain elevator starting Jan. 7. The photos will be selected from McManus’s collection or a provincial collection from the 1990s, requesting readers to share with the Manitoba Historical Society whatever they may know and remember about the elevator featured.

“I would like to capture information about every single elevator that existed in the province,” he said.

He has created a website for readers to post details. These could include names of past and present site owners, agents’ names, associated buildings such as warehouses and bins, and the date of the site’s destruction if it has been demolished. He also hopes readers will post their personal stories associated with the elevators.

Goldsborough hopes to gather as much information and personal stories as possible and create a permanent record of this important aspect of Manitoba’s history.

In the late 1980s, when grain elevator demolition was in full bore, the provincial Historic Resources Branch began a study and inventory of traditional-style elevators around the province. Few of the 220 inventoried at that time remain standing today. But that study did help to evaluate and establish the historic significance of the five-elevator row at Inglis. It was declared a National Historic Site in February of 1996.

Presently, the oldest known surviving grain elevator in Manitoba and Canada — is at Elva. It was constructed in 1897.

Please watch for the first ‘This Old Grain Elevator’ photo to be published January 7, 2016. More detail on how to post to the Manitoba Historical Society website will be available then.

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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