Country elevators are disappearing, but so long as George Payette can swing a sledgehammer or pound a nail, a few lone survivors stand a chance.
Payette’s business is elevator repair and maintenance, making him the guy farmers who now own these sites regularly call when a roof, siding or cribbing needs work, or a foundation is iffy.
“We’ve got 103 that we maintain now and the list is still climbing,” said Payette, in an interview at his Roseisle home on a rare day off between his frequent jaunts to job sites throughout Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
“Every year we seem to pick up an elevator or so.”
They’re a mix of former Manitoba Pool Elevators and United Grain Growers sites, plus a few across the border into Saskatchewan. Most are privately owned and used as storage. Many are on abandoned railway lines.
“We do a few for grain companies such as Paterson and Delmar Commodities as well,” adds Payette.
Payette’s business evolved out of a long career that spanned nearly a quarter-century with Manitoba Pool Elevators, doing the same repair and maintenance work. In 2004 he departed what by then was Agricore United, hung out his own shingle and kept right on with the job.
“Basically I’m doing it all over again but on my own,” he says.
It’s no small undertaking maintaining a roster of massive aging Prairie giants found in all corners of rural Manitoba and Saskatchewan. The farthest west he’s gone out for a job is Milk River, Alberta, where he cut out walls and replaced lumber on a former Parrish & Heimbecker.
No two jobs are the same. Sometimes it takes a few days. Other times he and his crew of two can be at it for several weeks.
They might need to repair aluminum exteriors, referred to as Manitoba siding. He’s crawled underneath elevators to assess to what extent of rot and decay is taking its toll. He’s jacked up many annexes. They do a lot of cribbing, or cutting out walls to replace the lumber, says Payette. And they’ve had a bird’s eye view from the top, stripping off old cedar shingles to put on new metal roofs. Much of their work is preventive maintenance, including checking to make sure augers and conveyors and other interior equipment is in good working order.
“We’ll go in once or maybe twice a year and check everything,” he said.
On a wall at home Payette has a large map dating back to August 1, 1953. It shows 290 country elevators in operation by MPE at that point.
During his own time working with the company — he started in 1979 — many rail lines servicing those sites were abandoned and elevators on them came down.
Payette says he certainly appreciates the site of a country elevator, but admits he doesn’t think that much about how what he does helps keep up what have become some of the last remaining of these iconic buildings.
“They’re marvellous landmarks,” he said. “But the important part for me is keeping these elevators maintained,” he said. Most who own them also tend to view them in a practical light. “They’re convenient storage,” he said. But some also value the building for its role in a community the farm family may have long been part of, he adds.
“A lot of them want to keep them up as long as they can,” he said, “but it’s often just for the fact it’s their storage. It’s very expensive to replace that elevator with steel bins.”
One elevator stands out among others for him, personally.
It’s the Harte elevator. His business card bears its image. It’s a former Manitoba Pool elevator built between 1973 and 1974 northwest of Carberry, and an early example of the composite type of elevator, where the elevator and annex were built as one solid crib. It’s also one of the first elevators whose scale could operate in imperial and metric.
“To me it’s the nicest-looking elevator out there,” he said. “And they maintain it very well.”
But no building lasts forever. Many of these sites are nearing 80 years old, notes Payette. And as farms change hands in the future, different owners may have other plans for the buildings.
“I’d say they’ve got 20 to 30 years left in them, although some of them could go for another 40 years or so, if they’re well maintained,” said Payette.
Under his watch, they will be. He loves a job that helps farmers keep country elevators doing theirs.
“It’s filthy work,” he says with a hearty laugh. “It’s very dirty work. But I just love that kind of work. Every day is a different challenge.”