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The Maple Leaf Flour Mill in Brandon

There were many early mills in Manitoba, but they didn’t last

One of the photos in the Manitoba Agricultural Museum’s photo collection is a 1912 view of Pacific Avenue in Brandon, looking to the east.

It appears to have been taken off the roof of the International Harvester Corporation (IHC) warehouse which still stands at the northeast quadrant of the intersection of 18th Street and Pacific Avenue. While this brick building still stands, the building long ago was sold by IHC, converted to a cold storage facility and now may be just used for storage. Some 30 years ago, the Wheat Kings hockey team logo and name were painted over the International Harvester logo and name which were painted on the outside of the parapet around the top of the building.

Pacific Avenue at the time was merely an unpaved street. Given the volume of traffic Pacific Avenue saw at the time, it may have had pit run gravel applied to it.

The brick building in the centre of the photo is believed to be the Maple Leaf Flour Mill which was active in Brandon at the time. The mill was closed and demolished in the 1930s. As well as Maple Leaf, the Western Canada Flour Mill company also had a flour mill in Brandon in 1912. This mill was farther to the east and on the north side of the CPR tracks.

Flour milling was widely carried out in Western Canada at the time in a variety of mills of various sizes. Many communities offered financial incentives to entrepreneurs willing to build flour mills in these communities and these communities believed that such commercial enterprises would ensure the survival of the community.

Flour mills were located in such communities as Rapid City, Oak Lake, Souris, Gladstone, Melita and many other Manitoba communities. Many of these mills were small-capacity mills and were “gristing” mills, that is they would mill a farmer’s wheat in return for part of the output. Companies such as the Western Canada Flour Mills and Maple Leaf probably had the idea that by locating close to where wheat was actually produced they could obtain the best-quality wheat for their mills.

However, several issues halted the construction of Prairie flour mills. The flour milling industry by 1914 was transitioning from an emerging industry to a mature industry where economies of scale to reduce cost was paramount. The number of flour mills across Canada in use began to fall and the remaining mills became larger with the capacity of these mills being more fully utilized. The more efficient flour producers began to drive out of business the less efficient.

The second issue was the difficulty of transporting flour off the Prairies in comparison to shipping wheat off the Prairies. Wooden boxcars were not terribly suitable to shipping flour as the cars had to be loaded by hand, the cars could leak water and had interior surfaces that could tear flour bags. Boxcars used to haul high-class products such as flour, sugar, paper and so on had to be kept separate from the general boxcar fleet which complicated the railway’s task in providing cars to their customers. Wheat on the other hand could be bulk loaded into rail cars and unloaded with machinery. A car hauling coal or machinery onto the Prairies could load wheat for shipment off the Prairies after a good cleaning.

The flour industry seems to have realized that the lowest-cost milling and flour distribution model was to locate mills immediately beside large population centres, mill the wheat there into flour for distribution to this population with the smaller population centres having flour shipped to them from the large flour mills. The expansion of flour mills on the Prairies came to an end by 1920 and slowly existing mills began to close after that date. There is one exception to this trend, the Prairie Flour Mills plant at Elie, Manitoba which was built in 1998.

Immediately behind the flour mill is a wooden grain elevator which likely was part of the flour mill complex. The grain elevator is a very different design than what the later design of the elevator was. By 1920, the grain industry had basically standardized on a design which is sometimes known as the Western Standard Elevator design which accounts for why elevators built by the various grain companies looked almost identical. This design was flexible enough that interior arrangements could and did differ between grain companies.

Immediately in front of the flour mill is a very interesting structure which appears to have exterior bracing on either side of it. The exterior bracing projects some three feet out from the side of the structure and appears to be made of structural steel. While it is not known exactly what this is, it may be some sort of dust recovery system in use at the flour mill to recover flour dust. Flour milling is a dangerous activity as large volumes of flour dust can be mixed into the air in the building. As flour dust will burn, it is explosive, making dust control essential if you want to avoid blowing the mill up. But as flour has value, while one wants to bring clean air into the building, one also wants to recover the flour dust in the exhaust air as well.

Just this side of this structure is a transfer crane with two railway flatcars underneath it. The transfer crane straddled a railway spur and a loading dock immediately beside the spur. One can make out a chain fall hanging down from the beam of the crane. This crane is likely to have been owned by IHC and used to unload farm machinery.

To the right of the crane, and partially obscured by a clump of trees, is what appears to be a large tractor. At the very bottom right-hand corner of the photo can be seen another two tractors. The shapes of the radiators are visible and one tractor appears to be an IHC Titan tractor while the other appears to be an IHC Mogul tractor. Probably when the tractors were railed into the spur, the transfer crane was used to lift them off the flatcars and place them on the loading dock rather than starting the tractors on the flatcars and driving them off. The transfer crane would also be useful in handling other machinery brought in by flatcar.

On the left-hand side of the photo is the CPR’s Brandon rail yard. This end of the yard was used mainly for passenger trains with the freight yard laying east of 1st Street over the Assiniboine and the CPR tracks. There are some freight cars visible on the south side of the yard, however, they are sitting on the team track serving the Maple Leaf Mill and the warehouses and elevators to the east of the mill. But several of the cars appear to be either livestock cars or refrigerator cars which raise questions as to why the cars are on this team track. Perhaps the cars are placed here as it was a convenient place to attach the cars to a west-bound train.

The stub ended rail yard on the right-hand side of the photo is the Brandon, Saskatchewan and Hudson Bay (BS&H) Railroad’s Brandon yard. The BS&H was a subsidiary of the Great Northern Railroad.

The BS&H station, a single-storey brick building with a limestone foundation, a prominent bay window and a large passenger platform, can be seen in the centre of the photo towards the east end of the yard. To the west of the station is the GN freight house. At the west end of the freight house is a loading dock with what appears to be a sheer leg crane installed on the dock. The sheer leg crane would have been useful in handling heavy machinery railed into Brandon on the BS&H. Continuing west, there are coal sheds along the south edge of the GN yard. The GN abandoned the railway in 1936. The CPR bought the BS&H trackage in Brandon, however, the buildings were demolished. Currently the east end of what was the BS&H yard is occupied by a disused feed mill and grain elevator with apartment buildings occupying the west end of the yard.

Alex Campbell is executive director of the Manitoba Agricultural Museum. The Manitoba Agricultural Museum (MAM) operates a website. This web page also offers information of interest to a visitor.

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Alex Campbell is the director of the Manitoba Agricultural Museum, which is open year round and operates a website at http://ag-museum.mb.ca/ which can provide visitors with information.

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