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When you needed a hammer and nails to load a car

Until the 1970s, all grain was shipped in boxcars which needed a wooden door

Copies of photos donated by the Dickson and Henderson families of Boissevain have proven a treasure trove for the Manitoba Agricultural Museum.

This photo depicts a portable elevator filling a CPR wooden boxcar, probably sometime in the 1930s. The man in the photo cannot be identified — it’s believed he is not a member of either family and may be a hired man.

The portable elevator has been pulled up beside the boxcar, the leg elevated and the spout run into the car. A wagon has been backed up to the hopper which feeds the leg. A stationary engine can be seen behind the young man seated on the frame of the elevator. This engine powered the leg.

Also visible is a 2×8 plank running between the leg and the framework the leg sits on when folded into the travel position. This plank likely locked the leg in the vertical position. Given the large surface area the leg presents to the wind, such a lock would be a wise idea. Also visible is a rod that runs between the top of the leg and the frame. What this rod was used for is a mystery. One would not think that it controlled the flow of grain into the spout as shutting off the grain flowing into the spout would potentially result in the leg plugging. One was better off shutting off the flow of grain into the leg and letting the leg clean out.

Early idea

Portable elevators had been used well before this photo was taken. There is an ad for a portable elevator built by the Carberry Wood and Iron Works in a 1906 edition of the magazine Canadian Thresherman and Farmer.

The Carberry portable elevator was an elaborate machine which not only elevated the grain but also incorporated a horse treadmill that powered the leg and a wagon lift which raised the front of the grain wagon up to reduce the shovelling necessary to empty the wagon. The treadmill also operated the wagon lift.

The portable elevator seen here was comparatively simple. Grain was dropped out of the wagon box into the hopper feeding the leg. When the grain quit running out of the wagon box, it was time to start shovelling. A shovel can be seen hanging on the side of the leg. At that time scoop shovels were more than likely made of steel as aluminum was expensive.

In the book The Canadian Grain Trade written in 1932 by D.A. MacGibbon, he says that the railways only permitted the owners of portable elevators to use these machines in loading rail cars. They couldn’t be rented or borrowed by other farmers. He said the railways instituted this policy because too much use of producer cars would slow overall grain movement, especially when so much grain flowed to port in the fall before freeze-up on the Great Lakes. Railways came in for much criticism for failing to provide enough cars to carry the fall traffic. The grain elevator system with the grain it stored trackside allowed for more speedy and efficient loading of rail cars in all weathers which increased the number of trips to port the boxcar fleet could make in the fall.

Coopering the car

Both doors in the boxcar have had grain doors installed, a process called “coopering.” The grain doors were necessary to hold grain in the car as the sliding doors on the car were not meant to hold any weight. When the car was unloaded, one of the grain doors was pushed by brute force into the car against the grain far enough so that grain pours out. When sufficient grain escaped, the doors were then pulled out and unloading resumed.

Grain elevators kept a stock of grain doors on hand and when they ran low, the agent would order a carload of doors from the head office that would then see that grain doors were delivered from the stocks at the Lakehead terminals.

As the doors were made of plank, they sometimes were “diverted” to other uses. In many photos of elevators, there can be seen a stack of what appears to be lumber beside the elevator. This stack is usually stockpiled grain doors. Where the farmer here got the doors is unknown, however, it may be that the farmer here just obtained two from the local elevator.

As can be seen, the grain door does not extend all the way to the top of the opening so as to allow the grain spout into the car. In any event, a boxcar usually could not be filled to the very top of the car as it would then be overweight and damage the wheel bearings and axles plus railway bridges and track structures. In a wooden car such as this, there are lines painted on the inside of the car which show the levels which various grains can be loaded.

A broom can be seen beside the door. Probably the farmer swept out the car before coopering the doors. The farmer would also inspect the car for damage to the sides as grain could leak through any holes.

Wooden cars were prone to leak and the railways issued instructions to station agents and other employees to watch trains as they passed. If they saw a car leaking grain then they would alert the crew and have the car stopped and repaired. The initial weight of a car loaded at an elevator would be known and the railway would pay for missing grain. However, producers would not have a scale and would be in a poor position to make a claim. If they loaded to the interior marks on the car then apparently the railway would come to an agreement on any claim. It was probably better to closely inspect the car and stop up any holes.

To make the car tight enough to hold flax, the railway would supply heavy paper to line the inside. The paper came with preformed corners.

The opening above the grain door was useful for other reasons. Often when the loading was done, someone would have to climb into the car through the opening to level the load. As well, at this time, inspectors for the Board of Grain Commissioners sampled each car as it passed through Winnipeg on the way to the Lake Head. Grain cars moving to Vancouver were sampled at Calgary or Edmonton depending on which city the car was moving through. The inspector would usually take the sample through the openings. The sample was then graded and when the car arrived at a terminal to be unloaded, the grade of grain was already known. The car could then be rapidly assigned to a terminal for unloading.

About the author

Contributor

Alex Campbell is a dedicated volunteer and Member of the Interpretation Committee at the Manitoba Agricultural Museum. http://ag-museum.mb.ca/

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