Agriculture built modern Manitoba, but it was transportation – moving settlers in and their grain out – that allowed it to happen.
That part of the province’s history is now on display at the Manitoba Agricultural Museum through a new exhibit that explores the evolution of transportation and its economic, social and political impact on rural Manitoba.
“There’s more to tell about the story of rural Manitoba than just farm equipment,” says Elliot Sims, the 23-year-old founder and manager of the Community Ties project. “There’s all that other history that people don’t understand or know about and I think it’s an important thing to pass on. If we as a society don’t understand why things were done the way they were and why it has gotten us to where we are now, it’s awfully difficult to figure out where we want to go and how we might do that.”
The first display, Prairie Gold: The Making of the Wheat Economy examines the pioneer experience with transportation from 1880 to 1925. Displays depicting 1850 to 1880, 1925 to 1945 and 1945 until now will be added over the next 10 years.
The project marks a change in the Manitoba Agricultural Museum, itself, Sims noted. Until now the focus has been on collecting antique farm implements and displaying them, especially during the museum’s annual Threshermen’s Reunion and Stampede. Placing artifacts into a permanent, self-guiding display gives it context.
(Some of the same photographs and information are available at www.graintransportmuseum.ca,
a joint venture between the Manitoba Agricultural Museum and the Transportation & Heritage Centre.)
The project began modestly in 2000, when Sims was barely a teenager. As a fourth-generation museum volunteer, Sims says he wanted to raise funds for a building for antique trucks to free up space for tractors. But the plans changed to setting up a “museum-quality” display with encouragement from donors and the Manitoba government.
Instead of erect ing a 1,700-square-foot storage shed, a 7,000-square-foot display building was constructed.
As visitors enter, one of the first things they’ll see is a horse-drawn grain wagon mired in mud. Sims says it was a common event until the rural roads were improved, which evolved slowly as automobiles replaced horses.
Reliance on horsepower also explains why there once was a town, or at least a grain elevator, every seven or eight miles. That was as far as a team of horses could haul 60 bushels of wheat in a day, Sims says.
“Now the semis we use on our farm are a 1,000 bushels a load and you can do about five a day,” he says. “So in 100 years we’ve gone from hauling about 60 bushels a day to almost 5,000. That’s huge. Talk about efficiency gains.”
Manitoba exported its first shipment of wheat in 1876. Before that, production was largely used by farmers themselves. It wasn’t until the railway arrived in the 1880s, followed by settlers, that grain production took off in Manitoba.
Before the once ubiquitous Prairie grain elevator arrived, farmers loaded grain directly into boxcars from raised platforms or into trackside warehouses. Both were replaced by the much more efficient elevator, rendered almost extinct today by the even more efficient inland grain terminal.
By the late 19th century and start of the 20th rural Manitoba and the North-West Territory (Saskatchewan and Alberta before becoming provinces in 1905) were filling up with farmers from Ontario and abroad. As wheat production increased, so did farmer complaints about ill treatment at the hands of the Canadian Pacific Railway and grain companies. Farmers were convinced the two colluded to keep prices low.
Farmers organized, eventually forming their own grain companies. They pushed for reforms, which led to producer cars and the formation of the Canadian Grain Commission (CGC) to police grades, dockage and weights. The farmer-owned grain companies are gone, but producer cars and the CGC remain.
As a farm kid, Sims was drawn to the museum’s antique farm equipment, but his appreciation for the role of early transportation has grown in part from his studies at the University of Manitoba where he obtained a bachelor of commerce degree in supply-chain management and logistics. In September, he begins a masters degree at the University of Michigan in transportation and land-use planning.
After years of work, assisted by his “traditional family” and “museum family,” Sims says he’s pleased with the progress of the project so far, even though it’s only half completed.
He agrees his grandfather, W. Frank Sims, would be pleased too. The building is dedicated to his memory. W. Frank Sims served on the museum’s board of directors from 1965 to 1977, and was chair many of those years.
Sims died in 1990 when Elliot was just a toddler.
“I really didn’t know him,” Sims says, but there’s little doubt he inherited his grandfather’s passion for preserving the past. [email protected]