Entering the town of Stettler from highway 12 one notices a large, iconic maroon building standing tall and proud to the north. To approach this building is to be confronted with a part of Alberta’s history that was directly tied to the commerce, exchange and well-being of Canadian farming and industry generally; a living giant of a building used to house and sort grain for transport across the province via a network of trains.
The Stettler Grain Elevator remains one of a dwindling number of historical grain elevators in Canada. The sizeable structure was built in 1920 for $15,183.20, with the lease of the elevator site authenticated between The Canadian Northern Railway Company and Parrish and Heimbecker Limited (P&H) at the cost of $10 per year. The elevator was unique given it contained a feed shed, crusher and coal shed; something rare even in the booming days of rail seed transport.
“Parrish and Heimbecker, the company that owned this building, was one of the few companies that would add feed mills to their elevators so that farmers could bring their grain in, or buy grain from the elevator and have it processed for their livestock,” noted Stan Eichhorn, president of the Stettler P&H Elevator Preservation Society. “Other than one other elevator and feed mill complex in Alberta, this is the only one that’s still standing. There’s one in Three Hills but it’s just sitting now and nothing’s happening with it.”
The elevator had a complex system for weighing and distributing grain, using a three-part process to measure and process the material to be put on railway cars.
“The elevators, right from day one almost, had three components,” says Eichhorn. “One was the scale, then they had a leg that would move the grain up and down and they had the weigh-out scale.” Load-out slips that were used to monitor how much grain was flowing out of the building at one time still hang on the wall beside the weigh-out scale, with the last entry labeled at 1981.
Though the elevator ceased operation in 2003, Eichhorn and the Preservation Society have been busy with renovations to ensure the building retains it’s charm and functionality. Thus far they’ve added a coffee stop to the building grounds, replaced the building’s windows and roof, repainted the structure to it’s original deep red colour and completely revamped the feed shed – turning it from a storage unit to a fully-functional gathering space.
“It [The feed shed] would have been stacked high with various kinds of bags of minerals, salt, chicken feed,” Eichhorn noted. “When we started with this room, the roof was gone the wall was gone, the wall was caving in and so forth. All we could really save were [some of the] boards on one end and on the roof. The rest all had to be redone, including the floor.” The remodeling paid off, with the room offering assorted seating arrangements, tables and historical artifacts to entice the viewing eye.
“It’s a room we have for the public to use for meetings and things like that in the summertime,” says Eichhorn. “We’re starting to look at… adding some bathrooms and another addition here. A bigger area for our coffee stop, a little kitchen area and we’ll heat this so it can be used year-round.”
Efforts to merge the historical importance of the elevator with modern functionality allow the building to transcend time and stay relevant to tourists and locals alike. In the summertime, when the Alberta Prairie Railway tours are operational, the building finds itself part of an unfolding story of railroad grain hauling in Canada that merged the innovation of cross-country transport and subsistence grain farming methods into a unique partnership. It’s historical relevance continues to inspire those who experience it’s vast interior space and innovative engineering from a bygone era.
“I recall coming into the elevator as a child and when they shut it down, I just thought this is something we should be keeping,” says Eichhorn. “The local museum and the local AG [Agricultural Society] board looked at it and they just felt they didn’t have the time or the money or anything to do with it. So it was going to be torn down. After a lot of consternation, I thought I’d see what I can do with it” And the legacy lives on.