Grain Elevators: Beacons of the Prairies
Photos by Chris Attrell with text by Christine Hanlon
MacIntyre Purcell Publishing
You can't deny the sense of nostalgia many people feel for grain elevators. Once peppering the Prairies by the thousands, now many have been laid to waste by the ravages of time and neglect. Entire communities used to be built around them. The growth of our population depended on it. A grain elevator was a sign of prosperous times.
Ah, but the heyday was decades ago. These structures just aren't the focal points of the grain trade they used to be. Still, they evoke a certain wonder and pride for many.
For those reasons plus the appreciation of a fine art photograph well taken, the new book Grain Elevators: Beacons of the Prairies is a fine addition to anyone's coffee table collection. Photographer Chris Attrell explained he has had a lifelong fascination with these once majestic buildings ever since his youth.
"I think my fascination really started when I was a kid. We briefly moved to Spruce Grove when I was about nine or 10 years old. I just loved the buildings. I remember being disappointed to find out that not every place has grain elevators," he regaled, noting he had unrealistic expectations when his family took a trip to Arizona and Disneyland.
There must have been some disappointment on young Attrell's face back then.
That disappointment, however, hasn't dissipated his love of grain elevators. His voice becomes softer even when he talks about his appreciation for how they were built or the design of the logos on their faces.
When he became an adult and became quite proficient at photography, he was saddened to discover many of them were being torn down, while many others were simply falling over.
"The interest was always there but it was heightened by the fact that they were disappearing."
There must have been a light-bulb moment for Attrell. Photography is a great way to help preserve cultural history, so he embarked on a monumental task for the sake of all of these community monuments.
He set about to capture the images of a few dozen of the best examples of the remaining elevators, St. Albert's silver 1906 Brackmen Ker and teal 1929 Alberta Wheat Pool elevators included. The project, he noted, started in 2003.
"What I used to do in the old days before you had GPS on your phone and all that other kinds of stuff, [I would] just take an old gas station map from the 60s, because they still had the train lines on them. You [would] really just go down the highway and stop at every place that was mentioned on the map and hope they had a grain elevator. I was very successful doing that for many years," he admitted.
"But then when I moved to Saskatchewan, it was easy to find out which towns had grain elevators and which ones didn't, so you didn't have to do so much guesswork. Looking back, just exploring and trying to discover them myself was more fun anyway."
When he started, he did it for the enjoyment of the adventure and the treasure in some great discoveries and incredible shots. A book wasn't really the objective.
It's a good thing the idea crossed his thoughts and this book is now out. There are so many people in the public arena who feel the same as he does.
His travels around the Prairies getting these shots ended last year, with the St. Albert photo being one of the last ones. He had a previous shot he just wasn't pleased with, so he came back. He was pleased to see them still standing proudly as two of the few well-preserved grain elevators. In the years since he began, so many others are no longer there, he said.
"Most of them won't survive. That's why the places like St. Albert that have preserved their grain elevators, that's quite a great investment. I bet you in about 20 years from now, those might only be the ones that still remain, mostly."