Photographer’s Film Tribute Saves Prairie Institutions

“Pictures Record Vanishing Elevators” - Alberta’s proud Prairie sentinels will not simply fade into memory, thanks to a Calgary shutterbug’s 20-year odyssey to record their demise.

Chris Stackhouse traveled 45,000 kilometres of rural roads to capture thousands of wooden grain elevators on film before they are torn down in the name of progress. He visited 640 towns in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

“I just realized there was a silent death going on – (the elevators) were just disappearing,” said the 51-year-old home renovator and amateur photographer. “I was saddened by this. I felt the sorrow of the local townships. I felt I had to get a decent collection of photos so people can fully realize what we had on the Prairies.”

Grain elevators once dotted the Prairies by the thousands. These brightly hued sentinels were splashes of colour in otherwise dry, dusty farm towns. They were familiar landmarks and gathering places for farmers and others. In 1950, they numbered more than 5,700 in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Today about 850 remain – only 250 in Alberta.

Stackhouse was born in Britain, but moved to Calgary in the early 1980s. He said he long intended to photograph grain elevators, but always put the project off for another day. After seeing a handful of elevators fall to progress, he realized time was of the essence.

“I was always waiting for the right light, the right conditions. Then I realized all of a sudden, they weren’t there,” he said. “I decided to take pictures, no matter what the conditions…to show people in the future what there once was on the Prairie.”

In 1998, Stackhouse loaded his camera gear into his 1990 white Chevy van and set off. Most of his traveling took place in winter, between renovation jobs. Stackhouse couldn’t afford hotels, so he slept in his van, with the temperature inside sometimes falling to –15C. “ It was cold in there,” he admitted with a laugh. “Later on, I put a heater in the van and it was much warmer.” Stackhouse would regularly drive between 300 and 500 kilometres in a single day, photographing up to 15 wooden grain elevators a day.

The old-fashioned Prairie sentinels are gradually being replaced by mega elevators made of concrete and steel. These high-tech storage sites can hold up to 10 times more grain than a typical wooden elevator and are fitted with the latest grain sorting and cleaning machinery.

Some communities , such as Nanton and High River, have worked to save some of their elevators as heritage sites. Most elevators, however will be torn down as cost-cutting measures by the companies that own them.

Les Hurt, director of heritage resources for Alberta Community Development, said the province is trying to help towns save their elevators. His department has worked with communities to designate at least four elevators as heritage sites, which qualifies then for funding of up to $75,000 over five years. There are also municipal grants for elevator advocates.

Stackhouse wants to one day put his photos on the Internet, to allow Canadians to buy copies of their long-gone grain elevators. He has about 5,000 shots in his collection with his favourites being images of elevators in Hilda, in southeast Alberta, and Wroxton, in southern Saskatchewan.

Stackhouse hopes his photos will remind rural residents and others of the way life once was on the Prairies.

"It’s our heritage," Stackhouse said.

Reported: Mark Reid, Calgary Herald