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History of Doukhobor elevators in the Veregin District

To understand the history of the Veregin grain elevator is to understand the history of its builders – the Doukhobors.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of three parts of a history of Doukhobor elevators in the Veregin district that was researched, compiled and presented at the National Doukhobor Heritage Village in Veregin on July 16 by Jonathan Kalmakoff, who provided the accompanying photographs.)

VEREGIN - The plaque unveiling ceremony held in Veregin on July 17 to commemorate the Veregin Grain Elevator as a Provincial Heritage Property provides a timely opportunity to recall the history of the elevator and its cultural significance, having been built by the early Doukhobor pioneers in the province; the role it played in their communal agricultural economy, and its importance today as a key element of the National Doukhobor Heritage Village, which is working to preserve it.

Early Doukhobor settlement and agriculture, 1899-1904

To understand the history of the Veregin grain elevator is to understand the history of its builders – the Doukhobors.

In 1899, 7,500 Doukhobors immigrated to Canada, fleeing religious persecution in Russia for their pacifist beliefs. They settled on four large blocks of homestead land reserved in the North Saskatchewan, Good Spirit, Whitesand, Assiniboine and Swan River watersheds of Saskatchewan, establishing 60 villages.

At the time, these districts were semi-wooded prairie parkland, unsettled by Europeans, save for a handful of isolated ranches. They were un-surveyed and there were no roads except rutted wagon trails. The closest railways were 30-80 miles away.  

Being agriculturalists, no sooner did they erect basic dwellings, than they set about clearing land for cultivation. This task was initially left to the women and elderly, for the men of working age left the villages over the first several summers to seek employment on railroad construction to earn much-needed income, for they were destitute.

Unsurprisingly, many Doukhobor villages engaged in below-subsistence farming for the first two to three years of settlement, not growing enough grain to live on. They were forced to purchase flour from the nearest railway towns (Yorkton or Swan River), 10 to 30 miles away, hauling back 100-pound sacks of flour on foot, as they had few horses as of yet. That they could afford flour at all was only due to the generous financial assistance of the Society of Friends (Quakers) in America. 

In 1902, following the arrival of their leader Peter V. Verigin in Canada from Siberian exile, the Doukhobors established a wholly communal way of life, organized as the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood. All livestock, equipment and tools were held in common, all land was cleared and cultivated together, and all farm products distributed equally among them. Working collectively, they were able to achieve substantially more, over a much shorter time, than they could have as solitary homesteaders.

By this time, the Doukhobors achieved subsistence farming, growing enough grain to meet their own domestic needs, with little left over. ‘Subsistence’ meant growing at least six bushels of wheat per person; which multiplied by 7,500 persons, was roughly 50,000 bushels of wheat.

Grain was stored in communal granaries built in each village. During the same period, many villages erected their own grist mills for milling wheat into flour. These used mill stones powered by water (if available) or a stationary engine to mill up to 150 bushels of wheat a day.

Surplus grain production and rail facilities, 1904

Within three short years, working together, the Doukhobor Community bridged the gap between survival and self-sufficiency.

However, in order to reach the next level and build large grain storage facilities like the Veregin Grain Elevator, two critical elements were needed: surplus grain production beyond the Doukhobors’ own needs; and railway access to ship grain to market. For the Doukhobors, these elements came together in the fall of 1904.

To this end, in 1903, Verigin purchased many dozens of plows, harrows, seeders and binders, hundreds of horses, and with these, thousands of new acres of Community land were cleared and cultivated. By the 1904 harvest, the Community enjoyed its first small grain surplus in Canada, with: 68,000 bushels of wheat; 79,000 bushels of oats; 40,000 bushels of barley; and 5,500 bushels of flax, excluding grain grown by the North Saskatchewan villages.

At the same time, over the summer of 1904, a 1,000-man Doukhobor work crew built the Canadian Northern Railway line from Kamsack, west through the heart of the Doukhobor settlements, to Buchanan, with rail service commencing in September. This provided crucial rail access to Winnipeg, where Canadian grain was marketed and sold through the Winnipeg Grain Exchange and eastern domestic markets, as well as overseas through Fort William, Ont.  

In advance of the CNR, Peter V. Verigin astutely purchased 13 sections of railway land along the proposed route. And when the CNR sought to acquire land for a station and townsite eight miles west of Kamsack, Verigin sold it a parcel north of the line, which became the village bearing his name, retaining the land south of the line for communal development. This provided a central rail point to which Community grain could be economically hauled by horse and wagon.

As early as December 1904, Peter Verigin proposed erecting an elevator at the new rail point in anticipation of extensive wheat production the following year. Yet despite heavy crops from 1905 on, it was another three years before the Doukhobors did so. In the meantime, surplus grain was hauled to Veregin by horse and wagon, and loaded directly into box cars by shovel. 

Communal grain elevator building at Veregin, 1907-1917

Between 1907 and 1908, the Doukhobor Community erected its first grain elevator in the Village of Veregin. And as its cultivated acreage and grain yields continued to increase, it built a second in 1911 and a third in 1917.

These included the elevator that still stands today at Veregin, originally built to 60,000 bushels capacity along the main CNR line. Also, another 60,000-bushel elevator built a quarter-mile southwest alongside the large commercial roller mill erected by the Community. The mill could process 200 barrels of flour and 100 barrels of oatmeal a day. It was located there because the mill steam boilers required a significant water source, in this case Dead Horse Creek. For rail access, the Doukhobors built a quarter-mile rail spur to it from the main CNR line. In 1917, it was expanded to 80,000 bushels capacity. Finally, in 1917, the Doukhobors built a third 60,000-bushel elevator along the main CNR line, directly to the west of the one still standing today.  

Each of these grain elevators was constructed by the Community on the same basis. First, each was built to a “standard plan” set by the railway company. To obtain a license to build along the railway right-of-way and in exchange for free land rental, it had to be built of wood-crib construction, which consists of boards laid horizontally and nailed together. It had to be built vertically (as opposed to horizontally) to a height of 50 to 60 feet, with a vertical leg driven by steam or gasoline engine, as well as equipment to clean grain. It had to be on a cement foundation with a minimum storage capacity of at least 25,000 bushels.

Indeed, these elevators were built to over twice the average capacity.

Second, each was communally constructed by a Doukhobor work crew of approximately 25 men. Like other members of the Community, they were not paid a wage for this work but received all of their basic needs – food, clothing, shelter and supplies – from the Community. They were supervised by one of two chief elevator builders: Wasyl A. Shishkin, Community Branch Manager at Canora or Alexei D. Katasonoff, Community Branch Manager at Benito.

Third, each was built using upwards of 500,000 board feet of two-inch by eight-inch old-growth lumber communally logged and sawn at Doukhobor sawmills. The first elevator used highland tamarack lumber sawn at the Community mill at the Porcupine Forest north of Pelly. The second two used fir sawn at the Community mills on the Kootenay and Slocan valleys of British Columbia and shipped to Saskatchewan in exchange for grain.

Fourth, as the Doukhobors used communal labour and manufactured their own building material, they were able to build the elevators at one half to two-thirds the cost of other builders. For example, in 1910, the cost of building a 60,000-bushel elevator in Saskatchewan was $11,000; the Doukhobors built two that year for $14,000. Their main “outside” cost was the leg, scales, heads and other specialty manufactured equipment.

Finally, each elevator took between three to six months to complete, depending on labour availability and time of year. They were typically constructed between spring seeding and harvest, or after harvest as weather permitted.

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