WESTERN PRODUCER — Wooden grain elevators have been gone for such a long time from most of the Prairies that people may not remember something that now seems pretty obvious about the massive, iconic structures.
They didn’t travel much.
That’s why the National Film Board of Canada was on hand when an elevator weighing about 181 tonnes and standing more than nine-storeys tall was carefully transported about 32 kilometres from Greenstreet, Sask., to the community of Marshall near Lloydminster.
“I think it took about a week of prepping because they had to cut it loose and jack it up and get it on a big, humongous trailer, and it was a mammoth job,” said Charles Konowal, who was the producer and one of the cinematographers for The Move.
The five-minute film, which was directed by Larry Bauman and released in 1985, is one of three documentaries about grain elevators that are being profiled this month as part of Perspectives from the Prairies. The year-long collaboration between the NFB and The Western Producer celebrates the newspaper’s 100th anniversary.
The three films were chosen in honour of Canada History Week, which runs from Nov. 20-26, said NFB collection curator Camilo Martin-Florez.
“What I thought is that some of the most historical and emblematic monuments of the Prairies are the grain elevators, so I focused on that.”
The first wooden grain elevator in Western Canada was built in Niverville, Man., in 1879. Nearly every prairie hamlet, village and town worth its salt eventually boasted its own row of the towering structures, “a declaration of a community’s economic viability and a region’s agricultural strength,” said the Canadian Encyclopedia.
For anyone who didn’t grow up during the heyday of the grain elevator, it is hard to imagine how much they once dominated the prairie skyline. They were a visual symbol of the region for more than a century, and for the communities that hosted them, a landmark of home.
The Move was part of the Canada Vignettes series, which was made from 1977-86 and shown on national TV networks such as the CBC. Dozens of filmmakers detailed various aspects of the country’s culture and history.
Martin-Florez chose The Move because “this is maybe the most beautiful, the most cinematic, the most artistic of the Canada Vignettes that was done in terms of cinematography, montage, script writing, direction. Everything is super well done. To me, it is the masterpiece of the Canada Vignettes.”
The sometimes-surreal spectacle of such a massive building being hauled down the road, and watched by curious spectators ranging from people and a cat to cows, included the lowering of 25 power lines, along with the reinforcement of a wooden bridge.
“Months in planning, the move requires absolute precision. Any error and miscalculation could mean disaster,” said the film’s narrator. “The danger is real. It wouldn’t be the first time an elevator has been reduced to bits of splintered wood scattered across the prairie.”
However, Konowal said The Move did not just show the laborious, six-day process of how the elevator was prepared and transported to Marshall, although it was part of what interested him about the story.
He said the film was also about the passage of time, and how the times were changing as Greenstreet, then with a population 50, lost a landmark it had known for nearly half a century.
“It’s kind of sad to see it going, I guess,” said one resident interviewed in the film about the departure of the community’s last remaining elevator.
“Long as it was here, you always had hopes that it might be something come from it, but I guess not. Maybe something else will take its place, I don’t know.”
Another person remarks that a neighbouring child was crying because he didn’t know if the schoolbus driver would still be able to find their way to get him home.
Konowal’s interest in grain elevators was sparked by his travels in Saskatchewan after helping film Who Has Seen the Wind, a feature movie released in 1977 that was based on the novel by W. O. Mitchell.
“I kept on seeing these tall buildings in every town,” Konowal said with a laugh about his initial perceptions as someone who had moved to the province from Vancouver.
“It got my curiosity going, and so I later found out, ‘oh, those are grain elevators and they’re every (16 kilometres) or whatever it is on the Prairies.’”
It led him to direct a 15-minute documentary called Grain Elevator, about an elevator and its agent in Wood Mountain, Sask. It was released in 1981 by the NFB.
“It was just more of a story about the process of this sentinel on the Prairies that was disappearing, and we actually shot a sequence with a horse and wagon full of wheat or grain that we never used, but it’s probably there in the archives someplace at the film board.”
Konowal said one of the pleasures of making the documentary was capturing details such as the massive, whirring flywheels of the old Ruston and Hornsby diesel engine that still powered the elevator.
“I was surprised, but also really happy because visually, with those great wheels and everything, you couldn’t ask for a better opportunity.… (The agent) was running around squirting the oil and doing all these crazy things.”
Death of a Skyline, a 41-minute documentary by director Bryan Smith, was released in 2003. It was filmed in communities such as Mayerthorpe and Acme in Alberta, and included a man who salvaged materials from demolished elevators to make things such as furniture, said a description by the NFB.
“Wooden grain elevators have been at the heart of North America’s economic, cultural and physical landscape for more than a century. As they continue to fall, will all that remains be memories of a vanishing way of life?”
To watch the documentaries, visit nfb.ca/channels/perspectives-from-the-prairies/.
This column is part of a year-long collaboration between The Western Producer and the National Film Board of Canada celebrating the newspaper’s 100th anniversary.
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