Grain Elevators

by L.W Sumpton

Railway steel reached Elk Point in the summer of 1927. This signaled the beginning of construction of those edifices sometimes poetically referred to as "Prairie Sentinels", an apt definition of the prairie grain elevator.

These elevators served as the primary market for prairie grain. The farmer had several options in the disposal of his grain. He could sell it outright for cash on the spot, or take a "graded storage" ticket, or a "special bin" ticket. With the graded storage ticket, the farmer and the elevator agent usually agreed on the grade. If not, an average sample was put in a box and retained in the elevator. A two-pound duplicate was mailed to the government grader in Winnipeg or Vancouver. This opinion by an unbiased party was accepted as final in most cases. However, on occasion, the farmer or the elevator company could call for a re-inspection. This was rarely done on samples, but was almost routine on carloads. In the case of special bin grain, the producer had to have a minimum of one thousand bushels. This grain was put in a bin by itself. The farmer had the option of selling it later to the local agent or of shipping it to the terminal, in which case he would receive his cheque from head office, after freight and elevator charges were deducted.

The weighing, grading and dockage system is as follows. First, the load is driven or hauled up onto a huge platform scale, where the gross weight is taken and marked on the ticket. Then the grain is dumped and the tare (empty vehicle) is weighed. This is marked on the ticket, and deducted from the gross weight. This gives the weight of the grain in pounds.

While the grain is running out of the vehicle, a running sample is taken in a bucket, stirred up, and graded by sight. If there is any question about moisture content, a moisture test must be taken. This is a complicated process.

From this same bucket exactly a pound of grain is taken to ascertain the percentage of weed seeds in the sample. The sample is then either shaken in hand-held sieves, or a mechanical dockage tester is used. The clean grain is weighed and the percentage of weed seeds is shown on a calibrated scale. This percentage, converted to bushels and pounds, is entered in the appropriate space and deducted from the net bushels and pounds. Then the amount of money is figured.

I am writing specifically of the early days, commonly referred to as the "open market", before the advent of the Wheat Board and the quota system.

Grain prices were received daily by telegraph, always at the same time. Upon arrival of the telegram, the day-before prices were automatically cancelled. Regulations required the local agents to wire their head offices immediately after the purchase of one thousand bushels or more, so that the office could hedge their purchases against loss by selling a like amount of grain on the "futures" market. This stratagem is a bit too involved to describe, but I might add that it worked quite well in the interests of the farmer, as well as of the grain company.

This system of wiring daily grain prices was quite expensive. After radios became more efficient, the companies would arrange for some local person to copy these prices, called "Grain Price Broadcasts", every working day at exactly noon. He or she would then deliver these sheets to the various elevator agents at that point. It must be remembered that we didn't all have telephones at that time.

Grain Price Broadcasts are still received in this manner, to the best of my knowledge.

This covers the country elevators in the broad spectrum. Now to Elk Point elevators specifically. The United Grain Growers elevator was completed in time for the 1927 harvest season, with the Victoria elevator opening in November of the same year. Victoria also built an elevator at Armistice at the same time.

The first agent for the U.G.G. was Eugene McDonell, who held that position until just prior to his death in 1961.

The Victoria elevator agent was L.W. Sumpton, who retired from the grain business in 1947. Victoria elevator at Armistice was managed by Percy Martin, who stayed a short time, giving way to I. Roy Wallace. This elevator was later torn down.

In 1929 the Alberta Wheat Pool built here. First agent Jack Fitzsimmons worked until his untimely death in August, 1936.Various managers have come and gone over the years.

I think the crop years 1927 and 1928 produced about 160,000 bushels total, with just the two elevators. These elevators held about 30,000 bushels each. In later years annexes were added, greatly increasing their capacity. To indicate the extent to which this country has increased production-at the end of the 1976 crop year this point handled 600,000 bushels, about equally split between the Pool and the U.G.G., the latter having bought the Victoria elevator a few years back.

The present managers are Bill Marceniuk for U.G.G., and Steve Sharek for the Pool. Bill is quite a curling enthusiast.

About 1937 Parrish and Heimbecker built an elevator at Muriel siding, about three and a half miles east of Elk Point. It seems this extra elevator, so close to Elk Point, was a bit much for the volume of grain at that time. First agent was Mr. Kossman, followed by Lester L. Smith, Frank Keitges and Buster Valentine. The elevator was dismantled about 1942 or 1943.

The Elk Point elevators operated under a handicap for the first few years. For example, wheat prices were based on the Fort William (Thunder Bay) price. The freight rate from Elk Point, on account of the back haul from Edmonton, was 30 cents a 100 pounds, or 18 cents a bushel, whereas the rate from Derwent was 22 cents a 100 pounds, or 13.2 cents a bushel, giving the C.P.R. an advantage of 4.8 cents a bushel. We did, however, have the advantage of the rate going to Vancouver, but, at that time, very little grain moved west.

We had an additional handicap in the form of seasonal river crossings - fall and spring - when the ferry could not operate. In winter, the river froze deeply enough to support traffic.

In the early days many farmers hauled their grain in sacks, in the event their sleighs tipped over.

Our elevators are old, but have been modernized to keep up with conditions. Scales of greater capacity had to be installed, as well as complete electrification. We used gasoline engines and coal oil lanterns.

We worked long days, including Saturday, during the rush season. On the other hand, it might, on occasion, take a bit of doing to find an elevator agent on some fine afternoon in June, July or the first part of August. From 1927 to 1947 we received about $100 a month.

On the whole, I think elevator agents enjoy more freedom of action than people employed in almost any other trade or profession.