Roadside Attraction: In Search of Manitoba’s “Prairie Sentinels”

Melanie and I were on a quest. While on assignment in Manitoba, the two of us, photographer and journalist, set out to document the old-fashioned wooden grain silos that dominate this prairie landscape. At one point, farmers say, visitors could drive down the highway and see rows of them in their rear view mirror.

Currently, there are only about 80 left, remnants of a bygone agricultural era.

Why we wrote this

Our reporting team was surprised and thrilled when a mission to Manitoba turned into a scavenger hunt for treasures from Canada’s agricultural past.

In Inglis, a row of five wooden lifts have been preserved at the end of an abandoned railway line. A plaque on the site poetically describes them as “sentinels of the prairies” who act as “silent guardians of western Canadian agricultural history.”

But for us, the real joy came from the elevators we stumbled upon – glimpsing an abandoned, tilted structure with its peeling paint and the missing letters of the name of the town it once served.

Some people might view the dilapidated elevators – with their broken windows and rotting wood – as a blight on the landscape. Instead, we marveled at what they represent: the passage of 100 years, testimony to a slower, and some would say simpler, way of life.

Click the “deep read” button to see the full photo essay.

Inglis, Manitoba

Melanie and I were on a quest. While on assignment in Manitoba, the photographer and journalist set out to document the old-fashioned wooden grain silos that dominate this prairie landscape. It took Melanie looking at a map to spot them. But at one point, farmers say, visitors could drive down the highway and see rows of them in their rearview mirror.

The storage facilities, where grain would be loaded onto the national railway, have a connection to the world wars that ravaged the European grain market in the early 20th century. Production shifted to the Canadian prairies, attracting immigrants – many of them Ukrainians – who settled in towns next to railroad tracks, with each community centered around its grain elevator that would stand like a beacon from afar.

The number of elevators grew from less than 100 in 1892 to 5,500 at its peak in the 1940s, according to the Inglis Grain Elevators National Historic Site.

Why we wrote this

Our reporting team was surprised and thrilled when a mission to Manitoba turned into a scavenger hunt for treasures from Canada’s agricultural past.

Currently, only about 80 remain – the majority having burned down or fallen into such disrepair that they had to be demolished. They have been replaced by modern facilities that reflect the more industrial nature of today’s agriculture.

Melanie Stetson Freeman / Staff

An old train car sits on the tracks at the Inglis Elevators National Historic Site in Inglis, Manitoba. This site retains one of the last rows of standard plan wooden grain elevators. The earliest examples date from the 1880s.

In Inglis, a row of five wooden lifts have been preserved at the end of an abandoned railway line. A plaque on the site poetically describes them as “sentinels of the prairies” who act as “silent guardians of western Canadian agricultural history.”

But for us, the real joy came from the elevators we stumbled upon – glimpsing an abandoned, tilted structure with its peeling paint and the missing letters of the name of the town it once served.

Some people might view the dilapidated elevators – with their broken windows and rotting wood – as a blight on the landscape. Instead, we marveled at what they represent: the passage of 100 years, testimony to a slower, and some would say simpler, way of life.

Melanie Stetson Freeman / Staff

A corroded nail breaks loose from the weathered wood of a grain elevator in Oakburn, Manitoba.

Melanie Stetson Freeman / Staff

In the past, thousands of elevators like this one in Oakburn were used across Manitoba to store grain. The grain was then loaded onto wagons for transport. Today, only about 80 such structures remain, remnants of a less industrialized era of agriculture.

Melanie Stetson Freeman / Staff

The “L” is missing from the old grain elevator in the town of Beulah.

Keith P. Plain