Long ago, when this was a real country with a buck worth better than par, a landscape portrait of grain fields under a majestic cumulus sky graced the back of our dollar bill. And, though it was barely more than a speck on the vast horizon, a grain elevator dominated and seemed to radiate the message that here, in an expanse both blessed and forlorn, human beings were nobly at work.
For over a century, wooden gabled grain elevators have "defined the Canadian prairies", according to Greg McDonnell, author and chief photographer of Wheat Kings: Vanishing Landmarks of the Canadian Prairies (Boston Mills Press, 120 pages, $39.95 cloth), a fine production which, with a dust jacket featuring a grain elevator silhouetted against a resplendent sunset, will enhance coffee tables.
Traditional grain elevators have been dubbed "prairie cathedrals", since, in frontal profile, they resemble steepled churches. They are also faintly anthropomorphic, with pointy head, sloping shoulders, and stout torso. But one by one, they are vanishing, going the way of the small-town railroad station and manned lighthouses, the Arrow and the Bluenose-the way of all cherished icons.
If you want someone to document a fall from grace, then McDonnell is your man. An Ontario firefighter with a passion for railroad writing and photography, McDonnell is known for handsome picture books such as Passing Trains and Signatures in Steel. The latter work, composed during the Canada death watch that followed Free Trade and the Via Rail cutbacks of the early 1990s, was coloured particularly by McDonnell's blue-collar bitterness over the betrayal of the nation-building effort by time and macroeconomics.
The first grain elevator sprang up alongside the tracks of the newborn Canadian Pacific Railway at Gretna, Manitoba, in 1881-four years before Riel's Northwest Rebellion. By 1933, close to 6,000 grain elevators dotted Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. These simple and durable railside appurtenances became focal points in prairie social and economic life.
The ritual of carting grain in to be weighed and scooped up into tall storage bins provided the farmers one of their rare occasions to exchange news and views with others and to gather supplies at nearby stores. A town's name emblazoned on the elevator's flank signalled that community's importance as a link between the planet's hungry mouths and the land we once dubbed "the breadbasket of the world".
But the consolidation of small farms into mega-farms and the abandonment of railway branch lines spell the end for the traditional elevator. Today's farmers increasingly ship their grain by long-haul tractor-trailer to regional "high-throughput grain handling centres" where super-efficient, unlovable steel and concrete plants each do the work of a dozen old-style elevators.
Fewer than 1,200 prairie cathedrals remain standing, and many of those, as this book shows, are peeling, decaying, groaning in the wind. A handful may survive as heritage artifacts. The rest will succumb to demolition crews. "As each one falls, the prairie becomes a lonelier place," says McDonnell. As the elevators go, the small towns follow. "Closed cafes, boarded-up storefronts, and virtual ghost towns are becoming commonplace."
McDonnell will probably find this book a tougher sell than his railway snaps. There are legions of train aficionados, but who ever heard of a grain elevator buff? And while train photos may benefit from dramatic settings with the subject in implied motion, grain elevators inhabit a flat nowhere and look almost identical. Some are red, some white. Some are solitary, others stand in rows. That's about it.
Nevertheless, though a handful of the hundred pictures in this book are dull industrial shots, by and large McDonnell has an imaginative variety of approaches to his subject and has produced what must surely be the best selection of grain elevator photos you'll ever see: elevators across snow, or at dawn at the head of a slumbering Main Street, or serene under the moon, or bathed in mystic light. Occasionally an abandoned auto or rusting harvester underscores the theme of rural decay. Some of the most striking pictures adhere to a formula: dark, ponderous clouds fill the background while elevators and grain fields bask in gilded front-lighting from a low sun.
McDonnell inevitably gets his beloved trains into the picture, usually poised diagonally at the base of an elevator, but sometimes high-balling through open fields with not an elevator in sight. Never one to resist false pathos, McDonnell recounts the death throes of grain boxcar CN 445572 in the grip of a hydraulic shear at a Manitoba scrap yard.
Still, some of his fans will sense that, in Wheat Kings, McDonnell has resigned himself to the reality that, as the saying goes, you can't stop progress. Occasionally he wraps up a block of text with an upbeat fillip. One photo sequence tracks the demolition of an elevator till it keels over and collapses in a cloud of splinters and dust. An old-timer surveys the wreckage in silence: "That's it," he says, and walks away. The meadowlark resumes its song and the seeds of the next harvest slowly push their way through the soil.