Rotting wood towers, rusty rail lines, prairie ghost towns: the sentinel elevators are the punctuation marks of untold stories on the Canadian prairie. When the elevator goes under, the bank goes under, the store goes under, the bar goes under, the railroad depot closes, the school closes, and everyone moves down the line. The rails are pulled now, but lonely grain elevators remember the defunct rural routes.
So, I connected the dusty dots of ghost towns and prairie sentinels on my way across Manitoba.
THE ODD BORDER CROSSING OF HANNAH-SNOWFLAKE
Hannah-Snowflake is the strangest border crossing I’ve ever seen. On the North Dakota side, Hannah is a ghost town where three of twenty houses are occupied. Antique pickup trucks are parked in front of defunct stores and a playground overlooks a collapsed house on one side and the endless prairie on the other. A small wooden grain elevator stands in the corner of the town and bears Hannah’s name. It’s like the elevator is watching over the former town and the countryside, hence the nickname for these small country elevators: sentinels.
A bullet-hole-ridden sign marks the turnoff toward Canada, just about where the pavement ends. I guess it’s obligatory to kick up a dust storm when leaving Hannah. After a few minutes, I drove through a modern and militant looking structure with high razor wire fences, concrete barricades, and radio towers. This is the USA Border Patrol checkpoint, which had just closed for the day at 5 o’clock. It boggled my mind that a border crossing could close so early, especially as most that I have used never close, but I reminded myself that this was one of the least-used crossings for both countries.
Passing the sleeping fortress that is the USA border station I saw its Canadian counterpart. It was a humble white farmhouse with a satellite dish partly blocking the maple leaf painted on the side. A sagging portico in front covered a sign, instructing crossers to park below and wait. When the officer emerged, the first thing I had to explain was why, exactly, we were entering the country there, instead of one of the more popular crossings. I wanted to tell the border guard something like, “I like old stuff because I’m bored with new stuff,” but he seemed more interested in my deli meat selection than my morning mantras.
Snowflake, Manitoba could be called a ghost town too, if it was more of a town. It consists of two prominent sentinels surrounded by a half dozen homes, most of which are vacant and dilapidated. One elevator is a Federal (built 1962), which is falling apart, and the other is a Manitoba Pool (built 1928), which is also in bad shape but is apparently being put to use by a local farmer. With Snowflake in the rearview mirror, I knew that this would be a unique trip.
One of the places I knew I needed to visit on my trip was the Harrison brothers’ flourmill in Holmfield, Manitoba, which was built in 1897 and operated through the 1990s by the same family.
The way small mills like this worked is that local farmers would bring their wheat to the mill and milled to order, or, the wheat could be exchanged for flour that was already milled. Harrison Milling survived so long because the brothers that operated it were master machinists as well as millers, and they made a fair amount of money by selling storage in their grain elevators (in Holmfield as well as in nearby towns). The family also operated a lumber business and machine shop near the mill through the 1970s to supplement their income when milling was slow.
Construction of the mill started in May and ended in January 1898. It would be followed by the addition of a new smokestack, warehouses, and a stonework engine house, which housed two Brown steam engines to drive the mill. In 1926, a small elevator was built across from the machine shop to replace the original warehouse, joined in 1955 by a slightly larger Federal sentinel elevator that was sold to the family and moved to its present location.
One of my favorite stories about the Harrison Mill is a 1905 robbery attempt:
Burglars visited Harrison Brothers Mill at Holmfield on Friday night last, and forcing their way into the office literally blew to pieces the big safe. The work was evidently done by professionals at this business for the marks of the expert [were] plainly visible. Fortunately all of the money in the safe had been removed the night before and the thieves received nothing for their pains. No clue as to the guilty parties can be found.
The perpetrators were never identified, and life in sleepy Holmfield went on.
Large milling conglomerates, such as Ogilvie’s (also on this site) put most small mills across Manitoba out of business, but the Harrison Mill endured. Its elevators allowed the family to buy when wheat prices were low, then mill on demand. This strategy kept the mill running smoothly through the World Wars. Today the mill is silent, but still owned by the Harrison family who live nearby.
TILSTON: FIVE ROSES AND A GHOST TOWN
The foreboding ruin of Tilston, Manitoba’s school at the outskirts of town quietly asks visitors to double-check their directions. For me, there was no mistake this time; I could see my destination at the end of the road in the form of twin 100-foot tall wooden towers.
One of the elevators is Manitoba Pool #61 (built 1928) and the other is a Lake of the Woods elevator (built 1949) that advertises its “Five Roses” brand—my favorite ghost sign of the trip! The Lake of the Woods elevators was sold to Manitoba Pool in 1959, after which it was simply Tilston Elevator B.
Through the windows, it was like work had ended for the day and everyone went home, never to come back. Phones and calendars are on the desks by the window, where Canadian Pacific Railroad once connected to Tilston and its sentinels—it hasn’t since the 1970s. The elevators were privately owned as of 2002, but by my visit it seemed they have been forgotten once again.
MCCONNELL: FEW TRACES REMAIN
McConnell has all the makings of a prairie town. There’s a church, a schoolhouse, and two proud grain elevators. Not one house graces this village, though, and nobody walks these streets anymore.
McConnell: Then and Now
The town’s story began in 1910 when a local landowner, A.D. McConnell, sold forty acres to the Canadian Pacific Railway for a new township. The area was soon organized by the railroad with three roads, where a lumber company, hotel, and blacksmith shop were built in the following years. Life in the town was slow and quiet, except for when trains pulled into the depot or beside the elevators. One former resident, Desmond Little, described it like this:
Probably my most lasting memory of McConnell is the elevators and the trains. The track ran right behind our house and as soon as we heard the whistle at the crossing we would run out behind the house to wave. The train crew always waved and often tooted the whistle at us.
We frequently went with dad when he was hauling grain to the elevator, or when he was testing grain. Mac Hamilton was the grain buyer when I first remember going to the elevator. I was very disappointed when the tracks were taken up. Until then I was quite sure that the train would run again someday. Although we still toboggan on the banks by the track bed, I guess the train is gone forever.
Not long after the tracks came up we saw the pool house go by on its way to a new home. The land where it stood and where we spent so much time when Desrochers were there is broken now.
Thompsons have moved to Hamiota. There really isn’t much reason to go to McConnell anymore. Sad isn’t it?
Almost all of the land that comprised McConnell has been plowed into farmland; a train hasn’t passed the town since 1979 and in the 1980s the rails were pulled. The school has not had a class since 1969. Today, the school (built 1937) is used as storage by a local farmer, the church has been turned into a private home then was disused, and the elevators are open and do not show signs of use. Sad, isn’t it?
More memories from McConnell, Manitoba:
I was able to explore the interior of the abandoned Beulah, MB elevator.
Isabella, MB has two elevators that were sold in the 1970s to a local farmer by Manitoba Pool.
Inglis, MB is home to a Canadian National Heritage site that preserves one of the last ‘elevator rows’. It has 5 vintage wooden elevators all in one place!
Boissevain, MB has one of the most beautiful large elevators. Check out its mural, showing the equipment inside the elevator!
Fannystelle, MB was worth the stop just for the name. Its elevator was in good shape and surrounded by vintage work trucks.
Killarney, MB was very recently abandoned. It also has a beautiful abandoned drive-in movie theater, if you’re in the neighborhood.
Clearwater has a vintage 1903 Canadian Pacific Railroad water tower for refilling steam locomotives! Its elevator is still in use.
Lauder, MB is one of my favorite ghost towns from the trip, even if it has no elevator.
Silverton, MB has a beautiful active elevator on a CPR mainline.
Oberon, MB is a beautiful example of a prairie sentinel. Its office is perfectly preserved like the day it was abandoned, probably in the 1980s.