Monday, April 14, 2008

Today's article in the Regina Leader-Post

I came across this article today and thought I'd share it as it tells the story of one small rural Saskatchewan communities' commitment to keeping the oldest elevator in Canada standing and restored. Good for the Fleming folks!
I took this photo in 2006, not realizing how significant it was that this elevator was still standing. I converted it to black and white to give it a more archival look.

Monday » April 14 » 2008

Fleming is home to an icon

Ron Petrie
The Leader-Post

Monday, April 14, 2008

CREDIT: Courtesy of Kevin Weedmark, The Moosomin World-Spectator
The elevator in Fleming.
FLEMING -- In the blink that it took to erase from the landscape Saskatchewan's single most recognized icon, Fleming might have been excused for not realizing its own wooden grain elevator, a squat, hip-roofed job, was one for the ages.

Philip Hamm admits he wasn't fully aware. And he was mayor at the time. Now, eight years later, Hamm is president of the Fleming Historical Preservation Society, a group striving to restore, dollar by dollar, nail by screw, the oldest remaining grain elevator in Canada, opened by Lake of the Woods Milling Co. in 1895, a full decade before there even was a Saskatchewan.

In 2000, the scene railside at Fleming was one already familiar to hundreds of towns. A demolition crew had arrived to tear down the last two of what were once four elevators buying grain in town. The work commissioned by Agricore United was to begin with its old United Grain Growers structure and then move on to the smaller elevator, by then converted for bulk fertilizer storage.

"A couple of ladies in town raised their hackles and said there was no way they'd allow the little old elevator to be torn down," Hamm says. The women sought municipal help, placing council in something of a predicament, smack between: a) townspeople who might have chained themselves to the elevator (They really would have done that? I ask, to which Hamm gives me a look as if to say, well...thank goodness it never came to that) and, b) the demolition foreman, who warned that if the work was stopped, the town could be on the hook for $30,000 for a tear-down at a later date. Through a timely call to the Saskatchewan Heritage Foundation for advice and guidance, Fleming residents learned that a just-completed list of 60 old elevators rated for historical and architectural significance placed theirs first overall.

At that point, says Hamm, there was no way the elevator was coming down.

"The grain elevator is still an icon in Saskatchewan, and once we knew we had the oldest one, we felt a responsibility to save it, not only for ourselves, but for history. It was really close, though. If the demolition crew had started on it before the other elevator, it would gone today."

And it is special this elevator, novel among all the 3,300 that once served as the town skylines across Saskatchewan. Eight years older than the next most ancient elevators still standing, the 32,000-bushel Fleming station was predated probably only by two long since vanished from Indian Head and Moosomin. Its blockish design, with waffle-stamped tin siding and a large square cupola atop, was common to elevator construction only until 1910 and the advent of the more slender, sloped look. Located at the east end of the town siding, six kilometres from the Manitoba border, the elevator was for years the first encountered by trains entering Saskatchewan on the CPR main line, the last passed when leaving.

"Exceptional" is the word you could use, and you might as well, because exception appears to be the rule here in Fleming. For years of population decline town council refused to revert its municipal status back to a village. Now, with an official 2006 census population of 75 (albeit growing of late, like most rural communities), Fleming proudly boasts the legal distinction of being the smallest incorporated town in Canada. From 1929-33, Fleming had its own radio station, CJRW, broadcasting local programs between relays from Winnipeg. The town ballpark is not only one of the Saskatchewan's oldest, built in the early 1900s, but also, today, as home of fastball's Fleming Jets, with its fencing, groomed grass, spectator seating and a red crushed-gravel infield, a diamond that's Field of Dreams pretty, among the province's finest. What's more, the ballpark's new towered lights make for one of the more exceptional political arguments I've ever heard -- wouldn't be needed, they say, if Saskatchewan had Daylight Saving Time. (And here is probably as good a place as any to mention that the town itself was named after Sandford Fleming, the Canadian inventor of 24 global times zones, cause in the first place of all this infernal clock bickering between the east and west sides of Saskatchewan.)

All this, and more, I learn across the street from the 113-year-old elevator, at the 115-year-old Windsor Hotel, where, if you have any notion to shoot breeze on coffee row, you had best bring your A game.

Fleming stakes claim to being the distant Saskatchewan village of the wheatfield horizon that was depicted on the back of the Canadian $1 bill from 1954 to 1974.

So do other communities, but only Fleming has printed its own postcard for proclamation and proof. If you look closely, they tell me, at the town on the dollar, very closely -- that's right -- and you wave out the front door of the Windsor, you can see yourself.

Folks in Fleming do have fun.

And good humour can be a valuable asset in the complicated, sometimes frustrating process of an elevator restoration, a learning process that began with an application to protect the elevator as a provincial heritage property.

Then came negotiations for acquiring the building from Agricore and the land from the CPR, both of which companies, says committee member Les Freeman, have been co-operative and generous.

Guided by the provincial heritage foundation and project manager Allan Sawchuk, a driving force behind the Inglis Elevators National Historic Site in Manitoba, the committee so far has cleaned the elevator of leftover fertilizer, which had caked in the pit and the bins, making for a nasty job, shored up the foundation and replaced on two sides the rusted, faded colors of the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool _ owners from 1959 until the 1990s _ with the replicated brown tin siding of Lake of the Woods.

To do a restoration properly, true to history, is no small order, says Freeman. Sending a sample of an old board, long sheltered from the elements, to Benjamin Moore is only one example, for paint analysis and a bang-on match to the original color of the tin siding. Finding screws with the same colored heads is another. "It seems like there's always something new, something we maybe hadn't anticipated." Two century-old grain wagons, donated by farmers, are stationed at the scales to give visitors a feel for horse- and ox-driven wheat delivery in 1885, and plans include the eventual return of the elevator's flour shed, now in a nearby farmer's yard, to be refurbished as a tourist welcome office and gift shop. The CPR has donated a vintage boxcar and negotiations are also underway with the railway for annexing the entire real estate of the abandoned siding. "You find you get lots of offers from people with vintage agricultural machinery they want to give us, so we could really use the land for a display," says Freeman.

So far the restoration has cost about $50,000 in materials and $40,000 in labour, leaving the project with a debt of $30,000 and $20,000 more in expected costs, which, as with the price of construction anywhere, are rising. To balance the books, to secure matching provincial grants, Fleming has taken on all every manners of fundraising, from selling lunch at farm auctions to raffling a side of beef. On June 14, Saskatchewan's own Elvis tribute artist, Rory Allen, will perform a benefit at the Moosomin Communiplex. An application to have the elevator named a national historic site, if approved, would help considerably with the long-term fiscal stability, perhaps luring corporate support.

"That's the critical part right now," says Hamm. "We need donations and we need donations from outside our area to get it done."

Eight years later, though, Canada's smallest town is finally in a position to see what it started. As twinning of the TransCanada Highway continues on the east of the province, it is no stretch of imagination now for the elevator to be the first stop in Saskatchewan of eastbound tourists, a welcome, a museum, a place of learning, a living monument to what this province was for so very much of its history, and what, in many hearts, it will always be.

"Every year we have people come in and take pictures," says Hamm.

"Some even paint pictures. And it's especially good to see the young people. Some people believe that young people don't value history or don't care about anything unless it's on a computer, but you'd be surprised at how many of them take a real interest in what we have here."

© The Leader-Post (Regina) 2008

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CanWest Interactive, a division of CanWest MediaWorks Publications, Inc.. All rights reserved.


Anonymous said...

Sadly on February 8th, we lost this amazing piece of history to fire.

How truly sad for the town after all the efforts they put in.

weroth said...

That is tragic news, indeed! What a huge loss, not only for the community, but for all of Saskatchewan and the prairies.

Jim A. Pearson said...

This is a terrible blow to the history of Saskatchewan and Canada as well. I was planning on going to Fleming this summer to see it at it's grand opening... but those plans are gone.

At least I do have it done up as a card stock model... so it will never be forgotten