Bernard Lentz felt profound sadness when he heard last month the focus of one of his biggest dreams as a farmer was about to be lost forever.
Now retired, the 79-year-old fondly recalled the memorable days in the winter of 1978 when he saved a doomed Alberta Pacific Grain Company grain elevator at the whistle stop of Menaik, located nine kilometres north of Ponoka.
“I am a dreamer — I enjoy a good challenge,” Lentz said of his efforts to preserve the 30,000-bushel elevator built in 1922.
“I had a 20-ton jack under there and thought if I kept working for two months I might get it up, but then I realized I could never do it.”
Lentz purchased the elevator for $400, and spent almost another $10,000 to have a Red Deer contractor move the 66-foot-high, 108-ton elevator five kilometres southwest to his farm.
But Albert Meyer, who purchased Lentz’s farm in 1997, is advertising for a demolition company to knock down the elevator, noting it has rapidly deteriorated.
“I am really disappointed because I’m quite sure it was the only official grain elevator on a farm left in the county of Ponoka,” said Lentz, now living in the town of Ponoka with his wife Irma. “A lot of people build elevators, but they were just small things.”
And so too was the Searle Grain Co. elevator at Mintlaw, another pioneer whistle stop seven kilometres south of Red Deer. Built in 1923, the tiny 15,000-bushel structure, moved to a farm seven kilometres northeast of Blackfalds almost 60 years ago, is also targeted for demolition.
“The roof is starting to sag. It is no good for us. I am hoping to get someone to dismantle it and recycle the wood,” said Kim Bloomfield, the farm’s co-owner. “We would really appreciate it being gone because we can use the space for something else.”
The pending demolition of the two elevators will mark the end of the pioneer grain elevator era along the Highway 2 corridor. While half a dozen modern-day wooden country grain elevators built in the 1970s still stand along the highway between Calgary and Edmonton, the loss of the Menaik and Mintlaw structures is a devastating setback for heritage preservationists.
“These buildings, some of which were moved to new locations after they were closed, may sometimes be the last standing remnant of a vanished community,” said Jim Pearson, a researcher and author on pioneer grain elevators.
But preserving these Prairie sentinels is expensive — restoration costs can run into tens of thousands of dollars. An even bigger problem is that both the Menaik and Mintlaw structures were both moved, making them ineligible for provincial heritage funding.
While Meyer said he could find no interest within Ponoka County to save the Menaik elevator, the Mintlaw structure has generated some interest in Lacombe. But there are challenges.
“It is an intriguing idea but we don’t have space to place it, which is a big issue,” said Jennifer Kirchner, president of the Lacombe and District Historical Society, adding the combined size of her group’s two properties is only about one acre.
“I would imagine other historical societies in the area would probably be in a similar situation.”
Faced with that reality, Lentz is left to mourn the end of an era.
“It’s the death of an era because all of the elevators are gone,” he said. “It’s change, change in the way we farm and elevators are not used anymore. They’ve gone to grain terminals.”