Once a common sight on the prairies, colourful grain elevators have slowly faded from the landscape over the past 20 years.
In honour of the prairie giants, Black Diamond's Al Dickie has crafted two three-foot-tall grain elevators to scale, and one is fully-operational.
“Being an old farmer, they're almost non-existent now, and they're a nostalgic thing to me,” said Dickie. “In my teens, I delivered grain to grain elevators with horses, horses and wagons or horses and sleighs, so it means quite a bit to me.”
He built his first elevator as a garden ornament and was challenged by his wife, Della, to design one that worked. It took the entire month of March for Dickie to construct his functional grain elevator.
The elevators are modeled after their extinct predecessors, with the design inspiration coming from memory and the help of printed photos of elevators he found online.
“It helped to get the right pitch on the roof and the right shape, to make it look like an elevator,” said Dickie. “It takes time, but you just keep working at it until it works right.”
The working model functions like a real elevator, though Dickie had to make some adjustments to fit the smaller-scale.
For more than a century, farmers delivered grains to the prairie icons. After arriving and having their loads weighed farmers dumped their grain crops from the scale into the pit, where the elevator cups scooped the grain and lifted it to a large funnel at the top, said Dickie. From the funnel, a spout carried the grain to different bins, and the elevator operator chose which bin to deposit the grain into. The same system later transports grain into boxcars, he said.
The scale model came as close as possible to the real thing.
“I've used bicycle chain and bicycle sprockets off little kids' bikes, and I found a little toy truck and the elevator is built out of plywood,” said Dickie. “I don't have the railway tracks and I don't have the boxcars, but I catch the grain anyway and put it back in the truck.”
Two sections of roof detach from the building to allow access to the interior of the elevator, where Dickie can use a small hand-held hoist to lift and dump the grain out of his toy truck – an old plastic Tonka cement truck that he's retrofitted with a plywood grain box.
The elevator is complete with tiny desk and chairs in the operator's office, working sliding doors, and muddy tracks leading in and out of the building.
At the flip of a light-switch, the elevator hums to life and grain begins chugging it's way to the top of the unit, held in small metal cups – “flights” – welded to the bike chain.
But putting together the replica was not without a unique set of challenges.
Dickie ran through various sizes of bike sprockets before landing on the ones that would toss the grain the way he needed it to at the top of the elevator. If the bike chain didn't move at the right speed, the grain would travel back down to the bottom and not into the spout.
“So, the fact I'm retired, I had lots of time to take it all apart, put it all together, take it all apart, put it all together,” said Dickie. “It's just patience.”
He first tried running wheat through the elevator shaft, but the small, rock hard grains often got caught in the chain or sprocket, causing the entire mechanism to shut down. Next, he tried white beans, which he said was not much better because they were too large.
Oats were just right.
“I don't think I'll ever really cure it, because things get between the chain and it just stops,” said Dickie. “But I've come up with the best thing I could think of.”
His favourite part of the project, besides the satisfaction of completing a working model, was painting the name of the elevator on his finished products.
They are named “Federal Grain,” after the real-life Saskatchewan elevators Dickie once hauled grain to in his farming days. The town name is “Dickiedon.”
“Putting that name on there, it reminded me of back when,” he said. “I really enjoyed that.”
Grain elevators aren't the only product of Dickie's shop. After retiring from farming in 1973, he took on work as a construction worker and then a truck driver. When he retired from his second careers, he began putting the skill sets he'd acquired to use.
As a part-time blacksmith, he makes horseshoes and nails them to barn wood to spell words like “Howdy,” or “Welcome.” In 2004, he finished a 1/6 scale of a working threshing machine, which will find a new home at Sheppard Family Park, in High River, this spring.
“That's what I do, I just make things,” said Dickie. “I'm retired, and I just love working in my shop, making things, repairing things, all that kind of stuff to keep me busy.”
It does keep him busy. As long as the temperature outside is above -8 degrees Celsius, Dickie can be found in his shop with the fire lit, working away for anywhere from two to eight hours.
“I don't believe in working myself to death because I am retired,” said Dickie. “But some days my wife wonders if I'm even home.”