Doukhobor Elevator-Building: The Alberta Farmers’ Cooperative Grain Elevator at Sedgewick AB

By Jonathan J. Kalmakoff

On a country road northeast of Sedgewick in central Alberta stands a grain elevator that has dominated the local landscape for over a century and was once an important mainstay of the town’s economic prosperity and agricultural industry. Few today would guess that it was communally built by Russian-speaking Doukhobors. The following is a brief account of its history.

The Doukhobor-built elevator as seen (3/4 miles west) from Highway 870, 5 miles north of Lougheed, AB.

In April 1915, fire consumed the original 40,000-bushel Alberta Farmers’ Cooperative Elevator Co. (AFCEC) grain elevator in the village of Sedgewick, burning it to the ground.[i] Built three years earlier in 1912 by the Farmers Elevator Co. of Sedgewick Ltd. at a cost of $8,000.00 and sold to the AFCEC in 1914,[ii]  its destruction was a devastating loss to the small farming community.

Undeterred by this setback, the next month, the AFCEC issued a tender for the supply of lumber and labour necessary to rebuild the village grain elevator, along with the construction of several others, before the next harvest.[iii] In June 1915, the contract was awarded to the Doukhobor communal organization, the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood (CCUB) at Brilliant, British Columbia.[iv]

The Doukhobors were proficient elevator builders at the time, having constructed seven grain elevators in eastern Saskatchewan and southern Alberta as part of their own agricultural enterprise, along with several others built under contract for grain companies. Having a large unpaid communal labour force and manufacturing many of its own building materials, the CCUB had a significant competitive advantage over other building contractors.

In early August 1915, four rail cars of 2 x 8 inch fir lumber arrived at the Canadian Pacific Railway station in Sedgewick, shipped there via the Crow’s Nest Pass line from the CCUB sawmills on the Kootenay and Slocan Rivers in British Columbia.[v] This was followed by a passenger car of approximately 25 Doukhobor workmen from Brilliant, who promptly set up a tent camp and commenced construction work.

Doukhobor-built United Grain Growers elevator, Sedgewick, AB, 1920. John Brown, Canadian Copyright Collection, British Library, 38263.

The new elevator was built on the existing foundations of the original elevator, located at the west end of the rail siding south of the main Canadian Pacific Railway line, across from Tupper (now 49th) Street. Labouring 15 hours a day, the Doukhobors built the wood crib walls of the structure higher and higher, installing the leg, spouts, distributor and other equipment as they proceeded. Within a few weeks, their work was complete.

The new structure was a ‘standard plan’ tall elevator of wood crib construction clad in tin on a concrete foundation, about 40 x 40 feet wide and 70 feet high, with a cedar shake roof and gable cupola facing north-south. It had a storage capacity of 45,000 bushels of grain. An attached driveway and receiving shed was built on its south side, along with a detached office and engine shed. A large storage warehouse was built on its west side.

The grain elevator at Sedgewick was one of nine built under contract by the Doukhobors for the AFCEC in the summer of 1915. The others were located at Travers, Enchant and Lomand on the Canadian Pacific Railway line; Lavoy, Vermilion and Morrin on the Canadian Northern Railway (Canadian National Railway after 1923) line; and Huxley and New Norway on the Grand Truck Pacific Railway (Canadian National Railway after 1919) line for a total of 335,000 bushels of grain capacity.[vi]

In carrying out the contract, the CCUB used an estimated total 1,800,000-2,520,000 board feet of fir lumber (36 rail cars, each carrying 50,000-70,000 board feet) from their Kootenay sawmills for building material. An estimated total work force of 100-200 men (25-man crews completing 1-2 elevators each over 2-3 months) provided the labour. Upon completion in mid-fall 1915, the Doukhobors returned to their communal settlements at Brilliant. The CCUB was paid $60,300.00 under the contract, averaging $6,700.00 per elevator. This revenue was deposited into a common treasury for the benefit of all members of the communal agricultural and industrial enterprise.

By all accounts, the AFCEC was quite satisfied with the Doukhobors’ work. At its third annual convention held in Calgary in November 1915, the company president reported to 200 delegates in attendance that the elevators built under contract by the CCUB that season were “considered the best erected in the province both in workmanship and material.”[vii]

As for the Sedgewick elevator, the AFCEC operated it for three delivery seasons from 1915 to 1917.[viii] Then in November 1917, the company amalgamated with the Grain Growers’ Grain Co. to form the largest cooperative enterprise in the world, the United Grain Growers Ltd (UGG). [ix]

Sedgewick, AB elevators, c. 1940. The Doukhobor-built UGG elevator circled. Courtesy, MJR Postcards & Covers.

The UGG operated the Sedgewick elevator with little change for 37 years until 1954.[x] In that year, a 30,000-bushel rectangular wood crib annex with a gable roof was added on the west side, thereby expanding it storage capacity to 76,000 bushels.[xi]

It was around the same period that the original equipment was upgraded: the original gasoline engine was replaced with electrical equipment; the truck-dumping mechanism was improved; larger scales and larger and longer movable loading spouts to facilitate the loading of freight cars were installed; wooden legs were replaced with metal ones; and driveways extended to accommodate larger trucks.

The enlarged and upgraded UGG elevator operated for another 21 years before it was finally de-licensed and decommissioned by the grain company in early 1975.[xii] By this time, the grain elevator had operated for 60 years serving the Sedgewick farming community.

In 1975, the UGG elevator was purchased by local farmer Ronald Bergseth.[xiii] Bergseth previously bought the Alberta Pacific Grain Co. elevator in Sedgewick in 1974 to relocate to his farmstead; however, while it was being moved, it tipped over one mile east of the town and was destroyed.[xiv] He had better luck with the UGG elevator, which was successfully moved in three separate parts (elevator, receiving shed and annex) and set up on new foundations at his farm 5 miles northeast of the town (5 miles due north of Lougheed).

Doukhobor-built elevator on Bergseth farm northeast of Sedgewick (due north of Lougheed), AB. Photo taken in 2006 by Jim Pearson.

The elevator played an important role in the Bergseth family farming operation for 25 years. It provided high volume on-farm grain storage capable of holding several fields’ worth of grain that could be kept in separate interior storage bins according to seed variety and grade quality. Located in close proximity to their fields, it improved efficiency during harvest by limiting the time and distance required to haul freshly-harvest grain by truck from the combine and transfer it into storage. It also significantly reduced the loading time when stored grain was hauled by truck from the farm to the elevator in town for marketing. According to Ronald’s son Rick Bergseth, the elevator was eventually retired in 2000 in favor of large metal grain bin storage.[xv]

Today, the 107-year old structure still stands on the family farm, no longer storing grain but nonetheless fully operational and in remarkably solid shape. It remains a powerful visual symbol of Sedgewick agricultural history and an enduring testament to the workmanship and quality of its original Doukhobor builders.

Endnotes

[i] Wetaskiwin Times, April 15, 1915.

[ii] Ibid; List of licensed elevators and warehouses in the Western Grain Inspection Division (Ottawa: Dept. of Trade and Commerce), 1912-1915.

[iii] The Province, May 24-29, 1915; Calgary Herald, May 29, 1915.

[iv] Commerce Reports, Volume 3, No. 155, July 3, 1915 (United States, Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce) at 42-43.

[v] Sedgewick Sentinel, August 12, 1915.

[vi] Commerce Reports, supra, note 4.

[vii] The Grain Growers’ Guide, November 24, 1915.

[viii] List of licensed elevators, supra, 1915-1917.

[ix] Calgary Herald, November 22, 1917.

[x] List of licensed elevators, supra, 1917-1954. The UGG licensed the elevator for 45,000 bushels of storage capacity from 1917 to 1934, and 41,000 bushels of capacity from 1934 to 1954.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] List of licensed elevators, supra, 1954-1975.The UGG licensed the elevator for 76,000 bushels of storage capacity from 1954 to 1960 and 70,000 bushels of capacity from 1960 to 1975.

[xiii] A History of Sedgewick and Surrounding District (Sedgewick Historical Society, 1982) at 622.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Rick Bergseth, telephone interview with writer, February 20, 2022.