The Doukhobor Grain Elevator at Brilliant , BC

By Jonathan J. Kalmakoff

Brilliant, British Columbia is known for many things, including its historic orchard lands, its spectacular scenic views of the Kootenay and Columbia River valleys and its picturesque mountain backdrops.  One thing it is not known for, however, is grain growing.  And yet, for a quarter-century, a tall grain elevator towered over the community; albeit one that functioned differently than most other elevators in Western Canada.  This article examines the unique history of the Doukhobor grain elevator at Brilliant.

Background

Beginning in 1908, thousands of members of the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood (CCUB) led by Peter V. Verigin arrived in the West Kootenay from Saskatchewan, where they purchased vast tracts of heavily forested land. 

Doukhobor Communal Enterprise at Brilliant, 1924. BC Archives No. C-01386-141.

Over the next decade, 2,800 Doukhobors[i] settled on 5,350 acres[ii] at Brilliant and Dolina Utesheniya (Ootischenia) at the confluence of the Kootenay and Columbia Rivers.  There, they cleared the land and established 30 communal villages.[iii]  On the non-arable land, they established various industries including sawmills, a planer mill, shingle mill, stave mill, box-making factory, linseed oil processing plant, fruit spray manufacturing facility, pumping plant and electrical works, two large irrigation reservoirs, a harness shop and large jam factory.  On the arable land, they planted 1,435 acres of orchard (apple, pear, plum and cherry trees)[iv] and another 2,706 acres of berries (strawberries, raspberries and currents), potatoes, fiber crops (flax, hemp), forage crops (clover and hay) and feed crops (oats and millet).[v]     

The burgeoning settlement was self-sufficient in virtually every respect, save for one.  While the Doukhobors there grew small plots of wheat, including 55 acres at the north end of Ootischenia and 15 acres on the third bench at Brilliant, they did not produce remotely enough wheat to satisfy their domestic needs.  As flour was a staple food item among Doukhobors, this posed a serious problem.   

Prairie Wheat

To address this, Peter V. Verigin arranged for surplus wheat grown by the CCUB on the Prairies, where it had thousands of acres of grain land, to be milled into flour and shipped to Brilliant and Ootischenia from 1909 on.[vi]  At first, it was a one-way exchange.  However, as the settlement grew and developed, especially after its orchards came into bearing between 1912 and 1918, it traded its locally-produced fruit, jam and timber for Prairie wheat and flour.   

CCUB Grain Elevator at Brilliant, BC, c. 1922. BC Archives No. C-01790.

To further facilitate this exchange, in September 1912, the Doukhobor leader first proposed building a local grain elevator to store the wheat shipped in from the Prairies and a grist mill to manufacture flour from it.[vii]  The mill was constructed at the northeast end of Ootischenia, which was called Kamennoye, by December 1914.[viii]  However, it was several more years before the elevator was built.    

The Elevator

Between October 1917 and August 1918,[ix] CCUB work crews erected a large grain elevator on the south side of the Canadian Pacific Railway Rossland Branch right-of-way, immediately west of the Kootenay-Columbia Preserving Works jam factory on the main bench of Brilliant. 

The Doukhobors were proficient elevator builders at the time, having constructed nine grain elevators owned and operated by the CCUB at Verigin, Arran, Ebenezer, Canora and Kylemore, SK and at Cowley and Lundbreck, AB as well as numerous others built for hire for private grain companies.

The one at Brilliant was a ‘standard plan’ elevator of wood crib construction clad in tin on a concrete foundation, about 35 x 35 feet wide x 70 feet high, with a gable cupola facing north-south.  It had a storage capacity of 30,000 bushels of grain.  Originally painted white, it was repainted dark brown between 1925 and 1927.  Emblazoned on its east and west sides were the words, “The Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood Ltd.”    

Attached on the south side of the elevator was a wooden ramp, receiving shed and office.  On its west side was an attached engine shed containing a stationary gasoline engine which provided the motive power to operate the elevator.  Attached on the east side was a large flour warehouse that stored bagged flour received from the Prairies.        

Operations

The Brilliant grain elevator operated continuously from 1918 until 1938.  Throughout this time, it followed a more or less regular seasonal routine.

Each September through October, after the CCUB Prairie grain harvest was completed, railroad boxcars loaded with bulk wheat were shipped from CCUB Prairie elevators to Brilliant.  Each boxcar held between 1,200 and 1,500 bushels and up to 20 boxcars were dispatched each year.  Once they arrived at Brilliant, the boxcars were spotted (parked) on the railway siding beside the elevator for unloading. 

To unload a boxcar, the exterior door was slid open and the wooden boards nailed across the interior opening were removed, one at a time, starting from the top.  This allowed the wheat to flow out the door into the horse-drawn grain wagon parked beside it.  Each wagon held 100 bushels and 12-15 wagons were required to unload a single boxcar.[x]  Once the wooden boards were removed and wheat ceased to flow out the boxcar door, the remaining wheat was shoveled out by hand.       

Inside a Grain Elevator. Courtesy Commonwealth Journal.

Each loaded wagon was then driven by a Doukhobor teamster into the elevator receiving shed where it was unhitched from its team, weighed on the scale and then lifted using hand-operated crank hoists to dump the grain into the receiving pit below.  Once empty, the wagon was lowered and reweighed.  The difference between weights determined the volume of wheat received.  The wheat was then carried from the pit to the top or ‘head’ of the elevator by means of a ‘leg’, a continuous belt with carrying cups.  From the head, the grain was dumped into one of several bins where it was stored.  Over several weeks, up to 300 wagon-loads of grain were received by the elevator until it reached its storage capacity. 

When wheat stored in the elevator was needed for milling, it was emptied by gravity flow from the bin into a hopper and back down into the pit, where it was then carried back up the ‘leg’ to an unloading spout that emptied in the receiving shed into a horse-drawn grain wagon parked there.  The loaded wagon was then driven across the suspension bridge to the grist mill at Kamennoye to be ground into flour. 

As the grist mill had a relatively limited capacity of 100 bushels a day, only one wagon-load of wheat was typically discharged from the grain elevator each day.  It therefore took some 300 days to fully empty the elevator, by which time, new boxcars of wheat would arrive from the latest Prairie harvest.  And so the cycle repeated itself.    

When flour milled by the CCUB on the Prairies was shipped to Brilliant, the bags of flour were unloaded from the boxcar by hand and carried to the elevator flour warehouse where they were stacked and stored. 

Management

Initially, the CCUB Brilliant Branch Manager was responsible for the operation of the grain elevator.  From 1918 to 1923, this was Michael M. Koftinoff, and from 1924 to 1926, it was Larion W. Verigin.  By 1928, the elevator had its own Manager, which in that year was John J. Zoobkoff, while from 1929 to 1932 it was Michael W. Soukeroff.[xi]  Several labourers assisted the Manager with grain handling.    

Licensing Status

The Brilliant elevator operated quite differently than most elevators in Western Canada.  It did not receive grain from members of the public.  And while it received grain privately owned by the CCUB, it did not receive any that was locally produced.  Indeed, it did not deal directly with producers at all.  Also, it did not handle un-inspected grain, since the grain it received was already inspected at the CCUB Prairie elevators.  Nor did it purchase, handle, store or sell any grain for commerce.  Finally, it did not ship out any grain by rail.       

Doukhobor Grain Elevator at Brilliant, 1927. Courtesy Doukhobor Discovery Centre/John Kalmakov.

Because of its unique mode of operation, the grain storage facility did not legally fit the definition of a “public elevator”, “country elevator”, “primary grain dealer” nor “private elevator” so as to require a license under The Canada Grain Act.  Consequently, with one exception, it was never licensed while in operation.[xii] 

The Demise of the CCUB

For two decades, the grain elevator served as an essential component of the CCUB food supply chain, helping keep bread on the tables of the Doukhobors of Brilliant and Ootischenia. 

However, by mid-1936, the CCUB was bankrupt.  Its collapse was the combination of various factors, including low prices for its agricultural and industrial products during the Great Depression; oppressive interest rates on its mortgaged properties; a declining membership base, placing the debt load on disproportionately less members; non-payers of annual allotments among its members; the enormous losses to its capital assets suffered from incendiarism; as well as financial mismanagement.[xiii]

In May 1938, the Brilliant grain elevator and other CCUB properties were foreclosed upon by the receiver for the National Trust Company Limited, having been pledged as collateral to secure the bankrupt organization’s debt.[xiv]  For the next five years, it sat empty and unused except as casual storage.  Then in October 1942, it was transferred to the Government of British Columbia.[xv]  However, the Government’s tenure over the elevator proved to be short-lived. 

Destruction of the Elevator

In November 1942, the vacant elevator was completely destroyed in a suspicious fire.[xvi]  The property damage was valued at $4,000.00 for the structure and $2,500.00 for its contents.[xvii]  Provincial police investigated possible incendiary origin of the fire, suspecting radical Sons of Freedom;[xviii] however, no charges were ever laid. 

News report of elevator fire, The Province, November 12, 1942.

Conclusion

Today there are no physical traces of the grain elevator at Brilliant.  The site where it stood at 1839 Brilliant Road is now occupied by a landscaping company.  However, the story of this iconic structure serves to remind us of the ingenuity, determination and productivity of the once-flourishing Doukhobor communal organization it was a part of.   

After Word

An earlier version of this article was originally published in the Trail Times, November 3, 2020 edition and the Castlegar News and Nelson Star November 4, 2020 editions.

End Notes


[i] In October 1912, there were 2,203 Doukhobors at Brilliant and Dolina Utesheniya: W. Blakemore, Report of Royal Commission on Matters Relating to the Sect of Doukhobors in the Province of British Columbia, 1912 (Victoria: Legislative Assembly of British Columbia, 1913) at 35. By March 1914, there were 2,800 Doukhobors living there: Joseph, P. Shoukin, Calgary Daily Herald, March 28, 1914.  And in June 1921 there were 2,492 Doukhobors residing in these areas: 1921 Canada Census, District No. 18 Kootenay West, Sub-District No. 10 Trail, pages 1-30 and Sub-District No. 10A Trail, pages 1-23.

[ii] Snesarev, V.N., The Doukhobors in British Columbia (University of British Columbia, Department of Agriculture, 1931).

[iii] V. Plotnikoff, “Shining Waters, Doukhobors in the Castlegar Area” in Castlegar, A Confluence (Castlegar & District Heritage Society, 2000).

[iv] Snesarev, supra, note 2.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] See for example, “Letter to the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood from Petr Verigin, 24 September 1909” in A. Donskov, Leo Tolstoy and the Canadian Doukhobors: A Study in Historic Relationships. Expanded and Revised Edition. (University of Ottawa Press, Nov. 19 2019); SFU Item No. MSC121-DC-029-001, Letter to the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood from Peter Verigin, September 5, 1911; SFU Item No. MSC121-DB-052-001, Account of Income and Expenditures for Relocation to British Columbia for the year 1911 up to August 10, 1912; “Report of the General Meeting of the Doukhobor Community held in Otradnoye Village, October 13, 1912” in Winnipeg Free Press, December 5, 1912.

[vii] Blakemore, supra, note 1 at 47.

[viii] The Province, December 21, 1914.

[ix] Detailed photographic and textual depictions of Brilliant in 1917 do not include the grain elevator: Vancouver Standard, April 7, 1917; Vancouver Daily Sun, October 14, 1917. However, several 1918 and 1919 accounts make reference to the ‘recently erected’ grain elevator: Record of Christian Work, Vol. 37, No. 8, August, 1918 at 449; Letter dated April 24, 1919 from Nicholas J. Chernenkoff, CCUB to B.E. Paterson, Chairman, Committee of Enquiry & Research, Soldier Settlement Board; British Columbia Farmer, May 1, 1919; Saskatoon Daily Star, July 12, 1919.

[x] A lesser number might have been used, provided they first unloaded their wheat in the elevator and then returned to the boxcar for another load.

[xi] Wrigley’s British Columbia Directory, 1928-1932.

[xii] Throughout its twenty years of operation from 1918 to 1938, the CCUB elevator Brilliant was only licensed once in 1930-1931: List of Licensed Elevators and Warehouses in the Western Grain Inspection Division (Ottawa: Department of Trade and Commerce, 1930-1931) at 8. This appears to have been due to a misinterpretation of the revised Canada Grain Act, 1930 (Can.), c. 5) which came into force on September 1, 1930.

[xiii] S. Jamieson, “Economic and Social Life” in H.B. Hawthorn (Ed.), The Doukhobors of British Columbia (University of British Columbia, 1955) at 52-56.

[xiv] National Trust Company v. The Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood Ltd. (SCC) [1941] SCR 601, [1941] 3 DLR 529; 23 CBR 1; Medicine Hat News, June 29, 1939 at 1.

[xv] The Doukhobor Lands Acquisition Act (Chapter 12, Statutes of British Columbia, 1939); British Columbia Order-in-Council No. 1429 of October 21, 1942.

[xvi] Vancouver Sun, November 12, 1942; The Province, November 12, 1942.

[xvii] Steve Lapshinoff, Depredations in Western Canada Attributed to the Sons of Freedom, 1923 to 1993 (Krestova: self-published, 1994) at 11.

[xviii] Supra, note 16.

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.