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Hepburn Museum of Wheat

by Dave Yanko

The Hepburn Museum of Wheat.
The Hepburn Museum of Wheat.

HEPBURN, SASKATCHEWAN - Reuben Andres uses a trouble light on an extension cord to illuminate the bottom of one of the narrow, towering storage bins located inside this retired country grain elevator now known as the Hepburn Museum of Wheat.

"We want to build a spiral staircase, all the way around the bin, right up to the top," says Andres, swishing the light in a circular motion above his head. Rest stops constructed along the way will accommodate the less nimble, he says, and at the top there will be an observation area offering a great view of the town and surrounding area. Maybe even a tea room.

With the one-man lift out of order, however, the only way to get to the top of this grain elevator right now is by climbing the 25-metre (80-foot) ladder that runs straight up the core of the 1927 structure.

Looking southeast over Hepburn.
Looking southeast over Hepburn.

Mid-way up the semi-enclosed ladder I'm forced to make a subtle shift in climbing technique from terrified clench to terrified clench - Braille version. And for the time being it's pigeon poop rather than beverages awaiting the visitor who emerges at the top. But the great view is here, all right, and so is the answer to a silly little question that's been nagging me for years. But more on that later.

Shortly, I'm standing on a wooden perch with my head and shoulders protruding from the very top of the only town grain elevator museum in Saskatchewan. It's a beautiful, late spring day. Due east and below is main street Hepburn, a tidy and leafy little community just half an hour north of Saskatoon. To the west is prairie and parkland, while land to the north and south features the scar of the old Carlton line that each Tuesday brought the CNR train to collect wheat from this and the two or three other Hepburn elevators that have long since vanished.

A section of the view to the northwest, from 25 metres up.
A section of the view to the northwest, from 25 metres up.

In its day, this country elevator represented the peak of efficiency in grain handling. It took only one man to receive, weigh, grade, store, mix and clean tonnes of grain. The same person could single-handedly move the grain from the tall storage bins into grain cars sitting on the railway track that ran alongside the elevator. And while help was common during busy periods, one person could also position the grain cars under the loading spout using a winch and tow rope. Before that advance, a long-handled lever was used to nudge forward one of the steel wheels on the grain car.

"That was kind of a slow process," Andres, a retired teacher and museum board member said earlier as we toured the adjacent annex housing the wheel lever and other artifacts. "And once he got it moving he had to be careful it didn't get away on him."

The main scale and electric doors of the elevator are in good working order.
The main scale and electric doors of the elevator are in good working order.

Transportation of wheat and the growing and marketing of grain are themes the museum focuses upon in its displays, artifacts and interpretive efforts. Extensive renovations inside the adjacent elevator annex turned the former grain storage area into three floors of display space that includes a craft shop.

Improvements or changes to the elevator proper can be expensive and difficult because they are subject to strict guidelines set out for heritage buildings, says Andres. Wherever possible, for instance, original materials and parts should replace worn or broken ones. And heritage buildings are not supposed to be altered in ways that do not reflect their original use.

Whether or not the staircase and tea room come to be, the most compelling feature of the Hepburn Museum of Wheat is the grain elevator itself. With so many of these "crib-style" elevators being demolished and replaced with far fewer and much larger inland terminals, the old country grain elevator is sure to become an ever greater curiosity as time goes by. It's a good bet many city dwellers right here in Wheat Land don't know how a grain elevator works - I was one of them until a couple of years ago. Yet, most of us would not be here were it not for these grain elevators and the industry they represent.

This leads me to that little mystery.

Each hole leads to a different storage bin.
Each hole leads to a different storage bin.

I've often wondered while travelling Saskatchewan roadways why that uppermost section of a grain elevator contains windows that make it resemble a little house. Surely those casements are simply ornamental, I reasoned. No one lives in grain elevators, and stored wheat does not require sunlight. On the other hand, why would they add ornaments to a structure whose design is purely functional?

My answer was waiting at the top of that ladder. Turns out the windows illuminate a room containing the distributor, a piece of machinery used to direct grain to the various bins and one that requires regular maintenance. Elevators continued to be built with these high windows even after electricity came to rural Saskatchewan in the 1930s. Apparently the elevator agent enjoyed a good view, too.


The Hepburn Museum of Wheat is open Saturdays during the summer, or by appointment. Phone 306-947-2170. Donations gratefully accepted.



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