A moment in history: Loading a producer car, part one

Portable elevators were once used to load rail cars with produce from Manitoba farmland. The practice was tedious and could be dangerous if not completed correctly.

The Dickson Henderson Families of Boissevain, Man. donated to the Manitoba Agricultural Museum digital copies of a number photographs taken on farms the families operated in the Boissevain area. These photographs have proven a treasure trove for the museum for the activities and machinery portrayed in them.

The above photo depicts a portable elevator filling a wooden CPR boxcar probably some time in the 1930s. Unfortunately, the man in the photo cannot currently be identified. It is believed he is not a member of either the Henderson family or Dickson family and may be that he is a hired man.

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The portable elevator has been pulled up beside the boxcar, the leg elevated and the spout ran into the car. A grain wagon has been backed up to the hopper, which feeds the leg. A stationary engine can be seen behind the young man seated on the frame of the elevator. This engine powered the leg, which elevated the grain.

Also visible is a plank running between the leg and the framework the leg sits on when folded into the travel position. This plank likely locked the leg in the vertical position. Given the large surface area the leg presents to the wind, such a lock would be wise idea.

Also visible is a rod that runs between the top of the leg and the frame. What this rod was used for is a mystery. One would not think that it controlled the flow of grain into the spout as shutting off the grain flow at that point would potentially result in a plugged leg. One was better to shut off the flow of grain into the leg and let it clean out.

Portable elevators had been in existence for a time before this photo was taken. There is an ad for a portable elevator built by the Carberry Wood and Iron Works in a 1906 edition of the magazine, Canadian Thresherman and Farmer.

The Carberry portable elevator was a very elaborate machine as it not only elevated the grain but it also incorporated a horse treadmill that powered the leg and a wagon lift, which raised the front of the grain wagon to reduce the shovelling necessary to empty the wagon. The treadmill also operated the wagon lift.

The portable elevator was a comparatively simple machine. Grain was dropped out of the wagon box into the hopper feeding the leg. When the grain quit running out of the wagon box, it was time to start shovelling. A shovel can be seen hanging on the side of the leg. At that time, scoop shovels were more than likely made of steel as aluminum was expensive material.

The door on the boxcar has been slid open and one can see the grain door made out of planks that has been fastened across the inside to the opening. Both doors in the boxcar have had grain doors installed, a process called “coopering.” The grain doors were necessary to hold grain in the car, as the sliding doors were not meant to hold any weight.

When the car was unloaded, one of the grain doors was pushed by brute force into the car against the grain far enough so that grain could pour out around the door. When sufficient grain has escaped, the doors are then pulled out and unloading resumes. Grain elevators kept a stock of grain doors on hand and when they ran low, the agent would order a carload of doors from the head office, who would then see that grain doors were delivered from the stocks at the Lake head terminals. At times, new doors would have to be built as doors sometimes were broken when unloading. And as the doors were made of plank, doors sometimes were “diverted” to other uses. 

In many photos of elevators, there are what appears to be lumber beside the elevator. This stack was usually stockpiled grain doors. Where the farmer here got the doors is unknown, however the farmer may have just obtained two doors from the local elevator. The grain door does not extend all the way to the top of the door opening so as to allow the grain spout to come into the car.

In any event, a boxcar usually could not be filled to the very top as it would become overweight, which resulted in damage to the car’s wheel bearings and axles, plus railway bridges and track structures. In a wooden car, there are lines painted on the inside showing the levels which various grains can be loaded to.  

A broom on the side of the boxcar was probably used to sweep out the car before coopering the doors. The farmer would also inspect the car for damage to the sides, as grain could leak out through any holes.

In loading a producer car, the farmer usually did not have access to a scale to measure the loads dumped into the railcar. Wooden cars were prone to leaking grain and the railways issued instructions to station agents and other rail employees to watch grain trains as they passed. If they saw a car leaking grain, they were instructed to alert the train crew and have the car stopped and repaired. With a car loaded at an elevator, the weight of the grain initially loaded onto the car was known and the railway would pay for missing grain. However the weight of grain loaded onto a producer car was not known and the producer was in a poor position to make a claim on missing product.

If the producer loaded to the interior marks on the car, apparently the railway would come to an agreement on any claim. However it was probably better to closely inspect the car and stop up any holes. 

Interestingly, flax was hauled in these cars and to make the car tight enough to hold flax, the railway would supply heavy paper to line its interior. The paper came with pre-formed corners to fit into the corners of the car. Flax was crushed to make linseed oil, which was the common ingredient in paint at that time.

The opening above the grain door was useful for other reasons. Often when the loading was done, someone would have to climb into the car through the opening to level the load. Inspectors for the Board of Grain Commissioners also sampled each car as it passed through Winnipeg on the way to the Lake Head. Grain cars moving to Vancouver were sampled at Calgary or Edmonton depending on which city the car was moving through.

The inspector would usually take the sample through the openings. The sample was then graded and when the car arrived at a terminal to be unloaded, the grade of grain was already known. The car could then be rapidly assigned to a terminal for unloading. 

–      Complements of the Manitoba Agricultural Museum.

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