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Nanton Alberta Grain Elevators

When It Grains, It Pours: One Man’s Journey To Save Nanton’s Grain Elevators

Leo Wieser is leading the charge to save and restore Nanton's historic grain elevators

If you have been to Nanton, you have probably seen the town’s historic grain elevators. After all, the bright orange and green structures are hard to miss. 

Leo Wieser outside of a grain elevator in Nanton
Canadian Grain Elevator Discovery Centre president Leo Wieser celebrated the Nanton Elevators being declared an Alberta Provincial Historic Resource | Lorraine Hjalte | Willow Creek Studio & Boutique

In the late 1800s, railways negotiated with towns to build grain elevators along their lines, enabling the rapid transportation of grain products from the West Coast to the East Coast. 

It wasn’t long before grain elevators started popping up next to railroad tracks in towns, villages, and hamlets across western Canada, including Nanton. 

Farmers would bring their harvested grain to these elevators where it was stored. This grain would then be loaded onto trains, eventually reaching ports like Vancouver or Thunder Bay. 

But when the Canadian Pacific Railway in Nanton was abandoned in the early 2000s, the town’s grain elevators lost their purpose and were eventually slated for demolition.

Nanton’s residents, including Leo Wieser, president of the Canadian Grain Elevator Discovery Centre in Nanton, 80 kilometres south of Calgary, weren’t having any of it. 

Wieser grew up next to Calgary’s Heritage Park, a treasure trove of Canadian history dating back to the 1860s. 

Here, he learned about Alberta’s incredible history and the province’s landmarks, including Nanton’s grain elevators. “As I got older, I started realizing all these things I took for granted, all this history, was getting bulldozed or knocked down and was just not valued at all,” said Wieser.

Wieser has a master’s degree in scenic design and stage directing. Since graduating, he has spent 30 years creating special effects for movies and television shows, including major productions like Heartland

While working in the movie industry, Wieser built a million-dollar swimming pool that was used for one day. Talk about dedication

Wieser is using his many years of film production experience to save Nanton’s grain elevators, but not for just a day. 

Nanton's grain elevators hit up in different colours  Canadian Grain Elevator Discovery Centre
Nanton’s grain elevators hit up in different colours | Canadian Grain Elevator Discovery Centre

Lights, Camera, Action

Thanks to the efforts of volunteers and donations, Nanton’s historic grain elevators have survived, but they aren’t off the chopping block. 

A showing of Nosferatu on the outside of a grain elevator in Nanton | Canadian Grain Elevator Discovery Centre

Time is a harsh mistress, and the elevators are nearly 100 years old. While the wooden structures are structurally sound, their age is starting to show. 

Breathing new life into the structures isn’t cheap. Wieser estimates that a simple restoration will cost at least a million dollars. 

Wieser entered the grain elevators in the national Next Great Save contest run by the National Trust for Canada to raise funds for the elevators’ restoration.

The contest allows Canadians to nominate historic places for $65,000 worth of cash prizes. This year, 12 heritage projects across Canada competed for the $50,000 first-place prize.

Nanton’s grain elevators received over 32,000 votes, placing third and winning $5,000, which Wieser calls a drop in the bucket. 

Wieser is doing everything he can to afford the restoration of Nanton’s grain elevators, including chasing down grants, running raffles, and showing films on the elevators’ sides.

The Discovery Centre also hosts music concerts in the elevators to take advantage of the structures’ great acoustics. 

In the 1930s, there were over 7,500 grain elevators in Alberta. That number has steeply declined to fewer than 100 today, with as many as ten elevators being destroyed yearly. 

An example of modern grain elevators
An example of modern grain elevators | Goshen News

Some elevators are destroyed because they no longer have a purpose, while others are replaced with mechanical elevators that lack small-town charm. 

Wieser and the Discovery Centre hope to prevent Nanton’s grain elevators from meeting the same fate by tapping into the structures’ tourism potential. 

As many as 8,000 vehicles pass through Nanton during the busy season via Highway 2, many stopping to check out the town’s grain elevators. 

Bulldozing Nanton’s grain towers would be like demolishing Drumheller’s Royal Tyrrell Museum. 

The elevators are an important part of the town’s history and identity. Isn’t that enough reason to at least try and save them? 

It is for Leo Wieser.

Nanton's Canadian Grain Elevator Discovery Centre features elevators that are nearly 100 years old
Nanton’s Canadian Grain Elevator Discovery Centre features elevators that are nearly 100 years old Jeff McIntosh | The Canadian Press

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