Preserving a piece of the Prairies
Group of plucky seniors answers the call for fading Inglis grain elevator
INGLIS — It was one of those wacky ideas that sounded smart after a little alcoholic encouragement.
A bunch of men over the age of 60 with little know-how would repaint one of the famous wooden grain elevators in Inglis — by themselves.
Stu Breckon was at his summer cottage with his pal Ron Muir when they hatched their unorthodox plan.
“There may have been liquor involved,” Breckon said.
The friends read in the Winnipeg Free Press that day how Inglis needed help preserving its historic row of prairie giants. Before long, Breckon was on the phone with his pal Dale Holaday from Saskatoon, who painted grain elevators as a summer job in the late 1960s. Let’s paint an elevator, Breckon told him. Holaday was eager, but didn’t think anything would come to pass.
The next morning, there was another call from Breckon.
“He phoned me to say, ‘You know, we were kind of in the cups, I’m not sure we can do it,’” Holaday said. “I said, ‘Heck, I painted that thing twice in my sleep last night, we’re doing it.’”
Friends of Breckon’s from across Canada and the United States descended on Inglis last week for that reason.
“I thought it was too good to be true,” said Judy Bauereiss, who chairs the Inglis Area Heritage Committee. “But as time evolved and the communication evolved, I thought, ‘Wow, this is going to happen,’ and it is. It’s amazing.”
Thanks to local businesses offering supplies at generous prices and sometimes for free, the cost to repaint the elevator will be less than $10,000, Breckon estimated — much less than the $80,000 the Inglis volunteer board is paying a contractor this year to give a fresh coat of paint to another of the community’s five elevators.
Among Breckon’s full-time, 11-person crew, including Muir and Holaday, are his cousin Bob Breckon from Edmonton and friend Arn Hoffman from Calgary.
A number of the volunteers, some with Manitoba roots, have some connection to the grain elevators of old. They remember how their angular silhouettes pierced the sky over the open prairies.
Stu’s crew was bigger than he expected. Bryan Garnham, a Winnipegger who heard an interview with Breckon on radio, was welcomed as a volunteer. He had painted elevators before, so his experience, like Holaday’s, proved invaluable.
“I just wanted to experience it again,” Garnham said of his old job.
“I’m scratching my head now wondering why I would want to do that?” he added with a chuckle.
The youngest person in the group is 66 and the elder statesman of the group is Don Rowat, an 87-year-old from Russell who heard about the painting project from a newsletter the Inglis Area Heritage Committee published. Rowat was not acting his age. He was ripping rotten lumber off the wall and jogging around like a man a few decades younger.
“The only qualification these guys had for joining is that you had to be older than dirt,” he joked.
Each worker stuck out in their white outfits, emblazoned with the blue crest of the United Grain Growers, the defunct company whose elevator they repainted. They put their own spin on their logo. Their slogan was “Make Elevators Great Again.”
As for Holaday, he’s had a hoot telling friends he’s returning to a job he had straight out of high school.
“I think it’s quite a feat — a bunch of seniors coming out to paint a grain elevator,” Holaday said. “Brian’s the only one who’s painted an elevator before, and myself, so it all rests with raw rookies. It’s just a lark.”
The average age of this crew would be higher if it wasn’t for Jocie Breckon, Stu’s daughter, who just graduated from paramedic school.
“They all joked about how they’d need a medic, so here I am,” said Jocie, who has doubled as a painter. “Some of their wives felt safer with me being here.”
A wacky idea like seniors painting an elevator 75 feet high is not out of the realm for her father, Jocie suggested. A couple years ago, Stu and a friend decided, out of the blue, to start driving dune buggies. They now take part in a big race in Mexico every year.
“He’s very odd, but interesting,” she said of her father, who she was happy to work alongside. “If I have kids one day, maybe I’ll drive them out here and tell them the story about that summer.”
The Breckons chose to paint the
UGG elevator because Stuart’s father ran the UGG elevator in Homewood, east of Carman, from 1952 to 1964.
The group worked long hours all week to get the elevator looking its best. Last Wednesday, CBC comedian Rick Mercer helped the crew paint, for a future segment on his show.
Altogether, it’s been a week Stu Breckon won’t soon forget. There haven’t been any regrets, he said, ever since Holaday told him his big idea over drinks, it had to happen.
“We’re all here, we’re all happy,” Breckon said. “It’s kind of like a bunch of guys getting together to go for a hunting trip, but we’re not going on a hunting trip, we’re doing something useful.”
Above: Inglis’ historic row of grain elevators pierce the sky of the open prairies.
Left: The group of volunteers who got together to paint the United Grain Growers elevator is documented.
Below left: Ron Muir grew up in Deloraine and came down from Edmonton to join the crew.
Below right: Stu Breckon, Bob Breckon and Del Stadnyk don the white outfits of the defunct United Grain Growers company.