Pre­serv­ing a piece of the Prairies

Group of plucky se­niors an­swers the call for fad­ing Inglis grain el­e­va­tor

Winnipeg Free Press - - FRONT PAGE - IAN FROESE

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.”

PHO­TOS BY IAN FROESE / BRAN­DON SUN

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.

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