REGINA — A piece of Canadian history and the dreams of those working to preserve it were destroyed early Tuesday when fire razed Fleming’s more than century-old, iconic, wooden grain elevator.
“It stood for all those years — but it went fast,” said Philip Hamm, Fleming’s mayor and the president of the town’s Historical Preservation Society that has spent the last four years working to transform the vintage elevator into a tourist destination.
“To be so close and then to have it snatched away. All the future plans and dreams that everybody had in their own minds and hearts — people are crushed,” said Hamm.
The elevator, with tin siding and a large, square cupola on top, was opened by Lake of the Woods Milling Co. in 1895 and was the oldest grain elevator on its original site in Canada. Efforts to preserve the historic structure were expected to be completed over four days this spring and a grand opening in the town of 75, near the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border slated for May. One bus tour group was already contemplating making the restored elevator a pit stop.
When a phone call alerted him to the fire shortly after 4 a.m., Hamm and peered out his window to see the glow lighting up the town. Unable to bring himself to take a closer look, Hamm made himself a cup of tea and pondered the loss.
“It was too late to do anything,” he said. “Your heart just goes out for the other volunteers because I know how much it affected me. You could see it in their faces. They had worked so very hard.”
The driver of a semi-trailer unit heading down the Trans-Canada Highway spotted flames coming from the elevator, near the highway’s eastbound lane on the eastern end of the town, around 4 a.m. and called 9-1-1.
When volunteer firefighters from nearby Moosomin arrived about fifteen minutes later, “it was pretty much totally involved,” said fire chief Rob Hanson. “There was no saving it.”
Instead the approximately 25 firefighters from Moosomin and Elkhorn, Man. — called upon to assist — spent the next three hours keeping the fire from spreading to nearby structures, including a 116-year-old hotel. With no fire hydrants in the town, several trips were made to Moosomin to refill water tanker trucks.
The tinder dry building, which used to store bulk fertilizer after its days of grain storage ended, burned hot and fast.
Fleming resident Kendra Lawrence arrived on scene as the fire was raging. It was so intense the street lights turned off in what seemed like daylight. “It’s very sad,” she added.
Investigators are now trying to sort out what sparked the blaze.
“We are treating it as a suspicious fire,” Moosomin RCMP Sgt. Gord Stewart said. “We have no reason why it would have started,” he said, adding there was no electricity to the building.
The fire is believed to have started around 3 or 3:30 a.m. Anyone who may have seen a person or vehicles in proximity of the elevator at that time is asked to contact Moosomin RCMP at 306-435-3361 or Saskatchewan Crimestoppers at 1-800-222-8477, *8477 on Sask-Tel Mobility, text TIP206 plus your message to CRIMES (274637), or submit a tip online at http://www.saskcrimestoppers.com.
Residents of Fleming, the smallest incorporated town in Canada, began rallying to save the 32,000-bushel historic elevator in 2000, when it was due to be demolished. Between grants and local fundraising efforts — from dishing out lunches at action sales to hosting a benefit concert — approximately $140,000 was raised for the restoration project. No one has tallied the countless hours of time volunteered.
Work got underway in 2005 to clean out decades of grain dust and caked-on fertilizer, reinforce the foundations, reshingle, and replace the rusted tin siding after a long search for a manufacturer who could replicate the original.
The restoration was recognized this fall by the Architectural Heritage Society of Saskatchewan when the project earned an award in the exterior conservation category.
“(The fire) has sort of taken the heart out of a lot us,” said Hamm.