A ship at dock in the Thunder Bay harbour in this undated photo
(Photo credit: Onchulenko Collection)

Thunder Bay Group’s Project Keeping Grain Elevators Legacy Alive

By Matt Prokopchuk

A local group is celebrating some recognition for a years-long project that’s working to preserve the history of the Lakehead’s grain elevators, and the stories of those who worked in them.

Nancy Perozzo, is the secretary of the Friends of Grain Elevators in Thunder Bay, and one of the lead interviewers of its Voices of the Grain Trade project. The recorded oral history initiative collected the stories and recollections of over 200 people—totaling an estimated 1,000-plus hours of interview time—who worked in the grain handling and shipping industry in the Lakehead. That project is designed to preserve a large piece of the region’s industrial history; a history, Perozzo says, has been in danger of vanishing.

“Over time, as [grain] markets moved elsewhere, and automation took place, there were fewer and fewer people in the community who were directly associated with the grain trade, or even indirectly associated,”  Perozzo says. “So that history was gradually being lost.” She adds that, when the friends group came together in 2003, they realized that, not only were the elevators themselves being lost (the organization says that 1929 saw the most elevators along the waterfront at 29, the Port of Thunder Bay says there are currently eight), but also that “we were losing the collective citizens’ memories about the trade.”

The voices project has received some province-wide recognition, being awarded the 2019 Ontario Historical Society’s President’s Award, which was given to the group for the project’s work “to revive Thunder Bay’s grain industry history and share it with all Canadians,” according to a press release issued by the friends group. The award was announced by the historical society in December and promoted by the friends group earlier this month. “The competition is tough for that particular award,”  Perozzo says. “There are far more historical groups operating the southern part of the province than up here in the north.”

The Voices of the Grain Trade collection saw volunteer interview teams in Thunder Bay and Winnipeg interview people connected with the local history, including farmers and producers, railway workers, marketing people, and grain handlers and inspectors. “Personally, I just couldn’t stop interviewing,” she says. Those recordings are slowly being uploaded to the group’s website; Perozzo says she figures about 75 of the 200 have been placed online. “We felt that it was important, not only to collect as much history as we could before it completely disappeared, and to let people know about it,” Perozzo says.

Hearing the stories themselves is something she says brought mixed emotions, given that the grain handling industry in the region is but a fraction of the size it used to be. The Port of Thunder Bay’s annual year-end cargo statistics show that, while it’s handling more grain these days than it was during historical lows in the early 2000s, it’s still a far cry from the dizzying tonnage heights in the late 1970s and 1980s (the port’s grain statistics go back to 1954).

“There was a certain sadness in it,” she says of conducting the interviews. “But I felt a real pride in[…]being part of Thunder Bay in listening to these stories; they were, in some instances, the people we interviewed were quite emotional about it, most of them were extremely appreciative that somebody was listening to their story.”