Submitted by Jonathan Kalmakoff
Brilliant, British Columbia is known for many things, including its historic orchard lands, its spectacular scenic views of the Kootenay and Columbia River valleys and its picturesque mountain backdrops. One thing it is not known for, however, is grain growing. And yet, for a quarter-century, a tall grain elevator towered over the community; albeit one that functioned differently than most other elevators in Western Canada.
Beginning in 1908, thousands of members of the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood (CCUB) led by Peter V. Verigin arrived in the West Kootenay from Saskatchewan, where they purchased vast tracts of heavily forested land.
Over the next decade, 2,800 Doukhobors settled on 5,350 acres at Brilliant and Dolina Utesheniya (Ootischenia) at the confluence of the Kootenay and Columbia Rivers. There, they cleared the land and established 30 communal villages. On the non-arable land, they established various industries including sawmills, a planer mill, shingle mill, stave mill, box-making factory, linseed oil processing plant, fruit spray manufacturing facility, pumping plant and electrical works, two large irrigation reservoirs, a harness shop and a large jam factory.
On the arable land, they planted 1,435 acres of orchard (apple, pear, plum and cherry trees) and another 2,706 acres of berries (strawberries, raspberries and currents), potatoes, fiber crops (flax, hemp), forage crops (clover and hay) and feed crops (oats and millet).
The burgeoning settlement was self-sufficient in virtually every respect, save for one. While the Doukhobors there grew small plots of wheat, including 55 acres at the north end of Ootischenia and 15 acres on the third bench at Brilliant, they did not produce remotely enough wheat to satisfy their domestic needs. As flour was a staple food item among Doukhobors, this posed a serious problem.
To address this, Peter V. Verigin arranged for surplus wheat grown by the CCUB on the Prairies, where it had thousands of acres of grain land, to be milled into flour and shipped to Brilliant and Ootischenia from 1909 on. At first, it was a one-way exchange. However, as the settlement grew and developed, it traded its locally-produced fruit, jam and timber for Prairie wheat and flour.
To further facilitate this exchange, in September 1912, the Doukhobor leader proposed building a local grain elevator to store the wheat shipped in from the Prairies and a grist mill to manufacture flour from it. The mill was constructed at the northeast end of Ootischenia, which was called Kamennoye, by December 1914. However, it was several more years before the elevator was built.
Between October 1917 and August 1918, CCUB work crews erected a large grain elevator on the south side of the Canadian Pacific Railway Rossland Branch right-of-way, immediately west of the Kootenay-Columbia Preserving Works jam factory on the main bench of Brilliant.
The Doukhobors were proficient elevator builders at the time, having constructed nine grain elevators owned and operated by the CCUB at Verigin, Arran, Ebenezer, Canora and Kylemore, Sask. and at Cowley and Lundbreck, Alta. as well as numerous others built for hire for private grain companies.
The one at Brilliant was a standard plan elevator of wood crib construction clad in tin on a concrete foundation, about 35 by 35 feet wide by 70 feet high, with a gable cupola facing north-south. It had a storage capacity of 30,000 bushels of grain. Originally painted white, it was repainted dark brown in 1923. Emblazoned on its east and west sides were the words, “The Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood Ltd.”
Attached on the south side of the elevator was a wooden ramp, receiving shed and office. On its west side was an attached engine shed containing a stationary gasoline engine which provided the motive power to operate the elevator. Attached on the east side was a large flour warehouse that stored bagged flour received from the Prairies.
The Brilliant grain elevator operated continuously from 1918 until 1938. Throughout this time, it followed a more or less regular seasonal routine.
Each September through October, after the grain harvest was completed, railroad boxcars loaded with bulk wheat were shipped from CCUB Prairie elevators to Brilliant. Each boxcar held between 1,200 and 1,500 bushels and up to 20 boxcars were dispatched each year. Once they arrived at Brilliant, the boxcars were parked on the railway siding beside the elevator for unloading.
To unload a boxcar, the exterior door was slid open and the wooden boards nailed across the interior opening were removed, one at a time, starting from the top. This allowed the wheat to flow out the door into the horse-drawn grain wagon parked beside it. Each wagon held 100 bushels and 12-15 wagons were required to unload a single boxcar. Once the wooden boards were removed and wheat ceased to flow out the boxcar door, the remaining wheat was shoveled out by hand.
Each loaded wagon was then driven by a teamster into the elevator receiving shed where it was unhitched from its team, weighed on the scale and then lifted using hand-operated crank hoists to dump the grain into the receiving pit below. Once empty, the wagon was lowered and reweighed. The difference between weights determined the volume of wheat received. The wheat was then carried from the pit to the top or “head” of the elevator by means of a “leg”, a continuous belt with carrying cups. From the head, the grain was dumped into one of several bins where it was stored. Over several weeks, up to 300 wagon loads of grain were received by the elevator until it reached its storage capacity.
When wheat stored in the elevator was needed for milling, it was emptied by gravity flow from the bin into a hopper and back down into the pit, where it was then carried back up the leg to an unloading spout that emptied in the receiving shed into a horse-drawn grain wagon parked there. The loaded wagon was then driven across the suspension bridge to the grist mill at Kamennoye to be ground into flour.
As the grist mill had a limited capacity of 100 bushels a day, only one wagon load of wheat was discharged from the grain elevator each day. It took some 300 days to fully empty the elevator, by which time, new boxcars of wheat would arrive from the latest Prairie harvest. And so the cycle repeated itself.
When flour milled on the Prairies was shipped to Brilliant, the bags of flour were unloaded from the boxcar by hand and carried to the elevator flour warehouse where they were stacked and stored.
Initially, the CCUB Brilliant branch manager was responsible for the operation of the grain elevator. From 1918 to 1923, this was Michael M. Koftinoff, and from 1924 to 1927, it was Larion W. Verigin. After 1928, the elevator had its own manager, which in that year was John J. Zoobkoff, while from 1929 to 1932 it was Michael W. Soukeroff. Several labourers assisted the manager with grain handling.
The Brilliant elevator operated quite differently than most elevators in Western Canada. It did not receive grain from members of the public. And while it received grain privately owned by the CCUB, it did not receive any that was locally produced. Indeed, it did not deal directly with producers at all. Also, it did not handle uninspected grain, since the grain it received was already inspected at Prairie elevators. Nor did it purchase, handle, store or sell any grain for commerce. Finally, it did not ship out any grain by rail.
Because of its unique mode of operation, the grain storage facility did not fit the definition of a “public elevator”, “country elevator”, “primary grain dealer” nor “private elevator” so as to require a license under The Canada Grain Act. Consequently, it was never licensed while in operation.
The Demise of the CCUB
For twenty-five years, the grain elevator served as an essential component of the CCUB food supply chain, helping keep bread on the tables of the Doukhobors of Brilliant and Ootischenia.
However, by mid-1937, the CCUB was bankrupt. Its collapse was the combination of various factors, including low prices for its agricultural and industrial products during the Great Depression; oppressive interest rates on its mortgaged properties; a declining membership base; placing the debt load on disproportionately less members; non-payers of annual allotments among its members; the enormous losses to its capital assets suffered from incendiarism; as well as financial mismanagement.
In May 1938, the Brilliant grain elevator and other CCUB properties were foreclosed upon by the receiver for the National Trust Company Limited, having been pledged as collateral to secure the bankrupt organization’s debt. For the next five years, it sat empty and unused except as casual storage. Then in October 1942, it was transferred to the Government of British Columbia. However, the government’s tenure over the elevator proved to be short-lived.
Destruction of the Elevator
In November 1942, the vacant elevator was completely destroyed in a suspicious fire. The property damage was valued at $4,000 for the structure and $2,500 for its contents. Provincial police investigated possible incendiary origin of the fire, suspecting the radical Sons of Freedom. However, no charges were ever laid.
Today there are no physical traces of the grain elevator at Brilliant. The site where it stood at 1839 Brilliant Road is now occupied by a landscaping company. However, the story of this iconic structure serves to remind us of the ingenuity, determination and productivity of the once-flourishing Doukhobor communal organization it was a part of.