A Futuristic Elevator that Lives on in Brazil

This post was originally published on RETROactive on July 31, 2014. 

As this cartoon indicates some farmers were skeptical of the Buffalo design. (Courtesy of Glenbow Archives, M-800-344.)
As this cartoon indicates some farmers were skeptical of the Buffalo design. (Courtesy of Glenbow Archives, M-800-344.)

Not long ago, Alberta had country grain elevators named for the bison that roamed the plains before grain was grown. The innovative Buffalo, as they were called, were designed in Alberta, and constructed in both Alberta and Brazil. In the late 1970s, times were good for Alberta’s farmers and their grain Company—the Alberta Wheat Pool. Bumper crops and high grain prices kept the grain elevators humming. As fires destroyed many wood elevators, and the railways were pushing for ever more streamlined grain handling, the Pool decided to use some of its profits to experiment with concrete elevator designs. It began working with Buffalo Engineering of Edmonton, headed by Klaus U. Drieger. This resulted in a design for an elevator that was radically different, and a second company, Buffalo Beton Ltd. of Calgary, constructed them.

The first design was the trapezoidal Buffalo 1000, colloquially named the Buffalo Slope. In a complete departure from traditional wood-crib elevator design, this elevator was built up using 42 square precast concrete modules, stacked like cord wood at a thirty degree angle from the ground. The elevator could hold 206,000 bushels. The first was built at Magrath in 1979 and opened with huge fanfare—the festivities included a community band and tours of the facility. Two more Buffalo Slopes were erected in 1981, at Vegreville and Fort Saskatchewan. The Buffalo Slope design worked well with some grains, but the 30 degree slope was inadequate for barley and oats to slide out the bottom of the module and the complicated conveyor systems were high maintenance. Faced with less than stellar reviews, they went back to the drawing board.

Buffalo Elevator at Magrath in 1997. (Courtesy Alberta Heritage Survey, 97-R0293-17A.)
Buffalo Elevator at Magrath in 1997. (Courtesy Alberta Heritage Survey, 97-R0293-17A.)

The second design, the Buffalo 2000, was also constructed with precast panels in conjunction with poured-in-place concrete, although it had a more conventional shape. The elevator had vertical bins with hopped bottoms, fashioned with precast bin floors and cast-in-place concrete bin walls. The Buffalo 2000 holds about 190,000 bushels in thirty bins. The Alberta Wheat Pool built two of these, at Lyalta in 1982 and Foremost in 1983. These fireproof elevators worked well, but were expensive. The Pool built nine cheaper wood-cribbed double-composite elevators next, the last one at Dapp in 1985. Then in 1986 a final Buffalo 2000 was built at Boyle, a year before the Buffalo consortium folded.

Ironically, the futuristic Buffalo designs were obsolete soon after they were built as the era of the country elevator was over. After 1995 all the grain companies built slip-form concrete silo elevators. These were high capacity high-throughput regional terminal elevators designed to collect grain from hundreds of kilometers around. They were located on spur lines able to handle 52 or 104 car trains. The Buffalo, built on railway sidings without sufficient space to load many cars, were too slow for high throughput: a Buffalo could load a grain car in thirty minutes while the new terminal elevators could load one in six to seven minutes. The days of the country elevator were numbered, whether wood-crib or concrete Buffalos. As the wood-crib elevators, even new ones, were demolished, the concrete Buffalo, despite not being used by the grain companies, proved to be survivors as they passed to individual farmer groups. The Canada Malting Company buys and stores malt barley in the Buffalo 2000 at Lyalta.

Buffalo Elevator at Lyalta in 1997. (Courtesy Alberta Heritage Survey, 97-R0248-17.)
Buffalo Elevator at Lyalta in 1997. (Courtesy Alberta Heritage Survey, 97-R0248-17.)

The Buffalo design also survives in Brazil. The Buffalo engineering team designed the huge Buffalo 4000 that was constructed from precast concrete modules to build up bins in a double V pattern. Several of these inland terminals with a capacity ranging from 25,000 tonnes (957, 500 bushels) to 100,000 tonnes (3,750,000 bushels) were constructed in Brazil during the early 1980s. A 25,000 tonne facility was located in Brasilia and another in Campo Grande, Mato Grosso del Sul in central-west Brazil. In the state of Minas Gervais in the west part of the country, where wheat and soy beans are among the main crops, a massive 100,000 tonne Buffalo 4000 was constructed at Uberlandia. The Buffalos of Brazil, where sixty-percent of grain is moved by truck, remain an international monument to Alberta engineering innovation.

Written by: Judy Larmour

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