Manitoba Business: Inter-Ocean Grain Company

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This Winnipeg-based grain firm was founded in 1918 by Edward James and Robert Alexander Purves. It operated country grain elevators in Manitoba and Saskatchewan and, from the 1940s until 1965, it operated a terminal at Fort William [today's Thunder Bay]. Three phases characterised the history of Inter-Ocean Grain.

Phase 1: Elevator Broker (1918-1922)

The elevator business was undoubtedly expensive to get into. Land had to be bought, or leased, elevators built or bought, and license fees, taxes, and wages had to be paid. Many companies had good backing (Peavey, Searle, etc.) and often grew rapidly, and really extensively. Many others, such as Blackburn, Mills, and Graham built one or a few elevators and remained quite small from their foundation until they were sold. Others may be seen as falling between these two extremes. Inter-Ocean Grain was a case in point. Although operating for 55 years, it had a maximum of thirteen elevators except for a late spurt of growth during its last decade—and in truth this growth was a result of a special circumstance—the separate ownership of Weyburn Flour Mills by the Inter-Ocean founder.

Growth of a grain company was similarly not guaranteed, but Inter-Ocean approached this challenge in an unusual way. Many companies bought and sold grain elevators as a matter of course. But Inter-Ocean took it one step further, by buying and selling elevators as a way of making a living as well as building capital to build the company. They did this in addition to continuing their other grain businesses as Licensed Track Buyers of Grain, and Licensed Grain Commission Merchants.

In 1906, Robert Alexander Purves came to Winnipeg from Ontario, at the age of 19 years, and was involved in the grain industry from 1907. Edward James was born in Wales and emigrated to Canada in 1888, at the age of 22 years, and became involved in the grain trade in Moosomin, North West Territories [now Saskatchewan]. He moved to Winnipeg in 1907 to become the Assistant Manager of the Imperial Elevator and Lumber Company. The owners of this company were William C. Leistikow, who came to Winnipeg via Minneapolis, and William J. Bettingen from Minnesota. Leistikow died in 1913, and Bettingen moved to California in 1915. The end for Imperial came soon after although its elevators were not sold for a couple of years.

Imperial is believed to have been sold in 1917 to the Dominion Elevator Company although it appears that Dominion only got seven of the 62 Imperial elevators—one in Manitoba and six in Saskatchewan. The N. Bawlf Grain Company bought most or all of Imperial’s elevators in Alberta and a few in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and the rest went in small numbers to a variety of companies. Importantly in the present context, approximately seven went (in 1918) to the newly formed Inter-Ocean Grain Company. Notably, five of these (the one at Gainsboro, Saskatchewan went to J. J. Rush and the other at Vantage disappeared) were sold in 1920 to Leitch-McClean, which passed them on to the R. B. McClean Elevator Company, which sold them to the Brooks Elevator Company, which in turn was merged into Federal Grain in 1929. Apart from giving employment to numerous elevator name painters, these elevators also gave Inter-Ocean its start in the elevator business.

Phase 2: Growth of an Elevator Line (1923-1963)

Groups of elevators under common ownership came to be known as “line elevators” because they were usually located along a single “line” or “lines” of railway, with the companies owning them being called “line elevator companies”. Classic examples include the Atlas Elevator Company and the Security Elevator Company whose elevators were originally exclusively on Grand Trunk Pacific lines. This terminology was never applied to farmer-owned, cooperative elevators, although it has been used to describe the elevators owned by the major flour millers such as the Ogilvie Flour Mills and the Lake of the Woods Milling Company. It is reasonable to say that Inter-Ocean’s holdings would qualify as a ‘line’ or ‘lines’ and were found in both Saskatchewan and Manitoba. They grew these lines steadily over the next forty years, although still occasionally selling an elevator or two.

Phase 3: The End (1964-1988)

After Robert Alexander Purves’ death in 1962, his sons Robert Peter Purves and David Alexander Purves took over. In 1964, they integrated the 18 elevators of Weyburn Flour Mills—also majority-owned by R. A. Purves—into Inter-Ocean. In 1972, when the number of company elevators had settled at around 25, they realized that small companies could no longer compete with the larger companies. They decided to withdraw from the grain-handling business by selling their elevators to the Pioneer Grain Company. The company continued to operate as a licensed grain dealer until 1988.





Edward James (1866-1940)


Robert Alexander Purves (1887-1962)


Robert Peter “Bob” Purves (1927-1997)

Country Elevators (Manitoba)







Clanwilliam 1





Sold to Pioneer Grain (1972)

Clanwilliam 2





Sold to Pioneer Grain (1972)






New elevator (1956), sold to Pioneer Grain and moved to Glossop (1972)

Lac du Bonnet





Sold to United Grain Growers (1965)






Sold to Pioneer Grain (1972)












Sold to Pioneer Grain (1972)


“Tax omission unintentional, Purves say,” Winnipeg Free Press, 10 May 1978, page 11.

Grain: The Entrepreneurs by Charles W. Anderson, Winnipeg: Watson & Dwyer, 1991.

Grain Elevators in Canada, compiled by Board of Grain Commissioners for Canada, Winnipeg, 1912-1930, 1930-1953, 1953-1998 [Peel’s Prairie Provinces, University of Alberta Libraries], 1998-2016 [Canadian Grain Commission].

This page was prepared by John Everitt and Gordon Goldsborough.

Page revised: 29 March 2024