Historic Sites of Manitoba: Flax Fibre Warehouses (North Railway Street, Killarney, RM of Killarney-Turtle Mountain)
Three metal-clad warehouses along the railway tracks in Killarney, in the Rural Municipality of Killarney-Turtle Mountain, were built in the late 1970s to store flax fibre used in making high-grade paper. (A fourth flax warehouse was built around the same time, at Glenboro.)
Since 1970, flax (Linum usitatissimum) grown in southern Manitoba has been used to manufacture thin, high-strength paper for such applications as the pages of Bibles and the wrappings of cigarettes. That year, the Schweitzer subsidiary of American conglomerate Kimberly-Clark hired its first local employee, Marcel Lahure (1924-2004) of Stephenfield, to begin purchasing straw from flax farmers after the grain harvest was completed and the residual straw was lying in the fields. Flax straw is resistant to decomposition compared to other types of straw, which makes it useful as an insulation material. Traditionally, Manitobans have used flax straw to cover their septic tanks and other sensitive outdoor equipment to keep them warm during our cold winters. Otherwise, flax farmers are obliged to burn the straw or till it into the soil, both of which have associated problems. Selling the straw to Kimberly-Clark provided an alternative method of disposal that gave farmers an additional source of income.
The company bought bales of the flax straw and stacked them on the farmer’s field or at a central location, where weather and bacteria gradually broke down the straw over a period of weeks to months in a process called retting, in which the outer layer of straw turns gray. The retted straw is then passed through a mill that shatters the straw stalks, separating the outside material (called shive) from the inner fibres (bast). At one time, shive was discarded as a waste product, usually burned or tilled into the ground, but more recently is burned to heat commercial greenhouses at Carman. Bast is collected into box-shaped bales weighing several hundred pounds each and loaded into railway boxcars for shipment to a processing mill in the United States. There, remaining shive is removed from the bast and the cleaned fibres are pressed into paper.
Because flax is grown in various areas of Manitoba, Kimberly-Clark operated a portable fiber-processing mill. This mill would process flax straw brought to it from local sites for a few months then move elsewhere. In the late 1970s, the operation became even more portable when the company introduced “mini mills” mounted on a semi-trailer. These mills could go right to the farm fields, process the straw on site, and leave behind a pile of shive when it moved to another field. No transportation of straw was required. The mini mills ventured all over southern Manitoba and eastern Saskatchewan.
The period of highest flax production in Manitoba was from the mid-1950s to the late 1980s. Flax acreage has decreased considerably from its height when the Killarney fibre warehouses were built, from around 800,000 acres to about 167,000 acres in 2011. As a result, the warehouses are no longer needed to store fiber bales and the company has leased them out to other uses. (The Glenboro warehouse was sold.) The company, since 1996 an independent corporate entity called Schweitzer-Mauduit rather than a subsidiary of Kimberly-Clark, operates a stationary mill south of Carman. It buys flax straw from southern Manitoba as well as Saskatchewan and North Dakota. The mini mills were disassembled in the early 2000s while the portable mill is maintained as a backup to the stationary mill. All flax straw is brought to the mill for processing and the finished fibre is trucked in shipping containers to Winnipeg where it is loaded onto trains for transport to the American paper mill.
Photos & Maps
“1-month remand on fire charge,” Winnipeg Free Press, 7 November 1973, page 38.
“Straw market,” Brandon Sun, 23 June 1977, page 8.
“Flax buyers will honor pact,” Winnipeg Free Press, 5 November 1977, page 11.
“Kimberly-Clark to build storage shed in Glenboro,” Glenboro Gazette, 31 May 1978, page 3.
“Hard at work,” Brandon Sun, 30 May 1987, page 6.
Advertisement, Selkirk Journal, 12 August 1996, page 11.
Obituary [Marcel Lahure], Winnipeg Free Press, 3 July 2004, page 24.
We thank Dean Graham (Schweitzer-Mauduit Canada), Grant Tweed, and Willard Tweed for providing additional information used here.
This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough, who worked with the Kimberly-Clark mini-mills in the late 1970s.
Page revised: 6 August 2017