Tillotson Construction employees share playful moments outside the company’s Omaha office

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Story by Tim Tillotson, photos from the Virginia Slusher archive

Editor’s note: The story is from a May 14 phone interview.

On the top pic, second from left, Ted Morris? It don’t look like him at all to me. Wayne Skinner, I believe that’s his Olds they’re leaning against.

In the background is Fairmont Ice Cream. They brought refrigerated rail cars in there. One of them, Dad rammed the ass-end of his ’56 imperial into, backing out of the front of the office and I don’t know where he was going in such a hurry. Second day he had it. A four-door Southhampton, pink and white, Mother drove it most of the time. The air conditioning system—they were coming into the picture then—the condenser unit was in the front of the trunk in a big metal box.

When he slammed into the tongue of that rail car, you know how high those tongues stick out, it got into the trunk and the back window. He had them working 24 hours a day to fix that thing, the trunk, back window, and roof.

After he had it fixed, you could always hear some broken glass shifting around in the box of that unit.

Wayne was the so-called engineer, he set over there in that drafting room in the other side of the office, did all the structural calculations.

It was a ’49 or ’50 Olds. Wayne is in the middle pic with Bob Rodgers. He was like the bookkeeper.

Top and bottom picture? There’s Virginia (second from right) and I don’t know who that woman is.

Johnny (Hassman) had to be office help. He didn’t really have anything to do with the drawings or plans. I don’t even remember that he even worked on a job. And I don’t remember why he was there. He got his college work done, I think, in Missoula.

Uncle Ralph, Johnny’s dad, helped later in sales. I remember Ralph talking about him almost living in the car, and he ate a lot of pork and beans out of the can to pay for his way through college. I can’t remember his academic agenda.

Ted was the pilot. He worked int the office with Wayne, doing the drawing and getting the specs together. He flew Dad when Dad would go out to the jobs. Ted used to take me flying out to the job. He was a fun guy, good-natured. He tried going into business himself after Dad passed.

In Hampton, Neb., the grain elevator could be from the Tillotson Construction lineage

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Story and photos by Brad Perry

Bradshaw, Neb.

Bradshaw, Neb.

I was a loan officer in Nebraska and financed many of the elevators built from 1975 to 1980. The dominant Nebraska builder was probably Mid-States, out of Omaha, along with Jarvis. Borton wasn’t very active in Nebraska at that time, but Farmland Industries brought more players in. Venturi and Jordan were two of them. Farmland served as the general contractor on the majority of elevators built by co-ops in the 1970s and 1980s. The players in Iowa were Younglove and Todd & Sargent, but the lowest-priced builder was always Quad-States out of Des Moines. It’s easy to tell their elevators—they only had one design! This photo above is from Hampton, Neb. Looks like a Tillotson, but I think it was Sampson. There was a twin to it at Bradshaw, 10 miles east, that was hit by lightning and had to be torn down.

Virginia Slusher remembers her years as Tillotson Contruction’s office girl

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Story by Virginia Slusher, photos from her collection

Editor’s note: Virginia Slusher, who lives near Kansas City, contacted us to share these recollections and photos. We have previously written about The Office, part of the old Anheuser-Bush brewery on Jones Street, which served as Tillotson Construction’s headquarters in the 1950s. 

Beginning in the fall of 1951, I worked for Mike (Reginald) and Mary Tillotson for seven years. I was the “office girl”–some bookkeeping, receptionist, et cetera.

I went to Commercial Extension School of Commerce, and Johnny Hassman was my date for our graduation party. He was in the office quite often. I think Johnny helped with sales. IMG_1390

One morning I arrived first, and the safe was hanging open. Because of the burglary, I immediately ran down to the gas station on the corner. The thief took the petty cash they kept in the safe. I don’t think he bothered anything else. The police came to investigate.

I loved working there; they were so good to me.

The three guys and I would sit up on the balcony and play cards sometimes when Mary was gone. It was a raised area where Wayne and Ted, the two engineers, sat. Bob the bookkeeper sat just below.

I loved the guys. They took me out for my first legal drink when I turned 21 years old. They teased me unmercifully but were so good to me.

I remember typing about 2000 W-4s at the end of the year. Men would work for one or two days and quit. I also sent all the “give us your business” cards to the small towns in multiple states. Virginia Slusher 01

The other woman–I can’t remember her name–was working there when I started.

They had a huge NCR bookkeeping machine that she taught me how to operate. Shortly after I started there, the company sold it to, I think, China.

Mary was different to say the least. She had an ugly Boxer that came to work with her sometimes. He would slobber on me; therefore, I did not like him!

She used to tape a St. Christopher medal on her desk. We joked that we wondered if the desk would take her somewhere.

Johnny Hassman and Virginia Slusher celebrate her business school graduation. Photo from the Virginia Slusher archive.

Johnny Hassman and Virginia Slusher celebrate her business school graduation.

She was very good to me, gave me nice bonuses at the end of the year, not quite as big as the three guys. But very good for the ’50s. I received $1000 to $15oo. The men usually around $10,000. Very large amount for the times.

Mike (Reginald) was funny, not in the office much. I had to write the checks to pay the family bills.

I was still Virginia Engel but married William Slusher while working there, 60 years now, and they were very nice to us.

When the company closed, Mary found a new job for me at Power District credit union.

Bill Russell delivered the first load of grain in Alta’s new concrete elevator

First load of grain being dumped in the elevator. Man on left is probably an elevator employee, Bill Russell, right.

An Alta Cooperative employee, left, and Tillotson’s superintendent Bill Russell dump the first load of grain in 1950. Photo from the Neil A. Lieb archive.

By Ronald Ahrens

We’ve laid out the story of Tillotson Construction Company’s concrete elevator at Alta, Iowa.

Now for the completion.

The photo shows the ceremonial first load of grain being dumped after the elevator was wrapped up in 1950. The job had started in early spring.

Bill Russell superintended from start to finish. As his son Dennis has told us, Bill was born in 1900 and built ammunition depots during World War Two before coming to work for Tillotson.

He was father of eight sons. One of them, Jim, a promising law school student, died in a fall on Tillotson’s elevator at Murphy, Neb.

After a long run with Tillotson, Bill started Mid-States Construction, which became known as Mid-States Equipment, with Gordon Erickson.

During the key postwar period of elevator expansion, few men contributed more than Bill Russell, and we are proud to remember and honor him.

Tillotson’s employee ‘Tiny’ could sucker the locals in any barroom

 

Photo from the Neil A. Lieb Archive.

Story by Ronald Ahrens, photo from the Neil A. Lieb Archive

He was called Tiny, and he could always put one over on the locals.

Neil Lieb couldn’t recall Tiny’s full name during our telephone conversation on April 29, when we sought to identify people shown in photos from Tillotson Construction Company’s job at Alta, Iowa.

As a young man just out of high school, Neil was part of the crew, and even sixty-five years later he still marvels at the older, wiser Tiny.

Members of the crew would go into the beer parlor after hours. scan0017

“Tiny would bet you he could drink a bottle of beer in 10 seconds,” Neil said. “It takes eight seconds for the bottle to run dry by itself. He would bet five or ten dollars, and he would find some sucker.”

Tiny was 6 feet 2 inches tall, Neil recalled.

Neil couldn’t identify the man at the rear of the photo, nor could he express details of the job they were undertaking because he had moved on after the Alta Cooperative’s new concrete elevator was finished.

Photos document the construction of a chimney that rose from a small building next to the old wooden elevator. We don’t know this stack’s purpose, but Neil (and my Uncle Tim Tillotson) don’t suspect it had to do with grain drying.

 

Elevator operators once implicated labor activists in mysterious explosions

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A 1920 Department of Agriculture experiment showing that accumulations of grain dust would ignite under the right conditions

Story by Kristen Cart

Elevator fires have been a great concern since the days when Charles H. Tillotson first built wooden elevators with his army of carpenters at the beginning of what would become the family business.

When elevators started to randomly ignite and explode in the early twentieth century, suspicions ran rampant.

Shortly after 1900, labor violence was on the rise, and businesses had reason to be worried.

In the Midwest, elevator owners suspected the labor unionist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or Wobblies, had committed acts of sabotage, torching the structures to make their anarchistic point.

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Then, cooler heads prevailed as engineers found a scientific explanation.

Using a scale model in the manner of a college lab experiment, the United States Department of Agriculture demonstrated that grain dust would ignite and explode under the right conditions, leaving destruction and injury in its wake.

The Wobblies were off the hook.

From their ever-rising perch, elevator men saw the workaday world of Alta, Iowa

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Story by Ronald Ahrens, photo from the Neil A. Lieb archive

Reader Frank Nine recently expressed fond memories of his job with Tillotson Construction Company, writing, “I can’t believe it has been 61 years ago that I started working for Tillotson. It seems like yesterday and was some of the best times of my life.”

This view of downtown Alta, Iowa, from Tillotson’s new grain elevator for the Alta Cooperative makes his statement easy to understand. Aside from the challenge of the work itself, part of the appeal of building a reinforced-concrete elevator was the high-profile nature of the job, in every aspect.

In a town like Alta, with 1350 inhabitants in 1950, the construction crew had to feel the eyes of everybody in town. Wherever they went, whether the cafe or saloon, they were known and perhaps treated differently.

And from their lofty perspective, the workers could be forgiven for harboring a sense of superiority over the townsmen, some of whom may not have been inside a building taller than three stories. Building an elevator made you part of an elite team, rather like a visiting circus troupe.

In the photo we look to the south-southeast and see a lumber company, the downtown businesses, and an important church. Assistance would be welcome in identifying buildings around the smokestack, as well as other establishments.