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

Evevator test003

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.

Evevator test004

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

scan0013

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.

From the neighborhood, the Alta grain elevator loomed ever larger

scan0010

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

As the Alta Cooperative’s new elevator rose in the early summer of 1950, life went on at its not too vigorous pace in the namesake town.

Here, we see the elevator as the headhouse nears completion. The view, as far as I can determine from satellite imagery on Google Maps, is looking north on Cherokee Street–which, as we see, was unpaved.

Pressed for a guess, I’d say the truck is an International and the light-colored car is a Pontiac.

Note the cross-bracing in the headhouse window.

On the extreme right, through the opening under the tree, you see the outline of the old wooden elevator building.

The crew had only a few more feet, or maybe it was inches, to go before topping out the new reinforced-concrete elevator. After dismantling the formwork, they would install the equipment inside the main house and headhouse.

Then the painters would sway on a flying scaffold and apply whitewash, making the elevator gleam.

Welcome to Alta. Please slow-down and see our new grain elevator!

scan0009

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

Why would we not be blamed for thinking the sign in the photo was actually about the new elevator that Tillotson Construction Company had just completed in Alta, Iowa? Or do we read too much into it?

Just think what was required to build the elevator in 1950. Men started in the mud and gloom of early spring. All they had were piles of sand and lumber and steel bars, relatively few, simple tools, and an ingenious way of keeping the formwork level. They were about to perform an amazing feat.

By midsummer, the job was done, the lettering affixed to the headhouse, and farmers could more efficiently store and ship their corn.

The men who built the elevator moved on to another job, maybe in Iowa, maybe in Texas.

What they left behind towered over the countryside of Buena Vista County. Some folks had probably never seen a monument this grand.

Shucks, by scrooching up your eyes, you might even have been able to see it all the way from Storm Lake, three miles down Route 7.

How an Iowa grain business flourished without a concrete elevator and silos

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

Cogdill Farm Supply Inc. is a family business, founded in 1979. It flourished as the grain business underwent big changes. Gone were the days of government-subsidized concrete grain elevators, but this operation, one step at a time, went from a small feed and grain business, operating a terminal-style wooden elevator, to a full-service farm supply company sprawling across several towns in western Iowa. The business skipped the concrete-elevator stage as it grew without price supports, relying instead on good business practices and a growing economy.

DSC_5821

Brand new shiny bins (not shown) stood by to replace the old wooden ones at the mill in Dunlap. The shed roof was gone, exposing the wall for the first time in generations.

The company showed no signs of slowing down as it modernized. When I visited over a year ago, new bins were going in at the Dunlap feed mill.

As I photographed the mill, Rob Cogdill came down and greeted me. He said that temporary feed facilities were set up as the old shed roof came down (animals don’t quit eating for a day while the mill is down for repairs). Steel bins stood by across the street, waiting for installation. He told me that the side of the mill, now bared, had not seen daylight for a hundred years.

DSC_5736

Cogdill feed mill in Logan, Iowa.

The Cogdill feed mill facility in Logan, Iowa, another town along U.S. 30, was idle and slated to come down, according to Rob Cogdill. It was another step to be taken to streamline and modernize the business.

DSC_5811

Old Cogdill elevator in Dunlap, Iowa.

Rob also told me about his plans to replace the older wooden elevators as they became obsolete. He pointed out the elevator in Dunlap and said he hated to operate the thing any more—it had become difficult to keep in working condition. He had spent his youth in that elevator, and he said it was close to time for it to go.

It is easy to appreciate the aesthetic beauty of these old buildings, but when their service life ends, they cannot be saved and must be replaced. However, it is not only the beauty that makes them hard to destroy—sometimes, their history keeps them in service well beyond their heyday. “The crookedest elevator in Iowa,” in Dow City was one such case. That elevator represented the beginnings of Cogdill Farm Supply Inc. I went on down the road to see it, and while there, I met the founder of the company.

DSC_5830

“The crookedest elevator in Iowa” still had its Purina logo, visible from the rail line, in Dow City, Iowa.

Pat Cogdill, Rob’s father, gave me the run of the site to take pictures. Afterward, he gave each of my kids a soda and told me about the old elevator. Clearly, there was a sentimental attachment.

The Cogdill operation took over the old wooden elevators in Dow City, which were built in 1946 and 1953. The larger one had two rows of bins. Conveyors were installed above and below—an arrangement which allowed a custom mix of grain for each individual customer. Pat said it was a “terminal elevator. It can mix anything.”

He said, “It’s the crookedest elevator in Iowa,” describing how the marshy soil allowed one corner to sink during construction.

When I asked if it would be replaced any time soon, Pat said, “This elevator paid for all of this,” indicating the whole operation with a wave of his arm. “It will provide the boards for my coffin.”

dsc_5949

Dow City Mills from an early day, courtesy Pat Cogdill.

 

 

 

 

How ‘the crookedest elevator in Iowa’ was built

DSC_0416Story and photos by Kristen Cart

It was a terminal elevator, a family operation, capable of supplying a custom mix of feed fine-tuned to the individual farmer’s requirements. It sat along a rail line that ran through Dow City, Iowa, along U.S. 30 in the western part of the state. And it had been crooked as long as it existed.

There were two different explanations offered for its seemingly casual slouch. The first was intended for credulous tourists, and the last was a more scientific tale. But I liked the first story better.

You see, when the wooden elevator was built, the crew employed for nailing the boards was instructed to rotate around the structure as they built it. That way, the fellows who hammered harder would work their way around the elevator, keeping it even. That precaution had been neglected. The slackers on one side of the elevator, by not pounding as hard, left the rising wall noticeably taller on their side than did the guys who could swing a hammer. Thus, the finished elevator gained a noticeable tilt.

dsc_5941I bought every word of it. I imagined the men smacking the boards tightly on one side, and their chagrin when they discovered what they had done. But alas, the truth was far less romantic.

According to the owner, the builders set the foundation in soggy ground left from years of servicing steam locomotives, and the elevator sagged into the bog as soon as it was built.

Humbug.

dsc_5929In the next post, I will explain how this pay-as-you-go family operation skipped the concrete elevator stage of business. The present effort to modernize must do so without the subsidies that characterized the concrete elevator boom.