A search for Van Ness elevator images yields surprising results

Story by Kristen Cart

When hunting for ancient elevators–and by ancient, I mean hundred-year-old, steel-sheathed, wooden construction–you run into a serious problem: most of them no longer exist.


A 1936 Omaha directory

The elevator you are looking for may have burned down years ago, followed by a replacement that also burned down. The things liked to catch fire, as a search of old newspapers will show.

Concrete construction was meant to reduce the problem, but the new elevators would burn in spectacular fashion when grain dust ignited, throwing debris and victims sky high.

The fertile ground for old elevator hunting remains the Internet, thanks to bloggers, satellite imagery, photographers, and the odd stuff that accumulates online.

Recently, we turned up some truly fascinating finds. We had discovered Charles H. Tillotson was president of Van Ness Construction Company, of Omaha, in the 1930s. He was the original founder of the construction business (and its progeny) that his children and their associates operated into the 1950s, as documented in this blog.

Charles H. Tillotson

Charles H. Tillotson

Now that we had a company name for his earlier efforts, the hunt for Van Ness elevators was on.

Rydal, Kan., was home to an early Van Ness elevator. The town was profiled in the blogĀ Dead Towns of Kansas, a project by the Hutchinson, Kan., journalist Amy Bickel. On her page is a marvelous 1950s vintage aerial photograph of bridge construction showing two 1888- to 1907-vintage elevators, one of which was built by Van Ness. One of the two pictured elevators burned in 1952. We do not know if the fire consumed them both.

Luckily, a Van Ness mill and elevator in Grenola, Kan., was deemed historical, and the Kansas State Historical Society successfully nominated it for the National Register of Historic Places. Since grain was no longer stored there, the greatest threat to its survival was gone.

It is the only example we have found that still stands.

The architect of this elevator, designed and built in 1909, was P. H. Pelkey Company, with the construction completed by the R. M. Van Ness Construction, of Fairbury, Neb.

This company could have been the predecessor to the Van Ness Construction Company that Charles H. Tillotson led, and it may have been his earlier employer. A little more research could tease out the history of the Van Ness building enterprises in Nebraska.

But the elevator is representative of the typical construction of the time, when Charles would have been working in the business.

This old elevator is located in Grenola, Elk County, Kan., on a railroad siding which was formerly on a mainline of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad, Southern Kansas Division.

5 comments on “A search for Van Ness elevator images yields surprising results

  1. Emily says:

    fascinating read, as always. I always loved the old articles we found when researching the elevators my grandfather built. His were all concrete though, although some of them aren’t used anymore, most of them are still standing.

  2. Andrew McAllister says:

    A few years back an old metal clad wooden silo burned close to where we live in northern Utah. It prompted me to photograph many of the area silos for posterity. When they are gone it really changes how a small agriculture based town looks. Really enjoy your work here on the blog. Keep up the good work. Some of my silos pictures are here: http://andrewmcallisterphotography.com/Silo-Survey/1/

    • kocart says:

      You have done a wonderful job photographing elevators. A favorite of mine is Downey, Idaho, and you more than did it justice. Thank you for visiting our blog. I will also be looking out for your posts.

  3. Dave Lambert says:

    I recently purchased an “annual” published by The Grain Dealers Journal of Chicago.
    It was the 1917 edition with the first having been published in 1913. The publication date was January, 1917, so it covered elevators built and written about prior to the US entry in WWI in April, 1917.
    The volume, approximately 400 pages, appears to be a compilation of articles from the magazine.
    There is often a brief description and photo (“engraving”) of the country elevator including the name of the contractor who built the elevator.
    The R.M. Van Ness Construction Co. of Fairbury, NE had a quarter-page ad in the back of the volume. They claim to build “Modern Grain Elevators, Mills and Warehouses”.
    R.M. Van Ness is listed multiple times as the builder in these vignettes of new or rebuilt elevators.
    Question: Do you entertain ca. 1906-1915 era photos of elevators and flour mills? Reason I ask is that all the photos I’ve seen on the site–although excellent–are contemporary and not historical. I have a number of real photo postcards of elevators from the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, Montana and even some eastern elevators–all from that era. The concrete “fireproof” elevators are starting to appear–especially as rebuilt or expanded elevators.
    Very nice and interesting website.
    Dave Lambert

    • kocart says:

      You have discovered a fascinating item. It has been on our “things to do” list for some time to locate a publication such as yours.

      It has been our goal to research the work of the founder of the Tillotson elevator construction business, Charles Tillotson, however we have not yet located very much documentation from the period. We traced his work to the Van Ness Construction Company to the time shortly before his death, but we are not certain how long he was connected to the company. We know he was president of the company in 1936 from a single entry in an Omaha phone directory, and his June 19, 1938, obituary said he was a partner in the company.

      Was Charles Tillotson a founder of the Van Ness Construction Company? Perhaps, but we don’t know. We have located elevators built by the Fairbury-based company as early as 1909, but we have not connected Charles to the work that was performed during that era.

      Our blog began with a fairly narrow focus because we were tracing our own grandfathers’ work. Gradually our interest broadened. The early wood elevator era is a whole new topic, and as we make inroads with our research, we plan to explore it. We would love to see your photos and with your permission, use them to further our exploration of the wooden elevator era.

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