Story by Kristen Cart
Once again, one of our readers has supplied a fascinating glimpse into the construction of an elevator.
Emily Frank is the granddaughter of Darrell Greenlee, a foreman for Johnson and Johnson-Sampson. She related a story about the beginnings of the Galatia, Kan., grain elevator:
My grandfather built slipform concrete grain elevators while my mom was little. My grandparents moved around every three to six months from the time they were married until my mom (the third of six children) was in third grade. I find a lot of your stories remind me of the ones my mom told or my grandmother tells. You did one where a man fell to his death from an elevator during construction. Unfortunately that happened on a job where my grandfather was the foreman, as well…
My grandfather worked for Virgil Johnson. At the time the company was Johnson Elevator Company.
At a job in Galatia, Kan., in 1959, while Darrell was stabilizing the family trailer, it fell and he was hit across his back and shoulders. Rosina took him to the hospital. The hospital wasn’t going to see him until she could pay. She didn’t have insurance. She told them instead, “I’ve got enough money to buy this damn hospital.” When they left two days later, she paid cash.
Rosina called Virgil to tell him that Darrell had been hurt–not bad but he was pretty bruised up. Rosina wasn’t sure what they were going to do. She told Virgil she wanted to know what he was going to do because if Darrell didn’t work, he didn’t get paid. Virgil asked if his butt was bruised and then pointed to a chair and said “See that chair right there, he can park his ass right there and supervise from his chair.”
When the elevator was just about completed a man fell from the top of the elevator. Darrell was a witness to the fall. The guy opened the door at the top and the wind caught him and blew him over the side of the elevator. He fell 120 feet to his death. The man was Arthur Kronberg, 42, originally from Menasha, Wisconsin.
Rosina said when they called the man’s brother to tell him he could come pick up his belongings, he didn’t seem very interested, except he asked if there was anything of value. They had told him his brother had a truck. The man reluctantly agreed to get the truck.
Emily filled in some of the details of her grandfather’s career. The history of Johnson Elevator Company that she shared intrigued us, because the company took up where Mayer-Osborn Company left off and built strikingly similar elevators. The Galatia elevator is a close copy of the Mayer-Osborn elevators at McCook, Neb., and Blencoe, Iowa. Because of the similarities between them and a number of other Johnson elevators, we have speculated whether designer Gene Mayer continued his career with Virgil Johnson and brought his designs with him. Emily continued:
The elevator at Galatia is on one of Johnson’s business cards.
Johnson used to work with some brothers with the last name Sampson. They were Virgil Johnson’s brothers-in-law. They worked together for a while, too, under the name Johnson-Sampson.
My grandfather worked constructing concrete elevators from 1947 to about 1963. He worked for several different people.
Johnson was the man he worked for most, on and off over the years. When Virgil and his brothers-in-law split, my grandfather went to work for Dewey Construction and then Young Love. Then Virgil found a partner, and my grandfather worked for Johnson & Bratcher. Then Virgil went off on his own as Johnson Elevator Company.
When Virgil went broke after a missile base job in the 1960s, my grandfather worked for a guy by the name of Guy James. He did two jobs for him until he finally settled in Rushville, Ill. He never built another elevator, but he had his own company and they did a lot of elevator repair work.
My own grandfather William Osborn’s experience followed a similar trajectory–after he was done with elevator construction, he went on to elevator repair and maintenance. We always attributed the cancer that took him at age 75 to the dust he breathed during those years, though some of the damage could have been from smoking, a habit he dropped ten years before he died.
The hazards of the business were sometimes obvious, but often stealthy and unexpected. From dust, to wind, to new boots, to heedless roofers, many things in elevator construction took lives–but the monuments built by these mortal men remain, withstanding tornadoes, floods, hail, and every natural disaster.