Charles H. Tillotson straddled the divide between wood and concrete

Charles H. Tillotson

By Ronald Ahrens

My Great-grandfather Charles H. Tillotson may have been following his trade by instinct, but he opened the way for descendants to distinguish themselves in the business of elevator construction.

I know the Tillotsons saw themselves primarily as carpenters. My Uncle Charles J. Tillotson went to work as an apprentice carpenter for Tillotson Construction, which was founded after the death of his grandfather Charles. My Uncle Michael Tillotson learned carpentry on through the family business and worked as a carpenter throughout his career. When I helped him finish concrete sidewalks on a couple of side jobs in the 1970s, he preached a gospel that carpenters could do it all, whether it be concrete or painting. And in elevator construction, it was true.

Charles H. Tillotson was born in Brunswick, Mo., in 1880. He married Rose Brennan in Riverside, Iowa.

He and my Great-grandmother Rose had an apparently cozy life in Omaha with their three grown children, Joseph, Reginald, and Mary, all of whom became involved in elevator construction. Kristen Cart’s research has found the Tillotsons listed in the 1930 census. They lived at 624 N. 41st.

A 1936 city directory listed Charles H. as president of Van Ness Construction, a company that built mills and elevators. Joseph served as secretary-treasurer and Reginald was a foreman. Mary worked as a clerk-typist at the Federal Land Bank.


By then, Reginald was married to my grandmother, Margaret Irene McDunn Tillotson. Their firstborn Charles J., had arrived in 1935, followed the next year by my mother, Mary Catherine.

Uncle Tim Tillotson, the middle of their three sons between Charles J. and Michael (who was born in a home-built house trailer at a Smith Center, Kan., job site), says a story exchanged among the uncles was that Great-grandfather Charles H. would tell Reginald, “Put out that cigarette,” when they were working on jobs. The danger of fire was constant. How ironic, then, that Charles H. held a cigarette for his portrait.

After the death of paterfamilias Charles H., the Tillotson Construction Company was formed by Reginald, Joseph, and Mary. We would love to learn more about how this proceeded.

Meanwhile, the transition to slip-formed concrete construction was under way, with the Tillotsons’ carpentry skills being readily applied to the formwork.

Wrecking out details are provided in drawings from Tillotson records

Charles H. Tillotson

By Ronald Ahrens

The papers we received from my Uncle Tim Tillotson included not only the record of Tillotson Construction Company’s building activities, but also these pages showing details of building a wrecking-out platform as well as jack rod assemblies and formwork details. Page two is dated November 12, 1954.

A wrecking-out platform was needed as workers disassembled the formwork on the inside of the completed elevator.

Charles H. Tillotson 1

Uncle Charles Tillotson has previously written about his close call when cable clamps failed.

In that post he described a wrecking-out platform this way:

The final scaffold then becomes a square platform suspended in a round tank.

The void on each side of the scaffold is used for lowering or throwing the wood material into the tank’s dark abyss. After all the overhead wrecking has been accomplished, another team gains access to the tank’s bottom via a manhole in the side of the tank at or near ground level.

Charles H. Tillotson 3

The drawings and details presented in the notes included here are invaluable. For example: The hole in the roof is formed with a one-quart motor oil can. (“Remove can & plug hole,” the addendum reminds.)

Charles H. Tillotson 5

The handwritten note in the upper right corner of the first page says, “I put my center needle beam under the manhole then it is easy to get plank on and easy to get on scaffold. If you think this helps O.K. other wise [illegible] to a goose going south.”

“I’ll pick it up when I catch him down about Galveston,” this section concludes.

Charles H. Tillotson 4

Another note is on the quality of timbers: “I’ve been using these for 20 years if you use 3 good 2 x 6 they work fine and save over the 3 x 6 & all that steel and all you have to do is cut the ones you use in the tanks and they will work in small bins.”

We look forward to readers’ comments on the pages.

Charles H. Tillotson 7

A gleaming elevator and annex with distinctive headhouses in Glidden, Iowa

Glidden, Iowa

Tillotson’s 122-foot-tall elevator, center, was built at Glidden, Iowa, in 1949. The company added the 112-foot, 331,000-bushel storage annex in 1954. Photo: Tillotson Construction Company archive.

By Ronald Ahrens

On April 11, 1949, the Daily Times Herald, of Carroll, Iowa, reported a new elevator  under construction in Glidden for the Farmers Co-operative Company.

“About 20 feet higher than the present buildings, the new elevator will be situated east of them,” the newspaper reported. “With the additional storage space the company, for several years the largest co-operative elevator owned and operated in Iowa, will be able to take care of a large amount of corn and beans grown extensively in the Glidden area.”

The bins had quickly risen to 100 feet in height.

Tillotson Construction Company, of Omaha, was using a crew of about 35 men, who worked 10 hours per day, the report continued, perhaps leaving out at this late stage that a continuous pour would have require successive shifts in order to reach 100 feet.

Completion of the 100,000-bushel elevator was expected by July or August, the report said.

Through the company’s construction record, we now know more about the elevator. It is the twin of another elevator built that year in Churdan, about 22 miles away on county and main highways.

Those elevators had an exact capacity of 102,000 bushels. They used 1083 cubic yards of reinforced concrete and 57.72 tons of steel, including jack rods. The 24-inch-thick main slabs were 48×48 feet in area. The overall weight of the reinforced concrete, rated at 4000 pounds per cubic yard plus the steel, was 2224 tons.

Each elevator could hold 3060 tons of grain, averaging 60 pounds per bushel. Including all machinery and the hoppers, the gross loaded weight was 5709 tons, for a bearing pressure of 2.52 tons per square foot.

The curved cupola, or headhouse, which was the important signature of a Tillotson elevator, stood 17 feet wide, 34 feet long, and 22 feet high.

These were single-leg elevators, each with a full basement and an electrical room. Pulley centers were at 125.67 feet.

Each boot pulley was 60 x 14 x 2 3/16 inches while each head pulley differed only by having an axle shaft 1 3/4 inches greater in diameter.

The six-ply Calumet belt supplied for each leg was, of course, 14 inches wide. Cups of 12 x 6 inches were to be set nine inches apart, although a note under “Remarks” somewhat ominously says, “Cups @ 12″ O.C. @ Glidden” and adds “Job Error.”

A 30-horsepower Howell electric motor drove the head pulley. The theoretical leg capacity according to manufacturer ratings was 6540 bushels per hour, but running at a conservative 80-percent of capacity meant a more realistic take-up of 5230 bushels per hour.

The remarks make one distinction between Churdan and Glidden, saying the former had a split bin for the drier while no bin was fitted at the latter.

The driveway was 13 feet wide. There were two dump grates of 9 x 5 1/2 feet and 9 x 15 feet.

Later entries show a 331,000-bushel storage with flat-bottom tanks was added at Glidden in 1954. The next year, Churdan was expanded with 198,960 bushels of new capacity. They used 2318 and 1351 cubic yards of reinforced concrete, respectively, and 116.5 and 79.5 tons of steel.

Other specs for Glidden’s storage:

Main slab: 33 1/2 to 49 x 127 feet for 5481 square feet in total

Weight of reinforced concrete: 4752.5 tons

Weight of grain: 9930 tons

Gross weight loaded: 15,007.5 tons

Bearing pressure: 2.97 tons per square foot

Main slab thickness: 24 inches

Height of drawform walls: 104 feet

Cupola (headhouse) dimensions (W x L x H): 14 x 98 1/4 x 8 1/3 feet

Top and bottom belts: 24 inches @ 600 feet per minute

Cross belts: 24 inches @ 600 feet per minute

A reader recalls his youthful days at the grain elevator in Emmetsburg, Iowa

This T.E. Ibberson elevator, foreground, keeps company with a Tillotson elevator, right, in Dallas Center, Iowa. Photo by Kristen Cart

This T.E. Ibberson elevator, foreground, keeps company with a Tillotson elevator, right, in Dallas Center, Iowa. Photo by Kristen Cart

By Paul Grage

Editor’s note: Paul Grage (pronounced “GREGG-ee”) of Rockwell City, Iowa, is a 39-year-old supervisor at North Central Correctional Facility there. In his free time he surfs the Web looking for elevator sites.

I would like to share some memories of Cargill in Emmetsburg, Iowa, during the 1980s.

My fondest memory is of Old Number 2, built by T.E. Ibberson, of Minneapolis. My dad was the manager from 1979 until about 1996, and I would often call after school at harvest to see if I could come hang around. If they were accepting grain at Number 2, that is where I would be.

The alleyway [driveway] was huge. It had one  main grate and two side grates for overflow that all emptied into one  pit. It had a large horn like a fire alarm buzzer. This  sounded for phone calls, when the leg was up to speed, or when a bin ran full. The side entrance inside was flanked by two large aerator fans that roared. As a kid, it was kind of terrifying to exit between these two.

The Ibberson nameplate. Photo by Kristen Cart

The Ibberson nameplate. Photo by Kristen Cart

I remember the rippling of the grates as semis crossed them. I still remember the old portable, homemade, electrically powered, hydraulic pump that raised the old barge box wagons pulled by pickup trucks.

I remember the old gate at the bottom of the pit that accessed the leg. It was moved by a large lever next to the pit, right next to the leg button. You had to hear the buzzer before you opened that gate unless you wanted to plug the leg before it got up to speed. My dad tells horror stories about unplugging the leg. A test of your manhood was to go to the headhouse and hold back the anti-rollback dogs, like a one-way clutch, with a wrench or bar. The whole trunking would shake. The distributor crank was right next to the leg and man lift. It was a lever brake and crank-style bin selector that had belt pulley webbing on it to indicate which bin you had selected.

I remember the first trip to the headhouse with my brother. He was an employee with Cargill before they had nepotism rules. It was a sight to behold: the big open headhouse with all of its huge spouts, the huge gearbox and chain-drive leg and the big distributor. Inside this headhouse was a huge plywood shack. It was explained to me that it was a tripper scale used for loading railroad cars. It was long out of use, as this elevator had no rails and the new elevator did. This tripper scale did have long rods that extended down the man lift shaft to the alley below.

I remember the ride up the man lift with my brother. The dust was so thick on the walls the people had stopped along the way and scratched rather colorful sayings in the dust. (This was long before the days of dust control, so that dust was a good three inches thick in that man lift shaft. Now they have an air chuck so they can blow the dust down.) When I say man lift shaft I mean man lift onlythe leg shafting was built into the concrete.

The T.E. Ibberson name on the manhole cover.

The T.E. Ibberson name on the manhole cover.

The metal trunking only existed between the boot pit up to ceiling of the alleyway and then from the bin deck to the leg-drive pulley in the headhouse. The rest of leg trunking was made of a cement column inside. The shaft that the rest of the bucket was built into was hopper-bottomed just like all the overhead bins.

If I remember right, this elevator had eighteen overhead bins, one of which was used for rail car/tripper scale.

After learning the elevator inside out, the ironic thing is that I could never go to work in the grain business because I’m allergic to soybean dust. It’s almost lethal to me. When I was a kid, it didn’t faze me a bit. But my last year I hung around there, around 1988, I had to wear a respirator. 

Something else: They don’t paint this elevator any longer because it’s stress-cracked. They quit painting it because it was making the concrete rot. I like the aged look.

In 1954, near the boom’s end, Albert City, Iowa, had a gleaming concrete elevator

Albert City, Iowa

By Ronald Ahrens 

Looking at this photo of Tillotson Construction Company’s 252,000-bushel elevator, completed in 1954, it’s easy to imagine the pride and awe of a small town’s few hundred residents.

Albert City is in northwest Iowa on a spur from Route 3, not far from Storm Lake in Buena Vista County. The Tillotson’s had also built that same year in nearby Pocahontas, where there was tragedy.

The Albert City job went more smoothly as the structure rose far above the tallest elms, although Uncle Charles Tillotson, who recently dug up this photo, has written about his frightening dismount from the formwork during a storm.

Uncle Michael Tillotson has also recollected about working here:

“The following summer (1954) we went to Albert City, Iowa, 75 miles North of Council Bluffs. We rented rooms in a private home. We worked with a 20 something guy that ran the winch pulley bucket to the top of the elevator as it progressed, and brought building materials down. We also rode the bucket up and down to get on deck. The elevator bens were 125 feet to the top with a Head-House of 75 on top of that.”

Company records show the elevator was built according to the same plan used in Pocahontas. This entailed eight outer bins that were eighteen feet in diameter and, contrary to Uncle Mike’s reckoning, 120 feet tall. Altogether, some 2091 cubic yards of concrete were reinforced by 106.57 tons of steel.

The bins rose from a main slab 21 inches thick and 60 x 72.5 square feet in area. It supported a gross loaded weight of 12,974 tons.

The cupola, or headhouse, was 23 feet wide, 58 feet tall, and 40 feet long.

Albert City was a single-leg elevator. Its head pulley was 72 inches in diameter and turned at 42 rpm. A 40-horsepower Howell motor supplied more than enough energy to turn it.

Twelve-inch-wide cups on a six-ply, 14-inch-wide belt carried up the grain that was dumped by incoming trucks. The 12-foot-wide driveway had two dump grates: 9 x 6 feet and 9 x 14 feet.

In 1954, Tillotson also built in Dacoma, Lahoma, Orienta, and Weatherford, Okla.; Booker, Tex.; Ensign and Montezuma, Kan.; Bellwood, Neb.; and Glidden, Goldfield, Newell, Manson, Pocahontas, and Iowa Falls, Iowa.

These were among Tillotson’s last elevators–the records close out with work in 1955–and they represented nearly everything the company knew about building.

A visit to Google Maps shows the elevator is still standing, which is to be expected given the Herculean effort needed to knock down all that reinforced concrete. But it appears idle. Given what we’ve learned about the limitations of midcentury elevators and today’s need for greater storage capacity and quicker unloading, that would make sense.

Nevertheless, it endures as a handmade monument, and a rich human history goes with it.

This ‘continuous pour’–and the marching band–would delight our grandfathers

By Ronald Ahrens

Photo by AC Martin.

Photo by AC Martin.

A  USA Today insert in my Feb. 6 edition of the Desert Sun newspaper carried this story about the new tower under construction in Los Angeles. The news will be of interest to the concrete enthusiasts among our readers.

The report on the 1100-foot Wilshire Grand project describes how the the foundation slab will be laid on Feb. 15: “The project will attempt to set a Guinness World Record with the largest continuous concrete pour ever… More than 2,100 truckloads will deliver 21,200 cubic yards of concrete weighing 82 million pounds.”

A typical Tillotson elevator–for example, Albert City, Iowa–needed 2091 cubic yards of reinforced concrete. That’s just under one percent of what’s going into the 100-foot-deep hole on Wilshire Boulevard. I’m trying (without success) to picture 100 grain elevators compressed in there.

The USC band will precede the first truck to the site.  It is not recorded that any band ever marched to the opening of an elevator job.

Nor is it believed a swimming pool topped any elevator, as will be the case at Wilshire Grand.

Technical complications will arise during the pour, and a quite amazing means of addressing them has been devised, as you will read in the story.

I mentioned all this to Uncle Chuck Tillotson and shared the clipping with him. He said that my grandfather Reginald had foreseen for Tillotson Construction Company a commercial future beyond elevator construction.

Applying their expertise with concrete in different applications would only have been natural, but it’s doubtful  he foresaw anything quite this big.

And I’m sure he didn’t think about anyone taking a dip while 1100 feet above the city.

In Argentina, we encounter a colorful solution for abandoned elevators


Story and photos by Ronald Ahrens

I went to Rosario, Argentina, the first week of January for a magazine assignment, and the group I was with ended up having lunch on the bank of the Rio Paraná, a big muddy river capable of handling large cargo ships for carrying grain and coal. Like so much else about this land of the Pampas, the Paraná reminded me of something you’d find in the Midwestern United States–specifically, it was perhaps wider than the Missouri River but not quite up standard set by the Mighty Mississippi.

IMG_8906As we had earlier driven into this large city–Argentina’s third-largest, with nearly 1.3 million people–I noted a couple of grain elevators, including what looked like a huge wooden one. But I was being herded with a group of reporters following the Dakar, a marathon rally for motorcycles, cars, and trucks. Rosario sprawls over 70 square miles, so there was no way I’d be able to make my way back there from the hotel where we were staying near the river.

How surprised was I when we went from the Juan Manuel Fangio Autodrómo, where the Dakar teams were set up before the rally’s start, to have lunch? The destination was a restaurant affiliated with the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Rosario–the museum of contemporary art. We parked on the riverside boulevard, Avenida Estanislao López, and as soon as we started walking I saw the colorful bins of a made-over elevator.

The art museum is integrated into the elevator!

IMG_8908I didn’t come away with any specifics, although it did occur to me to look for manhole covers that might have been cast with the builder’s name. I saw none, though.

As for the rest I hope these pictures tell the story.

By the way, Argentinians are very proud of their beef, and I was told repeatedly in advance of the trip that I should be sure to eat the beef because it’s out of this world. I did have a couple of nice steaks, but there’s no difference from U.S. beef.


This tower, attached to the elevator, faces out to the river.

And this footnote: the passenger next to me on the flight home said the countryside has changed since the Chinese market for soy opened up–fewer grassy pastures, more fields with the crop. Presumably, there would also be changes in the way cattle are finished for market. Anyway, that explains why so much of Argentina looked like western Kansas, minus the farmhouses and barns.

The countryside is curiously devoid of buildings; everybody lives in town.

Dennis Russell reflects on his brother Jim’s tragic death on the Murphy, Neb., elevator

This photo, provided by Kurtis Glinn, shows Tillotson Construction's Murphy elevator in the early 1960s. Note the ground storage of grain sorghum on the right.

This photo, provided by Kurtis Glinn, shows Tillotson Construction’s Murphy, Neb., elevator in the early 1960s. Note the ground storage of grain sorghum on the right, and the old wooden elevator on the left.

By Ronald Ahrens  

A recent telephone conversation with Dennis Russell, who lives in Plano, Tex., revealed more details about the Russell family and his brother Jim, who died in an accident during construction of the Murphy, Neb., elevator. Dennis was the youngest of eight brothers: Bob, Roger, Jim, Jack, Byron, Bill, and Mark.

Their father William, born in 1900, had done construction on ammunition depots during World War Two, Dennis recalled. William, known as Bill, went to work for Tillotson Construction Company at an unknown date after the War.

“He worked for them a long time,” Dennis said. “He left Tillotson’s and started Mid States Construction Company with Gordon Erickson and another individual. I think he was a partner for a brief period and then ran jobs for them as a superintendent until his retirement.”

The name was changed to Mid States Equipment Company. Grain elevators and feed mills were the main specialties. Bill Russell retired in 1972, but he “always had fond memories working for Tillotson, I know that,” Dennis said. “I remember he was awful fond of Mary.”

Jim Russell’s promising future cut short 

Dennis was born in 1949. “My whole life was elevators. We moved every year from ’59 till I graduated high school.”

All the Russell brothers worked on elevators, Dennis recalled. “I worked on those quite a bit myself every summer.”

“Jim, he was third-oldest, he died in, like, ’58 in Murphy, Neb., right outside of Aurora. There was an article about that in the Aurora paper at the time. We lived in Vermillion, South Dakota, but that summer I was in Aurora, we were staying with Dad. I remember Mom taking that phone call.”

At the time of his death in a freak accident (the links below tell the story), Jim was married to Shirley, a nurse, and had one year of law school remaining at the University of South Dakota.

More details on the Nebraska elevator site where Jim Russell died

By Kurt Glinn

I was the manager at the Aurora Cooperative Murphy location in central Nebraska. I was told from the old timers in the area that were around when the elevator was built in the late-’50s [that an] accident happened there, shutting down construction for about a week.

The Aurora Coop's Murphy elevator and annex. Jim Russell died in a fall during the elevator's construction.

The Aurora Coop’s Murphy elevator and annex. Jim Russell died in a fall during construction.

Murphy is no more than an elevator along the railroad now. It is six miles west of Aurora, Neb., or fifteen miles east of Grand Island, Neb.

Thank you for a wonderful site. One of my first bosses was a man by the name of Willis “Bill” Maahs. He was a superintendent for Tillotson into the early ’60s when he stayed in Aurora and  became operations supervisor for Aurora Co-op. He helped build the Murphy elevator and the Aurora elevators. There are two Tillotson houses in town, as well as the feed mill in Aurora.

I have always been intrigued with the workings of the old concrete houses versus the new bigger faster ones, although I know how farming and the grain business view them.

Concrete grain elevators are very highly regarded in the industry as the most permanent. My reference is to the older, smaller, multi-bin elevators of 20,000- to 25,000-bushel bins versus the newer 250,000- to 300,000-bushel bins being built.

The industry has come along way in the last fifty years: the ability to jack the forms with hydraulics, the diameter of the bins, the height and capacity of legs. Putting all the equipment outside of the structures rather than enclosing everything in the house, which has saved many elevators from the disaster of explosions, et cetera.

Farmers are into a newer generation also, thirty-five years and younger. They want fast unload and large unloading pits.
The ag industry as a whole had seen large improvements in the size and capacity of equipment, making some of the smaller, older elevators almost impossible to use.

I find the older ones more interesting because they were what started a new generation from wood houses to concrete. Building work floors and platforms from concrete rather than steel and expanded metal. All is my own opinion as to why I enjoy the first generation of concrete grain elevators in the ag industry.