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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.”

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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.

 

 

 

Near Chelsea, Mich., an elevator introduces us to ‘blisters’

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IMG_5894Story and photos by Ronald Ahrens

In Michigan for some meetings and library research, I drove along the back road in Lima Township between the towns of Chelsea and Dexter and came upon an elevator.

IMG_5896Seeing me taking pictures, an employee asked if he could help me with anything. Identifying myself as a grain elevator buff, I received an invitation to come into the office. So I climbed up a steel ladder, entered a dock area, and passed through two doors leading into a warm office.

Photos on the wall showed the elevator when it must have been new in the mid-1950s. I’d noticed a “B” on the manhole cover, but the name of the builder was unknown. However, I was told that laborers from the state prison in Jackson worked on the construction.

Chelsea Grain LLC has operated the elevator a relatively short time. (It made news in 2013 after the local fire department responded to an incident involving a grain dryer.)

IMG_5899My other question concerned the apparent oval shape of the silos.

The answer: “Blisters.”

“Blisters?”

I dashed back to the car to fetch a business card. By the time I returned, a drawing had been prepared by way of answering.

Yet, this term begs for elaboration, which perhaps our readers can provide.

Meantime, thanks to Chelsea Grain for the hospitality.

 

Old clipping leads to discovery of Mayer-Osborn’s elevator in Hoover, Texas

Hoover Populated Place Profile / Gray County, Texas DataStory by Kristen Cart

The Mayer-Osborn Construction Company’s history has been a little difficult to put together because many of the people involved are long gone. My father Jerry Osborn remembers many of the elevators his dad William Osborn built, so I have relied upon these memories quite heavily, filling in the details with newspaper accounts, old photographs, and site visits.

But as Dad’s interests turned to high school girlfriends and football, he paid little attention to his father’s business, and some Mayer-Osborn projects slipped through without his notice. Dad knew nothing about a Mayer-Osborn elevator in the central Texas location of Hoover, eight miles east of Pampa.

Pampa_Daily_News_Sun__Jan_10__1954_Fortunately, the Jan. 10, 1954, Pampa Daily News article announcing its construction survives.

A satellite view shows the stepped headhouse, a Mayer-Osborn trademark, atop the Hoover elevator. The structure appears to be built much like the Mayer-Osborn elevator in McCook, Neb.

The Hoover edifice still stands, and is used for grain storage along a rail line that passes through Pampa to the west.

A history of the town of Hoover may be found here.

 

Elevator construction men found time for romance on the side

Commentary by Neil Lieb with photo from his archive

A little quirk happened in West Bend, Iowa. Construction men were known as love ’em and leave ’em. Blaine Bell, Ed Hart (roommate from Gilmore, Iowa) and myself all married girls from West Bend. Pop Bell was a sawman for Bill Russell—all he did was cut lumber, all the pieces, all the forms. He had a big table saw, probably an 18-inch rotary blade driven by a two- or three-horsepower electric motor.

Neil A. Lieb, left, and Blaine Bell .

Neil A. Lieb, left, and Blaine Bell .

Blaine Bell and I, in West Bend, they built a feed manufacturing building next to the elevator next to Main Street, downtown. My wife Jolene’s father, Joseph Higgins, had a barber shop. They had an apartment right behind the barber shop and she used to come out and hang up clothes and the normal stuff. My wife was a redheaded Irishman. Blaine kept saying, “I have to see if I can get a date,” and it irritated me.

One day I made a point to be on the ground when I knew she was coming out of the house. I got a date with her. She wasn’t supposed to date construction people. We were married over 59 years. That was in October of 1950.

Editor’s note: This anecdote is from an interview on July 18, 2014.

Getting off-level and taking a fall at Tillotson’s Bushland, Tex., elevator

Entering Bushland, Texas. Photo by Stefan Joppich, used with permission.

Entering Bushland, Texas. Photo by Stefan Joppich, used with permission.

Commentary by Neil Lieb with photo from his archive

Somewhere between checking the water level when we started and checking it in the middle, the forms became about 3.5 inches off level. That’s because one guy who was running the jacks on one side wasn’t making his rounds as he was supposed to. The guy was fired on the spot.

Now you had to get the decks level again. When you’re going off level, you’re going at an angle. So what happened, you got a little swerve in the tanks. It’s only an inch. You can’t see it. The only time is if you go up and down on a hoist. So the bottom and top are not exactly over each other.

It had no effect. Not enough to be significant. We were about 65 or 70 feet in the air when it happened.

Every job had a peculiarity. The guy in Bushland jumped off the top. He started to fall, so he jumped. He jumped out far enough to land on the sand pile. We were probably 40 to 50 feet. He landed on the side of the sand pile and slid to the bottom.

We said, “How you doing?”

He said, “Oh, I’m fine. I’ll be a little stiff and sore.”

There were seven guys that I worked with. Baker was one and Bill Russell, all of ‘em fell or got killed somewhere along the line.

When you’re working in the air, you become careless because it’s like walking on the ground, but you’re not walking on the ground.

Steelworkers, they all say you get too familiar with working off the ground. When they do that, they become careless.