Elevator investigations move farther afield with a side trip to Alta, Iowa

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The trademark rounded headhouse identifies the Tillotson elevator, shown here behind the office and truck scale.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

It is getting harder to visit our grandfathers’ elevators. All of the elevators within a half hour either side of the I-80 corridor have already been exhausted, so a stop for photography requires real planning and extra gas, time, and effort, even when piggybacked on our normal family visit to Nebraska.

The trip to Alta, Iowa, required just such an extra investment in driving time. The town and its Tillotson elevator is just north-west of Storm Lake in the northwestern corner of the state, and is not, quite frankly, on the way to anywhere.

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The Tillotson elevator in Alta, Iowa, where the old structure is mostly obscured by later bins.

I wonder how our kids put up with it. This trip in particular required over an hour’s northward jaunt before angling generally east-northeast, with a 30-minute divot or two along the Nebraska-to-Illinois route. Each detour took in wayward sites, including Alta.

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A look up the rail line opposite the Tillotson elevator revealed the historical trappings of town, with a backdrop of new grain bins.

It is normally a 10-hour drive to get home from visiting their grandparents, but this elevator excursion would tax my children’s patience for several more hours. To be fair, we got an extra early start. But that meant the serious backseat fidgeting would start sooner.

You would think that I would study Tillotson records first, and inject some discipline and efficiency into planning our route.

But no, that task was left for after the trip, so I could see how closely we approached several sites without seeing them.

I don’t think the kids minded the near misses–but they’ll get to see the countryside again when we go through to mop up the strays.

 

The Tillotson elevator in Hinton, Iowa, is fully upgraded to fulfill today’s mission

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Story and photos by Kristen Cart

The Hinton, Iowa, grain elevator, anchoring the eastern verge of town along U.S. 75 in western Iowa, looks very little like it did when it first rose in a continuous pour over the flat surrounding farmland. Conveyors and legs and platforms stick out at odd angles from the headhouse–distribution central for the sprawling complex of elevator, drier, and annexes. The long row of grain storage bins and equipment deeply overshadows the eastern side of the highway, which zips past the center of town without a nod to the businesses along the main streets to its west.

An elevated conveyor crows in red lettering, “Floyd Valley Grain, L.L.C.,” where it may be easily read from the road. To drive the point home, two dedicated locomotives parked upon the nearby rails are painted bright red in the company colors and sport the company name. This cooperative, the advertising seems to say, is the true center of town.

DSC_6412Innovation and modernization bristle from every side of the old Tillotson elevator. The externally installed legs (the parts of an elevator that lift the grain during the loading process) are a later modification taken to prevent grain dust fires: the moving parts that may heat up, such as bearings and motors, are no longer confined in an enclosed space with combustible grain dust. The various conveyors connect to newer annexes that were built when the storage demand outgrew the original elevator. The entire complex has become a far greater enterprise than our grandfathers, builders of the original structures, ever envisioned.

I paged through the Tillotson Construction Company records, preserved in handwritten and carefully photocopied pages, looking for the building specifications for the original Hinton elevator. Unfortunately they were not preserved with the rest. But we know it is a Tillotson elevator from a news item about an accident at the construction site where a man fell to his death in 1954. Perhaps records pertaining to the subject of a potential lawsuit were not with the rest of the file.

The elevator follows a well-tested design, and like the majority of the later Tillotson elevators we have studied, it still serves. It is a fitting testament to the engineering pioneer that was Tillotson Construction Company.

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With its stepped headhouse, could the elevator in Odebolt, Iowa, be from Mayer-Osborn’s lineage?

Story by Ronald Ahrens with photos by Brad Perry

Blen NorthRecords of the Tillotson Construction Company show no information on the grain elevator at Blencoe, Iowa. A previous post presents recent photos from Blencoe as well as delving into mysteries surrounding the Tillotson elevator and the one by Mayer-Osborn Company.

Now Brad Perry volunteers his own photos from Blencoe, which is just off Interstate 29 less than an hour’s drive north of Council Bluffs. Here we see the Tillotson, with the curved headhouse, and the Mayer-Osborn, with the stepped headhouse.

Supplying more photos, Brad raises an interesting question: could the elevator at Odebolt, Iowa, which is 63 miles to the northeast, be part of the Mayer-Osborn lineage? It also has a stepped headhouse. He notes that they had to have been built at the same time. It stood near the elevator of the Cracker Jack Company, which had operations in Odebolt.

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Brad supplies the link to a black-and-white image in the University of Iowa’s digital library.

Lacking Mayer-Osborn records, we can’t say without further probing or perhaps a site visit.

But we’re happy to pursue yet another thread in the story of our grandfathers’ grain elevators.

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The demise of Mayer-Osborn Construction remains an enduring puzzle

Audrey, Gerald, William and Alice Osborn, ca. 1950

Audrey, Gerald, William and Alice Osborn, circa 1950.

Story by Kristen Cart

Some mysteries are not meant to be solved. Perhaps it is a natural outgrowth of my grandmother’s tight-lipped discretion where evil tidings were concerned. I can remember the disapproving purse of her lips if I broached the wrong topic–it was wise to move on.

Albert Skoog as a boy

Albert Skoog as a boy

Alice Christoffersen married William Osborn in the 1920s. All anyone in our family could know about those times was conveyed in the pleasant images of a young couple goofing around by the lake and fishing. In later pictures you could see the pained expression of a long-suffering middle-aged woman, but her concerns were private, at least when they brought bad memories to mind.

My dad, Jerry Osborn, was quite amazed to find he had a deceased great-uncle, whose name had never been spoken in front of him. Alice Christoffersen’s maternal uncle, Albert Skoog, died young from injuries sustained in a horrific automobile crash when she was a young woman. The story was relegated to the darkest recesses, never to be mentioned again.

“Albert Skoog Dies from Effects of an Auto Accident

Had Lived Nearly Ten Months with a Broken Back

After living nearly ten months with a broken back, during which time he suffered untold agony, Albert Skoog, 42, formerly and employee of the Fremont Stock Yards, died at the home of his sister, Mrs. James L. Christoffersen, south of Fremont. Death was due to injuries sustained in a automobile accident on the Lincoln Highway about a mile east of Fremont last October….”

The article went on to describe the accident and his medical treatment. He died in the family home of Alice’s parents.

This image was found among Grandma's pictures. It was the car her uncle wrecked in an ultimately fatal accident.

The wreck fatally injured Albert Skoog, who died months later from a broken back. Grandma had this photo of the car in an album that once belonged to her mother.

No stone marks his grave. It took many years to locate pictures of him, preserved by a different branch of the Christoffersen clan. Images of the wrecked car also survived, tucked away in Grandma’s photo album. But such things were not discussed in my grandmother’s world.

Another side of Grandma’s personality was not so discrete–she would tell stories that put others in a bad light when she thought she could gain favor for herself. This habit got worse as she aged, and by the time she passed on at age 98, family members believed awful stories about each other because of things she said.

We have tried, without success, to verify Grandma’s story of why my grandpa, William Osborn, got out of the elevator business. Perhaps she invented it. We have no way to tell.

Mayer-Osborn elevator at McCook, Neb. during a family visit, ca 1950. This elevator was the first of its type, a model for the later Blencoe elevator.

Mayer-Osborn elevator at McCook, Neb. during a family visit, circa 1950. This elevator was a prototype for the Blencoe elevator.

Dad never had an inkling about why his dad quit (except that he heard in whispers not intended for him) until Mom started poking around. Grandma told her the story, apparently in a fit of pique. Details were fuzzy, and by now, not well remembered. There’s hardly more to it than speculation. But that one glimpse was the only information we ever got. Otherwise, it “wasn’t discussed,” as Dad put it.

Mom says an elevator was built, and very shortly thereafter, failed. She variously used the terms “collapse,” “explosion,” and “fire.” But the two things she was pretty consistent about were the facts that the concrete mix was wrong because the crew had shorted the materials (possibly for financial gain), and that the collapse occurred as soon as the elevator was filled with grain for the first time. That is all she remembers from what Grandma told her.

Dad says his father was out of the business by 1955. Dad remembers that his dad had come home to Fremont, Neb., from Denver, Colo., the home base of his business, that summer when he should have been on the job. He thinks that his dad was blamed for the failure–Bill’s partner, Gene Mayer, apparently went on without him. But that is all we have.

We don’t know where it happened and haven’t found a newspaper story. We know a large terminal elevator collapsed that year in Fargo, N.D., but we discovered the identity of that builder and it wasn’t Mayer-Osborn. There were whispers about an elevator that had a bad headhouse around Linn, Kan., or Bradshaw, Neb., which might have been his, but that story hasn’t been verified or dated.

The Blencoe, Iowa elevator built by Mayer-Osborn

The Blencoe, Iowa elevator built by Mayer-Osborn

The only story I can verify is the tear-down and restart of the Mayer-Osborn elevator in Blencoe, Iowa. The concrete mix was wrong there, and it cost a few days and quite a lot of money to correct. Could that relatively mundane event in 1954 have created a rift between the partners, Bill Osborn and Gene Mayer? Was the tale of a more dramatic accident simply angry gossip from my grandmother?

Until we know more, it is a skeleton yet to be found, buried in a very deep closet.

 

 

A mystery unfolds at the Tillotson elevator of Blencoe, Iowa

This elevator is attributed to the Tillotson Construction Company of Omaha, but evidence points elsewhere

This elevator is attributed to the Tillotson Construction Company, but evidence points elsewhere.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

In an earlier post, we showed that the elevator built by the Tillostson Construction Company in the northwest Iowa town of Blencoe had a structural failure prior to completion. A photo provided by Tim Tillotson showed that the concrete slumped over the driveway after the slip-form pour had progressed considerably past the point of failure. Construction would have halted there. The question of how the elevator was completed was never answered.

In the company records we have, the specifications log ended by 1956, while the company continued to build elevators beyond that date. So later records are lost to us. Tim Tillotson estimated that this mishap occurred in about 1955. I discovered, on review, that Blencoe was not in the specifications at all. Why?

A photo of the manhole cover on the rail side of the elevator could provide the answer. It is not typical for Tillotson elevators to have exterior manhole covers on elevators of this type, so the existence of these was a little surprising. More shocking was the identity of the company that placed them.

"Grain Storage Const. Co, 1959, Council Bluffs, Iowa" is embossed on the manhole cover

“Grain Storage Const. Co, 1959, Council Bluffs, Iowa” is embossed on the manhole cover.

The Grain Storage Construction Company of Council Bluffs, Iowa, is not familiar to us. It may be the company called in to repair the damage when the failure occurred.

We don’t know if Tillotson Construction was fired on the spot. But it is also possible that Tillotson was given a second chance–the design of the elevator clearly follows the trademark Tillotson design, whether copied by some one or built by the original contractor.

I wonder if the original repair destroyed the structural integrity of the elevator, and Grain Storage Construction was brought in to replace two of the bins. We know it was a later job because of the 1959 date on the manhole covers. Unfortunately, I made my visit on a Saturday, and the co-op was closed, so there was no one there to ask.

It is a beautiful, functional elevator today. It stands beside the older Mayer-Osborn elevator, which is also clearly in use sixty years after it was built. Both elevators had problems during construction, but the capacity was urgently needed, so both projects were finished. How the Tillotson elevator ultimately became a Grain Construction Company branded elevator is a mystery we will try to solve in a future post.

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Could the previously unidentified Tillotson employee be Mary Melia?

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Photo from the Virginia Slusher archive

We believe the woman on the far right is Mary Melia. Her husband Marvin also worked for Tillotson Construction Company and served as a pilot. Virginia Slusher is second from right.

Mary Melia died six months ago. Here’s an obitiuary:

Melia, Mary Clare (Burns) Aug 31, 1922 – Dec 29, 2014

Preceded in death by husband, Marvin G. Melia. Survived by children, Marvin G. Melia II of Pleasant Valley, Mo., Mary Lou (Timothy) Brennan, Steven M. (Janet) Melia of Cheyenne, Wyo., and Donald L. Melia; brother, Jack (Carol) Burns of Twenty Nine Palms, Calif.; 10 grandchildren; 10 great grandchildren and many nieces and nephews.

VISITATION Thursday, January 1, 2015 from 4-7 pm with a Rosary at 7 pm at Roeder Mortuary 108th Street Chapel.

FUNERAL SERVICE Friday, January 2, 2015 at 10am at St. Philip Neri Church 8200 N. 30th Street.

Interment Holy Sepulchre Cemetery.

A low-wing airplane sped up business for Tillotson Construction Company

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Commentary by Tim Tillotson

Note: What follows is from a phone interview on May 14. Here, Uncle Tim recalls flying with Tillotson Construction Company’s pilot Ted Morris.

I remember taking a few trips in that Navion with him. It was one of the last planes Dad bought, the only one with a low wing. That Navion was fast, too, a faster plane. I remember being with him somewhere–where the hell were we?–trying to find a spot to land and picked a spot that looked absolutely wonderful from up there. We didn’t realize till we were almost on the ground that the spot had three-foot-tall grass. We went plowing through that grass and also an electric fence that was in the middle. We had to plow our way out.  

Dad [Reginald “Mike” Tillotson] could never get a license because he had double hernia and all that. Ted was our pilot and we also had Marvin Melia, he flew dad, too. Marvin was giving me flyin’ instructions. We’d go out there to the airport, North Omaha. Marvin’s the one that flew Dad around. They didn’t fly every day, or every week necessarily. He’d been flying Dad two years before. 

Ted came back from KS one time in that Navion, and he said something about, “Let’s go home fast.”

So he’s flying like 200 feet off the ground, really a lot of fun. He radioed in to get clearance for landing, and the communication that came back said, “Where the hell are you? We cant pick you up on the radar!”

Ted said, “I guess we better get up off the deck so they can see it.”