Virginia Slusher remembers her years as Tillotson Contruction’s office girl

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Story by Virginia Slusher, photos from her collection

Editor’s note: Virginia Slusher, who lives near Kansas City, contacted us to share these recollections and photos. We have previously written about The Office, part of the old Anheuser-Bush brewery on Jones Street, which served as Tillotson Construction’s headquarters in the 1950s. 

Beginning in the fall of 1951, I worked for Mike (Reginald) and Mary Tillotson for seven years. I was the “office girl”–some bookkeeping, receptionist, et cetera.

I went to Commercial Extension School of Commerce, and Johnny Hassman was my date for our graduation party. He was in the office quite often. I think Johnny helped with sales. IMG_1390

One morning I arrived first, and the safe was hanging open. Because of the burglary, I immediately ran down to the gas station on the corner. The thief took the petty cash they kept in the safe. I don’t think he bothered anything else. The police came to investigate.

I loved working there; they were so good to me.

The three guys and I would sit up on the balcony and play cards sometimes when Mary was gone. It was a raised area where Wayne and Ted, the two engineers, sat. Bob the bookkeeper sat just below.

I loved the guys. They took me out for my first legal drink when I turned 21 years old. They teased me unmercifully but were so good to me.

I remember typing about 2000 W-4s at the end of the year. Men would work for one or two days and quit. I also sent all the “give us your business” cards to the small towns in multiple states. Virginia Slusher 01

The other woman–I can’t remember her name–was working there when I started.

They had a huge NCR bookkeeping machine that she taught me how to operate. Shortly after I started there, the company sold it to, I think, China.

Mary was different to say the least. She had an ugly Boxer that came to work with her sometimes. He would slobber on me; therefore, I did not like him!

She used to tape a St. Christopher medal on her desk. We joked that we wondered if the desk would take her somewhere.

Johnny Hassman and Virginia Slusher celebrate her business school graduation. Photo from the Virginia Slusher archive.

Johnny Hassman and Virginia Slusher celebrate her business school graduation.

She was very good to me, gave me nice bonuses at the end of the year, not quite as big as the three guys. But very good for the ’50s. I received $1000 to $15oo. The men usually around $10,000. Very large amount for the times.

Mike (Reginald) was funny, not in the office much. I had to write the checks to pay the family bills.

I was still Virginia Engel but married William Slusher while working there, 60 years now, and they were very nice to us.

When the company closed, Mary found a new job for me at Power District credit union.

Bill Russell delivered the first load of grain in Alta’s new concrete elevator

First load of grain being dumped in the elevator. Man on left is probably an elevator employee, Bill Russell, right.

An Alta Cooperative employee, left, and Tillotson’s superintendent Bill Russell dump the first load of grain in 1950. Photo from the Neil A. Lieb archive.

By Ronald Ahrens

We’ve laid out the story of Tillotson Construction Company’s concrete elevator at Alta, Iowa.

Now for the completion.

The photo shows the ceremonial first load of grain being dumped after the elevator was wrapped up in 1950. The job had started in early spring.

Bill Russell superintended from start to finish. As his son Dennis has told us, Bill was born in 1900 and built ammunition depots during World War Two before coming to work for Tillotson.

He was father of eight sons. One of them, Jim, a promising law school student, died in a fall on Tillotson’s elevator at Murphy, Neb.

After a long run with Tillotson, Bill started Mid-States Construction, which became known as Mid-States Equipment, with Gordon Erickson.

During the key postwar period of elevator expansion, few men contributed more than Bill Russell, and we are proud to remember and honor him.

Tillotson’s employee ‘Tiny’ could sucker the locals in any barroom

 

Photo from the Neil A. Lieb Archive.

Story by Ronald Ahrens, photo from the Neil A. Lieb Archive

He was called Tiny, and he could always put one over on the locals.

Neil Lieb couldn’t recall Tiny’s full name during our telephone conversation on April 29, when we sought to identify people shown in photos from Tillotson Construction Company’s job at Alta, Iowa.

As a young man just out of high school, Neil was part of the crew, and even sixty-five years later he still marvels at the older, wiser Tiny.

Members of the crew would go into the beer parlor after hours. scan0017

“Tiny would bet you he could drink a bottle of beer in 10 seconds,” Neil said. “It takes eight seconds for the bottle to run dry by itself. He would bet five or ten dollars, and he would find some sucker.”

Tiny was 6 feet 2 inches tall, Neil recalled.

Neil couldn’t identify the man at the rear of the photo, nor could he express details of the job they were undertaking because he had moved on after the Alta Cooperative’s new concrete elevator was finished.

Photos document the construction of a chimney that rose from a small building next to the old wooden elevator. We don’t know this stack’s purpose, but Neil (and my Uncle Tim Tillotson) don’t suspect it had to do with grain drying.

 

Elevator operators once implicated labor activists in mysterious explosions

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A 1920 Department of Agriculture experiment showing that accumulations of grain dust would ignite under the right conditions

Story by Kristen Cart

Elevator fires have been a great concern since the days when Charles H. Tillotson first built wooden elevators with his army of carpenters at the beginning of what would become the family business.

When elevators started to randomly ignite and explode in the early twentieth century, suspicions ran rampant.

Shortly after 1900, labor violence was on the rise, and businesses had reason to be worried.

In the Midwest, elevator owners suspected the labor unionist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or Wobblies, had committed acts of sabotage, torching the structures to make their anarchistic point.

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Then, cooler heads prevailed as engineers found a scientific explanation.

Using a scale model in the manner of a college lab experiment, the United States Department of Agriculture demonstrated that grain dust would ignite and explode under the right conditions, leaving destruction and injury in its wake.

The Wobblies were off the hook.

From the neighborhood, the Alta grain elevator loomed ever larger

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Story by Ronald Ahrens, photo from the Neil A. Lieb archive

As the Alta Cooperative’s new elevator rose in the early summer of 1950, life went on at its not too vigorous pace in the namesake town.

Here, we see the elevator as the headhouse nears completion. The view, as far as I can determine from satellite imagery on Google Maps, is looking north on Cherokee Street–which, as we see, was unpaved.

Pressed for a guess, I’d say the truck is an International and the light-colored car is a Pontiac.

Note the cross-bracing in the headhouse window.

On the extreme right, through the opening under the tree, you see the outline of the old wooden elevator building.

The crew had only a few more feet, or maybe it was inches, to go before topping out the new reinforced-concrete elevator. After dismantling the formwork, they would install the equipment inside the main house and headhouse.

Then the painters would sway on a flying scaffold and apply whitewash, making the elevator gleam.

Welcome to Alta. Please slow-down and see our new grain elevator!

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Story by Ronald Ahrens, photo from the Neil A. Lieb archive

Why would we not be blamed for thinking the sign in the photo was actually about the new elevator that Tillotson Construction Company had just completed in Alta, Iowa? Or do we read too much into it?

Just think what was required to build the elevator in 1950. Men started in the mud and gloom of early spring. All they had were piles of sand and lumber and steel bars, relatively few, simple tools, and an ingenious way of keeping the formwork level. They were about to perform an amazing feat.

By midsummer, the job was done, the lettering affixed to the headhouse, and farmers could more efficiently store and ship their corn.

The men who built the elevator moved on to another job, maybe in Iowa, maybe in Texas.

What they left behind towered over the countryside of Buena Vista County. Some folks had probably never seen a monument this grand.

Shucks, by scrooching up your eyes, you might even have been able to see it all the way from Storm Lake, three miles down Route 7.

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.