How a grain elevator works: A motor will power the ‘leg,’ lifting the grain from ground level

In this 1950 photo from Neil Lieb's archive, he explains what we see inside a crate that's being hoisted to the top of the Alta, Iowa, grain elevator. "That’s the motor for the belt and probably the gearbox," he says. "We didn’t take it out of the crate till we got it on top because the crate was designed so we could lift it. That little crane could hold a lot of weight.

In this 1950 photo from our contributor Neil Lieb’s archive, he explains what we see inside a crate that’s being hoisted to the top of the Alta, Iowa, grain elevator. “That’s the motor for the belt and probably the gearbox,” he says. “We didn’t take it out of the crate till we got it on top because the crate was designed so we could lift it. That little crane could hold a lot of weight.”





During the Alta, Iowa, elevator’s construction, temporary bins held the grain



In this 1950 photo from Neil Lieb’s archive, our contributor explains what we see in this view from atop the newly completed elevator in Alta, Iowa. “Those were storage bins for the excess before the elevator was built,” he says.


How a grain elevator works: Moving grain from the silo to a rail car


That pipe is used to run the grain down to the railroad cars when they’re shipping it. Inside of that tank, there’s a hole that connects to that pipe. The system works [this way], you open a tank at the bottom, and run the grain into the pit. You use a belt to take it to the top and into this pipe. Commentary by Neil Lieb, photo from his archive. 

Revisiting Greenwood, Nebraska, and its Tillotson grain elevator


The Tillotson elevator and annex alongside the railroad tracks in Greenwood, Neb.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

Along U.S. 6 between Omaha and Lincoln, Neb., stands an early testament to the ingenuity of the Tillotson Construction Company of Omaha. This early elevator, which rises alongside the highway next to its attached annex in the town of Greenwood, still holds grain. The original elevator was built with a capacity of 129,000 bushels. On the side facing the highway, stenciled in black, is a sign that says “Built by Tillotson Construction Co. Omaha Nebraska.” The lettering is partially obscured by paint and concrete patches.

Highway 6 is a very familiar stretch of road. I have driven it innumerable times between Ashland and Lincoln while visiting my family–on every run to Lincoln, the old Tillotson elevator and its annex come up on the right side of the road about a third of the way there. As a little girl, when traveling across Nebraska, I would see a white edifice on the horizon, and it meant a new town was coming up and we were closer to our destination. Now, living far away, I rarely see the elevators that have become so familiar. But last summer, I revisited this one.


A Burlington Northern train slows to pass through town on an early morning run.

The Greenwood elevator was built in 1951. Its annex was added in 1954, and although we do not have the construction record of the annex among our Tillotson company papers, the embossed manhole covers identify its provenance.

The pairing of a Tillotson elevator with a Tillotson annex is fairly unusual in the company records–usually another company would come along and build an annex. During the elevator boom, it seems very likely that the Tillotson company was too busy to meet the demand for annexes that were springing up everywhere, and it is very doubtful that they competed and lost the contract at each site. The company was too good at what they did, and it is almost certain that they had more work than they could accept.

DSC_0421We have the building specifications for the original elevator in the Tillotson Construction Company records.

Greenwood’s elevator was built following the Churdan Plan, with four 14 1/2-foot-diameter tanks, 120 feet high, and a 13 x 17-foot driveway. The spread was 13 feet, and eight bins were built over the driveway. The plan called for 17 total storage bins and a dust bin, with bin number 8 split to accommodate a dryer. The total capacity was 129,000 bushels.

Grain capacity per foot of height was 1318 bushels. For the project the company poured 1255 cubic feet of reinforced concrete, and 25 cubic feet of plain concrete for the hoppers. 60.23 tons of steel were used for construction (including jack rods). The average weight of steel per cubic yard of concrete was 96 pounds. The plans broke out the concrete and steel to be used for each line item:

Below main slab: 3,200 pounds of steel; 30 cubic yards of concrete;

Main slab: 15,870 pounds of steel; 118 cubic yards of concrete

Draw-form walls: 82,377 pounds of steel; 934 cubic yards of concrete

Driveway and work floor (including columns): 3,370 pounds of steel; 26 cubic yards of concrete

Deep bin bottoms: 3,491 pounds of steel; 19 cubic yards of concrete

Overhead bin bottoms: 3,752 pounds of steel; 23 cubic yards of concrete

Bin root: 3,060 pounds of steel; 30 cubic yards of concrete

Scale floor (or garner), complete: 186 pounds of steel; 3 cubic yards of concrete

Cupola walls: 2,789 pounds of steel; 35 cubic yards of concrete

Distributor floor: 886 pounds of steel; 7 cubic yards of concrete

Cupola roof: 1,129 pounds of steel; 9 cubic yards of concrete

Misc (boot, leg, head, track sink, steps, etc.): 360 pounds of steel; 20 cubic yards of concrete

Attached driveway: driveway extension included above


Concrete repairs are evident around the annex manhole cover.

Construction Details

The dimensions of the main slab were 49 x 49 feet, with a main slab area (actual outside on the ground) of 2,377 square feet. The total weight of reinforced concrete, at 4000 pounds per cubic yard plus steel, was 2,570 tons. Also computed at 4000 pounds per cubic yard, the total plain concrete weight for the hoppers was 50 tons. The fill sand for the hoppers, at 3000 pounds per cubic yard, was 360 tons. The planned weight of grain was 60 pounds per bushel, and when filled, the elevator could hold 3,870 tons of grain. Fifteen tons of structural steel and machinery were added to complete the planned gross weight, loaded, of 6,865 tons. The elevator was designed to withstand 2.89 tons per square foot of bearing pressure.

Greenwood 01The dimensions of the elevator were planned as follows:

Main slab thickness: 18 inches

Main slab steel: 1 1/4-inch square at 10-inch o. c. spacing

Tank steel and bottom for the round tanks: 1/2-inch diameter at 12-inch spacing

Lineal feet of drawform walls: 1,006 feet

Height of drawform walls: 120 feet

Pit depth below main slab: 12 feet 0 inches

Cupola dimensions (outside width x length x height): 17 x 34 x 22 feet

Pulley Centers: 145.67 feet

The elevator was designed to operate with one leg. A distributor floor, track sink, full basement, and electrical room were included in the plans. Two dump grates, 5 1/2 x 9 and 15 x 9 feet, were built. The columns under the tanks were 16 x 16 inches square, and the boot-leg and head were built of concrete.

Machinery details

Boot pulley: 60 x 14  x 2 2/16 inches

Head pulley: 60 x 14 x 3 15/16 inches

R.P.M. Head pulley: 42 rpm

Belt: 310 feet of 14-inch 6-ply Calumet

Cups: 12 x 6 inches at 9-inch spacing

Head drive: Howell 30 hp.

Theoretical leg capacity (cup manufacturer rating): 6,250 bushels per hour

Actual leg capacity (80% of theoretical): 5,000 bushels per hour

Horsepower required for leg (based on above actual capacity plus 15 percent for motor): 22 hp.

Man lift: 1 1/2 horsepower electric

Load out scale: 10 Bu. Rich.

Load out spout: 8 inch w.c.

Truck lift: 7 1/2 Ehr.

Dust collector system: fan to dust bin

Cupola spouting: 10-inch diameter

Driveway doors: 2 overhead rolling

Conveyor: none

Also built

Inside steps

Dryer provided (split bin)








Collin Quiring delivers a load of corn to Tillotson’s Aurora South elevator


Collin Quiring, a 26-year-old reader of this blog who farms with his brother in Henderson, Nebr., made contact and offered to send some photos when he took a load of grain to the Aurora South elevator, which was built by Tillotson Construction Company in 1959.

Collin had first commented on one of Kristen’s posts.

A view of Tillotson Construction Company's Aurora South elevator, as seen Nov. 2, 2014, by Collin Quiring.

A portrait of Tillotson Construction Company’s Aurora South elevator, as seen Nov. 2, 2014, by Collin Quiring.

“It’s funny that you drove through Hampton,” he wrote. 

“I’ve been following this blog for a while now and started looking at all the manhole covers on elevators that I haul to, and sure enough there were a lot of Chalmers-Borton, Tillotson, and Mayer-Osborn elevators around.

Hampton has the manhole covers on the outside of the silos and they’re 10 feet or so off the ground, so I’ve been wondering who made it for a while now!

It looks like you just saw the one downtown elevator in Aurora though?

The other elevator is called Aurora South and is on the southwest edge of town. It used to be a Cargill elevator, but Aurora Coop purchased it.

I’m pretty sure that’s a Tillotson elevator, too.”

So Collin did some more reconnoitering and took pictures on his next run.


Collin’s view from the scale house.

“We’ve been alternating where we were taking corn, and I was planning to get back there for a few more pics.

But harvest will be over in an hour.

So I won’t be getting back there anytime soon.

Here’s what I did get while trying not to hold up the line.

End of this week or beginning of next I will be hauling to Hampton and will send you some from over there.”

Two days later, he made the run to Hampton but found it was not a Tillotson elevator; instead, it was built in 1959 by Grain Storage Construction Company, of Council Bluffs, Iowa.

A recent trip west reveals mystery elevators


Story and photos by Kristen Cart

After our annual trip west to tease the elk (hunting them is perhaps too strong of a term, since our freezer has admitted no elk meat for several years), we took a small detour to look at elevators. I headed the car east onto Hwy 34 in Neb. after stopping to photograph the Grand Island, Neb. elevator, a Johnson Construction project.

This time my dad, Jerry Osborn, went with us, and he humored me, though he was eager to get home. The kids just rolled their eyes and said, “Not another elevator!”

Like pearls on a string, grain elevators line up on Hwy 34 as it stretches from town to town west of Lincoln, Neb. From the look of the rounded headhouses on each elevator,  Tillotson Construction Company of Omaha had free reign there during the construction years, having butted out potential competition as it changed the landscape on the old road.

Only the York and Aurora elevators are recorded in the company construction record pages we have. I will present them more fully in a later post.


The Murphy sign stenciled on the elevator does not seem to be a town name

The Murphy and Hampton elevators present a bit of a mystery. Since I had a full load of family cramped together in a rental car that was barely an SUV, more suited to a terrier dog and a bicycle than the five passengers it claimed to hold, I did not stop to investigate the mystery elevators. I had to be content with a few pictures taken on the fly.

Here they are. I wonder if any of our readers remember these elevators, or can identify the builders? They will get another visit, hopefully soon, but for now, enjoy the photos.


Hampton’s elevator also has a rounded headhouse

‘A Tillotson unique feature: the end of the headhouse is round’

Neil Lieb Collection

Commentary by Neil A. Lieb, photo from his archive

The concrete work is finished. You see those windows up there? The end of the headhouse is round because it’s hard to lay steel on a square corner. When you’re laying rebar, you have long straight sticks. Corners are hard to do. The is a Tillotson unique feature, as far as I know. It looks good because it matches the contours of the rest of the building. It was functional because the steel of the tank comes in about four pieces, and you lay them and they overlap. It was pretty exacting. You worked on your knees all night, up and down. You got the steel off the rack and you had to get down under neath and run it under all that stuff. And you did that over and over. The day that we were going to put the glass in the windows, those were steel-frame windows. There’s a little metal clip that holds the glass. You put the putty on the outside and you’re all done. The day we were doing that, the wind was blowing so hard, it was breaking the glass as we were put it in. We had to quit because of the danger of flying glass. They bought some different glass that was stronger, double-strength glass. It was just one of those things. All of a sudden, boom, this flying glass comes across the room at you.