A recent trip west reveals mystery elevators

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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.

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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.

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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.

Filled with concrete, a nail keg counterbalanced the rooftop crane

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Commentary by Neil A. Lieb, with photo from his archive

See the little cornice atop the tank? Those are forms for the cornice, the overhang. They call them eaves on a house.

The roof was poured before the headhouse went up.

That crane is a concrete-hoisting crane.

The headhouse is quite an operation because you had to hoist the concrete up to the top of the tank. And then they had a deck crane, and you had to hoist it [the concrete] to the top.

Every job I worked on, they used a nail keg that had been filled with concrete as a counterbalance weight. When you went up and down on the cable to go to work, that’s what you stood on—two guys, one foot each. That’s all there was room for.

It didn’t take that long, about fifteen or twenty seconds.

The motor and cable were down on the ground.

The operator had a shed to keep him out of the rain and sun.

 

Summer 1950: All finished with the main house in Alta, Iowa

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Commentary by Neil A. Lieb and photo from his archive

From a telephone interview on July 22, 2014

It’s all done. It looks like they’re putting scaffolding up for painting. The main hoist is on the left. That’s a Georgia buggy hanging on the hoist. The guy that’s standing there is going to push it as soon as it hits the deck. They might be just starting on the headhouse. I can’t figure that scaffolding out. It’s a rigid scaffolding.

Night and day in 1950, Tillotson’s grain elevator rose in Alta, Iowa

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Commentary by Neil A. Lieb, photos from his archive

From a telephone interview on July 22, 2014:

It was commercial power for the lamps. The only thing that was noisy was the mixer and the hoist. Once you got about 40 feet off the ground, all that anybody heard was people talking to each other. That’s the top of the driveway (seen in the photo), about 16 feet, so they’re about 25 or 30 feet off the ground. On a construction site, there’s lumber all over everywhere. Today they keep track of it very carefully because people steal it. But when we were building these, nobody stole lumber. People in Iowa and the Midwest, they didn’t steal lumber from a construction site like they do out here (California.) See the scaffolding below the forms? A cement finisher finished the concrete as it came out of the forms. That’s all he did, all night long.

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Those cars…I didn’t have a car at Alta. Those shacks were probably, lower right, the office, and the other was where we kept the tools. We built a lot of those things and then we tore them down. Slip-form construction was a major engineering feat. They built concrete grain elevators before slip-forms. They had steel forms they’d fill with concrete.

 

 

 

Building a grain elevator required a whole boxcar of lumber

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Commentary by Neil A. Lieb, photos from his archive

From a telephone interview on July 22, 2014:

Decks for the formwork are stacked at upper-right corner of the foundation. Piles of sand and gravel are for concrete. It took one complete boxcar-load of lumber to build most elevators. Everything came by rail in those days.

One thing you did, you re-used all that lumber many, many times. The inside walls of forms were all taken down, taken apart, and the lumber was all reused. We always had a crew of two or three guys cleaning lumber, taking the nails out and cleaning the concrete off of it. Slip-form lumber was seldom reused. By the time you stripped the forms out at the top, that lumber fell 120 feet to a concrete slab and by the time it got there, it was moving. So when it hit, it pretty well disintegrated.

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This is probably the third or fourth day. They went about six inches an hour. The boxes were put in the forms to leave holes where they wanted a hole. On the inside, they’d want a hole to put a spout or something. They’re all pre-made and numbered. The shift foreman’s responsibility is to make sure they’re put in where they’re supposed to be. They have a given height and given location.

You always knew how high you were because in the elevator’s water shaft there was a continuous measuring stick so you knew exactly how high off the ground you were. It was important that these boxes be put in at a certain height.

You also had a continuous ladder. We used to race up and down.

You see the jacks are on the outside. The guys looking over the rails, this is the back side. Way on the other side is where the cement is coming up. You can’t see a hoist.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stabbing jack rods one-handed and borrowing smokes in Alta, Iowa

scan0007Commentary by Neil A. Lieb, photo from his archive

In a telephone interview July 22, 2014, Neil describes this dramatic scene:

Everything is in place, I can tell you that. This is all ready to go. The big long ones are jack rods. if you follow them down you can see the jack. One-third into the picture from right, you can see the jack heads. You turn those a quarter turn at a time.

An interesting thing about jack rods, to impress the new hires, the old timers… They were eight-foot-long, one-inch cold-rolled steel weighing about 65 pounds. The trick was that you pick up the rod and put it in the jack with one hand. it was something you just did. Just to demonstrate ability, I guess. Everybody on the crew could stab a jack rod one-handed.

Around the outside wall, the thin rods are vertical rebar. If you look in the middle, you can see the hold that the concrete goes in.

Bracing for the hoist is what cuts across the roofline of the house.

Wayne Baker, foreman, is probably the one striding through the middle. Baker never bought cigarettes. When I worked in construction, everybody smoked. I don’t ever remember seeing him pull out a pack of cigarettes.