The Pocahontas, Iowa, elevator remains a lovely monument to Tillotson ingenuity


Story and photos by Kristen Cart

The Tillotson elevator at Pocahontas, Iowa, first came to our attention as the site of a tragic accident where a young construction worker lost his life. Larry Ryan fell to his death because he tripped while crossing from the elevator to the annex on a makeshift wooden walkway, according to fellow workers. He wore brand new work boots and some speculated that they contributed to the accident. The young hoist operator was twenty years old when he fell 130 feet to his death from the top of the nearly completed annex in 1954.

I finally had the opportunity to see the site for myself this past summer. We took a wide detour north of our regular route from Nebraska to Illinois–it added a good four hours driving time, not counting the stops. My young cheering section (the kids) were not cheering about the extra road time.


Upon our arrival in Pocahontas, a town along Lizard Creek in north central Iowa miles away from any major state thoroughfares, we immediately noticed the Tillotson elevator and its trademark rounded headhouse. The annex stood beside the original elevator, rising higher (by 10 feet) than its 120 foot companion, and gleaming with clean whitewashed concrete. It showed no sign of its sorrowful beginnings.

Later additions, including an elevator with headhouse, a flat storage shed, old steel hoppers, and modern steel bins with external legs, surrounded the two concrete structures.

The Tillotson elevator and annex were flanked on one side by a quiet street with an old church and ancient maple trees. The bustle of grain trucks was absent on the Sunday afternoon of our visit, and the co-op office was closed. Only the elevator exhaust fans pierced the silence.

We circled the complex, taking a number of photographic views, before going on our way.

We have the specifications for both the 1949 elevator and its 1954 annex. The annex construction record is detailed here.


The Pocahontas annex was built with six 18-foot diameter, 10-foot spread by 130-foot high bins; with a basement; the bins were flat bottomed, built with 30-inch belt conveyors and tripper.

Planned capacity (with pack) was 222,440 bushels; translating to 1,863 bushels of capacity per foot of height. The total reinforced concrete, per plans, was 1,366 cubic yards. Plain concrete for hoppers, per plans, was 9.5 cubic yards, and reinforcing steel used, including jack rods, was 69.59 tons.

The design specified the average quantity of reinforcing steel used for the whole annex, which was 101.89 pounds per cubic yard of concrete.  Actual planned amounts were then itemized for various components of the structure:

Main slab: 27,017 lbs. steel/219 c.y. concrete

Drawform walls: 30,708 lbs. steel/990 c.y. concrete

Overhead bin bottoms: 9,957 lbs. steel/70.5 c.y. concrete

Bin roof and extension roofs: 6,740 lbs. steel/44 c.y. concrete

Cupola walls: 3,747 lbs. steel/33 c.y. concrete

Cupola roof: included in walls

Bridge/Tunnel: 1,020 lbs. steel/9.5 c.y. concrete


Dimensions and weight of the annex and its components were laid out also. The main slab was 52′ x 60′, for an actual outside area on the ground of 2,946 square feet.

The weight of reinforced concrete, calculated at 4,000 pounds per cubic yard of concrete plus steel, was 2,801 tons. The plain concrete was also calculated at 4,000 pounds per cubic yard and totaled 19 tons. The weight of the hopper fill sand was 177 tons.

When the weight of grain was added to the specifications, at 60 pounds per bushel (for Pocahontas, the grain load would total 6,660 tons), the planned gross weight of the annex could be predicted. Twelve tons of steel and machinery were added to the total, for a planned gross weight, loaded, of 9,669 tons.

From these figures, bearing pressure was calculated to be 3.28 tons per square foot.

To handle all of that pressure, the main slab was made 24 inches thick. It was built with #8 steel, placed at 6″ c.c. spacing. Tank steel and bottoms (for round tanks) used #4 steel at 9″ c.c. spacing.

The drawform walls, with extension, measured 411 linear feet, and 130 feet in height. Cupola dimensions were 16′ x 56′ x 8 1/3′.

Since this was an annex, distribution of grain was accomplished through the main elevator leg and thence by belt conveyors and a tripper. Many of the items expected for elevator specifications were absent for an annex. For machinery, the annex had top and bottom belts, rated at 600’/min or 3,000 bushels per hour. 7 1/2 horsepower drives were used for a total load rate of 9,000 bushels per hour.

Loading rates are key for grain storage operations, since they determine how quickly trucks or rail cars can unload and be on their way. Slow elevators become obsolete. The Pocahontas operation was at the leading edge of technology with its shiny new 1954 annex, and to this day it provides quick, efficient service.



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


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.


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.


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.


A long-time elevator man sends greetings from Hardy, Iowa, and shares some lore


Story and photos by Larry Larsen

In response to a recent post about Odebolt, Iowa, we heard from Larry Larsen, who works for Gold Eagle Cooperative’s facility in Hardy, Iowa. Larry says Tillotson Construction Company’s elevator, built there in 1956, is “still operating and used daily!”

GilmoreCity08Larry graduated from high school in Gilmore City, Iowa. His father managed an elevator from 1958 to 2008, and Larry remembers high school summers spent cleaning out and painting silos.

After getting in touch with us, Larry took an excursion and delivered some photos of the Gilmore City elevator. It was built in 1949, a year when Tillotson also built elevators in Dalhart, Tex., Hooker, Okla., Hordville, Neb., West Bend, Iowa, and Montevideo, Minn., among other places.

Larry, who served 25 years in the United States Army, shared these additional reminiscences:

“I know a lot of the facilities in my old stomping grounds are [built by] Todd & Sargent. The facilities built in the 1980s and 1990s were done by Lambert & Hamlin.

“Interesting thing–I found out through my dad in early 2000s that Lambert & Hamlin built or started to build two concrete tanks in the town of Rutland, Iowa, and about halfway into that project they went bankrupt, causing Pro Cooperative to find a contractor mid-pour to finish the project.

GilmoreCity06“Pro Cooperative then became receiver of Lambert & Hamlin’s property in Sioux City.

“A lot of interesting history in many of the small towns all around the Midwest with the construction of elevators. Some communities had their population double when crews came to town.

“Reading the blogs, there was also a lot of tragedy involved, with people falling off the partially completed structures. I remember, in the early ’80s, Lambert & Hamlin was doing a slip in the tiny town of Pioneer, Iowa.

“They had a laborer who was smoking pot as he was tying rebar on the night shift. Said individual stopped tying rebar to light a joint, lost his balance, and fell 80 or so feet to his death.

“Slipping never paused for that.”


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


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.


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.


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

Virginia Slusher 05

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.

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.