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.

The Alta, Iowa, grain elevator’s unique layout was ‘a different kind of job’

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Commentary by Neil A. Lieb and photos from the Neil A. Lieb Archive

This post’s two photos show early stages of work on Tillotson Construction Company’s grain elevator at Alta, Iowa, in the spring of 1950. In a July 22 phone conversation, Neil Lieb, who worked on this elevator as a Tillotson employee (1949 to 1951) described details:

Three tanks on right, two on left, a square tank on left … The little tanks were a lot more trouble to make. Alta was not designed by Tillotson. It was designed by some outfit out of Kansas City. So it was a different kind of a job, and it was specifically designed—they had some kind of a grain-drying system that was relatively new. When these [elevators] were built, they didn’t dry the grain. It had to be dry before you put it in. Alta had some kind of a drying system. These bins were all designed—the whole idea was you could have smaller quantities of grain stored that was wet, and you’d run it out of these bins and through the dryer into the bins below. Half full of wet grain, the other half full of dry. The dry was taken back and dumped in the major silos.

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The co-ops in Iowa were very large in those days, with hundreds of members signed up. They would take a sample out of the load and do a moisture content test. So they would test each load and put it in one of these tanks based on how much moisture it had. When they went to dry it, it would take out the required amount of moisture. I know we had a lot of extra electrical work.

The plans for the elevator are inscribed on the elevator [slab], so you could set the forms where they belonged. The scribing was done a couple of days after the slab was poured. So when you build forms and moved them in, you knew exactly where to put them. It looked like it was all hit and miss, but it wasn’t.

Sixteenpenny nails were used in nailing together the forms. When you’re doing this, the foreman will count heads. You make all these interior pieces before you do anything else. When you make these, the foreman counts out heads, and he opens that many kegs of sixteenpenny nails, and they’re all supposed to be empty when you go home at night. Fifty-pound kegs and twenty-ounce hammer, and you start the nail and drive it with three strokes. The nail is a little over seven inches long. When you do that all day long for several days, you develop a real good right arm.

Analysis of photos from Tillotson Construction’s job in Alta, Iowa

 

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By Charles J. Tillotson with photos from the Neil A. Lieb archive

The images from the Neil A. Lieb Archive are the best historical, phase-by-phase photos that I’ve seen yet. They give the layman a good concept of what actually takes place, from start to finish, in building a grain elevator.

A few comments I might add:

The excavation for the foundation began with dynamite.

Excavating the foundation began with a bang.

Neil writes about the use of dynamite during the excavation process. Dynamite was used for foundation excavation on many a job because of the deep frost. We even used it for cutting the foundation of the reinforced concrete garage we built on the old place in Omaha. We were young ’ns then, but still got to set (light) the fuses to a few charges.

I remember getting the neighbors excited about what the hell we were doin’ now.

By the way, the garage utilized slip-form construction with steel stays instead of wood for the formwork—another of Dad’s experiments. He was interested in finding materials that could be reused over and over, rather than having to buy lumber formwork for every new job. I guess this method didn’t make a lot of sense, as he never tried it out on an elevator.

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This photo is an historical testimony as to how the so-called unskilled, common man could be taught layout along with measuring, wood cutting, and other carpentry skills. The labor used to build these forms and construct the entire grain elevator structure was obtained, for the most part, from the inhabitants of the local vicinity where the elevator was to be built. Most of the workmen had no experience whatsoever in the construction industry.

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People used to marvel at how the cement went into the top of the formwork and came out the bottom of the forms, in a set-up, semi-solid state, all occurring whilst the deck and forms continued to extend upwards, being jacked up on screw jacks. Once the slipping of the forms began, it never stopped, unless by a power outage, a severe storm, or some other interference.

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Beneath the deck and main formwork, a sub-scaffolding was constructed to provide access to the exterior face of the concrete structure, which required patching and touch-up for a final smooth finish. A rich mixture of cement, sand, and lime was used which was applied to the concrete face by hand, usually covering the entire exterior surface, removing all blemishes. The finish material was hoisted in five-gallon buckets to the finishers. These workmen traversed the scaffold of wood planking—usually two, 2 x 12s laid flat between the wooden hanger frames that attached to the formwork above. Very dangerous work without a safety net!

At the ground level, a workman on a tractor would load a Georgia buggy with cement, to be hoisted to the top and placed in the formwork. Small skip loaders, tractors with scoop-type buckets mounted on the front, were an essential tool used during construction. This included scooping up the sand, gravel, and cement to make concrete and placing them in a mixer.

Neil A. Lieb collection Once the concrete was ready for placement, the tractor scoop was filled with the cementitous mixture and transported to the side of the elevator whereby the tractor would dump its load into a Georgia buggy to be hoisted up to the deck for placement.

Because of the extensive use of the tractor, more than one would be worn out. During the extremely active 1950s, Tillotson Construction Company would purchase Ford Ferguson tractors a dozen at a time, just to keep up with the need for replacement

The logistics of material supply was always challenging for the grain elevator builder. Usually, the projects were located in very rural farmland areas, where the supply of lumber, steel, sand, gravel, cement, gasoline, and oil was miles from the site. Because the construction utilized the slip-form method, the operation never stopped once it began, making it paramount that the supply of materials be established beforehand along with a comfort level that there would be no interruption once the job started.

Neil has noted (in an as yet unpublished commentary) the mixture of the gleaming, white, finished “paint,” which wasn’t really paint at all but instead a cementitious mixture that lasted for a very long time. Some of the elevators existing today still boast the original finish. Tillotson was among the few contractors that finished out their jobs this way.

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Training the local unskilled labor in the processes of placing and wire-tying the reinforcing steel –and of pouring concrete, turning screw jacks, keeping the slip-form deck level, et cetera– were just a few of the many headaches the job superintendent had to bear during the initial start-up phases.

A view of early preparations at the foundation of Alta Cooperative’s elevator

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Photo from the Neil A. Lieb Collection

In a July 22 telephone conversation, Neil A. Lieb, who worked for Tillotson Construction Company from 1949 to 1951, described for us the elements of this photo, taken in the spring of 1950 during the earliest stage of work on the Alta Cooperative elevator, in Alta, Iowa.

  • The slab and rebar box in middle is the pit, covered with wood to leave a hole in concrete.
  • The horizontal box in the background is for the elevator’s leg, the critical motor-driven pulley-and-belt mechanism with attached scoops that lift the grain from the pit to the headhouse for distribution to bins and silos.
  • Planking is to provide a smooth course for the wheelbarrow in order to transport and dump freshly mixed concrete.
  • The dirt in the background came from the excavation.
  • In the center, the larger black tank on left contains acetylene and the smaller one holds oxygen, for fueling a torch, presumably to cut rebar.
  • The concrete mixer (upper left) had the capacity of one-half or one cubic yard of concrete.

Editor’s note: Although there is some distortion, the upper-right corner appears to show a worker who is bent at the waist and leaning away from the camera.

 

 

Emerging Terrain’s banners come down from the storage silos at Vinton Street

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By Ronald Ahrens

As these pages from the July 22 edition of the Omaha World-Herald show, the community art project that adorned storage silos at Tilltoson Construction Company’s landmark Vinton Street elevator have been taken down.

The story by Casey Logan explains that various exigencies combined to signal “time’s up” for the displays.

We were fortunate to have visited in 2012 and seen them for ourselves.

And now we ask what’s next for this massive terminal complex?

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