Home-built travel trailers and the demise of a tricked-out ’53 Ford in Iowa

HomemadeThe topic of staying in a travel trailer while working at grain elevator construction sites has prompted Charles J. Tillotson (“Uncle Chuck”) to do some reminiscing and dig through his archive of photos.

He writes:

The first one is a photo of the last trailer Dad built in 1937, which was an upgrade to the one that your mom and I are standing in the doorway of. He had covered the exterior of this trailer with some kind of protective fabric, which doesn’t seem to be attached very well.

The previous trailer had an exposed plywood exterior that was either stained or painted and it evidently didn’t hold up. The focus should be on the small size of the trailers which were probably about 15 feet long, much like the size of the early camper trailers of the 1950s and 1960s. If you allow room for the stove, toilet, closet and even a fold-down tabletop with a little settee, where did we all sleep?

The photo [below] was taken in late summer in Albert City, Iowa, and shows my Dad and me standing along side of my 1953 Ford with another older gentleman who I assume was the Albert City superintendent packing something into the trunk. We had finished up our work on Albert City, and Dad had assigned the three of us to travel across the state to a job he was starting in Clinton, Iowa.


Soon after the photo was taken we three boys [Chuck, Tim, and Mike] left Albert City and took along with us a couple of men who wanted to continue working for Tillotson Co. We took off in my beautiful ’53 Ford, which I had modified with a two-tone paint job, a Continental fake-spare-tire kit (remember those?) and lowering blocks among other things. I was driving very fast and in a pattern learned from my Dad, taking short cuts via the old one-mile graveled country roads through the tall cornfields. Zooming along and approaching an intersection ahead I spotted a dust trail from a vehicle approaching the same intersection on my right. With the road being gravel I decided that rather than stop for the oncoming vehicle (that had the right of way) to instead outrun it.

I had almost made it through the intersection when the oncoming vehicle clipped my rear bumper and put me into a sideways spin. I countered the spin by yanking the wheel in the opposite direction which brought me out of the spin, but the action was so fast it put me into another spin in the opposite direction. We zigzagged back and forth for a bit and eventually headed into a huge irrigation ditch, which we entered, rolled over, and flipped upside down. I remember my bro Mike standing up in the back seat hollering at me to ‘straighten out the car’ but to no avail. I think there were five of us in the car including my bros, none of which had seat belts fastened but by some miraculous ending, we were all able to crawl out of the car without a scratch.

The farmer who hit me was a local fellow, and he rounded up a tractor with an operator and the car was pulled back upright and out of the ditch, whereby it was towed off to a local mechanic’s shop.

I don’t remember who came to rescue us, but somehow we continued on to the Clinton job where we put in some closing days of the summer, laboring there. 


When it came time to go home, my bro Tim and I went and picked up the Ford which still was operable (a testimonial to Ford), but the vehicle had multiple dents and bruises including missing a windshield which had been knocked out in the crash.

Tim and I bought a pair of goggles and proceeded to hit the trail (in a light drizzle) to Omaha with the wind and rain in our hair and elsewhere. My Dad knew of the accident but he had never seen the car until we got home whereby he came out of the house and I’m sure almost had a heart attack when he viewed the pile of junk that once was my beautiful ’53 Ford. As I recall, he had the car towed away to the junk yard.

It’s funny how viewing old photos can bring back memories of both the exciting and dull days gone by. It’s too bad the photographs taken today are no longer hard-copied by most people and their memories no longer documented to tell the stories of days gone by for both their own revisitation as well as their offspring.

In SoCal, an elevator’s tall headhouse reminds us of Vinton Street in Omaha


I’ve meant for a long time to stop at the grain elevator along Interstate 10 in Colton, California, and finally I did.

The elevator, which appears to date from the 1960s, has an elongated headhouse and reminds me in a way of our Vinton Street elevator in Omaha.

The Colton operation is one of 40 sites run by Ardent Mills, which is based in Denver. The elevator stands along the Union Pacific tracks between Riverside and Ontario. No one was to be seen late on a Sunday afternoon, but there was probably milling activity going on in another building: machinery hummed away. 

The elevator’s silos are multi-sided, which is different from anything Tillotson Construction Co. built. Could it be that the walls have greater bearing pressure with such a configuration?


The headhouse is stepped and thrusts toward the sky above the Inland Empire. It would be good to know how long the leg is and why such a rise was necessary.

I tried to look from every angle and even climbed up to the top of a rail car for a picture without hurting myself.

More information about this handsome elevator will be shared as it’s revealed.


A postcard reveals Tillotson elevator activity before the big changes of 1938

Post Card 01

We have found what may be a rare record of the Tillotson construction enterprise as it existed before 1938. Back then, Charles H. Tillotson led the company, which specialized in wooden elevators. After he died in ’38, his sons Reginald and Joe partnered in Tillotson Construction Co., and started to experiment, and then build, with reinforced concrete.

This card from July 2, 1936 is penned by Sister Mary Concepta, the older sister of Margaret Irene McDunn Tillotson (my grandmother) and sister-in-law to Reginald.

Sr. M. Concepta, born on Sep. 27, 1901, in Emerson, Nebraska, and christened Catherine McDunn, was the second of nine children. (Margaret, born Feb. 9, 1903, was third.) Sr. M. Concepta belonged to the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, with a motherhouse at Mount Loretto in Dubuque, Iowa.

The parents were William McDunn (b. Feb. 4, 1871, Des Moines, Iowa) and Bridget Loretta Dorcey McDunn (b. March 27, 1872, Luken or Lucan, Ontario). Records show William as a laborer in Omaha in 1891. He became a conductor on the Nebraska Division of the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis & Omaha Railway, and the family became established in Emerson, the town named for Ralph Waldo Emerson, which had come into being in 1881 at a junction on the CSPM&O (known as the Omaha Road). 

The family history comes from These U.S. McDunns: Family Tree of Patrick McDunn and Mary O’Donnell, compiled by John McDunn, of Lodi Wisc., in April 1989. The McDunns homesteaded in Pennsylvania in 1835. 

My Uncle, Charles J. Tillotson, whose name appears in many of this blog’s posts, had kept his grandfather William’s railroad watch–a Hamilton, of course–until a burglar struck in the late-1980s.

Post Card 02Uncle Charles notes that in the mid-1930s Reginald and Margaret lived with the elder Tillotsons at 624 N. 41st Street. They towed a travel trailer to job sites. In early July of 1936 they would also have towed along Uncle Charles, then 18 months old, and my mother Mary Catherine, who was nearly five months old.

On this postcard Sr. M. Concepta addresses her sister Margaret (Mrs. Reginald Oscar Tillotson) at Carlyle, Neb.

Carlisle–note the difference in spelling–is an unincorporated town in Fillmore County.

“I know the name because Mom used to talk about it,” Uncle Charles says.

We presume there was a wooden elevator. Carlisle is an unincorporated community in Fillmore County, about 135 miles southwest of Omaha. It doesn’t appear on our Rand McNally page nor does Google Maps seem to know anything about it. 

MapThe USGS gives coordinates for Carlisle on its Davenport Quadrangle map (named for a town in neighboring Thayer County), and we see a speck on Road X, west of Little Sandy Creek, that could be Carlisle. We called the Fillmore County sheriff’s office, in Geneva, and asked. “Nope,” a very nice woman said. “We don’t have a Carlisle.” 


“Dear Margaret + Reginald + babes,” Sr. M. Concepta begins.

Post Card 03“This card tells you where we are. Saw your Mother and Mary, Reginald. Mary is truly a nice girl and your mother surely is not strong. Won’t be leaving here now until Sat. morning. Just thought you might be coming in for the 4th. Don’t try it just for me though. Love, Sr. M. Concepta.”

Mary Tillotson was Reginald’s sister who became important to the family business and also is named in many posts here.

It’s hard enough to find a trace of Carlisle, but we would love to know if any remnant of a wooden elevator exists there.





Three elevators near Bozeman, Montana, provide a little variety


Flying into the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport the other day delivered a pleasant surprise in the form of three handsome elevators soon after we drove away from the passenger terminal.

One elevator was right there in Belgrade, Montana, where the airport is. It was an old house adapted to operate with metal silos.

Another had concrete silos, and a third looked like a simple wooden house.

These photos are all we can offer. The elevators weren’t Tillotson or Mayer-Osborn jobs, but we were excited to see them and now share with eagerness. Perhaps at a future time we can learn more details.


Conversation with Sherman Johnson, scion of Johnson Construction, of Salina, Kansas

We were happy to be able to give Sherman Johnson a call the other day. Sherman, a flooring contractor in Shawnee, Kansas, is one of Virgil Johnson’s six sons. Johnson Construction, Virgil’s contracting firm, operated out of Salina, Kansas, and built a whole lot of elevators. We have speculated about the existence of a strong link, perhaps a common architectural designer, between Johnson Construction and Mayer-Osborn Construction. Johnson Construction sometimes acted in partnership with Rex Bratcher, and we know something about Johnson & Sampson. The design themes spread through those channels.


Brad Perry took this photo in Atlanta, Kansas. “I think it’s a Johnson house,” he said. The rounded and stepped headhouse suggests Mayer-Osborn and Tillotson design influences.

Sherman was born in 1945 and went to elevator construction sites as a kid. “I remember going to Texas and Oklahoma. We lived in Salina, but most of the jobs were in Oklahoma and Texas, in the Panhandle of Nebraska, and in Iowa.” 

We had many other questions for Sherman, and he tried to help as much as possible. One thing he seemed pretty certain of was that Virgil talked about Tillotson Construction Company, of Omaha. “I heard my dad talking about them!” he said. “My father, he worked for Tillotson, I think. I don’t know for sure. I heard the name Tillotson, Chalmers and Borton, people like that.” 

Kristen Cart: Do you remember being on any job sites when you were a kid?

Sherman Johnson: Oh, yeah.

KC: Are there any memories you’d like to share?

SJ: Oh, like I said, I was just a kid. I remember going to Texas and Oklahoma–Newkirk (Okla.) and Blackwell and Conlon, Texas.

Ronald Ahrens: How long was Johnson Construction active?

SJ: As near as I can tell, at first it was my father and my uncles. And then Rex Bratcher was his partner for a while.

KC: The Sampsons were your uncles?

SJ: My dad’s wife’s brothers, Darwin and Sherman. I’m named after one.

RA: Do you remember the name Darrell Greenlee?

SJ: Darrell and Rosina. They were very, very nice people, great people. They had six girls.

RA: He was a foreman for your dad’s construction company, right? 

SJ: Superintendent.

RA: Can you characterize him?

SJ: In the summertime I had to work for him, and he worked me pretty hard. He was a good guy: a hard worker, a smart guy. We’d go out in the summertime, I don’t remember what the jobs were, they had me doing all the grunt work. I guess that’s why I’m not a contractor. 

KC: My dad described installing rebar.

SJ: Laying it and tying it. And it seemed like you always had a shovel in your hand doing something. 

KC: We had comments from Emily Frank, whose grandparents were Darrell and Rosina.

SJ: He built an elevator in Rushville, Illinois, and he retired there. If she’s still alive, she’s there. I don’t know if she’s still alive or not. 

Editors’ note: Here is the link to Rosina’s obituary.

KC: A couple of jobs, I’m going to ask if they’re familiar. Grand Island?

SJ: I don’t know.

KC: Atlanta, Kansas?

SJ: That rings a bell but I wouldn’t tell you that we did.

KC: One of the things we do is visit the elevators, and right on the manhole covers is the name of the company.

SJ: Oh, yeah. They used to make those at Wyatt Manufacturing in Salina. There was a foundry for a long time.

The Minatare, Nebraska, concrete elevator mystery solved

The Minatare elevator was an intriguing photography subject.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

My dad, Jerry Osborn, and I were traveling in western Nebraska on a three-day road trip to visit old friends and family when we happened upon the Minatare elevator built by Tillotson Construction. I immediately suspected that it was a special find. I asked my dad to be prepared for an afternoon of investigation, so after our visit with his cousins in Scotts Bluff, we began our inquiry in earnest.

Our first view of the elevator.

The name Minatare rang a bell, and I thought it might be home to an early elevator, catalogued in the Tillotson Construction Company records. But I didn’t have any way to check, being well out of cellphone range, and began to doubt my memory. Perhaps Minatare’s elevator was featured in an early postcard, one of hundreds I had examined on Ebay, while looking through old elevator images. I couldn’t remember where I had seen the name before.

Only the old-fashioned gumshoe method was going to work. Dad went along on our mission in good humor. For a good part of it, he spent his time comfortably hanging out in the air-conditioned car, while I called upon local people and shot every possible camera view.

So how do you check out a mystery elevator? After copious photos, you check out the town office. If the town clerk smiles, shrugs, and sends you down the hall to the library, which is closed, then you go (on her advice) to the local tavern. If you are lucky, the owner is intrigued and makes some calls. Pop into the library when it opens. Jump into and out of the car, drive a few blocks, get Dad a coke from the tavern, where the owner sends you to the next place. Touch base at the new place on the way out of town–then leave, still scratching your head.

It was a fairly typical visit.

No one I talked to in town remembered when the elevator had been in operation. The secretary at the town hall was standing in for someone else, and was relatively new in town. The local policeman laughed and shook his head when I asked him about it. He was a recent resident, too. One young person offered a tidbit–she said that the interior of the elevator might have been seen by teenagers at one time or another. It wasn’t a mystery to everyone in town, apparently. Too bad it was shut up tight, with no one around, so we couldn’t see the inside for ourselves.

A 1940s parade photo shows the elevator in its early years.

The librarian was very helpful. She kept the library open for a very short time because of her poor health, but she pointed us in the right direction. The town of Minatare was featured in a newly published local history, “Minatare Memories,” published by the Minatare Historical Committee. It had a short mention of a concrete elevator built in 1924. That information didn’t fit with any elevator that was of interest to us–it was way too early for a Tillotson job. We thought perhaps the 1924 date pertained to an earlier wooden elevator, the first one erected in the town, but at that moment we weren’t sure.

However, she offered a bookshelf filled with boxes of photographs, among them unattributed parade photos, taken a long time ago. In the parade photos were vintage cars, motorcycles, and best of all, the Minatare movie house marquee with the movie playing at the time, “California,” starring Barbara Stanwyck. In the background, behind the parade, stood the gleaming white Minatare elevator. The photos were thereby dated to about 1947, the latest date the elevator could have been completed.

The movie marquee dates the parade more precisely. The movie, “California,” came out in 1947.

The tavern owner, Dennis Wecker, offered more information on our second visit. He had made some calls, and he now knew the name of the company that owned the elevator–Kelley Bean. He gave us a contact and a location. On our stop at the bean facility, two workers in the office said the general manager at the Minatare location, Chris Hassel, had gone on vacation.

Dad and I left, still scratching our heads, and thinking about dinner. We had a drive ahead of us.

Kelley Bean is the current owner of the property.

It wasn’t until later when I conferred with my blogging partner, Ronald Ahrens, that we had an answer to the elevator’s provenance. He looked up the Minatare elevator in the Tillotson construction records and delightedly reported that it was not only the work of his grandfather, Reginald Tillotson, but it was an early one, built in 1941 very soon after the company was founded.

Eureka! It was a great find, and worthy of another visit. We will stop again and thank everyone who helped us tell its story.

Jerry Osborn, my dad and great traveling companion.



A small Missouri company has big plans for idle elevators to serve as vertical farms


Vertical Innovations’ first vertical farm is planned for this elevator. Photos courtesy of Vertical Innovations.

By Ronald Ahrens

Jim Kerns and David Geisler called up the other day from Springfield, Missouri, to ask a question of our readers: Are you aware of any municipally owned, abandoned grain elevators?

Kerns and Geisler run Vertical Innovations, an enterprise formed in December of 2014 to repurpose old elevators, making them into incredibly productive vertical farms for growing leafy green vegetables. They have developed a patent-pending method of hydroponic production, a “structure-driven design” that adapts to the circular shapes.

“The silos tell us what to do,” said Kerns, who has a background in organic farming and leads the company’s innovation, design and construction efforts. “I see them as giant environmental control structures, giant concrete radiators.”

Significant energy savings can result from implementation of circular shapes, which among other things require far less lighting and the corresponding energy use, he said.


Jim Kerns explores elevator guts.

David Geisler, CEO and general counsel, has worked out a lease for a disused elevator in downtown Springfield.

For its next steps, the company has targeted an available elevator in South Hutchinson, Kan., and approached the owner of Tillotson Construction Co.’s Vinton Street elevator in Omaha.

“What an awesome facility,” Geisler wrote in a follow-up email, thinking of Vinton Street.

Geisler and Kerns have cast their eyes far beyond the Midwest, though, from big terminals in Buffalo, N.Y., to San Francisco’s threatened Pier 92.

“We really need to save that facility if it’s structurally sound,” Kerns said. “It could put out about 50 million pounds of green leafy vegetables per year.”

Pier 92 San Francisco (1)Their most unique discovery source is YouTube videos posted by those who have flown drones around elevators.

But word-of-mouth works, too, and Kerns issues this appeal to readers: “Submit to us pictures and locations of concrete grain terminals in good condition all across the United States, sea to shining sea, north to south.”

Vertical Innovations can be contacted through its website.