Three elevators near Bozeman, Montana, provide a little variety

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

 

Records for Tillotson’s Minatare, Neb., job include specs, give total cost picture

Story by Ronald Ahrens, photos by Kristen Cart

The small concrete elevator in Minatare, Nebr., is the oldest we have visited that was built by Tillotson Construction. After forming in 1938 as a partnership between Reginald and Joe Tillotson, and with their sister Mary also involved, Tillotson Construction built their first concrete elevator in 1939 and another in 1940. Both were in Oklahoma. But 1941 was a big year with five elevators, a pair of which, also in Oklahoma, were quite large with capacity of 212,000 bushels.

The Minatare elevator in this town in eastern Scotts Bluff County was built according to a plan original to the site. Company records show it had a side driveway with bins over the drive, 11 bins, two tanks with capacity of 16,000 bushels and two with capacity of 15,300 bushels.

The elevator and dryer stand idly by the Minatare rail siding.

Construction details show 690 cubic yards of reinforced concrete were used and 27.5 tons of reinforcing steel.

Gross weight when loaded was 3,377 tons.

The drawform walls rose 100 feet, and the cupola’s dimensions were 15 feet wide, 28 feet long, and 18 feet high. The center of the head pulley was at 116.16 feet above the ground.

This was a single-leg elevator. The head pulley was 48 x 14 x 3 7/16 inches, which was an inch and a quarter wider than the boot pulley. A 15-horse Ehrsam motor turned the head at 48 rpm. Leg capacity isn’t listed.

What is listed, though–and we find this quite exciting!–is information about costs that the company records exclude after World War Two.

The grand total for Minatare was all of $19,578.04 less commission. Here is a breakout of individual categories:

  • Labor: $5,526.83 at the rate of 35 cents per hour straight time and 60 cents for overtime
  • Cement: $2,590.75
  • Sand (30,000 cubic yards): $1,149.60
  • Reinforcing steel (J-rods, wires & nipples): $2,156.01
  • Lumber: $835.03
  • Machinery: $4,172.77
  • Structural Steel: $$772.53
  • Electrical materials: $155.07
  • Doors & windows: $47.36
  • Painting & waterproofing: $65.83
  • Hardware (bolts, nails, etc.): $169.71
  • Equipment Expense (depreciation, rentals, etc.): $246.29
  • Freight (not included above F.O.B. job): $509.51
  • W.H. tax & Ins.: $723.82
  • Miscel. (overhead, job office, plans, bond, etc.): $457.11

Double-checking the numbers, we find the total of 19,578.22. That’s 18 cents higher than the amount stated in the records.

The co-op office attached to the elevator. Grain weight and quality were assessed here.

What we would like to learn next is how Tillotson Construction landed those early jobs like Minatare. And how much was the commission?

We have the sense there are more records available at the locations to help us learn about our grandfathers’ grain elevators. One of these days, we want to visit Goltry, Newkirk, Douglas, and Medford, Okla., just for starters, to learn what we can about those early days.

A slip-formed lesson in character-building at Blencoe, Iowa

Mayer-Osborn pay stubs from August, 1954

Mayer-Osborn pay stubs from August, 1954.

Story by Kristen Cart

Just when you think you know all there is to know about your parent, you find a document that tells you something more. In this case, I found the pay stubs for when my dad, Jerry Osborn, worked for Mayer-Osborn Construction Company in 1954. He wedged a few weeks of hard labor between school in the spring and football in the fall.

The project was a large elevator similar to the first elevator Bill Osborn built with his partner, Gene Mayer, in McCook, Nebraska, in 1949. This example of the type went up in Blencoe, Iowa–and not without incident, as we have related in this blog.

It struck me that his pay rate was just that of a laborer. No cushy job for the son of the boss was offered–he laid steel rebar down during the uninterrupted concrete pour, working his way around the bin top as workers jacked the forms and scaffolding ever higher. Dad mentioned that when he worked for his father, he was paid the same as everyone else–a dollar an hour for back-breaking labor. Not a few times, laborers walked off the job after the first paycheck. It wasn’t easy.

Dad managed to find something to do on the job that was worth even less–he put in a fair amount of time at fifty cents an hour. I can only imagine what that job entailed.

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Jerry Osborn had interests other than building elevators for his dad. He was a champion golfer at Midland College. It seems odd that a good golfer, while cultivating the skill and concentration such sport required, would take time out to heave rebar for a summer job.

I’m not sure which year they won the championship, but I like the juxtaposition between the brutality of the labor and the finesse of golf.

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The summer job added up to a tidy sum for the time. Perseverance paid off.

These days, many of our college-educated young people seem too delicate for such work, especially in exchange for such a meager reward. It would make no sense to them.

But my grandfather, William Osborn, might say that this kind of work built character. Especially if you showed up for that second and third week.

Monuments go up, memories surround them, but all ultimately subside and vanish

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Story by Kristen Cart

Workers were taking down an old silver maple today on the greenway beside the Boise River. It was a living tree, and I wondered why they chose to remove it. All along the park stood younger trees–sugar maples and walnuts and spruce trees–and under some of them, memorial plaques were placed, probably at the time the trees were planted.

I noticed one plaque had partially sunk in soft ground, and a puddle of water covered most of it, but the birth year of 1911 could still be seen. This person had come into the world 105 years ago. His children, if living, would be in their 70s or 80s perhaps. No one tended the memorial. The Boise State students who strolled by might not know why he was remembered.

These memorial trees were intended to grow in beauty while families and colleagues remembered the dead. When the names are eventually forgotten, the trees will provide shade and nesting places until they become unsightly or weak or damaged. Then they will go.

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Concrete rubble from the Maywood, Neb., elevator. Mayer-Osborn Construction built it during the heyday of elevator building in the 1950s.

I remember a book about the ubiquitous stone walls in Kentucky horse country. The author explained how they came to be, how they disappeared into hillocks of rock, and how they sank back into the soil. Frost heaved stones out of the ground every winter, and farmers endlessly piled them onto the edges of their fields every summer. The stones were stacked and filled into walls, but after many years, weather and erosion consigned the stones back into the earth in a sinking process which all heavy stones must endure.

Today, even the locations of some old walls can only be estimated, in spite of the labor invested into them over many years.

Cemetery monuments–in fact, whole cemeteries–disappear in this manner, taking their inscriptions with them. The identities and locations of the dead are not resurrected unless a caring relative intervenes.

My grandfather’s generation was slighted in the monument department. He lived too late to be conscripted into the Great War, and by the time the next conflagration arrived, he was considered too old to serve. My father slipped through a similar gap between the Korean and Vietnam wars. Whole families lived their lives between one glut of glorious war dead and the next–to their good fortune, but at the cost of corporate memory.

William A. Osborn in 1965

William A. Osborn in 1965.

Grandpa was fortunate, however, to have left the elevators he built. With his name forged into the manhole covers and plaques set into concrete walls, his legacy seems more certain. Grain elevators are a durable memorial–but much like the trees in the park, they only represent him until no one remembers. Eventually, his great and useful contribution to the world will pass into utility, then into obsolescence.

Like the silver maple tree, the elevators will come down when they no longer serve. The plaques and covers will be recycled, and even his name will disappear. And those who loved William Arthur Osborn, beloved father and grandfather, will be past knowing when they go.