Painting a concrete grain elevator in Lincoln, Nebraska

Merle Ahrens, uncle of Ronald Ahrens, has written an account of his summer of 1955, which was spent on a scaffold with another of Ronald’s uncles, Michael Tillotson, youngest son of Reginald and Margaret Tillotson:

After graduating from Omaha North High School in 1955, I went to work for Tillitoson Construction on a grain elevator in Lincoln, Nebraska, with Michael Tillotson. I was paid $1.25 an hour.

Merle at home

Merle Ahrens in 2011, at home in Titusville, Fla.

I remember the first day on the job we had to go to the top of the grain storage tank—at least 100 feet—on a bucket that was used to haul up concrete. The bucket was connected to the swinging boom at the top by a wire cable. The cable went to a stationary, manually operated, rotating spool, which wound up the cable to lift the bucket. The operator let it free-fall down, seeing how close to the ground the bucket and riders could get before hitting the brake. It was a scary ride with four or five other workers standing on the rim of the bucket, especially the free fall down. Thankfully, it didn’t take long to get used to.

At the top, there were no rails around the edges nor any safety provisions like you see today, just one jack rod sticking out of the surface to hold on to as you got on and off of the bucket. The first day, I spent a lot of time holding onto that rod looking over the side.

When Michael and I started work, all the concrete pouring was complete and we were given the task of painting the outside of the whole elevator. We painted it using a lime-base whitewash. We had to crawl over the edge of the top of the tank onto a flying scaffold. The scaffold was held up by a pair of rope block-and-tackles connected to a pair of wood beams that were extended about two feet over the edge of the tank. The wood beams extended about ten feet inboard and were weighed down with sandbags to keep the scaffold from falling. The scaffold was made up of a pair of two-by-twelve boards with a metal frame at each end and two-by-four railings around it. The rope block and tackles were attached to the scaffold on the ground. We had to pull the scaffold up to the top every time for each ten-foot width we painted. There was an old man on the ground who mixed the paint and pulled it up to us in a five gallon bucket. He had a harder job than we had. All we had to do was brush on the paint and pull the rope to release the half hitch that held up the scaffold and let gravity work to lower it. The “flying” part of flying scaffold was when the wind was blowing. You would fly halfway around the tank.

Every night we would take off our Levi’s and stand them in a corner. There was so much paint on them! Yet one pair lasted all summer.

After a couple of months we finished painting the elevator in Lincoln and went to David City to paint another grain elevator. This time we used a new latex paint. It was very slow-drying and the wind kicked up a lot of dust. The elevator ended up white with grey stripes.

We kept hearing of accidents at other sites. One man was said to have fallen from a plank used to walk between the top of two tanks. He was wearing new boots and slipped. Another was killed when roofers removed the sandbags holding the beam for the flying scaffold so they could hot-tar the roof. A couple more were hurt while riding on a bucket and the clamps holding the cable slipped. The clamps were installed wrong. I do know for a fact that one worker at Lincoln was hit in the face when a five-gallon bucket with concrete in it fell while he was using a rope and pulley to lift it overhead.

At the end of the summer, Michael went back to North High, and I went to work for the Union Pacific Railroad.

Merle Ahrens

January 9, 2012

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2 comments on “Painting a concrete grain elevator in Lincoln, Nebraska

  1. […] were sometimes obvious, but often stealthy and unexpected. From dust, to wind, to new boots, to heedless roofers, many things in elevator construction took lives–but the monuments built by these mortal men […]

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