Tillotson Construction’s Mitchellville elevator is a key part of Heartland’s grain operation

The Heartland Cooperative elevator complex at Mitchellville, Iowa.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

The Mitchellville elevator is visible from Interstate 80, and the rounded head house drew my attention as we headed through Iowa on our way home from our recent trip out West. “Just one more stop, OK, kids?” I said, and they answered with groans. I think I promised ice cream to quell the protest.

The main elevator built by Tillotson Contruction Company of Omaha, with grain drier.

I parked the van, air conditioner running, in a shady spot and hopped out with my camera. Thunderheads threatened nearby, but the storm seemed to be moving off, and the sun peeked out and illuminated the scene. I took advantage of the beautiful light to photograph the elevator.  As I finished up, I saw a truck rounding the corner from an alley into the gravel lot beside the elevator, so I flagged the driver down to ask if he knew anything about it. We were in luck.

The driver introduced himself as Ed Baldwin, a grain truck driver for Webb Farms. He was more than happy to talk about the elevator, having trucked “at least two million bushels” in and out of Michellville. Bill and Stan Webb own the farm, and Ed purchased his truck from their father who used to truck his own grain. Ed gave me a quick outside tour of the elevator property.

The Younglove annex viewed from the driveway.

Ed explained the Heartland Cooperative operation at Mitchellville. He did not know the builder of the “head house,” as he termed the main elevator, but he knew the adjacent annex was built by Younglove in 1972.  The bins had numbers and he pointed out the function of each one. All the way to the left was a new bin with its own leg that was built in the 1980s and used for damaged corn. Immediately to the right of it, on one end of the Younglove annex, was a bin dedicated to soybeans. The rest of the annex held corn, with the main house taking all the wet corn since it gave access to the grain drier.

The Younglove annex is placarded with the date of construction.

During harvest, the employees kept a grueling schedule filling the bins, especially during a wet year. Jim Dietrich, grain manager for Heartland Co-op at Mitchellville, would pull a twenty-four hour shift to accept the grain into the main elevator and dry it. The drier had a capacity of seven thousand bushels per hour, which would limit the amount of grain that could be taken in. Ed said the main house would take seven semi loads per hour of grain that needed to be dried. Shipments from the elevator were by rail, unless capacity was reached and grain needed to be trucked.  Trucking would be the exception for Mitchellville’s operation.

Then and Now: The J. H. Tillotson elevator at Fairbury, Nebraska

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

Photo by William A. Osborn, about 1948

A current view

Some of the elevators Grandpa built were a little hard to identify, for certain, from his old photos.  Many of his projects were similar in design during the time he worked for J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, of Denver, Colorado.  So seeing an elevator in person,  only tentatively identified with an old black and white photo, and recognizing it, was quite an exhilarating experience.  Fortunately Gary Rich’s sharp eye made the connection between Grandpa’s photo and the elevator at Fairbury, Nebraska.

When I saw it, the Farmers Cooperative elevator did not give a clue to its builder from the outside.  It warned intruders away emphatically with “No Trespassing” signs, and it sported a freshly painted logo, which seemed to indicate that it was still in use. But because it was deserted I had no one to ask.  We knew from a newspaper article, marking the construction progress of the McCook, Neb. elevator in 1949, that my grandfather had previously built the Fairbury elevator.  So when my husband and I went to see for ourselves, I took documentary photos. Later, Gary Rich compared them with Grandpa’s old photos and quickly made the identification, noting the relative position of the railroad tracks, and the loading chute extending beyond the drive way.

The elevator stood beside one of the busiest rail lines I have seen in Nebraska. Freight and coal trains roared by every few minutes.  While spending the better part of an hour photographing every angle, I found a railroad spike, well rusted and tossed aside, and I brought it back to the car for the kids.  I don’t know why I thought it would impress them–when they saw it, they barely glanced up from their video games.  I guess old railroad stuff was more a part of my childhood than theirs.

With a little luck, these kids will remember the long drives through corn and wheat country chasing elevators.  At least they will have a unique perspective on them. Perhaps in their travels, when a towering white structure first peeks over the horizon, they will ask, “I wonder who built it?  And when?”

McCook’s J. H. Tillotson-built elevator is still all original, down to the light fixtures

J. H. Tillotson built this attractive elevator at McCook, Neb. in 1948.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

Kelly Clapp explains how levers and pulleys are used to distribute grain.

The straight-up elevator at McCook, Nebraska, was built for a private owner in 1948. J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, of Denver, Colorado, was tapped for the project, and it was completed just a year before the Mayer-Osborn Construction Company of Denver built the nearby Frenchman Valley Cooperative elevator. My grandfather, William Osborn, was a superintendent for Joe Tillotson at the time, just before going on to form the Mayer-Osborn Company with Gene Mayer, so both projects were his.

Kelly Clapp, a Frenchman Valley Co-op employee, opened up the elevator so I could look inside. A trapped pigeon stood  in the doorway when it opened, blinking in the unaccustomed light. It fluttered off when we went in. What I saw was state of the art for 1948.

The elevator leg, which lifts grain from the pit to the top of the bins.

The elevator stands by itself and is unique since no renovation has ever been done to it. The elevator is original, right down to the light bulbs, Kelly said. It operates as it always has. It only takes corn when the other McCook elevators are full. The elevator is cleaned right before harvest, so the manhole covers, stamped “J. H. Tillotson, Denver,” were off and the bins were open.

The elevator has basic electrical functions such as lighting, and the conveyors and the leg are motor-operated, but all of the controls for it are manual. Levers and pulleys operate in the driveway to direct grain chutes to load corn into a waiting truck, and a similar arrangement at the top of the man-lift directs grain into the proper bin while loading the elevator.

The interior of the driveway, with the leg to the right.

This elevator is a completely intact example of our agricultural past–as fascinating as a water-driven grist mill from the century before. Structures of concrete and steel, built for industrial purposes, don’t merit a historical marker or national designation, but they are just as significant as an ancient town hall or a dignified farm house. I think I prefer the plain functionality of the grain elevator.

Although the heat wave imperils harvests, irrigation might not come to the rescue

A pivoting irrigation system near distributes water over an Oklahoma field that will soon be plowed and planted.

Story and photos by Gary Rich

ABC World News reported July 5 on effects of the extreme heat that has stretched from Colorado throughout the Midwest. Correspondent Alex Perez talked with Manhattan, Ill., farmer Dave Kestel, who said that without rain in the next couple of weeks his corn crop would be history. The report observed that three-quarters of the U.S. is in drought. There is not much hope for any moisture in the upcoming weeks.

Humans must have water. Crops must have water for growth. When you do not have water, things will perish.

Some agricultural land is irrigated. But there have been complaints that the farmers are reducing the water tables. Colorado has banned irrigation along the South Platte River. Farmers in Weld County requested that Governor John Hickenlooper issue an emergency order authorizing irrigation so their crops can be saved, but he replied that he lacks authority to do so.

Eastern Colorado, western Kansas, and the Oklahoma panhandle, as well as many other areas, use pivot irrigation. The farmer taps a well for water, which is distributed over a field through a pivoting sprinkler arm. From the air, these irrigated areas appear as lush circles. The outskirts of the circles are left barren.

Corn is used for animal feed, making ethanol, and other uses. If this 2012 corn crop fails, it will affect not only agriculture, but other industries as well. If we have a corn shortage, foodstuffs and products made from corn will rise in price. The drought will affect other crops, too, such as milo, sunflower seeds, soybeans, and even popcorn.

One wonders: with so much of the United States having a drought, are we headed into another Dust Bowl era, like the 1930s? We certainly hope not!

The J. H. Tillotson-built farm elevator at Traer, Kan., is still standing, but idle

Grafel Farm elevator, built by J.H.Tillotson, Contractor, at Traer, Kan.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

The road to Traer, Kan., was a bit obscure. The town is south of McCook, Neb., across the border, on unpaved secondary roads. It took some navigating to get close to the elevator, and then to find the right road, once the elevator peeked over the farm fields. We were rewarded with a handsome, squared-up, tall elevator on a lonely rail line in a winding creek valley surrounded by farmland. I hopped out of the van in a grassy parking area and started to take pictures. A truck was parked at the weighing house by the elevator. I knew this was a private farm, and it always had a privately owned elevator, from the time my grandfather built it. So I wanted to make my presence known.

The elevator leg and bins.

When we visited McCook’s elevator earlier in the day, worker Kelly Clapp told me the Traer elevator was still in operation. But his information was about two years out of date. Don Grafel, who greeted me when I entered the elevator office, chuckled when I asked if the elevator was working. “I wish a tornado would take it down,” he said.

Don had started working at the Traer elevator as a kid. His family now leases the farmland from a granddaughter of the Anderson family, who had the elevator built, and as part of the deal, the Grafel family had to buy the elevator. The Grafels operated it for a number of years.

The elevator was retired two seasons ago, Don said. The problem with the elevator was twofold. It had been built in a flood area with a high water table, and the measures taken during construction to account for the water had started to fail. It had leaking problems during wet years. But worse, the elevator was slow. Don said the elevator could take a semi-load at a time in the pit, which was good, but it would take an hour to load the bins. Fifteen years ago, the Grafel farm placed metal bins on high ground above the town. That handled the water risk, but Don said that even those bins were falling behind demand because of slow loading.

“J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, Denver” is stamped on the interior manhole covers.

Shirley Nichols, who also worked at the office, was keenly interested in the history of the elevator. I had a treat to offer her. Russell Anderson, who commissioned the elevator, wrote a letter of recommendation for my grandfather’s new company on May 6, 1949. The Traer elevator was an example of Grandpa’s work before he went out on his own after working for J.H. Tillotson, Contractor. I gave a copy of the letter to her along with a photo my grandfather took during the elevator construction. In return, she gave me another construction photo and some historical pictures of the town.

Finally, my hungry and thirsty children came into the office, and the visit was pretty well over. Don’s brother Greg came in after meeting my husband in the parking lot. He wondered who had dropped by. But it was time to get on the road again, before the complaints got too shrill.

The good people of the Grafel farm made us feel very welcome, and gave us a window into the Traer elevator’s past. I’m glad we were able to see it while it still stands.

Related Articles 

Gary Rich explains wheat farming in Colorado and Kansas


Heat waves rising over a field of winter wheat in Goodland, Kan. Photo by Kristen Cart.

By Gary Rich

Here is Agriculture 101. I will tell you something about wheat.

There are two types of wheat. You have hard and soft wheat. Hard is considered winter wheat, whereas the soft is considered spring wheat. Winter wheat is planted in August or September. It is harvested the next summer. Spring wheat is planted in the spring, and it is harvested in August or September.

There are different types of winter and spring wheat. Some will produce better yields under normal growing conditions.

Our Colorado wheat fields that were just harvested will not be planted again until August 2013. Farmers leave the field idle for a year. This is done to keep the moisture in the ground, and to preserve some of the minerals for growing. Here in Colorado, it is called dry farming. When they get ready to plant, they will plant the wheat into the ground, without breaking it up.

A view, two days before harvest, of the Page City, Kan., elevator, built by Johnson-Sampson Construction, of Salina.
Photo by Kristen Cart

Where I was reared, in Kansas, it was wet farming.  We had enough moisture, between the rain and snow. Farmers would use a plow, and plow under the last crop remains, then go back over the field with a harrow, leveling out the ground. Then they would come in with a planter and put the seeds into the ground.

In Colorado, we cannot do this, as we do not have the moisture.

Basically, the states that produce hard wheat are Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, Colorado, western Nebraska, and South Dakota. States that produce soft wheat are North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon.

Those are just a few basic things about wheat.

In Wahoo, Nebr., Tillotson’s elevator finds new life as a cell tower for AT&T

The Wahoo, Nebraska elevator, built by the Tillotson Construction Company of Omaha, Nebraska

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

Another stop on my recent elevator trip was Wahoo, Nebraska. Dad tipped me off that it might be one of Tillotson’s projects. Wahoo is the seat of Saunders County, where Dad lives, and he frequently has occasion to stop there.

Wahoo’s elevator, at first glance, appeared unused. It was closed up tight, and the only indication of any activity was a sign warning workers to stay at least three feet away from any antenna, and to contact AT&T before performing any maintenance or repairs near their equipment.  Ah, hah!  Then I noticed the wires running to the top of the structure. I walked around the elevator, taking pictures.

Next door to the building was a Pet Rescue center, and as a woman was leaving there with a little dog in her arms, I asked her about the elevator.  While she did not know the builder, she said the elevator was privately owned by David Rood, and that at present, the elevator was full of corn.  But she commented that he probably made more money from the AT&T installation. I had heard of cell antennas being installed in every kind of tall building–even church steeples–but it had never occurred to me to look for them atop an elevator.

The next circuit around the elevator produced the answer I was looking for. Right there, adjacent to the sidewalk, in bright blue paint, was a manhole cover.

Some neighborhood teens were hanging around the street, in their cars, and when they saw me kneeling, taking the manhole cover shot, one of the boys shouted out, “What are you doing?”

“Taking pictures of the elevator!” I said.

The young man wanted to know why. When I said it was for a blog, I guess that was enough for him. Anyway, his attention went back to something on his cell phone.

The Wahoo elevator is an attractive feature of the town, fitting naturally with the older buildings along the main street. A man at a local pub, seeing my camera, popped out and said curiosity got the better of him. I told him what I was doing there. I guess a tourist with a camera along the street is a little unusual. And Nebraskans, by nature, like to know who is about.