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 But his information was about two years out of date.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.

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

  1. […] The J. H. Tillotson-built farm elevator at Traer, Kan., is still standing, but idle (ourgrandfathersgrainelevators.com) […]

  2. […] The J. H. Tillotson-built farm elevator at Traer, Kan., is still standing, but idle(ourgrandfathersgrainelevators.com) Idaho corn stored under a tarp is loaded onto grain truck. […]

  3. Lee Urban says:

    My mom’s side of the family is from Traer, Kansas and my grandfather spent nearly his entire life working at the Traer elevator. I spent many of my vacations visiting him, grabbing a drink from the once operational soda machine, walking along the tracks, and enjoying the peace and quiet. Thanks for the post!!

    • kocart says:

      I am so happy you enjoyed the post. I grew up going to Nebraska each year to see my grandparents, from Utah, and my best memory of the elevators was seeing them peek over the horizon as a town came into view on the drive across Nebraska. Scottsbluff meant you still had a long way to go, Columbus was at the point of exhaustion, but getting nearer. It was two lane highway, way back when. No interstate.

      • Roger Carlisle says:

        Thanks, Kristen, for sharing the history of Traer elevator! My nephew, Lee Urban just posted the link on Facebook earlier today and it caught my eye. My name is Roger Carlisle, and my father Dale Carlisle worked for Waldo & Anderson, and later for D & S Grain (now owned by the Grafel family) for 37 years. Although he is no longer with us, he would have loved to read this info and would have had a few stories to add to Dan and Greg’s. I remember hanging out with Dad in the afternoons after school there and later working during wheat harvest during my high school years. He shared what he knew about the construction of the elevator and it always facinated me wondering what kind of equipment was used and what a task it must have been to complete. Thanks for the interesting link. I’ll be sharing it with family and other “Traerites” that I’m sure will enjoy it!

      • So, so true! Grain elevators on the plains where like lighthouses on the ocean!

      • kocart says:

        Glad you came to visit, Ken. Grandpa built these things and I have been aware of them my whole life–now thanks to good people like the Carlisle and Grafel families, I finally get to know more about what he did. It’s been great. You and your work have inspired me for a long time, and this website reflects some of that inspiration. Thanks for coming by my friend.

  4. kocart says:

    Welcome to our blog! It was a wonderful visit to the elevator, but little did I expect that people like yourself, with such a personal connection to Traer, would find and enjoy our musings about it. I am so glad you are here. I was looking for the mailing address of the Grafel Farm the other day when I saw an article about the grass fire near Traer (August 12)–I guess it has been a pretty exciting summer with the drought and the fires. I hope there were not losses. We are not so very far from the worries the first settlers had when they first arrived on the prairie. Blizzards, fires and tornadoes–but people endure. I am proud to know such people. Thanks for reading our blog!

  5. Joye Trussell says:

    Love to read about Traer. My name if Joye (Carlisle) Trussell, daughter of Lee Carlisle, sister of Dale Carlisle. I watched the elevator being built. It was the most exciting thing that ever happened in Traer.

    • kocart says:

      You were there, then, when my grandpa Bill Osborn was there. I am so glad to know about Traer, and your family’s involvement with the elevator. Grandpa was there just at the beginning of the elevator’s life–the real history started after his company packed up and went on to the next job. That’s when Dale and the employees and the farmers gave it its purpose. If the elevator served well during it’s time, I am grateful for it. Thank you for sharing your stories.

  6. KillzoneEsq says:

    Yes, indeed — keep up the musings! Traer and the grain elevator are special places on earth, uniquely part of our family history. Glad you were able to visit!

  7. Donna Urban says:

    I am Donna Carlisle, daughter of Dale Carlisle who managed the elevator most of his life. Sister of Roger Carlisle, mother of Lee Urban and niece of Joye Trussell. I spent 4 summers working in the elevator during harvest. I probed the trucks to get the moisture and test weight of the grain, weighed the trucks full and empty, did bookwork for the elevator, helped scoop wheat from small trucks that the lift wouldn’t work on and made a few trips with my dad on the manlift to the top of the elevator. I even helped nail paper on boxcars so the grain could be loaded. (Before most of the cars were hopper cars). I knew all the farmers in the area because I helped during wheat harvest. I know what 100+ temperatures are during harvest. My dad made several trips in the “pit” where the wheat was dumped to retreive people’s glasses from there. A very dangerous undertaking because the wheat could literally bury you alive. I also learned from him that grain dust is explosive if allowed to build up. That is why both doors are open and the dust is allowed to blow away when running the grain to the silos in the elevator. Also, bull snakes are friendly and keep rattle snakes away. He had one that he considered a “friend” which lived inside the driveway part of the elevator. I remember when wheat hit $5 a bushel. The farmers were ecstatic. The farmers would help each other harvest. When one farmer finished harvesting all his land, he would inquire if any of his neighbors needed help. After my dad retired he still helped haul wheat to the elevator for local farmers who asked his help. Farming is definately something that is in your blood, because when people comment about the dry weather, I am very aware of what the drought is doing to the farmers and ranchers of the area. Farming is like gambling. You never know when a drought, or hail can ruin your chance to get paid. You have to put out a lot of money before you ever get a paycheck. Harvest is that paycheck you get once a year. Once you have the grain in the elevator, you still have to sell it and hope you got the best price for it.

  8. Lori Carlisle Chavez says:

    This is so awesome. I am cousin and neice of the Trear Carlisles. I love my memories of the time I was able to spend there which was never enough. I wish my kids could experience the quiet and love. My grandpa Lee Carlisle used to grab me one of the Majors horses and I rode to the elevator to visit my Uncle Dale! Great time wish I was there again!

  9. […] The J. H. Tillotson-built farm elevator at Traer, Kan., is still standing, but idle (ourgrandfathersgrainelevators.com) […]

  10. […] the characteristics of the earlier J. H. Tillotson elevators, the Byers elevator recalls those at Traer and Hanover, Kan. The Byers elevator is bigger than the Hanover elevator, and you can see where […]

  11. […] The elevator at Kanorado was an earlier effort, and should be compared with the elevators at Traer, Kan., Goodland, Kan., and Wauneta, Neb., among […]

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