A look at the inside of a concrete elevator in Wichita, Kansas

Story by Kristen Cart

The run, at the top of the annex, has a conveyor to deliver grain to the bins. A tripper pushes the grain off the conveyor into the correct bin. Photo by Christopher

Benton, Kansas, was an interesting place to visit if you wanted to learn about elevators. Christopher, a worker for Mid Kansas Co-op at the Benton elevator, had previously worked at their Wichita, Kansas, concrete elevator. He took a few minutes to explain the differences between elevator types when I stopped in to visit during harvest. He also sent me some photos of the Mid Kansas Co-op’s concrete elevator in Wichita taken from the top and from the inside. I had a rough idea how elevators worked, but I had never seen these parts for myself.

The man lift, seen from above, has a platform to stand on and a hand-hold above it. It is essentially a conveyor belt. Photo by Christopher.

The elevator was conspicuously clean. Dust could not be tolerated because of the explosive hazard, and cleaning took place before and during each harvest. This elevator was taking corn from the smaller Benton elevator on the day I stopped in Benton.

The photos show a few of the numerous large elevators in an area north of the city, which leads me to believe that Wichita is a major hub for grain storage and shipment in the Midwest. Except for a few very old elevators in the area they all appear to be in use.

I appreciate seeing some of the inner workings of an elevator. If you get the chance to work at an elevator and get out on top, the view is breathtaking.

A view of one of the huge Wichita elevators from the top of the MKC elevator, giving a true sense of its height. Photo by Christopher

Benton, Kansas, offers some direct lessons in elevator operations

The Benton, Kan., elevator complex.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

Sometimes while checking out leads about elevators my grandfather was involved with, I’ve made some fascinating side trips. I stopped at a Chalmers and Borton-built elevator in Walton, Kansas, and met the grain manager there, Jeff Snyder. He tipped me off about an operating wooden elevator at Benton, Kansas, also owned and operated by Mid Kansas Co-op, which would make a rare photo opportunity. I made a point to drive up there the next time I had a layover in Wichita.

Loading corn for transfer to a larger elevator.

My earlier visit to Traer, Kansas, left me with questions about why cooperatives have come to rely so heavily on metal bins, and why relatively few new concrete elevators are built. The speed of loading and unloading is one limiting factor for elevators. But on my visit to Benton, I was able to gain some insight into other design considerations.

Benton, Kansas, still uses a wooden elevator with metal siding for part of their storage. Beside it, several metal bins make up the rest of their capacity.  Harvest was going strong when I stopped by. I saw trucks pull up every few minutes to load corn from a large metal hopper near the grain bins, looping through the scales both before and after filling their trailers. A worker conducting the loading operation noticed me by the railroad tracks with my camera, and during a lull he laconically introduced himself, saying, “Just Christopher will do.” He had a temporary job working for Mid Kansas Co-op during harvest both in Benton and in Wichita at their large concrete elevator, where he became well-versed in elevator operations.

Spencer Reams, site manager for Mid Kansas Co-op at Benton, Kan.

Spencer Reams, the site manager, greeted me inside the scale house. According to Mr. Reams, Benton, Kansas, had a unique problem for a region in the grips of a severe drought. Because of very localized rain at just the right times, the area immediately around Benton had experienced a record harvest, up to five percent over any previous harvest.  So the elevator was completely full of corn while the milo and bean harvest was underway. Grain trucks were called in to move the corn to the cooperative’s larger Wichita elevator to make room, as Christopher explained. While I watched, an old farm truck full of milo pulled in to unload into the pit. Meanwhile the grain trucks, once they were loaded with corn and weighed, made the nine-mile trip into Wichita and then returned for more, waiting for the loading hopper to fill before filling up.

A truck dumps milo into the pit where a conveyor would take it to the leg, out of the photo behind a bin on the right. The loading hopper is to the left.

Christopher told me what he thought of the various types of elevators. He said that he preferred the metal bins–they were easier to work around. He showed me a photo of the man-lift that was used in the Wichita concrete elevator, and I agreed that it looked like a harrowing ride. A simple ladder on the side of a metal bin seemed safer. Also, older concrete elevators were crumbling, he said. For one thing, during freezing temperatures, trapped moisture could cause the concrete to crack and flake. It could be patched, but much like a road bed, eventually the elevator would become unserviceable and unsafe.  Though he did not comment on Benton’s wooden elevator, it was apparent that for various reasons these wooden structures were becoming harder to keep within regulatory bounds. It is very remarkable, in fact, to see one still in operation.

Each storage facility apparently has its advantages and drawbacks. One of the chief advantages of an elevator is its existence–if it is standing and in any way serviceable, it will be used. Its life ends when it can no longer keep up with demand, and when it becomes cheaper to build a new one than to repair or upgrade an old one. So each year more of the old landmarks go missing, to be replaced by the plain and common metal bin.

Tillotson Construction’s Giddings, Texas, elevator rose by 10 feet per day but then disappeared entirely

By Ronald Ahrens

The Fairmont Foods Co. elevator that Tillotson Construction Co. built in Giddings, Tex., around 1945 became the hub of a busy and diverse agricultural service, one that had started a decade earlier.

As part of its Giddings operation, Fairmont, of Omaha, Neb.–just like Tillotson Construction–ran the largest turkey dressing plant in the Southwest. Every year, over 200 carloads shipped from here for the Thanksgiving and Christmas markets. During other parts of the year, the dressing plant stayed busy with chickens destined for such grocery chains as Weingarten’s, which in 1951 had twenty-five stores in Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana.

Besides the poultry dressing, Fairmont processed eggs here and had a locker plant described as “huge” in the June 13, 1974 centennial edition of the Giddings Times & News. A hatchery and feed-mixing plant completed the operation.

On July 14, 1955, the Times & News carried the following item:

Fairmont Foods Co. has announced the sale of its feed mixing plant in Giddings to the Nutrena Mills, Inc., of Wichita Falls and Minneapolis, Minn.

Change of ownership will take place officially about July 15. Nutrena is one of the nation’s oldest and largest feed manufacturers. Nutrena feeds are distributed in a 24-state area from the Rocky Mountains to the Southeastern coast and from Canada to Mexico.

Fairmont Foods recently observed the 20th anniversary of their opening in Giddings. Fairmont officials emphasize that they will continue to serve their customers with the poultry processing plant.

The former site of the Fairmont Building has been paved over. Photo by Ray Kirchmeyer.

In 1966, Nutrena remodeled the offices. But few traces of the operation remain today. Tillotson’s Fairmont Building was demolished, and a bare parking lot is found at the site.

Special thanks to Ray Kirchmeyer for providing the photo and historical documents. 

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The elevator at Daykin, Nebraska shows a characteristic J. H. Tillotson design

The Daykin, Neb. elevator seems to match an unknown William Osborn photo

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

William Osborn photo ca. 1947

My husband and I took a day trip to look at some elevators in June, letting the kids off the hook and sparing ourselves their groans and complaints as we toured the countryside. Daykin was one of our stops. This J. H. Tillotson, Contractor elevator was built in 1947, according to my grandfather, William Osborn. He listed it among his previous projects when he was interviewed during construction of the McCook, Neb. elevator. As I went over the photographs for this post, I noticed, with excitement, that the photo matches one of grandpa’s unidentified photographs in every detail: The concrete driveway has the same inset from the corners, and the windows of the scale house match perfectly.  A mystery has been solved.

No one was about when we stopped to see the elevator, just before sunset. There was something beautiful about the scale house with its big, multi-paned windows, its blue trim, and its corner detail, with the elevator rising precipitously behind it.  I have admired all of Grandpa’s projects for their spare good looks.  I wonder how he saw these buildings.  It must have given him great satisfaction as he looked upon a completed project–or was it mainly relief? I know he loved tropical fish. He must have appreciated beauty for its own sake–at least a little bit. Was he too close to the elevators to see what I see? In certain light and at certain times, a beautifully done elevator takes your breath away.