Wauneta, Nebraska’s elevator tells a compelling business story

Wauneta’s original elevator–built by J. H. Tillotson, Contractors, of Denver–is the centerpiece of the complex.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

In a sense, writing about the elevator at Wauneta, Neb., is saving the best for last. I visited Wauneta in June and held off writing about it, hoping for documentary confirmation that my grandfather, William Osborn, built it. But my dad, Gerald Osborn, said that he did, and when I visited, the clean lines and design details of the straight up elevator confirmed it.  It was without question one of J. H. Tillotson, Contractor’s efforts. My grandfather led the company’s construction effort in the late forties.

Cindy Fischer of the Frenchman Valley Cooperative

What I found there surpassed expectations. Cindy Fischer warmly welcomed me into the Frenchman Valley Co-op office, and kindly opened up the co-op records room, giving access to the history of the Wauneta elevator. We carefully unrolled blueprint after blueprint on the counter. The records showed that very soon after the original elevator was built, the cooperative found itself short of storage space as the grain boom (helped by federal subsidies) grew. So the co-op went shopping for an annex.

The Treow-Jensen built annex

The familiar name Mayer-Osborn Construction popped out immediately, on an old, yellowed set of blueprints, but the plans did not match what was eventually built. It left me scratching my head until I saw the plans submitted by Treow-Jensen. Ah, hah!  We were looking at competing proposals for the annex, and Mayer-Osborn had submitted two alternatives but was beat out by a lower-cost bidder. Treow-Jensen built Wauneta’s first annex in 1955. Jarvis Construction came in later to complete another annex in 1977.

Gary Rich, who contributes to Our Grandfathers’ Grain Elevators, had visited Wauneta before, and he and I had a protracted debate about what all the blueprints meant, since we found “Holmen and Mayer” on the plans for a building. What we could never settle was the identity of the builder of original elevator, whose plans were nowhere to be found. Eventually, we agreed to leave our diverging interpretations up in the air, all in good humor.

Cindy gave me access to the inside of the straight up elevator. She said that it had been completely redone, so the familiar Hutchinson Foundry manhole covers were absent. The replacement covers gave no indication of the elevator’s builder. Happily, the elevator appears to be ready to take on another sixty or more years of active service.

I wish to thank Cindy Fischer for her kindness and all of her time. We spent a whole morning going through plans, and I borrowed a number of them to be reprinted for my own records. She showed me, for the first time, the sales and engineering aspects of the Mayer-Osborn business. Many of these kinds of records have disappeared over the years, so she afforded a unique opportunity to peer into the past and see Grandpa’s business in a new light.

For that, I am grateful.

Elevator operations