Good corn is good news at Altoona, Iowa


“Nice corn” goes straight into storage without a stop in the dryer.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

One of the elevators on my list to see was the facility built in Altoona, Iowa by Tillotson Construction Company. It was reported to be the near-twin of the elevator in Mitchellville, Iowa. It is located about a half-mile south of I-80 in Altoona, just east of Des Moines, off an exit prominently marked by a Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World. Its business partner, the Bondurant elevator, stands about a mile away, on the north side of the Interstate. Farmers Cooperative operates both elevators.

Farmers Co-op, instantly recognizable by its trademark “FC”, is the largest Co-op in Iowa with more than sixty locations. It employs four full-time truckers in the local area serving Altoona in addition to the farm trucks that serve the location.


The manhole cover on bin number 4 indicates the builder and year of construction.

The Altoona elevator was built in 1954. The manhole covers, furnished by the Hutchinson Foundry, of Hutchinson, Kan., indicate the builder and the year of construction. Most of the covers are inside the elevator, but there is one also on the outside near the ground, which is typical of Tillotson elevators. A large grain dryer flanks the elevator on the east side.


Jacob Holloway, driver for Gibson Farms, paused for a photo after delivering grain.

When I stopped to visit in October, Pat Printy, a thirty-year employee of the Farmers Co-op, shared some of the history of the elevator. He also explained the elevator’s operations during harvest and the significance of good corn.

Sam Wise, former mayor of Altoona, owned the elevator before the cooperative purchased it in 1963 for $175,000. Farmers Co-op began operating the elevator in 1964. About ten years ago, the elevator headhouse had to be rebuilt because of cracking concrete, but it still retains its Tillotson-style rounded contours. The elevator is currently used for beans and corn.

A truck came up to deliver corn while I visited. Pat Printy vacuumed a sample into the building and tested it for moisture content. He placed a scoop of it on the counter for me to see.

“Nice corn,” Pat commented. I asked why. He said it was dry enough to store, at about 14 percent moisture content. Corn with a moisture content of 14 percent or less was dry enough to go into storage without drying, and depended on the right weather conditions to arrive already dry from the field. If the moisture content was over 15.5 percent, the corn would be in danger of spoilage if it was not dried right away.

Exceptionally wet corn could become a problem because the dryer could only treat 2,500 bushels per hour. Each truck holds about 950 bushels, so during a wet harvest the dryer would become a bottleneck. Pat said the dryer at Altoona was an old one, but the dryer at Bondurant was newer and much faster.

The elevator was busy the day I stopped by, both accepting corn and moving beans out for transfer into the larger Bondurant elevator about a mile away. Ninety-five percent of the bean harvest was already in, and the Altoona elevator needed to make room for some nice, dry corn.

The Altoona, Iowa elevator built by Tillotson Construction of Omaha

A grain truck driver pointed out that Tillotson Construction Company’s Altoona, Iowa, elevator, seen here, is very similar to another of the company’s creations, which is found in Mitchellville, Iowa.

Tillotson Construction’s postwar business card, in full color, is a story in itself


By Ronald Ahrens

Reginald Tillotson’s business card from the years after World War Two demands some interpretation.

The splashy color side—perhaps a bit of an extravagance, although surely effective when handed to a co-op manager in a remote district—presents the image of what we’re sure is the Vinton Street elevator. Completed in 1947, this South Omaha elevator with its unusual, towering headhouse, would be a showcase for any builder.

On the back, above the rule, the range of Tillotson Construction’s services is spelled out. We don’t yet know much about the mills and warehouses but hope some information will turn up.

Below the rule, we find the six-character telephone number from the alphanumeric dialing days. Local exchanges were assigned prefix names from Bell Telephone’s mostly generic list. Besides Atlantic, Omaha exchanges were named Jackson, Prospect, Regent, and so on.

Seven-digit numbers replaced Omaha’s alphanumeric plan in 1960. The Atlantic exchange received the numerical prefix of 341.

Numerical postal zones, introduced during World War Two, were replaced when the national zip code system was introduced in 1963.

Reginald Oscar Tillotson was widely known as Mike. It could have been that Reginald was too exotic for the time and place, so he picked the nickname for himself.

Hutchinson Foundry, where manhole covers were cast, closed in 1972


Hutchinson Foundry, photo courtesy of Linda Laird

The “foundry” in Hutchinson Foundry & Steel Inc., D and Washington, will be a misnomer after Oct. 1.

Blaming federal safety requirements, the firm has announced it will shut down its gray iron foundry on that date.

Ken Green, general manager, said last week that the measure is being taken because of requirements for environmental air dust handling handed down by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Green said that the step is not being taken because of new state air quality requirements.

OSHA has not inspected the Hutchinson foundry. But Green says it would take construction of a new facility to meet the standards which are designed to prevent employees from breathing pollutants.

Hutchinson Foundry, photo courtesy of Linda Laird

Hutchinson Foundry, photo courtesy of Linda Laird

As for the state regulations, Green remains confident that the foundry could meet those regulations. In fact, the state had given preliminary approval for the preliminary design of a scrubber.

The company, which will get a new name, will continue manufacturing structural steel, fabrication and building specialties.

Closing the foundry will mean the loss of 13 employees. But Green expects some of this loss—all of it in the long run—will be offset by the manufacture of a small hydraulic iron worker.

The iron worker was designed and engineered by Harry Oswalt, Garden City, president of the Hutchinson firm. Oswalt hand-built the prototype model which is now in operation at the plant.

Manufacture of the iron worker is expected to begin within six months.

Hutchinson Foundry, photo courtesy of Linda Laird

Hutchinson Foundry, photo courtesy of Linda Laird

The foundry has been working on an arrangement with Wyatt Manufacturing Co., Inc., Salina, whereby the firms patterns and customers will be transferred to Wyatt’s foundry operation.

Hutchinson (Kan.) News, August 13, 1972 

How we know Tillotson Construction built the Burlington, Colorado, grain elevator


Story by Charles J. Tillotson and photos by Gary Rich

Editor’s note: Chuck Tillotson had just finished high school in Omaha when he and his two younger brothers, Tim, 16, and Mike, 13, were dispatched by their father, Reginald, to work on the family construction company’s grain elevator project in Flagler, Colo. Chuck had drawn up the plans himself in the preceding months during breaks from school. They drove out together in a 1953 Ford, towing the twenty-eight-foot travel trailer in which they would live for the duration. To the best of Uncle Chuck’s recollection, they subsisted on beans and wieners when they weren’t dining in the Flagler cafe. “That was when Tim and I weren’t screaming over to Elitches Park outdoor pavilion, in Denver, some 120 miles to the west, to squeeze in a night of dancing and return at daybreak to assume our work shift—no sleep of course.” Uncle Mike fended for himself, alone, in Flagler. 

When we were building the Flagler job in 1953, Tillotson also commenced the construction of a new elevator in Burlington, Colo. The thing I remember about that job is a story regarding a cement mixer.

We had contracted with a local hauler with a pickup truck to relocate one of our mixers to the Burlington job, which was about forty-five miles to the east on US-24.

He came one day, hitched it up to the back end of his pickup, and started off down the road. Just about where the Flagler town sign is, the road made a ninety-degree turn, and then it crossed the tracks to the south.

The hauler made the turn and started southward. Just as he crossed the tracks, his truck ran out of gas.

He ended up stalled—with the mixer straddling the tracks.

Every afternoon about 3:00 p.m., the eastbound passenger train came roaring along toward Kansas.

Well, the hauler jumped out of his truck and started running, ’cause he heard the train a-comin’, comin’ down the track, clickety-clack, like Johnny Cash sings.

The train barely slowed down as it passed through town, and it ended up smashing the mixer to smithereens.

The engine, and, as I recall at least, one of the first cars behind, were derailed.

It was a mess, but no one was injured.

That’s how I know we built Burlington.

It looks like a Tillotson elevator in Bird City, Kansas, but it’s a surprise instead

Wheeler, KS 044 copy

Story and photos by Gary Rich

I wanted some information about the Bird City Equity Co-op elevator that is now operated by Frontier Ag, Inc. Bird City is located on U.S.-36 in Cheyenne County, Kan., which is in the very northwestern corner of the state.

The Bird City elevator features a rounded headhouse.

The Bird City elevator features a rounded headhouse.

I was positive this elevator was built by Tillotson Construction Company, of Omaha, Neb. I called the elevator manager prior to my trip and drove to Bird City on Dec. 7. Upon arriving I went into the office. It was noon, so the whole crew was having lunch. I introduced myself to the manager. One employee told me there was a plaque on the outside of the elevator. I have never seen a plaque on a Tillotson elevator. I guess I should have had some qualms at this point that it wasn’t a Tillotson elevator.

We walked out to the elevator. The plaque, dated 1950, showed the elevator was built by Vickroy-Mong Construction Company, of Salina, Kan. Another interesting thing: the manhole covers in most elevators were produced by the Hutchinson Foundry, of Hutchinson, Kan, but these were made in Salina by Wyatt Manufacturing.

There have been other stories in our blog about elevators that Mayer-Osborn built and another construction company that was building identical elevators. This company was Johnson-Sampson Construction Company, of Salina, Kansas. Now, we have Vickroy-Mong building a Tillotson-lookalike elevator.

It has been demonstrated that the curved headhouse was a Tillotson signature. Did someone leave the Tillotson operation and branch out on his own, or were the plans sold to Vickroy-Mong?

In the future, I plan on photographing the Bird City elevator in more detail and will compare it closely to a Tillotson elevator.

Stay tuned for more information.

Editor’s note on Dec. 14: The reference desk at the Salina Public Library has come through with information that Carl Vickroy and Raymond Mong were partners in a company located on South 9th Street, according to the Salina city directory of 1950. Additionally, it’s possible that the Hutchinson Foundry produced the manhole covers for Wyatt Manufacturing. 

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Concrete’s prevalence in elevator construction was ‘just a matter of time’

Photo from The American Grain Elevator: Function & Form, by Linda Laird, courtesy of Grain Elevator Press.

Photo from The American Grain Elevator: Function & Form, by Linda Laird, courtesy of Grain Elevator Press.

The American Grain Elevator: Form & Function

By Linda Laird
(Grain Elevator Press, 120 pages, $23)

Because men with shovels weren’t quite up to the task of unloading farmer’s wagons and filling rail cars with wheat or corn, grain elevators became prevalent after railroads pushed through the American grain belt in the 1870s. A line elevator, each with a mechanical leg that lifted the grain for distribution, was put up on nearly every rail spur on the prairies and plains.

imagesIn those days, elevators were made of wood in studded or crib-style construction. Although many of those buildings were clad with galvanized steel, they remained vulnerable to the prodigious quantities of sparks thrown off by visiting locomotives.

Seeking reliably fireproof structures, some buildings tried brick but found it “not a satisfactory solution,” reports Linda Laird in The American Grain Elevator: Form & Function. (Order here.) The book published earlier this year supplies useful perspective on trends as well as carefully detailing how a grain elevators works.

Ceramic tiles strengthened by steel bands have been used in building elevators, and iron and steel structures stand here and there in defiance of rust. In the latter case, several good examples from Kansas are shown by Ms. Laird, who has a background in historic preservation and devoted herself to photographing 1200 elevators in the Sunflower State.

But as she notes in her deftly written book, from the time of Peavy’s Folly, an 1899 experimental elevator near Minneapolis, the solution was at hand and “it was just a matter of time before the use of concrete would revolutionize the grain storage business in America.” Concrete was costly, but lower insurance rates helped in the recovery of costs. Much to the dismay of insects and rodents, which were always a problem at wooden elevators, the editors of influential periodicals like Grain Dealers Journal encouraged the new material’s use. Low-cost government financing later became available.

Specialized crews skilled in the slip-form technique began to create towering silos topped by fantastic cupolas, or headhouses, of varying heights. Farmers’ co-op elevators were modest jobs. Others were epic affairs like the half-mile-long, 18.3-million-bushel terminal in Hutchinson, Kan., where Ms. Laird lives.

Frank photos and helpful drawings make the results vivid, but historic images documenting the rise of Chalmers & Borton’s massive annex at Topeka, Kan.–an exercise that took just seven days in 1955–are the coup de grace.

Thanks to Ms. Laird’s splendid work, it’s easier now to understand what our own grandfathers accomplished, and how they did it. From heaps of lumber and steel on flat ground by the tracks, they ascended skyward, leaving behind functional, impermeable buildings that are also enduring monuments to enterprise and bounty.

— Ronald Ahrens

Tillotson Construction’s classic elevator makes a good neighbor in Clifton, Kansas

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

The north-central Kansas town of Clifton is dominated at each end by a massive elevator. At one end of the main drag is a huge metal-sided wood elevator rising prominently above the street, and at the other is a gleaming white concrete elevator with its annex. The two elevators, defining the town skyline, are the center of the town’s agricultural business. Clifton’s concrete elevator was very busy during a visit there in October.


The Clifton elevator, built by Tillotson Construction Company, of Omaha, Neb., defines the town skyline.

The characteristic rounded headhouse epitomized the classic Tillotson Construction Company style. After sixty-odd years of continuous use, the durable elevator was still going full steam ahead during the harvest. Several trucks pulled through the driveway while I watched, and it looked like more were waiting.


Its neighboring landmark, the wooden elevator, was deserted and may have been retired, but anyone entering the town would be immediately impressed by its size. The two elevators together represented a continuum of agricultural cooperation and success, beginning in the first half of the twentieth century and still going strong in the twenty-first.

The concrete elevator had a manhole cover on the exterior that identified the builder as Tillotson Construction Company of Omaha, Neb., but you could see that fact from a mile away by looking at the headhouse. The elevator was very representative of its type.

John B. Tillinghast, the location supervisor for United Farmers Co-op, cheerfully stood for a picture in front of his charge. He said the elevator was built in 1953.


The familiar rounded headhouse atop a straight-up elevator was Tillotson Construction’s signature design.


John B. Tillinghast, location supervisor for United Farmers Co-op.


Clifton elevator with annex.


Manhole cover names builder.