Is it a Tillotson elevator in the Idaho Potato Commission’s TV ad?


Story by Ronald Ahrens

In a television ad for the Idaho Potato Commission, which last year observed its diamond jubilee, a flatbed truck goes missing while on tour with a giant potato. Among the many American landmarks visited in the twenty-five-second spot is a railroad crossing with a concrete grain elevator in the background.

The spot, called “Missing Truck,” was created by Evans, Hardy & Young. Its debut came Aug. 31, 2012, during the Boise State-Michigan State football game on ESPN. The storyline and airing schedule were detailed in a press release on the Idaho Potato Commission’s website.

Although we find nothing in the scene to indicate the exact location, the elevator sure looks to us like a Tillotson Construction job. The rounded headhouse and symmetrically placed windows tell as much. The slot for the driveway also is indicative.

So we phoned the Santa Barbara, Calif., office of EH&Y and left a voice message with Max Martens, vice president for public relations. Replying by email, Mr. Martens wrote, “As close as the art director can pinpoint, the location with the grain elevator was a rural area about a half hour west of Dallas, Texas.”

That’s more than we had to go on.

Meanwhile, we hope the truck and potato made it back to Idaho.

Vintage photos show aspects of how a grain elevator works

Elevator photos003

Story by Kristen Cart

Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. Luckily for us, old press photos have come on the market recently that show the inner workings of grain elevators in the past. Not much has changed over the years, since many of the elevators that served in the 1940s and 1950s are still in operation today.

The photo above shows a truck unloading into an elevator pit from the inside of a driveway. A grate covers the pit, and from the pit a leg serves the top of the elevator. A conveyor may also be in operation, delivering grain to the leg, depending on the size of the elevator or annex.

Elevator photos001

In the next image, you can see a worker beside the conveyor inside what looks like a run. Conveyors can be used in several places in an elevator complex, but they are normally installed in a run that delivers grain from an elevator headhouse for distribution to an annex, or they’re operating on a basement level that takes grain from an annex to the main elevator served by a headhouse and a leg.

Another place for a conveyor is from an elevator to a hopper or chute where a truck or rail car can be loaded. That is the case with this photo.

When grain is added to or taken from an elevator, it needs to be weighed and checked for moisture content to keep a strict account for the farmer and the elevator operator. Each truck arriving full will be weighed before delivery and also afterward, with the difference subtracted from the loaded weight to give the net weight of grain. Weight will change with moisture content, so that is an important figure to calculate.

When a truck arrives empty, it is weighed before loading, then weighed afterward to determine the net weight of grain. This process has always been an essential part of elevator operations from the earliest days.

Elevator photos002

Weighing the grain

Timeline for Tillotson Const., J.H. Tillotson, and Mayer-Osborn companies and jobs

Ronald Ahrens and Kristen Cart cofounded this blog. Gary Rich is a primary contributor. We have visited elevators around the United States and Canada.

Ronald’s maternal grandfather was Reginald Oscar “Mike” Tillotson.

Kristen’s paternal grandfather was William Arthur Osborn.

Reginald O. Tillotson

R. O. Tillotson

Reginald’s company was Tillotson Construction Co., of Omaha. The company had been building and repairing wooden elevators since the 1920s, when it was led by Reginald’s father Charles H. Tillotson. Before his death, experiments were made with slip-form concrete construction techniques.

1938: Charles dies, and the company passes to his sons Reginald and Joseph H. Tillotson and daughter Mary V. Tillotson. They begin to perfect slip-forming and refine their design strategy, which includes a rounded headhouse.

1945: Tillotson Construction builds a concrete elevator in Giddings, Tex. William Osborn works on this project. He is probably employed by the company by late in ’44. Tillotson Construction wins the contract to build in Elkhart, Kan., and starts construction.

1946: The 225,000-bushel elevator in Elkhart is completed. “Shortly after the war, my Dad and Joe decided they couldn’t see eye to eye, so they split,” writes Charles J. Tillotson in “The Tillotson Construction Story” on this blog. Joe forms J.H. Tillotson, Contractor in Denver. William Osborn works for Joe Tillotson.

William A. Osborn in 1965

William A. Osborn in 1965

1947: Tillotson Construction builds  the Vinton Street elevator in Omaha. Joe Tillotson dies in a car accident in March. J.H. Tillotson, Contractor builds at Daykin and Fairbury, Neb., and Hanover and Linn, Kan., with William Osborn supervising the projects. Maxine Carter leaves Tillotson Construction on Oct. 7 to wed Russell L. Bentley.

1948: Formed in September from the residue of J.H. Tillotson, Contractor, the Mayer-Osborn Company builds its first elevator at McCook, Neb. Joe Tillotson’s wife Sylvia was a Mayer, and her brother Eugene Mayer is one of the partners. William Osborn is the other. Meanwhile, Reginald begins to use a light airplane for business travel in the postwar years. Reginald’s nephew John Hassman joins Tillotson Construction in September; among many other duties, he pilots the company plane to jobs in Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Tillotson’s projects that year are in Paullina, Iowa, and Montevideo, Minn.

1949: John Hassman’s father Ralph, Reginald’s cousin, joins Tillotson Construction in sales and stays through 1952.

1950: Construction begins in November on the Tillotson house, which is built of concrete. It still stands north of Omaha. Tillotson employee Jess Weiser weds Lavonne Wiemers on Dec. 22.

1951: Drafted into the Air Force, John Hassman leaves Tillotson Construction in January.

Related articles

Hanging by a thread on the ‘wrecking-out’ scaffold, a young workman faces mortality

By Charles J. Tillotson

Editor’s note: Uncle Chuck here recalls one of the more harrowing experiences of his young life, when he was building grain elevators for Tillotson Construction Company. It occurred on what is called a wrecking scaffold–or to be more precise, during the scramble off one heading into the void.

From left, Tim Tillotson, Chuck Tillotson, and La Rose Tillotson Hunt, posing in June 2012 in Victorville, California.

From left, Tim Tillotson, Chuck Tillotson, and La Rose Tillotson Hunt, posing in June 2012 in Victorville, California.

When the slip-form process reached the intended height of construction, all wood form-work and other equipment and devices were removed from the structure via an external hoist.

The final portion of the demolition process, the removal of the wood forms, involved the most difficult and dangerous part of the operation, that being the “wrecking out” of the wood forms and decking material that is, by design, trapped inside each of the grain tanks.

All of this wooden material must be removed, and it must be done from the inside.

This is accomplished by utilizing a temporary platform, or wrecking-out scaffold, suspended within each tank.

Elevator design preconceived the need for a ‘wrecking-out’ platform

In preparation for the building of a temporary platform, cutout sleeves and manhole forms are strategically placed to allow cable and scaffold planking to be inserted into the tanks after the concrete roof deck has been poured. The cutouts, usually four round holes per tank, are each large enough in diameter for insertion of a cable with a preconstructed loop end.

Via the manhole, planks are slid through to a workman who is suspended on a rope with a bosun’s chair, allowing him to have a hands-free position.

He takes the planking being passed down to him and extends the two major beam planks through the hanging cable loops.

After the beam planks are in place, scaffold planking is installed perpendicular to the beams in such a way as to create a solid plank platform.

The final scaffold then becomes a square platform suspended in a round tank.

The void on each side of the scaffold is used for lowering or throwing the wood material into the tank’s dark abyss. After all the overhead wrecking has been accomplished, another team gains access to the tank’s bottom via a manhole in the side of the tank at or near ground level.

The noon whistle as harbinger of doom

This description of building the wrecking-out scaffold sets the stage on another personal experience with the perils of constructing grain elevators.

It took place when I was assigned duty on the wrecking-out scaffold. The morning of labor with two other workmen had passed without incident, and when the town’s noon whistle blew, we three stopped for lunch.

The beginning of Tillotson Construction's job in Flagler, Colo.

The beginning of Tillotson Construction’s job in Flagler, Colo.

Typically, rather than have the wrecking crew go through the process of crawling or being lifted back up through the manholes and then go in reverse to gain access to the platform again, the workmen just brought their lunches down to the platform and ate them there.

As we sat on the planking in this semi-dark and dank grain tank, eating our lunches and telling war stories, I heard a plunking noise that sounded like someone had dropped a rock onto the scaffold. It seemed to come from the corner behind me. I didn’t pay much attention and soon rejoined the important conversation taking place.

About five minutes later, I noticed another similar sound and asked the other two workmen if they had heard it, too. Neither of them had. They went back to talking. But within minutes another “rock” hit the scaffold and simultaneously one corner tilted down.

A precarious situation soon becomes a mortal threat

We suddenly realized the nut fasteners of the cable clamps–which were U-shaped and bolted around the main cable drop and the end of the cable loop–had somehow unwound. (Two cable clamps were used per loop, each clamp having two fastener nuts turned sufficiently tight to form a bond on the loop.)

So only one nut remained on the cable clamp to hold the loop and that corner of the scaffold.

To save ourselves from this sinking ship, we quickly helped one another by doing a foot-up maneuver, with the first man out through the manhole above. Once he crawled to safety on the deck, he reached down for the next one and yanked him through.

I had been sitting the furthest away from the manhole, so I was the last man out.

Again, as with my previously described narrow escape (see the link below), God was watching after me.

Just as I punched through to safety on the roof, I heard the cable loop fail and the scaffolding crash into the tank’s deep dark recesses.

Why worker safety was a secondary consideration

In those days, there were many similar incidents that occurred during the construction process.

Contributing to the lack of safety precautions was the use of unskilled labor. Most of it came from the surrounding farm community, and these men had no background in construction.

Lives were lost, and assumptions were made that this would occur, as the ultimate goal was building grain storage as quickly as possible. Safeguarding life and limb took a secondary position to that effort.

An inside look at the J. H. Tillotson elevator at Hanover, Kansas

The J. H. Tillotson straight-up elevator in Hanover, Kan. just after a rain

The J. H. Tillotson straight-up elevator in Hanover, Kan. just after a rain. 

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

One of the loveliest elevators J. H. Tillotson, Contractor ever built is still in use at Hanover, Kansas. Last October, during a visit to this small Washington County town just seven miles south of the Nebraska border, I photographed the elevator under moody skies and marveled at its clean, graceful lines. Then it was time to get to the business of finding out about it.


Ryan Riekenberg takes a moment to show me around the elevator.

Fortunately, Ryan Rieckenberg, a twenty-year employee of the Farmers Cooperative Association, was on hand to show me inside. He had previously worked for the grain department and currently worked as a crop sprayer. He said before the Hanover location joined the Worchester-based Farmers Cooperative, it operated its own association called the Farmers Union of Hanover. He said the elevator was currently used for milo.

The manhole cover identified the builder

Manhole cover

He pulled up in his truck, fished out his keys, and took me into the elevator to look at its interior, including the manhole covers that positively identified the elevator as a J. H. Tillotson project.

As he unlocked the door, Ryan supplied some historical details. The elevator had been built beside an old wooden elevator, which was used as a feed mill until it was demolished about eight years ago. We entered the doorway a couple of steps up from the gravel drive where the old wooden edifice used to stand.


The elevator leg

Once inside, we could see the leg in the center of the elevator. A grate covered the pit, and Ryan opened the grate to display the sloped bottom where the grain would funnel toward the base of the leg, to be scooped up and carried to the top of the elevator for distribution to the bins. The leg extended all the way to the bottom of the pit. A ladder went into the pit from another opening, providing access for cleaning and maintenance.

Nearby, a cage-enclosed man-lift gave access to the integral head-house at the top of the elevator. The cage was almost certainly a later modification, since the old man lifts didn’t have them.


The distribution diagram

Prominently displayed on one of the bins was a diagram of the elevator and its annex. Here the storage assignments for each of the bins were noted, including the neighboring steel bin, which was served by the same integral head-house with a chute from the top of the elevator. Presumably, “M” stood for milo, and a note indicated that the steel bin held corn. Perhaps “F’ indicated feed, but that is just a guess.

I’m not sure why someone wrote “I love #1 house,” but if they meant this lovely elevator that my grandfather, William Osborn, built for Joe Tillotson’s company in 1947, I must share the sentiment. It was a dandy, and it appeared to have a long, useful life ahead of it.


A view from the west side where the feed mill used to stand. 

At Tillotson’s Albert City, Iowa, job, a deckhand’s pendulous moments

This photo, provided by Kristen Cart from Osborn family archives, shows a deckhand standing nonchalantly on elevator formwork. Kristen believes the picture may have been taken in Giddings, Texas, in 1945.

This photo, provided by Kristen Cart from Osborn family archives, shows a deckhand standing nonchalantly on elevator formwork. Kristen believes the picture may have been taken in Giddings, Texas, when Tillotson Construction Co. built there in 1945.

Story by Charles J. Tillotson

Reinforced-concrete grain elevators used the slip-form method of construction, whereby a wooden form system was built on the ground, having the footprint required to configure the grain-storage tanks.

Once the forms were in place and the vertical lifting and jacking system assembled, laborers began installing rebar and pouring cement into these forms.

When the forms were filled to the top–about four feet–the lifting and slipping commenced by turning screw jacks placed strategically throughout the formwork. After this procedure of vertical form lifting and rebar setting and cement pouring began, it never stopped until the structure reached its intended height, usually between 100 and 120 feet.

thThis process was the intended norm but was oftentimes interrupted by a myriad of problems, which caused the form-slipping to come to a halt. One of these instances occurred one night when I was eighteen or nineteen, working as a deckhand in Albert City, Iowa, for the family’s construction company.

The structure had reached about eighty feet in height when the electrical power supplying the lighting system and other machinery was cut off by a huge summer storm distributing lots of rain and wind throughout the area.

All personnel, including myself, were stranded on the stationary deck with little else to do but wait out the storm and the return of power.

A few hours of waiting produced a carload of my friends that had arrived on the surface. They were yelling for me to come down and join them. The only possible way to get off the tower was the vertical “ship’s ladder” that was installed in sections on the side of the rising structure.

Access to this emergency ladder was gained by going over the side of the formwork to the finishing scaffold below. Here, a rope was suspended down to the uppermost section of the ship’s ladder. The length of the rope was normally long enough so that a person could slide down it and gain hold of the ladder’s top rung.

I say normally the rope was long enough, based on the fact that the ladder sections were routinely placed sufficient to keep pace with the ever-vertical movement of the concrete structure.

However, as I soon discovered on this particular stormy night, the norm didn’t prevail. I hopped over the side of the formwork and reached for the rope hanging from the finishing scaffold’s frames. It was pitch black, and the wind was blowing to go along with heavy rain, but I was able to find the rope and swing off the side.

The first thing I discovered was that the wind was so strong, it blew me sideways and shoved me around the bin tank.

When the gusting stopped, I was able to line up vertically above the supposed location of the ship’s ladder.

So, undeterred, I slid down the rope—but not very far before another gust of wind blew. I had to stop sliding down and let it subside.

This process went on for a number of iterations, and as I slowly went down the rope, I began to wonder where the top of the ladder was exactly.

I was running out of rope.

With about three feet left, I really started sweating–I still couldn’t see the top of the ladder.

Because I had become somewhat exhausted while sliding down, swinging back and forth like a teabag, I knew I couldn’t crawl back up to the scaffold.

Now I reached the very end of the rope, and a big blast of wind blew me away and around the tank. When that gust stopped, I flew back around and by sheer luck found purchase with my foot on the top rung of the ladder. Another blast hit me, but with my foot hooked under the top rung, I stabilized myself.

With my strength ebbing, if I was going to survive, I had to make an attempt to release the rope, drop down along the ladder, and catch a rung. (Any rung would do.) So, with trepid emotions, I let go of the rope and dropped.

The testimony of my luck (and strength and skill of course) is that I am able today to relate this harrowing story.

As I released the rope I yelled up to the top of the tower to alert other personnel that they shouldn’t attempt to do what I had done. I’m sure I saved someone else’s life besides my own that night.

But the message of this story is that constructing grain elevators in the early days was filled with these types of unsafe conditions where protection of life was not as important and took a back seat to getting the job done.

There was grain being harvested in the fields, and it needed a place to be stored. The nation was on the upswing, growing by leaps and bounds, and in need of being fed.

My woulda, coulda, shoulda grain elevator opportunity in Tonkawa, Oklahoma


Story and photo by Ronald Ahrens

I am the type of person who goes around the country saying funny (as in odd) things to people.

It was June of 2011, six months before Kristen Cart and I found each other and first contemplated launching a blog about our grandfathers’ grain elevators. I was riding my motorcycle from Michigan to California. Instead of following I-44, I cut across the northern Oklahoma prairie on US-60. On this route the small city of Bartlesville features a Frank Lloyd Wright tower, which I visited.

My next stop was for dinner in Tonkawa, a small town of about 3250 people. It’s a mile off the highway just east of I-35.

Adapted from Wikipedia's OK county maps by Set...

Parking my bike outside a Mexican restaurant, I noticed the huge elevator towering over the downtown buildings.

Once I got seated in the restaurant and ordered from the menu, I told the waitress I was going out for a minute to take a picture.

“My grandfather used to build elevators like that,” I said.

She looked at me as if to say, “What elevator?”

It might be possible to live in Tonkawa and never notice the commanding headhouse and dozen or more bins. I walk around inside my house without seeing the art that hangs on the walls or the cobwebs that hang in the corners.

At the time, I had no thought of snooping around after dinner, while there was still some daylight, and searching for embossed manhole covers or some other means of identifying the builder. I didn’t yet know about embossed manhole covers.

Not that this appears to be one of Tillotson Construction’s jobs. My cursory search for information has turned up nothing, and the number I found for the co-op responded with a fax tone.

Maybe our readers can pitch in on this one.

But odd remarks will not be tolerated!

The J. H. Tillotson elevator at Linn, Kansas, stands unused, idled by regulatory changes

The elevator built by J. H. Tillotson is flanked by later additions.

This handsome elevator built by J. H. Tillotson is flanked by later additions.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

While the concrete elevator at Fairbury, Neb., was being built, rising by nine feet every twenty-hour workday, the elevators no more than thirty miles away at Hanover and Linn, Kan., were also nearing completion, according to a newspaper clipping found in my grandfather’s papers. J.H. Tillotson, Contractor, based in Denver, had all three projects going for the 1947 harvest.

Though we knew my grandfather, William Osborn, worked as superintendent at Fairbury, my dad didn’t remember his father working on the two Kansas elevators, so in October  2012, I took a swing through Kansas to investigate them.

The Chalmers and Borton elevator at Linn is still in use.

The Chalmers & Borton elevator at Linn is still in use.

The first elevator that came into view in Linn was a 1950s-vintage Chalmers & Borton structure of about 250,000-bushel capacity, judging from its appearance. Across the town square, a couple blocks away along an extinct railroad bed, was another elevator that did not fit my notion of any J. H. Tillotson design, since it sported a rectangular head house. I peered at it from all angles, straining to see any lettering on the manhole cover about halfway up, without much success. I thought perhaps the old J. H. Tillotson elevator hadn’t survived and that I was too late, as had happened at Maywood, Neb.

Finally, I drove over to the co-op office to learn more. Jeff Wiese, the location manager for the York-based United Farmers Cooperative, kindly agreed to answer questions about the old elevator. Jeff said he had worked for the local elevator cooperative since 1994, first in petroleum, then as an implement dealer, and finally as manager in 2000. In 2005, UFC took over from the Farmers Cooperative Equity Association, which, in turn, was formed when the Linn Cooperative Exchange joined with Greenleaf.

Jeff said that when the old elevator was first built, farmers thought they would never fill it, but new capacity was needed almost immediately. To my surprise, he said the manhole covers on the interior of the elevator were embossed with “J. H. Tillotson, Denver, Colo.,” though I was not able to go inside and see them. The old elevator was still there, graceful and sturdy, but locked up and no longer used.

The unusual square head house incorporates stylish details.

The unusual square headhouse incorporates stylish details.

The Tillotson elevator fell victim to economic realities after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) ordered safety upgrades under new federal rules. The agency had taken a keen interest in elevator operations since the 1998 DeBruce elevator explosion in Wichita, Kan., and many safety regulations stemmed from the analysis of that accident. Dust management and cleanliness became paramount. The Linn elevator’s older, lower-capacity design meant it could no longer earn its keep after the cost of improvements, so it retired after the 2011 growing season, now finally empty of its last harvest of wheat.

This type of elevator also commonly required a safety upgrade for its man lift. Everywhere the old elevators are still operating, new OSHA-mandated safety cages enclose the man lifts, ostensibly to prevent certain types of injuries or death.

It is fair to say that the old Linn elevator is endangered, and will be torn down as soon as it is convenient.

A nearby house with painted mural.

It seems a shame that another Kansas landmark, nestled and quite at home amid tidy houses and bustling businesses, should soon disappear. Beside it is a home painted with a mural depicting gaily flapping laundry on a clothesline, and across the street stands a grocery. A neatly mowed park occupies the old railroad right-of-way.

The elevator has been there as long as most people can remember. Luckily, I was able to pay my respects, and tip my hat to my grandfather’s stately work of long ago, before it passes into memory.


An old aerial view of the Linn, Kan., elevator after the annexes were added. Note the old vehicles in the photo.

Our grandfathers’ construction companies managed to escape the dreaded ‘blowout’

Written on the back of this photo: "This is the Bird City elevator that busted. This is the one Parrish built."

Written on the back of this photo from the Linda Laird Collection: “This is the Bird City elevator that busted. This is the one Parrish built.”

Story by Gary Rich

Vickroy-Mong built the Bird City, Kan., elevator in 1950. It was ready for that year’s wheat harvest. But sometime afterward, the elevator had a blowout.

A nightmare for any elevator builder, a blowout can happen if too little rebar is used when pouring the concrete. There is a lot of pressure on the bins once you put grain in them. And the weakest point is on the outside.

As you see in the photo, part of the outside section fell to the ground. The grain would have spilled out, too. Note that some grain remains inside the bin.

Chalmers & Borton received the contract for the repair work here. It is unknown if they fixed only the damaged bin or found others were flawed.

The Chalmers & Borton superintendent was W. Grammer. The job number was 50-K-62. Work began later in 1950, probably by fall.

The Bird City elevator wouldn’t have been good advertising for Vickroy-Mong. It’s not known if they built any other elevators.

A house of slip-formed concrete was Reginald Tillotson’s pet project in 1950

Tillotson Home

By Ronald Ahrens

An early post on this blog included John Hassman’s recollection of design and construction of the house Reginald Tillotson built on a hilltop north of Omaha’s Florence neighborhood:

“While in the office I [was] trained by the office engineer to design buildings and was the major designer with R.O. to build his new home in Florence, Neb. Many mornings he would arrive with new ideas of what he wanted changed in the house, and we would start all over. Starting in Nov. 1950 we began construction on the new house. The foremen were kept busy in the winter doing that work. All using a concrete house with the ideas we used in Elevator Const. That was the coldest, windiest place to work in December. I left to go the the Air Force because I was about to be drafted in the middle of the Korean War.” 

The house, of course, still stands, and is the home of Michael Tillotson, youngest son of Reginald and Margaret.

It did not incorporate Tillotson Construction’s signature rounded headhouse!

As a grandchild who spent a lot of time there, I always though it was remarkable because of the use of glass blocks as a design feature. The entire second floor was reserved as a music and game area. And despite the single garage door, there was a second “lane” to the right when you drove in.

But Uncle Mike always had it blocked with his relics.