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 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 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.
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.
- It looks like a Tillotson elevator in Bird City, Kansas, but it’s a surprise instead (ourgrandfathersgrainelevators.com)
- By making tricky distinctions, it’s possible to discern the builder of an elevator (ourgrandfathersgrainelevators.com)