‘Walking the plank’ on the new Pocahontas, Iowa, elevator in 1954


By Charles J. Tillotson

Safety and the preservation of life have become much more important in today’s world of construction. However, during the 1940s and 1950s, the urgent need to build grain storage coupled with the fact that most elevators were built in very rural areas meant that safety was secondary to getting the job done.

A case in point was a personal experience I had while working in Pocahontas, Iowa.

As with most small towns, the labor pool was rather limited to itinerant farmhands and workmen passing through town. Scaffolding and access walkways were pieced together in a very haphazard way–the means to an end.

One day I was working “up top” of the newly built grain tanks and needed to cross over from the new tanks to the deck of the existing elevator. The distance between the two structures was probably eight feet. To span the gap, two 2×12 planks were placed down between the two structures.

As I began my “walk the planks,” I stubbed my toe on the butt end of one of them. Accordingly, I stumbled forward–but was fortunate enough to regain my footing and continued on across to the other structure.

I realized then how easy it would be to make a misstep and end up at the bottom of the chasm.

Map of Iowa highlighting Pocahontas County

Map of Iowa highlighting Pocahontas County (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While working in Pocahontas I met a young man, a few years older than I, who had been passing through town on his way back to his home in Hinton, Iowa. His name was Marv, and he had signed on as a carpenter. It was refreshing to me when I met Marv, as he seemed to be a person who was not only a good worker but an intelligent one as well.

When the summer came to an end I had to return to school, and so I said my good-byes to Marv and all the crew on the job. Later that year I learned that Marvin Richards had fallen to his death on the Hinton job (Tillotson-built) while attempting to cross over between two structures.

Hearing the news of his death, I assumed he was the same person I had encountered.

That same summer, Larry Ryan, the hoist operator working for Tillotson Construction Company on the Pocahontas job, had a similar mishap. During Larry’s break from the hoist, he decided to go up through the existing elevator terminal and cross over to the new construction to deliver a piece of angle iron needed by someone up top.

Again, somehow he lost his balance on the planking, and he, too, fell to his death.

It was eerie to think about how, more than once, I had come so close to doing the same thing and just how dangerous an act this was. On the other hand, the concept was fairly simple and straightforward: two 2×12 planks, side by side, laid down between two structures and spanning a distance of only six or eight feet. Not much to it – but only if you don’t slip, stumble, or in some way lose your balance!

At minimum, there should have been a safety railing on one or both sides of the planking.

But, back then, there just wasn’t enough attention given to safety and the value of human life.

Of course, I learned a valuable lesson in precaution and safety from these incidents, which I carried with me throughout my construction career.

Hunting for a J. H. Tillotson elevator in St. Francis, Kansas

Elevator photos012

Postcard of early concrete elevator in St. Francis, Kan.

Story by Kristen Cart

Grandpa was pretty good at naming his elevators when he talked to the press. While building the McCook, Neb., elevator, William Osborn spoke about a number of his previous projects that were built while he worked for J.H. Tillotson, Contractor.

He named six elevators he built in Maywood, Wauneta, Daykin, Fairbury, and Lodgepole, Neb., and Traer, Kan.

McCook’s elevator, then under construction, was much larger than the rest, but he named one other elevator in the area that was of similar size, that one in St. Francis, Kan. He said he built that one, too.

The newspaper clipping and my dad’s recollections were all we had to go on when our family made the first trip to western Nebraska and Kansas to see grandpa’s elevators.

All of the elevators–save one–were easy to find (even Maywood, whose present incarnation is a rubble pile not far from the surviving elevators).

When we visited St. Francis, we stopped at one likely elevator complex, where my hopes were dashed when I saw the “Jarvis” name on the manhole covers. The other complex in town seemed far too big and looked very much like every other Chalmers and Borton project I had ever seen. Besides, it was getting dark and we had to put more miles behind us, since this elevator nonsense was just one of “Mom’s diversions” from the primary mission of going kayaking on the Niobrara River. So our first opportunity passed without finding grandpa’s elevator.

Dated 1947, the postcard highlights a major local landmark

Dated 1947, the postcard highlights a major local landmark

I scoured eBay for a while looking for images of Grandpa’s elevators, and I even bought an early postcard from St. Francis, and regarded it doubtfully when it arrived. What was it doing with a rectangular headhouse, if it was grandpa’s elevator? It was set aside on a growing pile of assorted elevator images.

The answer would have to wait for another visit and a close-up look at the elevator I had tossed off as a probable Chalmers and Borton edifice.

The second visit would reveal some surprises and challenge what I thought I knew about Grandpa’s elevators.

Stay tuned.

J. H. Tillotson’s project at Lodgepole, Neb., was the end of the line for Supt. Bill Morris


The Lodgepole, Neb. elevator viewed through a rainy windshield on a blustery day.

Story and photo by Kristen Cart

It was the heyday of elevator construction, and J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, of Denver, was riding the crest of the building wave, when a new elevator was begun along Highway 30 (the Lincoln Highway), in the sand hill country of western Nebraska. Lodgepole was a sleepy town along the rail line that connected Sidney to the west, with Chappell and Big Springs to the east.

My grandfather, William Osborn, had been building for several years, and he accompanied Joe Tillotson to Denver when Joe made his break with the family business, Tillotson Construction of Omaha, and set out on his own. The new company had several projects under its belt, and several others ongoing in 1947, when Lodgepole’s elevator was started.

Bill Morris, an employee poached from the parent company, was superintendent for the job.

The dangers of the business were well known. But for the J. H. Tillotson company, fate was especially cruel, though the disasters that befell the builders were of a more mundane sort. In about March of 1947, Bill Morris was changing a tire on the side of Highway 30 near Lodgepole when a car struck him, and he was killed.

Of course the construction project went forth, and my grandfather played a role, since he had the experience to step in where Bill Morris left off.

It was not long afterward that Joe Tillotson met his maker in a car accident–only a matter of a few weeks. In those days safety in vehicles was an afterthought, and the Grim Reaper was guaranteed a regular harvest.

Joe’s death opened doors for my grandfather, since there were elevators to build and contracts to fulfill. By September of 1948, Bill Osborn had joined with Eugene Mayer, Joe’s brother-in-law, and together they formed the partnership of Mayer-Osborn Construction Company. My dad said Grandpa had to put up some money to opt into the business, and then he continued as before, building elevators as fast as they would go up.

The McCook, Neb., elevator marked their first joint effort.

Elevator work included a quick and painful education in the use of a chain fall


Story by Charles J. Tillotson

Grain elevator construction brought with it the need for hoists that placed and set mechanical equipment for the grain-moving distribution systems. Most of headhouse mechanicals had to be placed via the use of manual chain hoists, in those days called chain falls.

ScanThese hoists consisted of a series of pulley wheels and chains that used leverage for moving heavy equipment up and down in precise increments. The hoist system was often used in conjunction with an overhead track so equipment could be adjusted horizontally as well.

The headhouse mechanicals were first lifted more than 100 feet to the top of the grain tanks using the main construction hoist. Once the equipment reached the top deck, a dolly cart moved each piece to the place of use. Most big pieces were mounted on preset anchor bolts. In order to hoist the equipment over the bolts and into horizontal position, the chain fall was rigged.

My lesson in using the manual chain hoist came one day in 1947 when I was working with an experienced workman named Fred on the Vinton Street job in Omaha. As a twelve- or thirteen-year old carpenter’s apprentice and hod carrier, I had never even been near a chain fall system, but this day I was assigned to help set a grain dryer.

After the rigging was finished, Fred had me guiding the dryer for alignment with the anchor bolts while he yanked the leverage end of the chain fall.

Scan 4While he operated the vertical location, I nudged the dryer ever so slightly back and forth as it swung above the anchor bolts. To accomplish this feat, I pushed on the chains with my hands placed right above the pulley wheel. When the dryer reached its spot, I hollered to Fred to lower it over the bolts.

Concentrating so much on the dryer’s placement, I neglected to release at the key moment. Consequently, my hand followed the chain into the sheave as Fred lowered the dryer, and my fingers slipped between the chain and wheel.

I yanked my hand back–but not before the tips of my index and middle fingers were crushed, skin and fingernails pulled off, leaving me with bloody stumps. As I was about to collapse from shock, Fred grabbed me, guided me to the man lift, and lowered me to the ground. My destination was the Super’s office, which was previously built for the grain company.

The Super, a rough dude from the old school, took one look at my bleeding fingers and told me to sit down on a chair next to his reference table, which was covered with plans and paperwork. He asked for a minute to get some first aid treatment and then told me to turn my head and look out the office window. I heard him pouring something into a little bowl on the table. He took my hand, saying he would dip my fingers and it might hurt a little.

Scan 2Well, after he scraped me off of the ceiling, controlled my sobbing, and began resuscitation, I was hurting more than ever. My fingertips felt like they had been burned off! As an antiseptic he had used Merthiolate, administered in those days to treat abrasions and cuts.

Next he wrapped my fingers in gauze and tape. “Keep the bandages on for a few days, and you’ll be as good as new,” he said. It turned out more like six months before my skin and nails miraculously healed to their original appearance.

Of course, through this experience, I gained a valuable lesson in the use of chain falls. Even though such systems today have better safety shields and braking devices, I still shudder when I see a chain fall system being used.

I have related this experience to many people over the years and learned I was fortunate to survive the ordeal–not only the accident, but also the first aid.

Merthiolate, the marketing name coined by Eli Lilly and Company for the antiseptic Thimerosal, is compounded of fifty percent mercury and the caustic chemicals alcohol and benzalkonium chloride.

Because of Thimerosal’s toxicity, Merthiolate was essentially banned from general usage as a topical treatment by the 1990s.

Looking back to those days of such primitive medicine, I often reflect on why we lived through such treatments. I guess one of the main reasons is, we didn’t have crowded doctor’s offices and hospitals, which today bring along their own set of detrimental toxic bacteria and contamination to contend with.