Successful concrete tests yielded an enduring elevator at Cordell, Oklahoma

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Story by Kristen Cart

During a recent visit to Nebraska, Dad and I met with the son of Edwin Louis Christoffersen to go through family pictures. Young Ed produced a treasure from among his father’s personal effects. Edwin Christoffersen was superintendent for the Mayer-Osborn Construction job at Cordell Okla., and among his duties was the engineering of a safe and durable elevator. Testing the concrete from a given supplier was of paramount importance.

This logbook shows the results of the testing for each part of the elevator’s structure. It is a fascinating bit of engineering history, and it speaks for itself.

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Cordell concrete tests006You will notice that the date and time of day was included in the calculations for each test. This is how we were able to determine when the Cordell elevator was built.

While a number of factors were recorded for each test, it is not clear to us what each term meant. Perhaps some of our readers can explain the process to us.

It is a true privilege to see some of the engineering practices in use during the 1950s, at a time when slide rules did the work of computers, yielding sufficient precision to send our astronauts to the moon in the following decade.

These builders, engineers, and innovators were pioneers, working at the pinnacle of their profession. We wish to thank Ed Christoffersen for sharing this priceless piece of history.

Newspaper clippings of the Lincoln, Nebraska, elevator show standard construction methods

Story by Kristen Cart


Omaha World-Herald

Among Edwin Christoffersen’s papers were clippings from the Lincoln, Neb., elevator construction site. While this was a Chalmers & Borton project, the clippings showed an impressively large elevator in the last stages of construction.

The story of a competitor’s biggest local project would have been of great interest to Ed, a superintendent for the Mayer-Osborn Construction Company. There is little doubt that Mayer-Osborn would have tried to get this contract. However, Chalmers & Borton frequently built the largest elevators.

It appears that the continuous pour was nearly complete for the huge structure, and that the planks were installed either for decking for the crews, or for the final pour which would cover each bin with a concrete cap. Once the concrete cured, final “wrecking out” would remove the forms.


Omaha World-Herald

The headhouse was already in place, so the elevator was very close to completion. What cannot be seen is whether equipment that would come from subcontractors for installation in the headhouse and pit had yet arrived, and of course the run that would top the elevator and provide for grain distribution was yet to be finished.

The images provide a rare glimpse of the process, one that Edwin Christoffersen saw fit to preserve, much to our delight. This is a breathtaking view of a moment in time when America built with intrepidity and confidence, and left us with a towering legacy in the Plains.

Mike Tillotson remembers Flagler (1953), Albert City (1954), and Lincoln (1955)

By Mike Tillotson

I don’t have access to a computer nor know how to use one. I barely get a radio signal, and my tin-can barb-wire phone is not always clear here in the hills either.

As for the elevators I was thirteen on my first summer with my brothers. I just graduated from Grade School. Our Father helped his Father build Wood Elevators, and often was told to put out that cigarette.

Mike stands at the center of the frame while Tim captures Charles just after he has taken a rest break on the way to Flagler.

Mike stands center-frame while Tim Tillotson captures Charles after a rest break en route to Flagler with the ’53 Ford and mystery trailer.

We headed for Flagler, Colorado; seventy five miles East of Denver. Charles was driving a 53 Ford 4-door our Father bought for him. Two-tone tan that Charles had nosed, and added fender skirts, and a continental kit. We were pulling a sixteen foot trailer that we lived in for the summer.

We were paid $1.00/Hr.–60 Hrs./Week with time and one half over 40 hours. I was the time keeper, and drove a tractor with a front-end loader. I filled up the three-bag concrete mixer with sand. Someone else put the cement and limestone in the hopper. We mixed our own concrete because we were in the middle of no-where.

I remember the Super catching me putting pennies on the rail track, and helping me with the time-sheet so I could go to Denver with my brothers for the week-end.

Tillotson Home

The Tillotson home in the Ponca Hills north of Omaha. Mike still lives there. 

I remember Charles had a girl-friend, and when we came back to Omaha in September; she came in to visit him. When Charles went to meet her at the place she was staying; Sharon went with him. When Charles and Sharon met her she said she forgot something in her room, and went back to get it. After waiting about one half hour Charles sent the door man to the room. He returned and said the room was empty, and the window was open.

You have to remember this was 1953 when we were at the age of innocence, and life was pure and simple.

The following summer (1954) we went to Albert City, Iowa, 75 miles North of Council Bluffs. We rented rooms in a private home. We worked with a 20 something guy that ran the winch pulley bucket to the top of the elevator as it progressed, and brought building materials down. We also rode the bucket up and down to get on deck. The elevator bens were 125 feet to the top with a Head-House of 75 on top of that.

The winch guy went to work on another elevator the Company had going in a town about 30 miles away. This was an addition to an existing elevator–an add-on.

At noon one day he went to the top with new boots on. There were four or five planks at the top from old to new grain bens.

No hand rails or anything. They were not required at the time. I doubt OSHA even existed. He either fell or jumped going from old to new.

Some said he might have tripped with the new boots.

Charles and I bought a nice 40 Ford sedan for $75.00 off a used car lot. He didn’t want to use the 53 any more than necessary. Coming back to Omaha one week end we were zipping down a country road with corn as high-as-a-sky and started through an intersection with no stop signs.

It could be Mike waving at the photographer in this photo from atop the Flagler annex. The Ford and 16-foot trailer are also evident.

It could be Mike waving at the photographer, who is perched atop the Flagler elevator, built in 1950. The foundation for the new annex is seen at lower left.

We got broad-sided by some farmer who put us in a ditch; up side down. Later in the day when we crossed the Mormon Bridge in North Omaha; one of us reached through the front of the car to pay the Toll. The windshield was gone.

The next summer (1955) I worked in Lincoln, Nebr. by myself. My sister Mary’s future brother-in-law Merle worked on the job also.

The Elevators at that time required about 12-15 men per shift. Two shifts per day–twenty four hour continuous pour. Usually about 18-20 days to get to the top of the tanks. The jacks that raised the forms were all manually operated. Today with the advanced electrical operated jacks the number of men required is probably half.

That is the story of my teenage years in MAYBERRY.

The Cordell, Oklahoma elevator project fused engineering prowess with family ties

Story by Kristen Cart


Edwin Christoffersen was the superintendent on the Mayer-Osborn Construction project in Cordell, Okla. in 1950. His son and namesake kindly provided a notebook that gave a glimpse of the concrete engineering that went into the elevator. By trial and error, the company learned best practices, creating an enduring structure which would still operate more than sixty years later.

Edwin Louis Christofferson was the son of Jens “James” Lauritz Christoffersen, a first generation American who farmed and operated a farm stand in Fremont, Neb. Edwin was one of nine children. Ed’s sister Alice married William Osborn in 1923.

When the Mayer-Osborn enterprise was in full swing, Bill Osborn tapped relatives to manage projects or to provide manual labor. He followed a common practice.

Sons Dick and Jerry Osborn worked at various times building elevators. Bill Osborn entered partnership with Eugene Mayer, the brother of Joseph H. Tillotson’s wife Sylvia. At the Tillotson Construction Company of Omaha, Bill Osborn worked with Iver Salroth, husband of Emma, a Christoffersen cousin.

Naturally, when the opportunity arose, Ed Christoffersen found employment with his brother-in-law’s company an attractive proposition.


Edwin Louis Christoffersen with his only child.

Ed’s son has kept a number of Mayer-Osborn keepsakes, in memory of his dad, who died when he was still quite young. One intriguing item was the logbook that Ed kept for the Cordell, Okla. elevator, recording concrete tests.

Various sand, gravel, and concrete mixtures were tested to a failure point to determine the ideal formula for a given project. The date and time of day was recorded for each test. In this journal, we discovered the year of construction for the Cordell elevator.

The elevator business brought families together to accomplish a common goal, and now, many years later, writing about the elevators brings the builders and their sons and daughters together again. The memories are kept in small personal repositories of clippings, photos and documents, and in tales of the job, and are captured fleetingly before the witnesses leave us.

Looking up at these great landmarks, we also look up to the patriarchs who built them, with respect, and awe.

Go West, young men, to Flagler, Colorado, and build a grain elevator!

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What could help the three teenaged sons of Reginald and Margaret Tillotson sons to grow up? Nothing better than going from Omaha, Neb., where Tillotson Construction Company was located, to Flagler, Colo., to build the annex to a grain elevator in 1953.

Charles, 18, Tim, 16, and Mike, 13, drove across the Great Plains in a new Ford, towing the trailer that would serve as their home and the job office.

Having started for the company as an assistant carpenter when he was 12, Charles was already quite skilled in elevator construction techniques.

But how did they fare for themselves? For instance, what did they eat during their weeks on the job?

“Regarding what we ate, I really don’t remember but it was probably beans and wieners,” Charles recalls. “We also ate at the local cafe in Flagler. 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. I think we left Mike alone in Flagler to fend for himself.

Mike spent many hours in the trailer, serving as timekeeper and reading hot rod magazines when he could.

Building a mighty elevator required specialized carpentry and subtle touches



Editor’s note: Here, Charles J. Tillotson offers additional explanation about the formwork at the start of the Flagler, Colo., annex, seen in this 1953 photo from Tillotson Construction Company archives. 

All new lumber was used, the amount of which I couldn’t give any idea but it was a few truckloads at minimum.

The curved lumber was done by hand, either with a table saw or a Skilsaw or both. The notches, of course–for example at the jack yoke locations–were again cut in the field.

Mucho carpentry work, the length of which depended on the number of carpenters that could be scrounged up.

Also, the superintendent of the job was usually out of the carpentry world and could pitch in as needed during form construction.

And there remains one more point to make about the photo from a previous post, “Taking it from the top at Tillotson Construction’s annex in Flagler, Colo.” (use the link that’s included below or click on the photo to see an enlarged version). 

ScanThe dark shadow around the circular bin forms is the residue from “washing down the side.” (This is the side where the cement will be poured.)

The formwork was coated with used motor oil or some other type of lubrication.

Doing so made the formboards moisture resistant and let them more easily slip upward with less friction.


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Mystery elevator identified as Mayer-Osborn’s Cordell, Oklahoma project

William Osborn photo provided by his granddaughter Diane Osborn Bell

William Osborn photo provided by his granddaughter Diane Osborn Bell.

By Kristen Cart

christofferson040This photograph has left us scratching our heads for over a year. Gary Rich knew of no such elevator from all of his travels, so he rummaged through his photographs for any hint of it. He looked for an elevator with a single bin-width and two driveways, with a curve of track and a second elevator around the bend, all to no avail. The photo sat in my files waiting for serendipity to step in. Sometimes, it is best to bide your time, and if you are lucky you get more than a location and a name. We hit the jackpot in this case.

When Dad and I visited his first cousin, we sorted through boxes of hundred-year-old family pictures. Midway through the second box, we found a newspaper clipping about an elevator, with a photo I instantly recognized. There it was, plain as day.

This unique elevator was built in Cordell, Okla., a town almost directly south of Wichita, Kan., well within the territory served by Mayer-Osborn Construction. The superintendent on the job was Ed Christoffersen, brother-in-law to my grandfather William Osborn.

Cordell Oklahoma Elevator

In this photo by Joy Franklin, you can see two driveways, built for faster grain loading during harvest. The curve of train track is evident here.

After making the identification, I looked online and found Expedition Oklahoma, where Joy Franklin posted a beautiful current photo of the elevator. With her kind permission, it is posted below. She said the elevator is owned by the Wheeler Brothers Grain Company, founded in 1917, which presently owns eighteen grain elevators. It is a happy surprise to see that one of Mayer-Osborn’s most innovative elevators not only survives, but is still in use today.


Linking together preassembled formwork came after pouring an elevator’s slab

Initial formwork for new grain bins at Flagler in 1953.

Initial formwork for Tillotson Construction’s new annex of grain bins at Flagler, Colo., in 1953.

Editor’s note: The following explanation by Charles J. Tillotson helps to answer the question of how a grain elevator is built.

The excavation you see in the picture was dug for the foundation and floor slab of the annex at Flagler. Once the slab is poured, the forms that have been built are moved onto the slab where further carpentry is used to connect all the formwork together and construct the supplemental formwork such as horizontal ribs, jack yokes, et cetera, to make an integral form, all assembled into a uniform unit and capped entirely with a walking deck, also of wood.

Oftentimes the job site did not lend itself to building the major portion of the formwork simultaneously with the excavating and placement of the foundation (lack of space, topography, et cetera). So all of the formwork had to be built in place after the new floor was poured, which slowed the construction time of the overall build-out of the elevator.