The Mayer-Osborn elevator in Tempe, Arizona is a jewel in an upscale setting

DSC_0047Story and photos by Kristen Cart

Phoenix is well out of the way for a pilot based in Louisville, Ky., and living in the Chicago area. It takes a bit of intentional finagling to get into Phoenix with enough time to visit an elevator. Fortunately, the Mayer-Osborn grain elevator in Tempe sits at the foot of a hill, just a few miles off the end of an active runway at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. A steady stream of airplanes flies directly over the elevator, either coming from, or going into the airport, depending on the wind conditions. After seeing it many times from the air, I arranged for a four hour layover in Phoenix, which was just enough of an opportunity to grab a rental car and go see it.

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Manhole covers are embossed with the company name. Each annex bin has a manhole cover.

The straight-up styled elevator with its annex was built in 1951 for the Hayden Flour Mill, a Tempe landmark which had already been in operation for decades.  It once proudly displayed the “Hayden Flour Mill” name, painted along the annex side, in lettering that has been painted over at least twice. The white paint has now faded enough for both lettering jobs to show through.

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Hayden Flour Mill

 

My dad,  Jerry Osborn, remembers when his father worked the Mayer-Osborn job in Arizona. Dad would have been about seven years old. The job was one of many that took Bill Osborn away from his home in Fremont, Neb.

The Mayer-Osborn elevator and annex nestle at the base of a hill, gracing the neighborhood like a white gemstone in a gleaming setting. The Hayden Flour Mill, which has a strong historical significance to the area, is a rather unremarkable looking building, located at the base of the elevator. The neighborhood has grown up around it with shining highrises, shops and hiking trails, erasing the former industrial setting, and replacing it with an upscale ambiance.

It is fortunate that the mill and elevator add character and personality to the place, and that city planners have recognized their value. Now a park and lawn surround the mill. The mill’s windows have been screened so that tourists can look inside, and historical plaques detail its history. The elaborate plans for the mill have been put off after the market crash in 2008, but fortunately the goal of preservation has not been abandoned. It is good to see one of my grandfather’s elevators safely ensconced in a community that values its presence.DSC_0030

Mayer-Osborn elevator contract proposals are preserved at Wauneta, Nebraska

Much of the time on the road was spent marketing. William Osborn at the wheel

William Osborn at the wheel. Much of his time was spent selling elevators to prospective buyers.

Story by Kristen Cart

The Mayer-Osborn Construction Company built their elevators from 1949 until about 1955. To do this, they had to beat out a number of formidable competitors, both large and small, vying for the same jobs. But they did not win the contract every time they tried. One example of their perseverance survives at the Frenchman Valley Co-op at Wauneta, a town in southwestern Nebraska. Mayer-Osborn did not win their bid, but their contract proposals, made over a period of several years, are still kept in the co-op vault among blueprints and records spanning almost 70 years.

The cover letter for the Mayer-Osborn contract proposal at Wauneta, Neb.

The cover letter for the Mayer-Osborn contract proposal at Wauneta, Neb.

When I was first trying to get a handle on the scope of Mayer-Osborn’s business, I asked my dad, Jerry Osborn, which partner did most of the marketing. I was under the mistaken impression that Eugene Mayer was in charge of all that, and I thought that all my grandfather William Osborn had to do was show up and start pouring concrete.

“No,” Dad said, “Gene Mayer took care of the office and accounting, but your grandpa did a lot of the sales.”

This ad for Mayer-Osborn Company ran in Farmers' Elevator Guide over a period of several years in the early 1950s.

This ad for Mayer-Osborn Company ran in Farmers’ Elevator Guide over a period of several years in the early 1950s.

Grandpa put many miles on his cars, visiting prospective clients, when he was not supervising an active construction site. He spent almost all of his time on the road. Dad recalls that he and his mother were home alone during those years, while his brother Dick was in Korea and his sister Audrey was married. We have a few pictures of Dad with both of his parents, but they were taken at a job site. The sales part of Grandpa’s job took much more effort than I had ever imagined.

For a closer look at the Mayer-Osborn plans for Wauneta, Neb., and the final outcome of their efforts, stay tuned.

Concrete problems plagued consecutive elevator projects at Blencoe, Iowa

DSC_0578Story and photos by Kristen Cart

In the summer of 1954, Mayer-Osborn Construction built an elevator with a stepped headhouse in the northwestern Iowa town of Blencoe. As my dad, Jerry Osborn, explained, after the crew poured the first ten feet of concrete in the slip-form process, the concrete sides below the forms showed signs of crumbling. An investigation revealed that the concrete mixture had not been set correctly. It took as many hours to remove the concrete and start over as it did to pour it. Dad worked on the project and saw the fallout first hand.

The larger Tillotson elevator stands to the left. The Mayer-Osborn elevator obstructs the view of its large annex which extends behind it.

The larger Tillotson elevator stands to the left. The Mayer-Osborn elevator on the right serves a large annex which extends behind it. Photo by Kristen Cart

Builders were required to do a destructive test on the concrete mix at various stages of curing, to ensure the proper strength for each part of the elevator structure. Engineers tested various mix ratios to decide upon the best one. Naturally, this process was used at Blencoe, but when the mix was finally set and the pour began, it was done incorrectly. I can imagine the blue language wafting from the site as the concrete was taken down. Someone on the site had his ears pinned back pretty fiercely. But the construction continued, and a handsome elevator still stands there today, nearly 60 years later.

Not until this year, when Tim Tillotson located the Tillotson company records and photographs, did we discover that Tillotson Construction of Omaha faced a similar problem as they built their elevator nearby about a year later. This time, the error was not caught as early, and the consequences became immediately apparent.

Tim Tillotson said he thought the blowout happened in about 1955. Whether Tillotson Construction did the repairs and completed the project, or whether another contractor was brought in, is not known to me, but I hope to revisit the site later this year and learn more. The image below is a rare one. It is amazing that photographic evidence survived, serving as a cautionary note, lest any builder were to become overconfident.

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This company photo shows the blowout. On the right the completed Mayer-Osborn elevator may be seen.

Errors were a constant threat in this business. In the best cases, they manifested themselves in embarrassing delays, in the worst, they incurred expensive lawsuits or physical harm.

Tillotson Construction and Mayer-Osborn both recovered from their respective forays into bad concrete and lived to build again, leaving handsome and serviceable elevators at Blencoe and elsewhere. The lessons they learned were priceless.