Tillotson elevators in Oklahoma

Story by Kristen Cart

The Tillotson Construction Company of Omaha, Neb., built at least two hundred elevators and other building projects during the heyday of elevator construction. To date, we have obtained the specifications for 127 of them, specifically concrete elevator jobs. Of these, 27 projects were completed in Oklahoma according to the documents we have. A few pages of the specifications are missing, so undoubtedly there were more.

It can be seen from the map that many of the projects were clustered in the wheat growing region that served the major terminal facilities in Enid, Okla. The Tillotson company must have made a very good impression, since many of the facilities brought the company back to build their additional storage. The neighborhood around Enid was practically saturated with elevators that were designed and built by Tillotson Construction. It is apparent that the company had a continuous presence in the neighborhood, keeping their equipment and infrastructure on location in and around Enid for a number of years, which probably made them the most practical and economical choice for local cooperatives when they shopped for a builder.

Listed below are the depicted locations:

Goltry, 1939: 60,000 bushels

Newkirk, 1940:  60,000 bushels

Douglas, 1941: 60,000 bushels

Medford, 1941: 212,000 bushels

Thomas, 1941: 212,000 bushels

Burlington, 1945: 213,000 bushels

Cherokee, 1945: 213,000 bushels

Lamont, 1945: 212,500 bushels

Blackwell, 1945: 212,500 bushels

Custer, 1946: 96,000 bushels

Kingfisher, 1946: 240,000 bushels

Thomas, 1947: 240,000 bushels

Pond Creek, 1946: 100,000 bushels

Helena, 1947:  100,000 bushels

Eva, 1947:  99,000 bushels

Manchester, 1948: 145,000 bushels

Helena, 1949: (annex) 100,000 bushels

Pond Creek, 1950:  252,000 bushels

Kildare, 1950:  250,000 bushels

Drummond, 1950:  200,000 bushels

Imo, 1950:  151,600 bushels (not found on map)

Helena, 1953:  (annex)  200,000 bushels

Cherokee, 1953:  309,400 bushels

Meno, 1953:  152,000 bushels

Dacoma, 1954:   251,000 bushels

Orienta, 1954:  (annex) 312,000 bushels

Weatherford, 1954:  (annex) 181,000 bushels

How a 1950 elevator matches advanced farming practices in Cordell, Oklahoma

DSC_2318Story and Photos by Kristen Cart

Once we discovered that the Cordell, Oklahoma elevator was built by Mayer-Osborn, it became a priority to pay a visit.  Luckily an opportunity presented itself when I went shopping for an Australian Shepherd puppy for my son Jesse. Deadra Buffing breeds lovely pups at Horse Creek Aussies right there in Cordell, and we found the right dog, so off I went on a puppy mission, first flying to Oklahoma City then driving two hours west to Cordell. (I’m sure there were breeders closer to home, but this coincidence was too good to pass up.)

DSC_2335But the first stop was the Mayer-Osborn elevator. After a quick tour around the outside with my camera, I stepped inside the Wheeler Brothers Grain Company office. There, Jim Balzer greeted me. He was more than happy to share his insights and long experience with the Cordell elevator. His stint at the elevator spanned a number of owners, beginning in 1979 with General Mills.

General Mills sold their Oklahoma operations in about 1984, including elevators at Cordell, Bessie, Carrier, Reading, and the terminal at Enid. Logan Farms bought the Cordell elevator from General Mills, then Johnson’s Grain bought it. Goodpasture, out of Texas, owned it for awhile. Wheeler Brothers finally bought it in 1996 or 1997.

After 1984, a truck spout was added on the west side of the elevator, and the train spout on the east side was remodeled using salvaged parts. The old wooden doors were also replaced with metal ones. Jim said the elevator is holding corn for the first time, an atypical crop for the area, but a sign of the times due to ethanol subsidies.


Jim Balzer has worked at the Cordell elevator since 1979. The small elevator has stood as long as he can remember.

The structure is completely unique, having two driveways. It’s special features are its two legs, each rated at 5,000 bushels per hour, to achieve an unload rate of 10,000 bushels per hour. Most elevators of this size and age have long since retired because of limitations in their loading rates, if not for their lack of capacity. Jim said their newer, larger elevator at Cordell, when running “full out” with its single leg, only surpassed the old elevator by a little bit at 11,500 bushels per hour.

In the past, all manner of vehicles would line up to unload their grain at Cordell. The earliest were horse-drawn wagons, used in the old wooden elevator days (before Jim’s time, he noted), where the farmers would scoop the grain manually into the pit. Jim showed me a bit of concrete foundation by the tracks where the wood elevator used to be. A slow leg was no problem then, because the choke point of the process was the farmer’s shovel.

Years later, after the concrete elevator was built, farmers drove their trucks in and unloaded them much more quickly. They would queue up in the hot sun and wait their turn, while Jim’s young daughter brought them cold pop from a wagon.

Now, nothing much smaller than a semi-tractor trailer will bring grain, and the leg speed is much more crucial. Rail cars are also serviced at the small elevator. The Cordell elevator was far ahead of its time, able to keep up with advances in farming practices. It is a testament to the forethought of the original designers that the Mayer-Osborn elevator still meets the need.

The Mayer -Osborn Construction Company is identified on the manhole cover

The Mayer-Osborn Construction Company is identified on the manhole cover.

Dennis Russell reflects on his brother Jim’s tragic death on the Murphy, Neb., elevator

This photo, provided by Kurtis Glinn, shows Tillotson Construction's Murphy elevator in the early 1960s. Note the ground storage of grain sorghum on the right.

This photo, provided by Kurtis Glinn, shows Tillotson Construction’s Murphy, Neb., elevator in the early 1960s. Note the ground storage of grain sorghum on the right, and the old wooden elevator on the left.

By Ronald Ahrens  

A recent telephone conversation with Dennis Russell, who lives in Plano, Tex., revealed more details about the Russell family and his brother Jim, who died in an accident during construction of the Murphy, Neb., elevator. Dennis was the youngest of eight brothers: Bob, Roger, Jim, Jack, Byron, Bill, and Mark.

Their father William, born in 1900, had done construction on ammunition depots during World War Two, Dennis recalled. William, known as Bill, went to work for Tillotson Construction Company at an unknown date after the War.

“He worked for them a long time,” Dennis said. “He left Tillotson’s and started Mid States Construction Company with Gordon Erickson and another individual. I think he was a partner for a brief period and then ran jobs for them as a superintendent until his retirement.”

The name was changed to Mid States Equipment Company. Grain elevators and feed mills were the main specialties. Bill Russell retired in 1972, but he “always had fond memories working for Tillotson, I know that,” Dennis said. “I remember he was awful fond of Mary.”

Jim Russell’s promising future cut short 

Dennis was born in 1949. “My whole life was elevators. We moved every year from ’59 till I graduated high school.”

All the Russell brothers worked on elevators, Dennis recalled. “I worked on those quite a bit myself every summer.”

“Jim, he was third-oldest, he died in, like, ’58 in Murphy, Neb., right outside of Aurora. There was an article about that in the Aurora paper at the time. We lived in Vermillion, South Dakota, but that summer I was in Aurora, we were staying with Dad. I remember Mom taking that phone call.”

At the time of his death in a freak accident (the links below tell the story), Jim was married to Shirley, a nurse, and had one year of law school remaining at the University of South Dakota.