A mystery is solved with the discovery of elevator builder Van Ness Construction

The wooden elevator at Wymore, Nebraska, is representative of the style of Van Ness Construction

The wooden elevator at Wymore, Neb., is representative of the style of Van Ness Construction.

Story and photo by Kristen Cart

When we began investigating the elevators our grandfathers built, we had no idea how far the project would take us or what surprises would unfold. With the discovery of Van Ness Construction Company of Omaha, we have learned about the beginnings of the Tillotson family enterprise, and have entered a new phase of our search.


The Nebraska State Journal, June 19, 1938

We knew that Charles H. Tillotson, patriarch of the family and great-grandfather of Ronald Ahrens, built elevators before the days of slip-formed concrete. We found only one Tillotson elevator, made of wood, that predated the elegant concrete structures that sprang up all over the Midwest in the ’40s and ’50s–at least we found its obituary in a news video of its fiery demise. That 1940 vintage elevator, in Hawarden, Iowa, was built two years after Charles died. It burned down in 2006. We didn’t find, at the time, a project that we could attribute to Charles.

Then we had a breakthrough, thanks to Ancestry.com.

Ancestry has a wonderful collection of city directories. I had seen listings for the Tillotson family in Omaha before, but I missed a significant data point. While searching for Sylvia (Mayer) Tillotson, the wife of Joe and sister of Eugene Mayer, I discovered an Omaha directory for 1936 in which Charles H. Tillotson was listed as president of Van Ness Construction Company. Further Internet searches revealed some of the sites where Van Ness built its small steel-cased wooden elevators, but as yet we have found none that have survived.

Now we hope to find an existing elevator from the days before Joe and Reginald Tillotson dreamed up their slip-formed concrete designs. So far the closest we have come is an elevator that perished in a fire in Scribner, Neb., in 1971 , a nightmare that repeated itself in June, 2013.

Also, in a Google satellite image of the town of Diller, Neb., another identified site, a square concrete pad with a grain spout lying alongside it is located near new steel bins, right where an old elevator should have been. In Rydal, Kan., you can see a concrete pad with concrete pits near a horizontal storage building, with the remains of a rail siding alongside. I was a little surprised to find evidence of earlier elevators at these sites, but of course digging up tons of concrete for no special reason would be unnecessarily expensive, so there are remains.

Everywhere we looked for these ancient elevators, we found evidence of obsolescence and ultimate destruction, with little left to identify the sites. Newspapers were the only way to find the locations. Fire certainly destroyed some of them. For those that remained, the adoption of concrete and much larger storage facilities turned these old Van Ness elevators into relics and ultimately spelled their doom.

In Argentina, we encounter a colorful solution for abandoned elevators


Story and photos by Ronald Ahrens

I went to Rosario, Argentina, the first week of January for a magazine assignment, and the group I was with ended up having lunch on the bank of the Rio Paraná, a big muddy river capable of handling large cargo ships for carrying grain and coal. Like so much else about this land of the Pampas, the Paraná reminded me of something you’d find in the Midwestern United States–specifically, it was perhaps wider than the Missouri River but not quite up standard set by the Mighty Mississippi.

IMG_8906As we had earlier driven into this large city–Argentina’s third-largest, with nearly 1.3 million people–I noted a couple of grain elevators, including what looked like a huge wooden one. But I was being herded with a group of reporters following the Dakar, a marathon rally for motorcycles, cars, and trucks. Rosario sprawls over 70 square miles, so there was no way I’d be able to make my way back there from the hotel where we were staying near the river.

How surprised was I when we went from the Juan Manuel Fangio Autodrómo, where the Dakar teams were set up before the rally’s start, to have lunch? The destination was a restaurant affiliated with the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Rosario–the museum of contemporary art. We parked on the riverside boulevard, Avenida Estanislao López, and as soon as we started walking I saw the colorful bins of a made-over elevator.

The art museum is integrated into the elevator!

IMG_8908I didn’t come away with any specifics, although it did occur to me to look for manhole covers that might have been cast with the builder’s name. I saw none, though.

As for the rest I hope these pictures tell the story.

By the way, Argentinians are very proud of their beef, and I was told repeatedly in advance of the trip that I should be sure to eat the beef because it’s out of this world. I did have a couple of nice steaks, but there’s no difference from U.S. beef.


This tower, attached to the elevator, faces out to the river.

And this footnote: the passenger next to me on the flight home said the countryside has changed since the Chinese market for soy opened up–fewer grassy pastures, more fields with the crop. Presumably, there would also be changes in the way cattle are finished for market. Anyway, that explains why so much of Argentina looked like western Kansas, minus the farmhouses and barns.

The countryside is curiously devoid of buildings; everybody lives in town.

The Tillotson elevator in Lincoln, Nebraska is majestic in winter light

DSC_3138Story and photos by Kristen Cart

One of the most beautiful projects completed by Tillotson Construction of Omaha was their elevator with its annex in Lincoln, Neb. I was fortunate to be able to persuade my dad to stop with me to take some photos in perfect light.

DSC_3174One of the challenges of elevator photography is picking the structure out from its sometimes tight surroundings.

Usually you can take close pictures with a wide angle lens, which distorts straight lines, but can give you a full view of the elevator. In this case, I was without that tool since it broke when it fell off a chair, so I had to make do with a mid-range zoom lens.

You be the judge of whether the pictures were successful, given the limitations of distance, obstructions, and points of view.


The trademark rounded headhouse rises above one of the largest elevators Tillotson Construction built

This elevator is a couple of blocks from the Cornhusker Highway in Lincoln, and one of the obstructions to a clear shot is an overpass feeding traffic to that main artery through town. The limited view required some cropping of the elevator. But the light and sky made up for the field of view.

The manhole covers display the company name on both the elevator and the annex

The manhole covers display the company name on both the elevator and the annex

We do not know why the Lincoln elevator is not among the projects recorded in the company ledgers. It appears that at least one page was missing from the records, and there is no way to know where it is, or why it is missing. So the only information we have about its construction is from the manhole cover on the main elevator, which says 1955. Presumably, the annex was built shortly thereafter.

Because the facility, AGP Grain Cooperative, was closed, we obtained no further details on this visit. This elevator will be the first on our list when the harvest time comes around again, and we can see the elevator in operation for ourselves.