Story by Kristen Cart
Once again, one of our readers has supplied a fascinating glimpse into the construction of an elevator.
Emily Frank is the granddaughter of Darrell Greenlee, a foreman for Johnson and Johnson-Sampson. She related a story about the beginnings of the Galatia, Kan., grain elevator:
My grandfather built slipform concrete grain elevators while my mom was little. My grandparents moved around every three to six months from the time they were married until my mom (the third of six children) was in third grade. I find a lot of your stories remind me of the ones my mom told or my grandmother tells. You did one where a man fell to his death from an elevator during construction. Unfortunately that happened on a job where my grandfather was the foreman, as well…
My grandfather worked for Virgil Johnson. At the time the company was Johnson Elevator Company.
At a job in Galatia, Kan., in 1959, while Darrell was stabilizing the family trailer, it fell and he was hit across his back and shoulders. Rosina took him to the hospital. The hospital wasn’t going to see him until she could pay. She didn’t have insurance. She told them instead, “I’ve got enough money to buy this damn hospital.” When they left two days later, she paid cash.
Rosina called Virgil to tell him that Darrell had been hurt–not bad but he was pretty bruised up. Rosina wasn’t sure what they were going to do. She told Virgil she wanted to know what he was going to do because if Darrell didn’t work, he didn’t get paid. Virgil asked if his butt was bruised and then pointed to a chair and said “See that chair right there, he can park his ass right there and supervise from his chair.”
When the elevator was just about completed a man fell from the top of the elevator. Darrell was a witness to the fall. The guy opened the door at the top and the wind caught him and blew him over the side of the elevator. He fell 120 feet to his death. The man was Arthur Kronberg, 42, originally from Menasha, Wisconsin.
Rosina said when they called the man’s brother to tell him he could come pick up his belongings, he didn’t seem very interested, except he asked if there was anything of value. They had told him his brother had a truck. The man reluctantly agreed to get the truck.
Emily filled in some of the details of her grandfather’s career. The history of Johnson Elevator Company that she shared intrigued us, because the company took up where Mayer-Osborn Company left off and built strikingly similar elevators. The Galatia elevator is a close copy of the Mayer-Osborn elevators at McCook, Neb., and Blencoe, Iowa. Because of the similarities between them and a number of other Johnson elevators, we have speculated whether designer Gene Mayer continued his career with Virgil Johnson and brought his designs with him. Emily continued:
The elevator at Galatia is on one of Johnson’s business cards.
Johnson used to work with some brothers with the last name Sampson. They were Virgil Johnson’s brothers-in-law. They worked together for a while, too, under the name Johnson-Sampson.
My grandfather worked constructing concrete elevators from 1947 to about 1963. He worked for several different people.
Johnson was the man he worked for most, on and off over the years. When Virgil and his brothers-in-law split, my grandfather went to work for Dewey Construction and then Young Love. Then Virgil found a partner, and my grandfather worked for Johnson & Bratcher. Then Virgil went off on his own as Johnson Elevator Company.
When Virgil went broke after a missile base job in the 1960s, my grandfather worked for a guy by the name of Guy James. He did two jobs for him until he finally settled in Rushville, Ill. He never built another elevator, but he had his own company and they did a lot of elevator repair work.
My own grandfather William Osborn’s experience followed a similar trajectory–after he was done with elevator construction, he went on to elevator repair and maintenance. We always attributed the cancer that took him at age 75 to the dust he breathed during those years, though some of the damage could have been from smoking, a habit he dropped ten years before he died.
The hazards of the business were sometimes obvious, but often stealthy and unexpected. From dust, to wind, to new boots, to heedless roofers, many things in elevator construction took lives–but the monuments built by these mortal men remain, withstanding tornadoes, floods, hail, and every natural disaster.
Thank you for printing the article on my Dad, Darrell Greenlee, that my niece Emily Frank provided. I spent many years on job sites & received an education that is priceless. It’s good to see Dad’s legacy continue thru Emily’s journal. At one time I could tell you how to build an elevator but I hate to say how many years ago that was. That was a lifestyle I will never forget. My Dad was very special & my Mom ( a very special lady) made every move an education never a challenge. thanks Teresa Toland
You are very welcome. I still intend to get to Grand Island, Neb. and get photos and information from there. Our family usually goes through there once every year, and I will make it a point to stop. Hopefully if we get there this fall I can fill in more of your family story. Virgil Johnson’s operation was pretty interesting and we will be checking it out as opportunities arise.
Thanks for your contributions to the blog!
I came across your blog while helping my father do some family research.
My father is one of six sons of Virgil Johnson’s. I’m his granddaughter. My fathers is Sherman Johnson and I’m Erica Johnson. 🙂 we’d love to chat with y’all. Your blog is cool.
Thanks so much for shareing our story!
thank you for printing this article about my father Darrell Greenlee and my mother Rosina Greenlee. Those were the days. Moving made us girls closer as dad and mom traveled with 6 girls. When most children took dolls to show and tell I took blue prints of the elevator and told them how to build one. Also many times dad when the elevator was built would take our classes up to the top. Us girls got to ride in the bucket that supplied concrete throughout the building process. When other children played with toys we played with left over concrete building our own elevators or pies. When we were in the south they were fighting the Civil War yet and of course I would have to tell them how the North won. Many times mom had to go get me from the principal’s office. Dad loved his job and mom loved dad. Our dad also died of cancer only younger at 60 and we feel it was all that chemicals he inhaled. Thank you sweet Emily who has taken up where her mother Linda my sister left off upon her death. I am so sure Dad and Linda are looking down from heaven so pleased with Mr. Osborn. Thank you for the work well done Emily. I love you.
Roseann…yes those were the days. This is a article about our dads…My dad also died young with cancer. I never pass an elevator I dont remember…I have even checked a lot of manhole covers to see who built it…You dad was the greatest foreman…my dad ever had. I would love to hear from you.my email is bradatlaserengravinganddesigndotcom
Thanks for the comment. We’ve changed your email address so “bots” don’t find it and deluge you with junk mail. Roseann will have to put the @ symbol and the .com on it herself.
I Brad so glad to hear from you I know you have talked to Darlene and Teresa. Yes, let us get together. I think you have Linda mixed up with Karen. Linda cried every time we went to your house. You mom would tell her “stop that damn crying you can swing from the chandelier jump on the grand piano but stop that damn crying.” But she didn’t. I remember your pet turtle in the basement and your dad cooking corn with the shucks still on them. That old fireplace is still there. We all took a brick from your house they were in the alley. Loved the house just as I remember but didn’t remember the hospital so close and the trailer park was a disaster. Your dad gave us rides in your plane and your mom taught my mom one cut and one Tony perm we all looked the same. So much to share lets get together. I have a bunch of pictures of the elevators and blue prints. I loved living in the south in the winter and the north during the summer. Take care and lets get together before mom dies.
This post is so rich. And the family’s comments make it even better!
Thank you, Darla. When people comment to share their stories it’s like finding gold. I hope to tell as many stories of the elevator boom as we can, while the projects still exist in living memory–those times are a perishable legacy that should be remembered.
I found your blog pretty interesting. I stumbled wit while doing genealogy for my fathers family. I’m Virgil’s granddaughter. (One of his sons children)
I emailed your blog to my father, well, he had a few questions. 🙂 He just wants accuracy 🙂 we love the photos of the elevators. If you want to touch base with us you can email me @ ejohnson1338gmaolcom or 913-439-7096
My fathers name is Sherman Johnson and I’m Erica Delehanty.. hope to talk to you soon..thanks:)