Neglecting to lag an elevator’s head pulley led to disaster in Bellwood, Neb.

Commentary by Tim Tillotson

Note: What follows is from a phone interview on May 14. He tells of a grain elevator repair job undertaken for Ted Morris, who by 1959 was a former employee of Tillotson Construction Company.

From left, Tim and Chuck Tillotson and La Rose Tillotson Hunt in 2012.

From left, Tim and Chuck Tillotson and La Rose Tillotson Hunt in 2012.

Ted Morris was the pilot. He worked in the office with Wayne doing the drawing and getting the specs together. He flew Dad when Dad would go out to the jobs. Ted used to take me flying out to the job. He was a fun guy, good natured. He tried going into business himself. Matter of fact, when Mart and I got married, we went out to York, Nebraska, to do a repair job that he had a contract on, in the dead of the winter. That was in ’59. It was Bellwood–the one that had the explosion. It blew the damn headhouse apart. Mart and I were married in November ’59 and we went out.

They were dumping grain in the drive pits to feed it up to the tanks. It was cold and also windy, I believe. When they rolled the damn overhead doors down to shut off the wind tunnel through the drive, the dust built up and that was also a job … I don’t know who decided not to lag the head pulley; it’s like putting a tire on a steel wheel. I don’t know what the hell was supposed to be such a big savings. I don’t know we were the only ones that did it, the other grain elevator contractors did, too, they quit lagging the head pulley. That big pulley would slip for a little bit till it got some speed up. Eventually, they found out the hard way, it was taking the facing off the back of the belt and exposing the fiber web in it. The damn web spots would get hot and start on fire.

Conveyor_head_pulley_lagging_for_V_shaped[1]They called it lagging because they’d fasten or wrap a lag of grain elevator belt around real tight like a rubber tire to give it grip.

When I say we would lag the pulley, we didn’t do it. Where we purchased the pulley, they did it before they shipped. There was supposed to be some kind of cost savings. When you’re trying to pull 110, 120 foot of belt, with grain, it takes quite a bit to get thing rolling.

I guess because of the wind, they closed the overhead doors. The dust built up from the trucks just dumpin’ that grain, you can imagine, and it built up, The fire actually started in the boot pit. They were running that grain up, and I think they stopped the belt for a little bit because somebody went down into the pit to grease the bearing, and there was a fire and it exploded. It slammed him into the little steel ladder. The fire went right up the leg well, which was full of dust, and it just blew out in the headhouse.

The distributor floor was quite a height off the roof deck in the headhouse, and of course it was up overhead. You had to have some heights for the spider legs that went out to the tubes. That’s where it did its big explosion. It had enough force to actually bulge the headhouse walls. The distributor floor was concrete but held in place by a key way in the headhouse wall. They call it a key way when you slip the headhouse walls at a certain level. You put tapered two-by-four blocks in the forms that you could peel out later like teeth, so when you poured the floor it went into the keyways and that’s what held the distributor floor walls up. The explosion bulged the headhouse walls out so that they turned loose that distributor floor, which left it standing on the feed pipes that went into the tanks.

I’m trying to remember if Bellwood was the one with the galley out to the annex blowing the windows out of it, and it knocked the tripper–a little feeder that went out across the annex building and would fill whatever tanks you wanted–off its tracks.

The Bellwood Gazette reported the Holland Brothers' elevator fire in 1902.

The Bellwood Gazette reported the Holland Brothers elevator fire in 1902. It was the third elevator that had burned “inside of a year,” and as the town was gaining such notoriety, the Gazette was considering becoming a daily paper.

They were doing the repair on it. I think we pulled off because the temperature was so damn low you couldn’t put your bare hand on a piece of metal; it would stick. I remember we come back into Omaha and wasn’t out there that long. Mart and I came back to Omaha, stayed at my Uncle Ralph (Hassman’s) house, Johnny’s dad, before we got that apartment on the second floor of an old house that was turned into an apartment on Izard Street. That’s when I went to work for Leo A. Daly, the architects, in Omaha, for $300 a month. I went to work for them on the drawing table.

We were actually in York. It might have been a different repair job. Now that I think about it, I’m not even sure it was one of Dad’s elevators. We were married on Armistice Day of ’59. We had to be out there in December. I was working for Daly maybe a week when Dad passed on January 5, 1960.

The York job was a repair, and it was a repair from an explosion but nothing compared to Bellwood. I remember we were up in the headhouse when were there. The one asshole I didn’t know, and either did the other guy. He loaded, like, a shoebox on the floor with acetylene ’cause it’s a heavy gas, and it laid down in that box, and he turned around and threw a match over there and that that box blew up. I damn near ran off the frigging roof to get out of that headhouse. He thought that was so damn funny. I was about ready to bust him. I don’t like his sense of humor.  

Ted wasn’t doing well at the business. I remember a time or two he called Mother. He was distraught, he wasn’t making it. I don’t remember what happened to Ted.

2 comments on “Neglecting to lag an elevator’s head pulley led to disaster in Bellwood, Neb.

  1. Virginia R Slusher says:

    That wasn’t much of a joke! I remembered Ted’s name as Morse,not Morris. I certainly could be wrong though. Not sure I ever had it written down. He and Wayne would hand me a letter that I was supposed to compose a response. They would write yes or no!

  2. Virginia, you may be right. Uncle Tim thinks it’s Morris. We will look for additional records for the definitive spelling.

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