How the working grain fortress in Booker, Tex., came to be in 1945



By Ronald Ahrens

I have to say it was something of a thrill to see the Tillotson elevator at work in Booker, Tex. My grandfather, Reginald O. Tillotson, was 37 years old when his company built it. He would be so pleased about its continued operation, and the modifications and markings, in the crazy far-off future of 2018.

Texas-Okla Logo 04Long ago, most people stopped staring in wonder at these towering grain elevators. As they proliferated, elevators became almost invisible. We stare at our phones now, even while driving. On roads as straight as Route 15 leading into Booker, that’s not much of a trick.

If anything, people use the elevators as navigational points and hardly give them another thought.

It should be remarked that a crew from Tillotson Construction Co. strove mightily, risking their lives, to put up this elevator in 1945. We wish we knew the names of those men. We hope to find more records.

IMG_9114When this single-leg, 216,000-bushel elevator went up over a period of about 10 weeks, it enhanced the skyline of the northeast Texas Panhandle, being one of the first of its type. We don’t know the dates into which that 10-week period fell, but all this happened as the United States was wrapping up the war in the Pacific. Labor was scarce; materials–especially steel–were just becoming available.

Booker followed the plan established for Medford, Okla., in 1941. This entailed a 21-inch-thick slab over a pit 13 feet 9 inches deep.

The tanks, or silos, rose 120 feet. Unlike elevators soon to come, they were 15.5 feet in diameter (if indeed they followed the Medford plan). Elevators to come would have silos of 20 feet in diameter.

This behemoth consumed 1,875 cubic yards of reinforced concrete, another 20 cubic yards of plain concrete for the hoppers, and 83.25 tons of reinforcing steel. 

It’s interesting to note the company records include costs for 10 of the first 16 elevators that Tillotson built. Alas, Booker, which is among them, is in a group of five elevators for which these figures are omitted. A note in that space says “Not Completed 10-10-46.” 

What we can say is that in ’45 Tillotson completed similar elevators in Burlington and Cherokee, Okla. Burlington’s total cost, less commission, was $69,819.15. Cherokee was slightly more expensive: $73,973.90. 


In that year, the difference between them of $4,154.75 represented a lot of dough.

Before the auto industry suspended production of passenger cars, switching to war production, a ’42 Chrysler New Yorker eight-passenger limousine set you back all of $3,065. The U.S. Census Bureau says in 1940 the average price of a house in Texas was $17,600. One can imagine a lower figure for the Panhandle with its one-dimensional economy and sparse population.

Labor rates of 75 cents per hour and $1.25 for overtime at Cherokee more than doubled the 30 to 35 cents per hour Tillotson was paying on jobs undertaken from 1939 to through 1941. Overtime rates reached a lofty 60 cents per hour.

Alas, even though a line item for costs appears on subsequent pages of the records, the totals are only recorded through 1946.

How the Tillotson elevator in Booker, Tex., revealed itself to a visitor


By Ronald Ahrens

After a breakfast at La Choza (The Hut) that included a side order of chorizo, I returned to the complex in Booker, Tex., where Tillotson Construction Co., of Omaha, had built a 216,000-bushel, single-leg elevator in 1945.

Texas-Okla Logo 04It had been sleeping during my visit before breakfast, but now it was alive. The staff had opened up for business.

I walked in through the center-driveway door and told a staffer what I was up to. He welcomed me to look around.

Just then another employee arrived at ground level in the man-lift. This is the secret little elevator inside the main house, just large enough for a single occupant who rides to the top in order to work inside the headhouse or the run.

IMG_9099Power originally came from a 2-hp motor, and for all I knew the original unit was still doing its job.

A bit of clattering ensued as the lift bumped to a stop over a tire that’s laid in the cell to act as a spring. The man let himself out. He had received no explanation why a photographer was present and thrilled to take this picture, but he smiled upon exit and went about his business.

There’s a ladder beside the man-lift. Does it go all the way to the top, too? The electrical conduits seemed to do the same.

It didn’t occur to me to ask. I set about photographing every detail, as if the candy jar had spilled on the floor.

Inside and out, the main house had a well-worn look–maybe I can get away with saying “burnished”–but everything seemed to be in working order. Every door, window, ladder, and passageway tells a story.

IMG_9073Additionally, the elevator has served, and may still serve, as a storm shelter. Some big, powerful twisters blow across these plains, and if anyone needed protection, this was the place to find it.

Tomorrow we’ll have a look at the specs and more details.

An early morning visit to an early Tillotson elevator at Booker, Tex.


By Ronald Ahrens

In 1945, far in the northeast corner of the Texas Panhandle hard against the Oklahoma Panhandle, Tillotson Construction Co., of Omaha, built a 216,000-bushel grain elevator in the town of Booker. Records show it was the company’s 15th reinforced-concrete elevator. The construction occurred in the same year as Tillotson’s 212,000-bushel job just 23 miles over the road to Follett.

Texas-Okla Logo 04With about 1,300 people today, Booker sits on the Ochiltree and Lipscomb county line. It is about the same distance, roughly 400 miles, from here to Denver or Dallas.

The elevator complex was on the Santa Fe Railroad’s tracks, but these were taken out years ago. Originally they were the Panhandle and Santa Fe Railroad’s tracks. There is a curious history to this, as we find in the Wikipedia entry:

“Booker was founded seven miles north of where it currently sits as La Kemp, Oklahoma, in 1909. However, 10 years later when the Panhandle and Santa Fe Railway was built from Shattuck, Oklahoma, to Spearman, Texas, the entire town moved seven miles across the state line to be near the railroad. The town was platted shortly before the move in 1917 by Thomas C. Spearman who had Spearman, Texas named after him. La Kemp was renamed Booker in honor of one of the engineers for the railroad.”


The Tillotson elevator’s headhouse, middle, is 48.5 feet long and 33 feet high.

On this early morning of April 18, I approached from the west on Route 15, looking into the twilight on the horizon.

I didn’t know yet that I was looking at an amalgam of elevators and storage silos. The tall headhouse was that of a second elevator on the site, one by another builder.

Tillotson’s Booker elevator adhered to a revised plan from Medford, Okla., which was a 1941 job. (Tillotson built no elevators in 1942 or 1943.)

IMG_9067Medford had tanks, or silos, of 15.5-feet in diameter and a center driveway.

In 1945, Tillotson hadn’t yet developed its curved headhouse, so this one in Booker seemed a little impertinent and rigid.

I had the place to myself while taking pictures. Mostly, in this light, I could only shoot profiles. So I went down to the sports field at the southwest corner of town for the long view.

Then, desperately hungry, I found my way to La Choza (The Hut) for a hearty breakfast including extra chorizo, all for $9.69.

What happened when I returned to the elevator after breakfast is the subject of tomorrow’s post.







Roundup of Tillotson elevator photos from Hartley, Dalhart, and Gruver, Tex.


In Hartley, Tex., an old Dodge pickup reposes in view of the Tillotson elevator’s rounded headhouse.


Tillotson Construction Co. records don’t show it, but we think the storage annex at Hartley was one of their later jobs.




I have to confess I don’t know where in the Texas Panhandle this was–nothing in my notes about it–but here’s a random elevator complex that seems worth sharing. 


A closer view of the metal-clad wooden elevator. Note the modest eaves, which reduced the chance of catching sparks from a passing train.


Symmetrical form, an elevator’s ‘face,’ and one of the first curved headhouses


By Ronald Ahrens

Sometimes we need to slow down and look longer at details of our grain elevators. They seem to be architecturally significant buildings, and those who love midcentury-modern style should extol them. No big-name architect like Richard Neutra was involved. Yet we see flourishes to compare to Albert Frey’s upward-curving eaves or sculptural statements like the asymmetry at E. Stewart Williams’s Edris House in Palm Springs. 

Texas-Okla Logo 04With elevators it’s more the case of form over function, which leads to a vernacular style, beauty by accident. Many cars were like this: the Volkswagen Beetle, for example, loved by all.

Our correspondent Rose Ann Fennessy said the elevator in Farley, Tex., had “a testy face.”

What I tend to see, looking at the rectangular windows, is robot eyes.

Taking a closer look at the Tillotson’s 1947 elevator in Gruver, Tex., pictured above and below, I note the symmetry of window placement in the headhouse. (In ’47 they preferred the term “cupola.”) The high windows are paired up and aligned over two silos. The bottom three windows form a neat row. And a smaller side-light on the curving portion lines up with the tops of the topmost windows.

The Gruver elevator was similar to the design for Satanta, Kan., which was also built in 1947. Together they descend from a plan developed the previous year for Dike, Iowa. Although it’s a long view, one image from Satanta squares with what we see of Gruver.

IMG_9042I called up Uncle Chuck Tillotson to ask about the articulation and curved part of the headhouse. Could he imagine how this advance came about? As we saw in the Dalhart entries in this road-trip series, Tillotson still built a standard headhouse that was entirely rectangular in 1947.

“The only thing I can think of is that it was formed that way to accommodate some equipment inside,” Uncle Chuck said. “Maybe they’re were trying to see if the formwork and the slipping would actually do the trick for the accommodation of the inside equipment.”

He continued: “It’s gotta be formed that way for a reason. “This is the first one that I’ve seen the beginnings of the curved headhouse.”

Records for Satanta include mention of “Roto-Flo Distrib.” Below, on right and left, are Tillotson’s drawings for headhouses with Roto-Flow distribution. The left, dated 1953, is for a 314,000-bushel elevator in Cherokee, Iowa,. The right, undated, is labeled “254,000 bu. Reinforced Conc. Grain Elev.” And the center, also undated, with radial distribution to all bins, is the headhouse outfitting plan for a 250,000-bushel elevator. 

“Roto flow to me would say it’s like going at the end of the belt and it just rotates around and starts over again,” Uncle Chuck said. “Horizontal versus vertical doesn’t entail the curved headhouse.

Then, as a caveat, he added, “I’m just making that up.”

But it’s likely he’s close to the mark.

Could Tillotson’s elevator in Gruver, Tex., have taken on the monster tornado of ’71?


By Ronald Ahrens

In 1971 a monstrous tornado just missed Gruver, Tex., veering away from the town at the last minute.

Texas-Okla Logo 04The funnel cloud was as great as two miles wide, and we can’t help wondering what would have happened if a direct strike had engulfed the town of 1,100 souls and its fine Tillotson elevator.

Besides breaking windows, ripping out doors, twisting spouts and ladders and sending them flying, the tornado might have played hell with some of the elevatotr’s internals as they became exposed.

The reinforced-concrete structure would have looked tattered, but it might well have withstood the fierce storm. Anyone sheltering in the basement would have been rattled but OK.

IMG_9053Records kept by Tillotson Construction Co. reveal this single-leg elevator was built in 1947 and was, as a note says, “Similar to Satanta (but 125′ D.F. walls).”

That’s the Kansas town where Tillotson built earlier the same year. To decode that sentence: Satanta is a town 100 miles away in southwestern Kansas; D.F. stands for drawform, and Satanta’s silos were 120 feet high. 

Both elevators succeeded from the Dike, Iowa, plan of 1946.

The basics are that this 265,000-bushel elevator had eight tanks, or silos, of 18 feet in diameter–two feet less than Tillotson would later offer as the standard dimension.

Gruver had an extra attached driveway, a hopper scale in the cupola, and double distribution floors.

The entry for Satanta notes some 2,072 cubic yards of reinforced concrete were used, and 25 cubic yards of plain concrete went for the hoppers.

Steel used for reinforcing the concrete amounted to 107.50 (including the amount used for jack rods).

The 21-inch-thick main slab sprawled over an area measuring 57 x 69.5 feet. The records say that amounted to 3,754 square feet “outside on ground.” Again, as with other Texas elevators, we get 3,961.5 square feet and can’t account for the difference.

If the tornado bumped against the elevator, it would have realized this structure had 4,251 tons of reinforced concrete and weighed 12,351 tons when fully loaded. The confrontation would have been interesting.

The cupola, or headhouse, measured 21.5 feet wide, 48.5 feet long, and 40.25 feet high.


With a pit reaching 16 feet in depth, the pulley centers of the leg were 166.75 feet apart. Pulleys were standard size: the boot was 72 x 14 x 3 3/16 inches while the head pulley was .75-inch deeper. The head turned at 42 rpm.

The 14-inch, six-ply Calumet belt stretched over a distance of 360 feet and carried 12 x 6-inch cups. Two 40-hp Howell motors were installed to turn the leg. Theoretical capacity was 8,450 bushels per hour, but actual capacity was 80 percent of theoretical, coming to 6,750 bushels per hour.

The man lift rose and dropped with a 2-hp Ehrsam motor. The truck lift had a 7.5-hp Ehrsam motor.

After 71 years, this Tillotson elevator appeared to be in good working condition and maybe even ready to take on the next monster storm that approached Gruver.




Groovin’ in Gruver, Tex., at a ’47 Tillotson elevator with plenty of storage


By Ronald Ahrens

By the time I got to Gruver, in the early evening of April 17, I’d visited seven grain elevators in the Texas Panhandle. The day started with a pre-dawn dash from Hereford to Canyon, where I spent much of the morning (even visiting Tim Ritter, editor of the twice-weekly Canyon News). The news, he said, was wildfires and drought. High school sports filled much of the rest of the paper.

Texas-Okla Logo 04Whenever it was that I got to Gruver, I was feeling a little weary. If there had been a motel, I would have checked in.

Instead, I found an elevator that seemed outside the usual Tillotson design vocabulary.

This 1947 job held 265,000 bushels and had a medium-long complex of storage annexes. It reminded me of a locomotive and a train of identical cars.

A note in the records says, “Similar to Satanta (but 125′ D.F. walls).” Of course, the “D.F.” refers to drawform. Satanta was the Kansas town where they had built another elevator in ’47. The next year brought a similar one at Springfield, Colo. Together, they derived from the Dike, Iowa, job of 1946.

IMG_9042The cupola, or headhouse, was rectilinear on one side, with sharp corners and splendid moldings to cover the raggedness. But the other end of this 48.5-foot-long headhouse had an articulated curve.

A remarkable feature was the abundance of windows. Four cluster together in the upper-right corner on one side, and three more are in a line at the bottom.

Smaller windows are integrated into the curved part.

Ladders and platforms cling to the side of the headhouse, and the rooftop is populated with at least three parabolic dishes serving Lord knows what purpose.

IMG_9057Formerly, some large letters spelled out a legend, presumably the name of the co-op that ran the elevator. I couldn’t make out what it said. 

I looked around and found manhole covers bearing the name of Tillotson Construction Co. They weren’t painted or polished; as with other details, there was need of some loving attention. 

No one was around, so when I had taken my pictures I cleared out of Gruver, following Route 15 to Spearman. Navigation directed me to a motel. For the same $55 paid for the previous night’s dump in Hereford, I checked into the Nursanickel Motel, taking a bright and clean room with a real mattress and bath towel.


There were two choices for dinner: pizza or Mexican. I chose the latter, having a chicken enchilada for $8.65. While paying my tab, I asked the two girls at the register what there is to do in Spearman.

“Nothing,” one said, feeling no need to elaborate.

I might have suggested going out and looking at grain elevators, but who wants to be regarded as a madman?

Storage and more storage at the sprawling complex in Sunray, Tex.


By Ronald Ahrens

The next stop on my road trip was Sunray, Tex., which I reached from Dalhart by minor roads through the cotton and grain fields. It was a warm afternoon and very windy, and I had a pleasant drive going east, away from the sun.

Texas-Okla Logo 04I had already heard about Sunray as a key location in the Ag Producers Co-op network.

And I knew Sunray was in the construction records of Tillotson Construction Co., of Omaha.

What I didn’t know is that Tillotson only built a storage annex–not the main elevator–at Sunray. This occurred in 1950 or 1951. The record is smudged on that line, but I think it says 1951. Sunray is placed with other 1951 jobs. At the same time, Tillotson was building in Malta Bend, Mo.; Greenwood and David City, Neb.; and Hereford, Tex., which I had visited at the beginning of the trip.

The storage annex was a big one: 550,000-bushel capacity. There were 14 tanks, or silos, of 20 feet in diameter reaching 120 feet in height. A note mentions a full basement.

The job demanded 3,297 cubic yards of reinforced concrete and 196.39 tons of reinforcing steel. Both figures significantly exceed the amounts needed for the 250,000- to 300,000-bushel elevators that Tillotson built.

The 24-inch slab for these 14 tanks was 56 x 148 feet and the main slab area is listed at 7,880 square feet.

All this reinforced concrete weighed 6,790 tons, and the annex’s gross weight when loaded was as much as 15,048 tons.

IMG_9033Up in the run, a conveyor belt turned on two pulleys, one being 16 x 32 inches and the other being 18 x 32 inches. The pulley turned at 127 rpm, so the 30-inch, four-ply belt moved at the rate of 600 feet per minute.

What I found was not one but two annexes by the elevator; both had 14 tanks, and the manhole covers said Tillotson Construction Co. Sunray appears nowhere else in the records, so it’s impossible to say for sure that Tillotson built identical, twin storage annexes.

However it went down, Tillotson contributed substantially to the sprawling elevator and storage complex at Sunray.

Trying to trace the sweep of Tillotson’s hand in Dalhart, Tex.

By Ronald Ahrens

IMG_9022Tillotson Construction Co. had yet to perfect its signature style of the curved headhouse when it first built in Dalhart in 1947.

Before the late 1940s the headhouses were rectangular with a sort of molding, of concrete, extending up the full height at each corner. 

In ’47, Tillotson built a 150,000-bushel, single-leg elevator along the busy railroad tracks of this market center, the seat of Dallam County.

In specifications it adhered to a unique plan with four tanks, or silos, each measuring 20 feet in diameter and reaching 120 feet in height. There were eight bins. The attached driveway was 13 x 16 feet.

The surprise is that Tillotson built a 98,000-storage annex in the very same year. Notes in the company records show two tanks of 25 feet in diameter reaching a height of 120 feet.

A further note says “Direct spouts from elev.–Gravity flow to Elev. Pit. Ring footing 3 bins.”

When I visited last month, I hadn’t realized there were two elevators. Maybe I missed something. I think I paid a call to the 1949 job.

Here’s what Uncle Chuck contributes: “I remember Dad having to make a number of trips to Dalhart, but if the annex was finished in ’47, like you say, then he must have been there to close out and inspect the finished project.

“My recollection was that the job was either finished or in the final punch-list stage. But like you on your trip, we had visited a bunch of jobs or prospective jobs before we got to Dalhart.

“Also, my young mind in those days wasn’t necessarily concentrated on the job status in each stop but probably more interested in the secretarial staff!”

At last he reveals the truth!

Except for a railroad employee familiar from down the road in Hartley, no staff–and especially no secretaries–could be located.

Looking through the scale-house window, I saw a plate of uneaten food and an open bag of chips on the counter. Yes, another mystery.

I would leave Dalhart with more questions than before my arrival. 

Onward to Dalhart, Tex., and memories of a wild ride through New Mexico in 1948

IMG_8992After departing Hartley, my next stop, just 15 miles northwest on U.S. 87/385, was Dalhart, a market town with brick streets in the business district and, along the railroad tracks, a whole lot of buildings by Tillotson Construction Co. Dalhart is so remote in the Texas Panhandle that six other state capitals are closer than the Texas capital of Austin. For example, it’s 28 miles shorter distance to Lincoln, Neb., than to Austin.

Texas-Okla Logo 04Mention of Dalhart got my uncle, Charles J. Tillotson, reminiscing about his experience with my grandfather, Reginald O. Tillotson. Perhaps from the following anecdotes we understand why Reginald started using light aircraft for his business travels.

Uncle Chuck writes:

Remembering Dalhart brings back memories of one of Dad’s business trips where I had been brought along to help drive (12 years old). I believe this one was during the winter of ’47 or ’48, and Dad was making a big business loop (similar to yours only in reverse) out of Omaha, down through Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas and then back up through New Mexico, Colorado, and western Nebraska.

IMG_9009Anyway, on that trip, it was getting close to sunset as we approached Dalhart, so Dad had me stop in Amarillo where he secured a hotel room.

I will never forget the night in that godforsaken place. The hotel was not insulated nor fully sealed from the winter wind, and I practically froze to death in that cold room with the wind whistling through the cracks in the wall.

I was still frozen the next morning when we headed out to Dalhart, glad the car had a good heater.

Another memorable thing about that trip was what happened after we left Dalhart. We went north up through New Mexico to our 640-acre ranch in Cebolla. Dad had recently purchased this section at the encouragement of one of his best superintendents, Francis Dawson, who lived on a big parcel not too far west from our place.

Ours didn’t have running water, heat, or utilities. After we got there Dad decided to go out to Francis’s where we could stay overnight. The problem was that most of the road to his home was very poorly graveled. It was more like a pathway. IMG_9019

I was driving the car, but when we got to an area that was somewhat of a bog, Dad took over the wheel to show me how to drive through the mud. Well, it wasn’t very long after that when he got the car high-centered, tore a hole in the oil pan, and lost all the oil. Yet he kept his foot on the gas until we were stuck dead still; then the engine got so hot, it threw a rod.

We had to slog on foot through the mud to Dawson’s house. We arrived by nightfall. The next morning one of Francis’s hired hands got the tractor, fetched the car, and dragged it into the tiny little town of Cebolla (35 miles south of the Colorado border).

As you can imagine, there was no mechanic nor any repair facility. The closest one was well to the south in Espanola. So Dad called around to the various mechanical shops there until he found someone (lucky) that could repair the engine of the fairly new ’48 Chrysler four-door sedan.

Two days later we got under way again, and amazingly the car ran like it had never been through a torture chamber.

All of that trip transpired during my high school winter break and as I recall I only lost a couple of days of the next semester.

A trip I’ll never forget, in the spring of ’49 with me again subbing as a driver, Dad again high-centered a brand-new ’49 Ford and burned up the engine.

He had a thing about willing the car to go forward even though it was hung up with no wheels touching earth.