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.
With 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.
I 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.