By Ronald Ahrens
As I approached it from the south, the elevator complex in Helena, Okla., rose from the plain.
No one was around when I got there. I’d left Meno and gone back to the northwest to this little town, which residents pronounce Heh-LEE-nuh. It was established 115 years ago and flourished because of the Arkansas Valley and Western Railway, a short-line road that linked the city of Tulsa to the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway.
The line has been in the hands of the Burlington Northern since 1980.
As I drove across the plain between Meno and Helena, it occurred to me that before the late 1930s, no landmarks would have been distinguishable. The monotony of gentle undulation, the occasional wind-blasted tree, and a few huddling houses and farm buildings were all this landscape offered. One would see a church steeple when nearing a town.
Then, with relative suddenness, reinforced concrete grain elevators went up in every town, grain castles, towering and enigmatic and 150 feet tall. After the 1950s it was common to have an elevator in view, if not now, then as soon as you came over the next knoll.
I came over the next knoll, and the early evening sun made the Helena elevators resplendent.
They’re operated by Farmers Exchange Co-op (est. 1917). Alas, the office was closed.
What I know is that Tillotson Construction Co., of Omaha, built a 100,000-bushel, single-leg elevator here in 1947. A note in the records says it featured a full cupola, or headhouse and four tanks of 15.5 feet in diameter that reached to 110 feet in height.
The cupola, or headhouse, was 16 feet wide, 31 feet long, and 28.5 feet high.
I think these specs refer to the elevator at the west end of the complex, the one with the rectangular headhouse and four windows in each of the broad walls. This elevator appears to have four tanks.
A Tillotson crew returned in 1949 to put up a 100,000-bushel annex comprising five tanks, or silos, of 15.5 feet in diameter and 110 feet high.
And they were back again in 1953 to erect a 200,000-bushel storage annex with 10 more tanks of the same measure.
But what about that second elevator, the one with the curved headhouse on the north face? It has many of Tillotson’s hallmarks, and the Co-op seemed to like to call on Tillotson Construction Co. for its new jobs.
In case of an emerging answer, an update will be posted.