By Ronald Ahrens
As Kristen Cart and I have been blogging about Our Grandfathers’ Grain Elevators since 2012, she has been able to make the most of her Midwestern location by visiting “our” elevators in Iowa and Nebraska. But I live near Palm Springs, Calif., which is much better known for its midcentury modern houses. Down in the southern end of the valley they grow dates, grapes, strawberries, and leafy greens. No need for an elevator there.
I had only been to the Mayer-Osborn elevator in Tempe, Ariz., and Tillotson Construction Co.’s 1947 terminal in my hometown of Omaha. (Also, a superficial look-see at an elevator-mill complex in Colton, Calif., about an hour from my house.)
So I’ve been winging it.
The 1,800-mile road trip from April 15 to 22, 2018, was an education. I had to go about 1,000 before the first visit to one of “our” elevators in Hereford, Tex. But in the next 84 hours I visited 18 more locations, saw for myself the distinctions from one to the next, and learned a great deal.
Subsequent conversations with my uncles, Chuck and Tim Tillotson, have sharpened those distinctions.
And of course, as I’ve been at my desk writing the posts in this series, I’ve pored over the company records as never before.
My takeaway from all this can be distilled into a few points.
- The people I met in Canyon, Bushland, and Booker, Tex., are super-smart and know their business inside and out. In Conlen, Tex., an employee named Jamie said the elevator there was “older than dirt.” In Meno and Pond Creek, Okla., I was encouraged by the astuteness of Matthew Thomsen, Tracie Rhodes, and Jeff Johndrow. They’re not so different from the leaders I interview in my assignments as a reporter for automotive and business magazines. I could see them in Silicon Valley or Detroit.
Seeing the elevators–most of them in pretty good shape–and watching the work is gratifying. The first Tillotson concrete elevator, in Goltry, Okla., has not been operational for about a decade. But the fourth one ever built, in 1941, is still in use at Medford, Okla., and is looking at its 80th birthday in 2021. I’m sure my grandfather, Reginald O. Tillotson, would be proud. Kristen’s grandfather, William Osborn–who may have worked on some of these jobs when he was with Tillotson and who built one of the elevators that greeted me in Follett–would be the same. They did a splendid thing.
- On the Great Plains of the Texas Panhandle and western Oklahoma, it’s quite possible to see how these grain castles, some as high as 175 feet, changed the landscape. We know it happened in a 15-year period between Tillotson’s first effort at Goltry and 1954, when most of the building was done. Excepting the intensive effort to out-produce the Germans and Japanese during World War Two–the period from 1942 to 1944 when no elevators were built–the transformation happened even faster. If at the moment you weren’t in view of a grain elevator, you soon would be.
It was a propitious moment to do this road trip. Most of the elevators were still going about their noble business, but 20 years from now they’ll be reaching what we conceive as their maximum life-cycle. I fear that more and more of them will stand as decrepit monuments. Someone asked if they’ll be knocked down. The answer is that I didn’t hear any of the farmers’ cooperative employees mention a budget for pulverizing, in the case of Tillotson’s 350,000-bushel elevator at Farnsworth, Tex., 1,875 cubic yards of concrete and 127 tons of reinforcing steel.
Perhaps a good lesson comes from the news that Ford Motor Co. has acquired the Michigan Central terminal in Detroit. This building, abandoned for decades, became the chief emblem of “ruins porn,” those photos of the Motor City’s decrepitude. Ford will restore the building over four years and devote some space to its expanding innovations hub in the city.
We can only hope for the same with elevators. Not that Ford would be involved, but that the innovators we’ve written about–vertical farmers, property developers, recreation entrepreneurs–will find new uses or refine old ones.
Here I extend a big salute to the readers who’ve followed along on our road trip series. Your companionship and comments have been appreciated.
Your odyssey has been a great experience for this reader. I sincerely hope it is not the end of your work!. I have a few questions that you might consider answering in subsequent posts:
1. Could you prepare a chart that lists, by year for all years of operation, details such as where, size or plan, cost, commission capacity?
2. Do you have any information on who their experienced “slip form” method people were that helped your grandfather begin building using this method? In my experience with a company that was similar to Tillotson, migrated from wood to concrete construction, there was an initial superintendent that was experienced from working for another company building slip form method that was the key to the change?
3. In your photo archive, do you have work in progress photos for the slip form and for other portions of construction? They would be great to see.
4. Do you have any questions about building slip form concrete grain elevators that I might be able to answer?
Thanks for hanging in there for the duration. We have a list of additional topics to address as time permits. A chart: interesting idea. We don’t know how exactly Tillotson transitioned from wood to concrete. Uncle Chuck Tillotson was only four years old when that happened, so he hasn’t been able to recall those early days although he and Uncle Tim have mentioned employees who were with the company after World War Two. Yes, we have posted some photos of slip-forming in progress. Here are links to a couple. You can also use the search window in this blog to look for “slip-forming” and other terms.
Interesting as always! Love your notes and your observations along the way. Hope someday you can take a trip across Nebraska and Iowa and observe the great work and changing styles of the Tilloston – Mayer-Osborne elevators that dot the landscape.
Thanks, Mark. Yes, but there’s also a lot more elevators in Oklahoma and Kansas that I didn’t get to!
Hello and thanks millions for these awesome stories!! My Dad George T Christensen worked for Tillotson Construction in the early 50’s and he died in an unrelated accident while building the elevator in Boxholm, IA in 1955!! My mom told us that he worked on several elevators in Oklahoma and I would love to see the construction notes for all the elevators they built in Oklahoma!! I think they built the one in Weatherford Ok in 1952 or 1953 and maybe the one at Hydro OK!!?? welp Thanks again Terry Christensen
A post scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 21 answers your question, so be sure to take a look then.