How a fire 30 miles away threatened the historic mill in Downey, Idaho



Preston conflagration photos from 2012 courtesy of Ryan Day.

By Ronald Ahrens

In Franklin County, Idaho, the towns of Downey and Preston are about 30 miles apart on U.S. 91. Downey is small, Preston is large. More than 5,000 people live in Preston. It’s the county seat.

As Ryan Day expresses it, “Downey is the black sheep of the family nobody wants to talk about.” 

Ryan, a follower of Our Grandfather’s Grain Elevators, runs the historic mill and elevator complex in Downey, which is a unit of Valley Wide Cooperative. Competing against the operation in Preston was tough. Preston had 24- and 36-inch rollers for barley, and a board member claimed no one could roll barley as well as they did. Preston flaked corn with the same proficiency that Sammy Cahn churned out timeless romantic songs. Preston could even apply molasses to the feed it produced.

This mill in the metropolis was fancy-schmancy.

“They were always the enemy,” Ryan says. 


Jene Day, who operated Downey for about 50 years, finally lured his son back in 2012 to become his successor. A month before Ryan’s first day on the job, the big mill in Preston caught fire and burned down.

“When I started, the building was still smoking,” he says.

The black cloud that had billowed over Preston had a silver lining, though.

“They had just merged with Valley Wide. Luckily, they were insured and able to build a new state-of-the-art mill.”

In 2014 The Capital Press–“The West’s Ag Weekly Since 1928”–celebrated the reconstituted mill’s opening and extolled its efficiency and convenience. The $3-million facility had everything producers and feeders could want: exotic mixes and the quick loading and unloading of trucks, for example.

Such a powerful allure caused a crisis of faith with some of the organic dairymen who had depended on Downey.

According to the the Capital Press, “Mike Geddes a local organic dairy owner [sic], said about a dozen regional organic dairies who now use a dilapidated mill in Downey have asked Valley Wide to process their feed.”

Dilapidated? A black eye for the black sheep!

Preston may be more efficient, but it’s just another unprepossessing steel building with some small steel bins. It lacks any visual distinction whatsoever. In fact, in the photos we’ve seen, it’s darn near invisible.


Kristen Cart’s photo captures Downey’s Oz-like quality. L. Frank Baum’s Oz books were contemporaneous with much of Downey’s construction.

As stated in an earlier post, Downey’s buildings belong to Oz. The installation should be in our National Register of Historic Places. For that matter it should be registered in Oz, too.

Four years have passed since Preston re-opened. To find out if anything has been done about its going organic, I called up and spoke to feed manager Shaun Parkinson.

“The only reason that we’d do anything is if something happened to Downey,” he said.

In other words Downey has its niche and is in good hands with Ryan Day.

Nothing had better happen.


Shots rang out at the Downey, Idaho, elevator complex in 1964

By Ronald Ahrens

If you think this blog is all about grain dust and elevator specifications, get ready for a murder mystery.


Ryan Day.

Ryan Day, a reader who manages the mill and elevator complex in Downey, Idaho, tells us what happened in an exchange of gunfire there in 1964.

“My mom and dad used to live in a house right next door north to the place,” Ryan says. “They had come home from shopping–it was late at night.

“Dad had been at the elevator for a few months. He noticed a light like a flashlight. He walked over, and it was a body.

“A local deputy lay dead in the middle of the yard. It was Deputy Woodruff, the first officer in [Franklin] County to die in the line of duty.” 


“Dad surmised somebody was breaking into the office, so he hustles up and sees a gas trail on the ground from a car that was parked there.

“Deputy Woodruff had put a couple slugs into their gas tank. And they put a couple of slugs into him.” 

Ryan’s parents called authorities.

From Downey, the chase began. It continued about 75 miles through the mountains to Montpelier, in the very southeastern corner of the state.

Downey5“They cornered three fellows and a gal from Chicago going through the states doing a robbery spree,” Ryan said.

The spree ended before the marauders got to Dingle, the last town before Wyoming.

This is how Downey gained lasting fame.

Embellishing his tale, Ryan says, “A detective mag from 1970s had that story.” 

We hope to find a copy somewhere, somehow.

A new belt for the leg, and the Downey, Idaho, plant is good to go


Photo by Kristen Cart.

By Ronald Ahrens

Ryan Day, a reader of this blog, shared some details about the mill and elevator complex he manages in Downey, Idaho, for Valley Wide Cooperative.


A selfie by Ryan Day.

“I do not have any info on the wooden crib at all,” Ryan says but notes a 1901 casting date on the iron housing of the 24-inch barley roller

He is quite sure about the rest of it, though. 

The six silos–the 50-footers made of riveted steel plates–preceded 1915, he reckons. They hold 11,293 bushels apiece. 

The two 80-foot silos each hold “23,000 bushels and change.” The middle has an overhead bin with capacity of 1800 bushels. 

“Trucks dump right there in the east side of the elevator,” he said. He has a roll-up garage door on south and a slider on north.


“Moving rolled barley around the plant in my company jalopy,” Ryan says. “The mill is in the background with the main entrance visible to the left. The Ford is a ’72. We call her Purple.”

He uses a 32-foot scale with balance beam, a device that always makes the Idaho state inspector marvel. It measures loads up to 60,000 pounds and can scale a tractor, which then pulls ahead in order to weigh the tandems. Then the driver backs up and dumps into the pit. 

Up top in the headhouse, a massive 40-horse motor runs the head pulley. “I’m sure it’s original.” 

Updating the leg, the cooperative had a new belt installed last spring. At 132 feet long it spans the distance between head and boot pulleys; it’s made of multi-ply rubber with fabric cordage. He said it’s not as thick as the old belt. Halverson Co., of Salt Lake City, installed it. 

The tall narrow building has a leg; the stepped pit inside has been converted to a corn grinder. 

The wooden crib still bears the faint marking Globe Elevator Co. No. 6. He points out that Globe was responsible for the largest wooden-crib elevator in the States, built in the 1880s at Superior, Wisc. Use this link to view photos from the Library of Congress. The History Channel documented its dismantling in 2013. 

Ryan Day came home and got ‘hootered’ at his historic elevator



By Ronald Ahrens, photos provided by Ryan Day

It’s bad enough the man who runs Valley Wide Cooperative’s landmark elevator and mill complex in Downey, Idaho, has to climb a ladder to the headhouse. Being “hootered” by an owl makes things even more precarious.

“I go up there pretty much every month for inventory,” Ryan Day said when we talked on the phone.


Ryan Day shared a selfie.

Getting started the last time, Ryan surprised a barn owl roosting on the truck lift. Both he and the owl survived the encounter without becoming candidates for a viral video. 

The main elevator with the tall, sleek, gleaming headhouse are made of riveted steel plates and date to at least 1915.

So why does he have to climb to the headhouse instead of using the manlift?

Last year, when Valley Wide looked for new insurance coverage, all the estimators’ walkthroughs resulted in reports flagging the manually operated wooden manlift.  

It needed to be removed, they said. Indeed, it might have presented some hazards. So it was cut out and a ladder installed. 

Before going any farther with our story, get this for coincidence: Ryan Day’s grandmother was Beatrice Tillotson. We don’t know of any relation to the Tillotsons of Tillotson Construction Co., of Omaha.

Here is the link to the obituary for Beatrice Jane Tillotson Day.  


The Downey elevator has survived flames and smoke.There was a fire, I don’t know when.” Ryan referred to the photo with men in hats. “There’s fire hoses draped around them. You can see smoke coming out of the door.”

He assumes the leg burned up. In those days, the 80-foot-high silos hadn’t been built.

Lingering evidence of fire is found in heat warpage on a couple of bins.

Besides flames and smoke, there were also bullets. But they’re for another post.


Day’s father, Elvin Eugene Day, Jr., known as Jene, went to work running this site in 1964 for Downey Grain Growers. It later became affiliated with Farmer’s Grain Growers and eventually Valley Wide.

Today the facility is devoted to production of organic feed. “The mill survived due to the fact there was a vacuum of organic dairies in our area,” Ryan said. Representatives of an organic dairy came through with their pitch, saying, “We can highball you through the system.”

Ryan works alone at the site, milling feed for the dairy cows from barley, organic soy, canola (not grown locally), ground corn, and depending on the season, a lactation mineral. 

It might seem that a man who grew up in Downey and whose father ran the mill and elevator, would have been foreordained to run it himself.


Ryan Day: “Here’s one of our local farmers and my pit and scale area.”

“Back in junior high, I swept floors, mopped, helped bag grain,” Ryan says. “I wouldn’t do any [barley] rolling, that was always my dad’s job.”

But after high school, when Jene suggested coming to work with him, Ryan said, “No way, dad, I’m going out to see the world.” 

He did leave Idaho. “I made it as far as Laramie.” He went to trade school for auto upholstery but found it unsatisfying to make a hobby into an occupation. Then he got into industrial painting. 

In 2012 he joined Valley Wide and three years ago replaced Jene, who is retired.

“Now I can’t think of a better job I’ve had. Everything in that place is historical. It’s in my blood.” 

Reader shares details of his elevator and mill in southeastern Idaho


Story by Ronald Ahrens, photos by Kristen Cart

The focus of Our Grandfathers’ Grain Elevators is the reinforced-concrete elevators built by Mayer-Osborn Construction Co., of Denver, and Tillotson Construction Co., of Omaha. Anything we can find on J.H. Tillotson, Contractor, is also part of the quest.

But the more we learn about elevators, the more we like all of them–especially old wooden ones. But steel? That’s new for us.

DSC_0037For said reason we present Kristen’s photos of a venerable operation in Downey, Idaho. This is one-of-a-kind hybrid complex of metal-clad wooden buildings and gleaming steel silos. A conspicuous ovalized Oz-like headhouse is freakish-tall but not inelegant.

Ryan Day runs this installation of Valley Wide Cooperative. Mark the company’s locations from Jackson, Wyo., in the east to Chehalis, Wash., in the west, and from Cedar City, Utah, in the southwestern corner of the plateau of the Colorado River, north to Salmon, Idaho, which happens to be a drive of 7 hours and 45 minutes to the Salmon River.

It just so happens that Ryan Day reads this blog. Commenting on one of our Texas-Oklahoma Road Trip posts, he introduced himself: 

“I happen to be a second generation miller at the Valleywidecoop organic mill in Downey, Idaho. I enjoy reading your posts for the reason that I too have elevators in my blood. The old mill I run now was practically a family affair as I was growing up as the Day family is all that ran it haha.

“Sadly, I’m all that’s left to run a worn out wooden crib mill and a steel tanked 123,000 thousand bushel elevator that time seems to have forgotten. I took over from father so he could finally retire 3 years ago and have loved every minute of it!”


It’s a amazing coincidence that Kristen had gone there. Too bad she and Ryan hadn’t met, but she saw no one during her visit.

Oh, and we have to share Kristen’s photo of the filling station-in-ruins across the street from the mill and elevator. The lighting conditions were hard to match for drama. Besides, in a way, feed and fuel go together.

Listen on KOSU, from Stillwater, as we talk about road trip discoveries


By Ronald Ahrens

Kelly Burley, news director of KOSU, called me up from Stillwater to talk about the recent road trip, focusing on the sites I visited in western Oklahoma.

He requested a couple of photos (seen here) with captions for KOSU’s home page.

Burley said the full interview would post on the station’s site, and an edited version would run as an insert during a broadcast of “All Things Considered.”


Above, Pond Creek, Okla. Here, Tillotson’s first concrete elevator (right), 1939, Goltry, Okla.

Indeed, he was true to his word. The link to the 25-minute version is embedded here. The page will open in a new window.

Kristen and I have been blogging since December 2012, but this is our first media coverage and we’re pleased.

Omahan’s ancestor ran 2 elevators–perhaps even Vinton St.

William Leslie Temple Farmers National Grain Coop, Omaha, NE Oct 3, 1933

Kim David Cooper, a friend of Our Grandfathers’ Grain Elevators, has shared not only his oil paintings depicting Tillotson’s Greenwood, Neb., elevator but also some family history.

As he explains …

Since we’re talking grain elevators … my Great Grandfather, William Leslie Temple, managed them. It was most of his life’s work. William Leslie Temple Farmers National Grain Coop, Omaha, NE Oct 3, 1933 detail 2

Two different large ones in Omaha. One on 16th street near Carter Lake and one just north of I-80 and west of I-480. 16th one still active, I believe the other one is not.

Here’s the group picture from 1933. Quite a group of characters. Looks to be many different nationalities represented.

William died in 1963 at the age of 85–on his birthday, working in his garden.

We believe the one just north of I-80 and west of I-480 is the Vinton Street elevator built by Tillotson Construction Co. in 1947.

It would be a remarkable coincidence if Cooper’s great-grandfather ran a Tillotson-built elevator.

William Leslie Temple Farmers National Grain Coop, Omaha, NE Oct 3, 1933 detail

As we see in this inset photo, the 16th Street elevator was part of Farmers National Grain Corp.

Cargill: Trading the World’s Grain, by Wayne G. Broehl, tells us more:

Farmers National was formed in 1929 as “a new central organization to bring together cooperatively owned elevators, terminals and wheat pools and farmer-directed sales agencies into a single unified marketing organization. In early 1930 centralized units also were formed for cotton and livestock, and later, similar national associations were formed for wool, beans, pecans, sugar beets, fruits and vegetables.”

The 16th Street elevator will require further investigation.

Many thanks to Cooper for sharing this family photo and revealing the probable link between our families.






Tillotson’s Greenwood, Neb., elevator appears in another Cooper oil painting

Corn and Cathedrals, 16x20, oil on canvas, Plein Air, 2015, Kim David Cooper

“Corn and Cathedrals,” used with permission. Copyright Kim David Cooper, 2015.

By Ronald Ahrens

Yesterday we showed you a painting titled “Greenwood Cathedrals,” a 48 x 60 work in oil by Kim David Cooper, a high school classmate.

The Set UpIt depicts the 129,000-bushel single-leg elevator built in 1951 by Tillotson Construction Co.

Here are images of another painting, “Corn and Cathedrals,” a 16 x 20 canvas that Cooper did in 2015.

This time the view is from the Greenwood cemetery and places the Tillotson elevator on the right.

Although “Corn and Cathedrals” was sold, “Greenwood Cathedrals” is on display at Cooper Studio & Gallery, 1526 Silver St., Ashland, Neb.


Tillotson’s 1951 Greenwood, Neb., elevator depicted in oil on canvas

Greenwood Cathedrals Full Painting

This copyrighted image is used with permission of Kim David Cooper.

By Ronald Ahrens

It has come to our attention that high school classmate Kim David Cooper, an artist, has completed a numinous landscape that depicts the Greenwood, Neb., grain elevator built in 1951 by Tillotson Construction Co.

In this view from the north, it’s the elevator on the left of the canvas.

Detail Left Elevator

Detail view. This copyrighted image is used with permission of Kim David Cooper.

Anyone who drives between Omaha and Lincoln on U.S. 6 will notice this elevator, which has a storage annex that was also a Tillotson job.

The 1951 original followed the Churdan, Iowa, plan established in 1949. It had four tanks, or silos, of 14.5 feet in diameter rising 120 feet from the ground.

The smallish headhouse measured 17 feet wide, 34 feet long, and 22 feet high.

We have posted about the Greenwood elevator before; all the specs and photos can be found by using this link.

Cooper, proprietor of Cooper Studio & Gallery, at 1526 Silver St. in Ashland, Neb., titled his painting “Greenwood Cathedrals.”

This oil on a large 48 x 60-inch canvas is now on display.

“We are Cooper Studio & Gallery and have been at this location for almost 17 years,” he wrote in an email. “I do a lot of plein air painting and commission work for customers.  Also framing and some restoration.”

It was my first contact with Cooper since 1972, who was good at baseball as well as art. Nice to come together again after 46 years–all because of a grain elevator.

Update on redevelopment of the Mayer-Osborn elevator in Tempe, Ariz.


We have discovered news in the Arizona Republic about progress at the derelict Hayden Mill and Mayer-Osborn grain elevator site in Tempe.

As the Republic’s story reveals, a developer plans to refresh the buildings and make a multipurpose facility that will entail converting the elevator into a hotel.

We visited Tempe in 2012 and posted this story and photos.

And we spoke a few months ago to John Southard, historic preservation officer for the city of Tempe, discussing some details of the project.

This is a beautiful, sleek elevator that integrates the headhouse into the main house in a singular manner and represents Mayer-Osborn at the top of their game.

We plan to return to Tempe in a few weeks to get the low-down, and of course we will report further right here at Our Grandfathers’ Grain Elevators.