Marvin Keele recalls building Mayer-Osborn’s Blencoe, Iowa, elevator in the hot summer of 1954

Ronald Ahrens and Kristen Cart spoke to Marvin Keele, of Blencoe, Iowa, on April 20, 2021. Marvin is 88 years old. In 1954 (above) he spent a few weeks working on construction of the Mayer-Osborn elevator in Blencoe. The interview starts with Ronald’s explanation about use of the voice recorder and typing a rough transcript during the phone call. 

Marvin: Well, I hope I can answer your questions. (Hearty laugh.) 

Ronald: How did you get the job working on elevator construction in Blencoe? What was the connection? How old were you? What did you do?

Ronald Ahrens and Kristen Cart at BMW Performance Center West, Thermal, California, April 22, 2021. We are just a few months from observing the 10th anniversary of Our Grandfathers’ Grain Elevators.

Marvin: I’d just turned 21 the fall before. I worked for the school with the buses, but they didn’t hire me during the summertime. I had to have a summer job. Word got out in town that they were hiring, and I and a guy from a nearby town were the first two hired. His name was Dale Vrainburg (sp?). He passed away at 100 here just a year or two ago. 

Ronald: So you had been colleagues since 1954. Have you been in Blencoe all this time? 

Marvin: Yep. I was born outside town here, and I’ve lived here all my life. 

Ronald: You heard through the grapevine that they were hiring. What did they call your job? 

Marvin: Well, they hired us as carpenters to build the forms. When we went to work the wage was 75 cents an hour. But for every week you stayed with them you got a dime raise up to $1.25. That was top wage. It was awful good money because they paid time-and-a-half over 40 hours. We worked 10 hours a day, seven days a week. So we had three days that we got time and a half. In ‘54, that was awful good money. I worked there from first part of June to a little bit into August, and I had to go back to work at the school. But we saved enough money that we could buy some furniture and go with my brother-in-law to Oregon on a trip. 

Ronald: You and your wife? 

Marvin: Yeah, Mary. We’re the M&M kids. We were married in Nov. ‘53. So we got married in November the year before, and I went to work at the elevator in the summertime. 

Ronald: Was your young bride concerned about your safety? 

Marvin: No, huh-uh. Nothing to be concerned about over there. The first thing they did was build a big deck so they could draw out the shape of the bins. We made a big deck. The engineer chart drew out the shape of all the bins. When they got to building the forms, we just followed the shape on the deck.  

Ronald: Was this all an adventure for you? 

Marvin: It was something I’d never done, being as young as I was. I just got out of the Air Force the year before, then went to work at the school. After they hired Dale and I, people would come to apply for a job and when they’d take their name down and say, “Well, we’ll let you know,” then they’d call Dale and I into the shack there, the timekeeper’s shack, and they’d say, “You know these guys? Would they be good workers? So Dale and I, we kind of could steer some of our friends into jobs that the other people didn’t have a chance to get. 

Inside the excavation at Blencoe: rebar mats, welder, and formwork for pits

Kristen: My name’s Kristen Cart–Kristen Osborn by birth. The Mayer-Osborn Company, that was my grandfather. I know my dad was on that job that summer. Jerry Osborn was there just for the summer. He was at pouring stage, putting in rebar. 

Marvin: I just mailed copies of some pictures I had. It’s showing all the rebar they put into the base of it, into the footings. I sent four pictures, and it shows all the rebar that went into the base. And in the center of one picture, you can see the dump bit, or the boot pit–we called it the boot pit–that was put in where they dumped the grain. 

Kristen: Do you remember the name of the superintendent on that job? 

Marvin: Ernie Mendoza was the foreman. That’s who we worked with. 

Kristen: Do you remember somebody named Dick Osborn on the job? 

Marvin: No, not really. I know there was an Osborn that was in the time shack and was the boss. 

Kristen: OK, that would have been him. 

Marvin: I’ll tell you something interesting about that. We had three guys that came to work, and they’d been working in another town for a local contractor. They were getting 75 cents and hour, no raises, no time-and-a-half. They came and got a job, and by the third day they was there, they got talking among themselves that Dale and I and a few others were getting more money per hour than they were. So they went over to time shack, and they went in and said, “Those guys, we’re doing the same job those guys are, and they’re getting more money. I imagine Dick Osborn, I think, was running it and I don’t know, whoever the Osborn was that was running the time shack said, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” He pulled their time cards, wrote them out a check and said, “It’s been nice knowing you.” They came back about two weeks and said, “Can we come back to work?” He said, “Yeah, if you start out at 75 cents an hour and work your way up, you can come back to work.” And another thought that came to my mind today, they hired quite a few high school seniors, kids who were going to be seniors in high school in the fall. One was my cousin, Eric Keele. He was going to be a senior in high school that fall. He showed up for work, I think it was the second day, third day. I went by and he was.digging a hole. I said, “What are you doing?” He said, “I’m digging a hole for the outhouse.” That was in the days before Port-a-Potties. 

Ronald: We don’t have any photos of those outhouses. That would be a new department for us. 

Marvin: There wasn’t a city water system at that time. One of the pictures I sent you, I wrote on the back that there was somebody, I couldn’t tell who it was, you see back, and he was at the water pump evidently cleaning up or cooling off. They just put a point down, and had a water system that we drank out of and things. 

Ronald: Did you ever work the night shift? They went 24 hours a day. 

Marvin: I quit before they started up. I worked nights when we were pumping water. See, we live out here on the Missouri River bottom, and the water level is most times about 10 to 15 foot. When they got ready to put the boot pit, or dump pit, down I think around 80 two-inch points all around the perimeter, and they had two big Hercules engines–I think they were propane powered–and they pumped water 24 hours a day out into the ditch. They never shut ‘em down. They had somebody watch the pumps all the time–they had a sight gauge on the side with oil in it. That’s how they checked the oil level in the pumps. They never shut down. 

Ronald: We wanted to ask you, there were some problems with this job. You wrote a little bit about that when you commented on a post. Could you go into any more detail about what happened? They had to tear part of the elevator back down, right? 

Marvin: I quit and went on the trip. What they told in town, whether it was right or not, they had some of the forms were upside down. The forms had to be a little bit wider at bottom than they did the top so they’d slide. That’s what they told in town. They got up about 14 feet or something like that. When we got back from our trip they were tearing it down, but I didn’t go back to work because I had to go to work at the school. As I said, they put down all of those two-inch points to pump water. Then they built a coffer dam that was bigger than the dump pit. They built it out and dug down and stuck it in the ground. It was about eight-, 10-foot tall. Then they built another section on top of that, and they stuck it clear down in the ground and kept pumping the water out around the perimeter. Then we went down in there and built the forms for the dump pit. 

Kristen: Dad said that the concrete was slumping underneath the form, so they tore it down and started over. 

Marvin: Yeah, they tore it down and started over. They had quite a few high school kids working on that. They had one kid, they got going, they were up about 15, 18 foot. Ernie Mendoza did not know kids, when he wasn’t around, they were jumping off of the deck down into cars of sand, they had the railroad cars, and these kids were jumping down into the cars of sand. One night, he told this one kid to do something, and the kid just pretended to be mad. He said, “Well, I’m tired of you telling me what to do, I’m just going to jump off of here. He went over and jumped off into that car of sand. I guess Mendoza looked down and he said, “Don’t you come back up on this deck tonight.” 

Ronald: That’s funny. We were wondering if there were any accidents. 

Marvin: Not that I know of. I never heard of any. 

Ronald: Is the elevator still standing in Blencoe? Is it in use today? 

Marvin: Oh, yeah. It’s there. 

Ronald: Does the co-op still use it? 

Marvin: A  big co-op from Fort Dodge, Iowa, had bought it. They put up, the one that we worked on, a few years later, they put up some bins beside it to expand it. And then they put up another one. A few years later they put up another one. Now this New Co-op–the name is New Coop[erative]–that took over here a couple years ago, they put up a $750,000 bin, they put up a new dryer, and they put up a big fertilizer plant for dry fertilizer. Now this year they have built a barge unloading and loading on the river, and reportedly they spent $7 million building that. We were just out there over the weekend and they got their first load of dry fertilizer on three barges. They emptied them out, and they’re going to ship three barges of soybeans back down the river. 

Ronald: Can you remember the buzz when the elevator was built. It was such a tall building that comes out of nowhere–kind of a big event for the town. Do you recall any commentary about that? 

Marvin: No, not really. We had some people pass through town the other day, and he hadn’t been here–he was raised here as a kid and left as a kid, and he said, “I never remember seeing that elevator from the schoolhouse.” I said, “Well, the reason you never saw it is because it wasn’t there when you were a kid in school.”  

Ronald: That was an older gentleman then, I guess. Anything else you want to tell us about your adventurous summer of ‘54. 

Marvin: Well, it was probably the hottest summer we’d had in years. It was really hot. In fact, I sent you a picture that I’m in, and I noted on the back, “Notice how tan I was.” We really got suntanned over there. In those days you never had sunscreen or thought about skin cancer or nothing. 

Kristen: That elevator that they put in later also had a problem. They had a blowout under one of the doors during construction. Do you remember that? 

Marvin: No, I don’t remember that. But they were building an elevator, the same company was building one at Odebolt that summer. They had problems at Odebolt. When they put the dump pit in, they run into a lot of big rock I guess. That’s the story we heard. They ran into some huge rocks they didn’t know about. 

Kristen: That’s when they were building the dump pit? 

Marvin: Yeah, they run into rock. Now this elevator over here, it sets on sand. There was no pilings put down. They said that sand was so solid that they just dug down about seven, eight feet, and then they put the base of it on that. There was no piling used in the construction of it. This blow sand–they call it blow sand–it’s wet and packed. When they put that elevator up they said, “That’s the best base there is.” That’s what they told us anyway. 

Kristen: That coffer dam that was built–was that left on-site and then filled in? 

Marvin: They just built the boot pit inside of it and covered it up. After they got the boot pit made, then they filled the boot pit with water to let it cure. We went out and walked on catwalks out over the water to work on different things. Like I say, it was primitive according to today’s construction because the jacks they used to move it up, they were all screw jacks, they weren’t hydraulic or anything. They had a water line that run around the perimeter to level it. And they had guys, that’s all they did, was go around and make sure the water level, they were level.

Kristen: That’s interesting. I wondered how they did that. 

Marvin: There was a plastic pipe that went all the way around to each screw jack.

Kristen: They said they filled the concrete into the forms with regular wheelbarrows. 

Marvin: Up on the deck they had wheelbarrows that they moved the concrete around the deck. In these pictures, you can see how much rebar in in the base of that thing. There’s just tons of rebar in it. 

Kristen: That’s why it’s still there. 

Marvin: There were two levels of rebar, a bottom level and they put up on blocks, I remember maybe eight, or 10, 12 inches off the base, and they laid a mat down, a rebar mat, and then they built another one above that, about three foot above it. So there was two mats of rebar put in there, and it’s all fastened together and welded together. You can see in those pictures, there was an electric welder setting out in the middle there, that they welded a lof that rebar together with.  

Ronald: Did they bring in a specialist to do that welding, or was it just the local guys and they got some training? 

Marvin: I don’ know, I don’t remember, because I say, Dale and I were hired to be carpenters and that’s all we did was build things, build forms and things. Then after that, then they put you to work doing other things. When the forms got done, I was done, I quit. I went on a trip, and then I had to go back to school to my job there. 

Ronald: You did what for the school district? 

Marvin: It wasn’t that big a district, and later on our district consolidated with another district. I had a lot more buses. I worked for the school 36 years. 

Kristen: What did you do in the Air Force? 

Marvin: I was in motor pool. I was in the Air Guard in Sioux City. In fact, today is our 70th anniversary of reporting to Dow Air Force Base in Bangor, Maine, the 20th of April. They called us to active duty.  I always laugh that I was one of the few people that served on active duty and never went on active duty and never went to Lackland Air Force Base for basic training. I joined the Guard, and they activated us. And they said when we get to Maine, we’ll send to Lackland for basic training. We got up there, and they said, “We’d be short-handed if we sent you down there. We’re going to give you a week of basic training here. They marched us around the block, took us out to the rifle range, and said, “You’re in!” 

4 comments on “Marvin Keele recalls building Mayer-Osborn’s Blencoe, Iowa, elevator in the hot summer of 1954

  1. Brad Perry says:

    Ronald, Blencoe Coop merged with the cooperative at Hornick which eventually became Western Iowa Coop. WIC was a very successful company, and became a part of NEW COOPERATIVE, headquartered at Ft. Dodge, IA. In the last several years, NEW has spent $10+ million on expanding the Blencoe location.

    What’s most interesting, however is their current project, the Port Of Blencoe. NEW is building a port for in-bound fertilizer and out-bound grain, to access the New Orleans’ markets. Look at NEW’s Facebook page for some fascinating pix!

    Brad Perry

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  2. Suzassippi says:

    This was interesting to read. It is always good to get different perspectives on an event and this provided a look from a different side. Also enjoyed the pictures!

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