By R. Janet Walraven
Standing on his family’s front porch in east Texas, nine-year-old Bill Walraven declared, “Someday I am going to be somebody. I will not be poor, and I don’t want to stay in the South.”
William E. “Bill” Walraven was born September 25, 1912, the middle child of 11 by their Choctaw mother, Georgia Allice Addy and Dutch father, William Alfred Walraven.
I called him Daddy. He graduated from high school in 10th grade–that’s as far as it went–and got a job in a sawmill. By 1940, he was building army barracks in Enid, Okla., where he met my Mama, Sadina M. Wagner, and rose to the top as construction superintendent. After high school graduation, Mama had moved to Enid to find a job near her married sister.
World War Two interrupted things, and he went to Europe with the 579th Field Artillery Battalion. After the War, he met Clinton H. Chalmers, partner in Chalmers & Borton.
By then, Bill and Sadina had already married. Their love story is told in Rainbow of Promise: A World War II Romance, my family’s legacy and tribute to my parents. Upon his return from Europe to Kansas, Daddy went to work in La Crosse, 150 miles northwest of Wichita. He filed saws on the Farmers Union elevator under Chalmers & Borton superintendent R. Alberding.
Early days of Chalmers & Borton and exciting adventures
Chalmers & Borton started out in 1927 with wooden elevators. The men and their wives lived together in one boxcar. After building up a big company, Chalmers–being mindful of the army barracks project management–promoted Daddy in 1948, to superintendent on Farmers Cooperative in Shields, Kan.—a 100,000-bushel slip-formed concrete elevator.
Born June 27, 1919, Mama was smart, gregarious, and madly in love with Daddy. She was excited about his job and happily became the best partner he ever wanted. She took on payroll duties. For her, moving around was an exciting adventure. The full extent of it is recorded in the company’s Book of Superintendents.
We moved in 1948 to Dighton, the central Kansas town where Mama had graduated high school 11 years earlier. For a while, we lived with Grandma Wagner in Bison. Daddy drove back and forth as he built an elevator for Co-op Equity Exchange of Mullinville. Later it was Bucklin, Kan. for Bucklin Cooperative’s new elevator.
Mama presided as we moved to Hereford, Tex. in 1949. It was a new state and bigger job—500,000-bushels of storage for Pitman Grain Co. Daddy finished Summerfield, Tex. for Pitman also. Most jobs in Kansas, Oklahoma, and the Texas Panhandle were 100,000 to 750,000 bushels. Later, he tackled one to 10 million bushels, whether grain elevators or storage units.
Chalmers visited regularly, introducing Daddy to Andy Milnar, a superintendent since 1927. Andy mentored Daddy at every chance. They both loved to fish. As their friendship grew, Andy realized Daddy was a math genius. Without having taken geometry, knowing no formulas for calculations, he could look at a pyramid-shaped pile of sand or gravel the size of a huge building, and know exactly the volume. He calculated the concrete, lumber, and steel needed for the structure. In fact, Daddy sometimes had to persuade Andy and Chalmers to modify blueprints.
“This won’t work,” he would say while redrawing. The college-graduate engineers in the office had it wrong.
The family grows while staying on the move
By this time, there were three of us daughters: Ramona Sue (1944), Rita (1945), and me (1947).
In 1950, we moved to Utica, Kan. where Daddy built an elevator for Utica Grain as well as storage for Farmers Coop in Shields. Utica was the first place he constructed an office where grain trucks would drive onto a scale. He was quite proud of it.
Next came Aurora, Mo. for Missouri Farmers Association, and then Girard, Kan. for Consumers Co-op. The year 1952 took us to Manter, Kan. for Collingwood Grain and back to Mullinville for Co-op Equity Exchange.
We moved in 1953 to Ponca City, Okla.–near Hazelton, Kan.–for Farmers Co-op Equity, before completing a 4-million-bushel monster for W.B. Johnston Grain in Enid. With energy to spare, Daddy also did an elevator for Farmers in Perry, Okla.
While in Hereford Tex. in 1954, he completed a one-million-bushel elevator for Pitman Grain, another elevator for Sears Grain, and a storage nine miles to the southwest in Summerfield. Still nearby in 1955, in Bovina, there was a storage for Sherley Grain, an elevator in Dimmitt, and a storage in Farwell. We lived in Sunray, a tiny town with a huge public swimming pool we enjoyed every day. My first encounter with prejudice was that blacks weren’t allowed after sundown within city limits. Daddy purchased a trailer house for his black foreman’s family to live on the job site.
The Walravens turn eyes eastward–and back–for huge triumphs
During the summer of 1956, Mama brimmed with anticipation about getting out of the Texas Panhandle for something very different in Paulding, Ohio: two storage units for Consolidated Cement Corp.
That was the inflection point in our adventures.
In 1957 we moved to Homestead, Fla. for a cement plant on drained swampland. But we were soon back to Kansas to build a storage for Montezuma Co-op Exchange.
During 1957 and 1958, Daddy took on a seven-million-bushel elevator for Farmers Co-op in Hutchinson, Kan.—his first construction of hexagonal tanks. He enjoyed the diversity and challenge in building. At half a mile, that elevator became the world’s longest. Workers rode bicycles from end to end.
We moved back to Florida—now Tampa—in 1958 for a subcontract job for Mills & Jones, today known as Federal Construction. Yet within the same year, we went to Albuquerque, N.M. on a two-year cement plant job for Robert E. McKee in Tijeras Canyon near the base of Sandia Mountain. During that year, Daddy also completed a 10-million-bushel elevator in Topeka, Kan. Then back to Bovina, Tex. (We lived across the state line in Clovis, N.M.) for 1.56-million bushels of storage for Sherley-Anderson Grain. But how could we call a calendar year complete without going back to Tampa for cement tanks and some buildings in Busch Gardens for The Austin Company?
The next few years capped Daddy’s career. In 1961, he superintendended a cement plant in Wilmington, N.C. for Rea Construction.
General Portland, a cement producer in Chattanooga, followed in 1962. Then on to Kansas City, Mo. for two million of storage for KC Terminal Grain. Another 4.7-million storage and office came in 1963 for Producers Grain Corp. of Plainview, Tex.—including, for the first time, steel tanks.
Our final stop, in 1964, was Eaton, Colo. (we stayed in Greeley) for a Great Western Sugar mill.
That summer, at Andy Milnar’s urging and honoring Chalmers’ perspective, Daddy was promoted to vice president and field superintendent. Chalmers, who by then had passed away, thought of him as the best they ever had among the long journey of 125 superintendents in far-flung sites from 1927 onward.
Determined to succeed, Daddy stayed at it and did what he loved until his own tragic death at 59–just before retirement–in 1972. Mama survived him by 17 years when she died in a car accident.
This was most interesting, and I enjoyed the travels and the photographs. My parents were living in Hereford, TX in 1949-1952 and my younger brother and I were both born there so that caught my attention!