An old letter reveals some details about the Tillotsons’ early days in wooden elevators

Charles H. Tillotson

By Ronald Ahrens

A letter from my grandmother Margaret Irene McDunn Tillotson reveals some details about the early nomadic life of my grandfather Reginald Oscar Tillotson. As we have documented in this blog, Charles H. Tillotson (seen in the photo above), who was Reginald’s father, built wooden elevators.

When Charles H. died in 1938, Reginald and his brother Joe took the helm of the family’s construction company and learned how to build elevators by slip-forming concrete. That positioned Tillotson Construction Company to advance as the new method served to meet demand for greater storage capacity at rural cooperatives.

My grandmother’s missive of Oct. 6, 1978 gives a few details of those early days.

Charles_Tillotson_Obit__The_Nebraska_State_Journal__Lincoln__Nebr___19_June_1938“When they moved from place to place with the construction company they had many funny places for a home. Your grandfather moved ten times one school term. They built cribbed elevators during those days. This was made by placing a two by four on a two by four to build the walls for the outside and to make the bins. The fields of corn and grain were used by the farmers so they had no great need for storage or grain elevators. So many jobs were to add on to bins or repair them. This made small jobs and many changes in places to live.

“One time they lived in a school house. Many times when it was a small job they lived in the elevator office. During the cold weather they got to live in parts of others’ homes and tried not to have to move. Construction those days was almost nil during the cold weather. They wished many times they were farmers when they had big snow storms.

“After his grade school days they settled in Omaha. Reginald worked in stores. His recreation was sports which I mention (tennis, baseball, football).”

Uniqeness in an early Cargill elevator in northeastern South Dakota

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Brad Perry shares another photo of an early Cargill elevator, this one at Athol, S.D.

Athol and yesterday’s Ashton are twin towns in Spink County, a ways south of Aberdeen. Together they must have about 180 people.

We hope those people appreciate the uniqueness of their elevators.

An early Cargill country elevator complex at Ashton, S.D.

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Brad Perry shares another photo of an early Cargill elevator, this one at Ashton, S.D. As the Dakota Territory surrendered its prairie to agriculture in the 1880s, grain traders like Cargill expanded north and west. The initial heavy harvests from the rich earth raised demand for storage.

 

 

The trading partnership of Bagley & Cargill in South Dakota

Bagley

Our friend, Brad Perry, saw the recent posts about Cargill history and was prompted to send some of his photos.

“The Bagley name still shows up in South Dakota along U.S. 12,” Perry notes. This elevator turns up in an online source that says the location is Andover, just east of Aberdeen.

“George C[olt]. Bagley was a member of a grain-trading family in eastern Wisconsin,” Wayne G. Broehl, Jr. writes in his massive history of Cargill. 

In the early 1880s, Wisconsin farmers were moving out of wheat and into livestock, so Bagley betook himself to South Dakota and partnered with Sylvester Cargill, one of the five Cargill brothers.

Broehl continues:

Most of the Bagley & Cargill operations were in that part of the Dakota territory that later became the northeastern section of South Dakota. Similar to Jim Cargill’s larger-capacity operations in the Red River Valley, the Bagley & Cargill’s 13 structures at the firms 10 locations were more substantial (although only one was classified as an elevator.) This elevator, at Aberdeen, had a capacity of 25,000 bushels; the Andover warehouse had the same; the Groton operation had an 18,000-bushel capacity and the Bath warehouse, 15,000.

An extensive biography of Bagley says the company concentrated on towns along the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad.

The partnership lasted “only a short time.” Bagley’s wife, Cornelia, would later recall, “Ves Cargill [Sylvester] was a partner but George could not put up with his suspicion of all deals and bought him out.”

 

One of Cargill’s early concrete elevators found in southern Minnestota

Elmore

Our friend, Brad Perry, saw the recent posts about Cargill history and was prompted to send some of his photos.

Here he shows us one of Cargill’s early concrete elevators. It’s located in Elmore, Minn., a tiny town in Faribault County, in the south-central part of the state right on the Iowa line.

As railroads pushed west in the 1870s, Will Cargill expanded his grain storage along the lines through northern Iowa and southern Minnesota.

And as the era of reinforced-concrete elevators unfolded, Cargill’s successors continued building.

We don’t know a thing about this elevator’s dimensions or who might have built it, but how impressive is the wooden elevator on the right? It stands almost shoulder to shoulder with the more modern concrete one. 

American Colossus, the blog, recounts a century of early grain elevators

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By Ronald Ahrens

One thing leads to another, and somehow we found ourselves looking at someone else’s blog about grain elevators. “This blog hosts information about American Colossus: The Grain Elevator 1843 to 1943, written by William J. Brown and published by Colossal Books in February 2009,” says the blog’s introduction.

Then Brown generously includes the introduction to the book. Among other things, it mentions the work of Barbara and Bruce Selyem:

Brown writes: “One of the striking things about Barbara and Bruce Selyem’s The Legacy of Country Elevators: A Photo Essay, Kansas History, Spring/Summer 2000, is that it includes so many pictures that show traditional country elevators built out of wood standing next to modern country elevators built of reinforced concrete. The latter are often twice the height of the former and distinctly ‘urban’ in character.”

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There’s also a citation for “Concrete Elevators,” a 1913 article by Barney I. Weller (from which we took screenshots). The abstract, which is the first paragraph of Weller’s article, says:

“Elevators as a means of housing and handling grain did not make their appearance until the latter part of the last century. The first real elevator of which there is any record is the ‘cribbed’ wood type and there are still a good many of these elevators in existence. This type is interesting when it is considered that at one time an elevator of nearly 4,000,000-bushels capacity was erected complete, and almost totally filled with grain in a period of forty-four days. Of course, lumber was plentiful, no expense was spared and no restrictions were put on the builder. As the price of lumber advanced it became necessary to look for other material; the elevator operator and owner seeking a material which would lower appreciably the very high insurance rate on wood.”

Thanks to Google Books, we find the entire article by using this link.

 

 

 

 

The story behind the WSJ’s story of a cast-off elevator in Burlington, Colo.

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By Ronald Ahrens

From reading Wayne G. Broehl, Jr.’s huge history of Cargill, I’ve become alert to other news about the grain-trading behemoth. So a Wall Street Journal article, titled “Growers’ New Clout Tilts Farm Economy,” caught my eye on Aug. 16 

“Powerful farmers push Cargill, ADM for better prices, and may soon compete,” the sub-headline reads.

According to Jacob Bunge’s story, several factors have risen in importance to give large farmers more leverage.

One is that farmers have more storage capacity for their grain. They don’t have to sell soon after harvest, going to the local elevator and accepting the current price.

A second factor is more options for direct sale of crops to stock feeders or ethanol plants.

And like everything else, there’s a digital aspect. “Venture capital-backed startups are developing services that scan a wider range of grain buyers or connect farmers directly with food makers,” Bunge reports.

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Bunge’s story in the Journal tells of a Cargill grain buyer who “said his job got harder still after Cargill in 2016 sold the Burlington, Colo., grain elevator–and later, nearby cattle feedlots that were reliable destinations for the grain grown by many of [the buyer’s] contacts.”

Here we skidded to a stop. Burlington, Colo., is in the records of Tillotson Construction Co. My uncle, Charles J. Tillotson, worked on Burlington and recalls a 1950 incident there involving a train and cement mixer. The locomotive derailed, but no one was injured.

The 300,000-bushel Burlington elevator had eight tanks of 20 feet in diameter and 115 feet in height. It was a twin-leg elevator with a pit 19 feet deep. The cupola measured 23 feet wide, 63.75 feet long, and 44 feet high. Pulley centers were 168 feet apart.

Could this be the same elevator Cargill sold two years ago? The big company has “divested itself of some far-flung grain elevators that aren’t near a railroad or river.”

And Bunge recounts another marvel: the anecdote concerns an Illinois farmer–one who tills 9,000 acres and rents out 5,000 more–who partnered with another farmer to buy a 750,000-bushel Cargill elevator. 

If they don’t find it too expensive to operate and insure, dispatching large quantities of grain when and where they want will be a challenge for Cargill and ADM to face.