Conversation with Sherman Johnson, scion of Johnson Construction, of Salina, Kansas

We were happy to be able to give Sherman Johnson a call the other day. Sherman, a flooring contractor in Shawnee, Kansas, is one of Virgil Johnson’s six sons. Johnson Construction, Virgil’s contracting firm, operated out of Salina, Kansas, and built a whole lot of elevators. We have speculated about the existence of a strong link, perhaps a common architectural designer, between Johnson Construction and Mayer-Osborn Construction. Johnson Construction sometimes acted in partnership with Rex Bratcher, and we know something about Johnson & Sampson. The design themes spread through those channels.

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Brad Perry took this photo in Atlanta, Kansas. “I think it’s a Johnson house,” he said. The rounded and stepped headhouse suggests Mayer-Osborn and Tillotson design influences.

Sherman was born in 1945 and went to elevator construction sites as a kid. “I remember going to Texas and Oklahoma. We lived in Salina, but most of the jobs were in Oklahoma and Texas, in the Panhandle of Nebraska, and in Iowa.” 

We had many other questions for Sherman, and he tried to help as much as possible. One thing he seemed pretty certain of was that Virgil talked about Tillotson Construction Company, of Omaha. “I heard my dad talking about them!” he said. “My father, he worked for Tillotson, I think. I don’t know for sure. I heard the name Tillotson, Chalmers and Borton, people like that.” 

Kristen Cart: Do you remember being on any job sites when you were a kid?

Sherman Johnson: Oh, yeah.

KC: Are there any memories you’d like to share?

SJ: Oh, like I said, I was just a kid. I remember going to Texas and Oklahoma–Newkirk (Okla.) and Blackwell and Conlon, Texas.

Ronald Ahrens: How long was Johnson Construction active?

SJ: As near as I can tell, at first it was my father and my uncles. And then Rex Bratcher was his partner for a while.

KC: The Sampsons were your uncles?

SJ: My dad’s wife’s brothers, Darwin and Sherman. I’m named after one.

RA: Do you remember the name Darrell Greenlee?

SJ: Darrell and Rosina. They were very, very nice people, great people. They had six girls.

RA: He was a foreman for your dad’s construction company, right? 

SJ: Superintendent.

RA: Can you characterize him?

SJ: In the summertime I had to work for him, and he worked me pretty hard. He was a good guy: a hard worker, a smart guy. We’d go out in the summertime, I don’t remember what the jobs were, they had me doing all the grunt work. I guess that’s why I’m not a contractor. 

KC: My dad described installing rebar.

SJ: Laying it and tying it. And it seemed like you always had a shovel in your hand doing something. 

KC: We had comments from Emily Frank, whose grandparents were Darrell and Rosina.

SJ: He built an elevator in Rushville, Illinois, and he retired there. If she’s still alive, she’s there. I don’t know if she’s still alive or not. 

Editors’ note: Here is the link to Rosina’s obituary.

KC: A couple of jobs, I’m going to ask if they’re familiar. Grand Island?

SJ: I don’t know.

KC: Atlanta, Kansas?

SJ: That rings a bell but I wouldn’t tell you that we did.

KC: One of the things we do is visit the elevators, and right on the manhole covers is the name of the company.

SJ: Oh, yeah. They used to make those at Wyatt Manufacturing in Salina. There was a foundry for a long time.

A small Missouri company has big plans for idle elevators to serve as vertical farms

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Vertical Innovations’ first vertical farm is planned for this elevator. Photos courtesy of Vertical Innovations.

By Ronald Ahrens

Jim Kerns and David Geisler called up the other day from Springfield, Missouri, to ask a question of our readers: Are you aware of any municipally owned, abandoned grain elevators?

Kerns and Geisler run Vertical Innovations, an enterprise formed in December of 2014 to repurpose old elevators, making them into incredibly productive vertical farms for growing leafy green vegetables. They have developed a patent-pending method of hydroponic production, a “structure-driven design” that adapts to the circular shapes.

“The silos tell us what to do,” said Kerns, who has a background in organic farming and leads the company’s innovation, design and construction efforts. “I see them as giant environmental control structures, giant concrete radiators.”

Significant energy savings can result from implementation of circular shapes, which among other things require far less lighting and the corresponding energy use, he said.

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Jim Kerns explores elevator guts.

David Geisler, CEO and general counsel, has worked out a lease for a disused elevator in downtown Springfield.

For its next steps, the company has targeted an available elevator in South Hutchinson, Kan., and approached the owner of Tillotson Construction Co.’s Vinton Street elevator in Omaha.

“What an awesome facility,” Geisler wrote in a follow-up email, thinking of Vinton Street.

Geisler and Kerns have cast their eyes far beyond the Midwest, though, from big terminals in Buffalo, N.Y., to San Francisco’s threatened Pier 92.

“We really need to save that facility if it’s structurally sound,” Kerns said. “It could put out about 50 million pounds of green leafy vegetables per year.”

Pier 92 San Francisco (1)Their most unique discovery source is YouTube videos posted by those who have flown drones around elevators.

But word-of-mouth works, too, and Kerns issues this appeal to readers: “Submit to us pictures and locations of concrete grain terminals in good condition all across the United States, sea to shining sea, north to south.”

Vertical Innovations can be contacted through its website.

 

Records for Tillotson’s Minatare, Neb., job include specs, give total cost picture

Story by Ronald Ahrens, photos by Kristen Cart

The small concrete elevator in Minatare, Nebr., is the oldest we have visited that was built by Tillotson Construction. After forming in 1938 as a partnership between Reginald and Joe Tillotson, and with their sister Mary also involved, Tillotson Construction built their first concrete elevator in 1939 and another in 1940. Both were in Oklahoma. But 1941 was a big year with five elevators, a pair of which, also in Oklahoma, were quite large with capacity of 212,000 bushels.

The Minatare elevator in this town in eastern Scotts Bluff County was built according to a plan original to the site. Company records show it had a side driveway with bins over the drive, 11 bins, two tanks with capacity of 16,000 bushels and two with capacity of 15,300 bushels.

The elevator and dryer stand idly by the Minatare rail siding.

Construction details show 690 cubic yards of reinforced concrete were used and 27.5 tons of reinforcing steel.

Gross weight when loaded was 3,377 tons.

The drawform walls rose 100 feet, and the cupola’s dimensions were 15 feet wide, 28 feet long, and 18 feet high. The center of the head pulley was at 116.16 feet above the ground.

This was a single-leg elevator. The head pulley was 48 x 14 x 3 7/16 inches, which was an inch and a quarter wider than the boot pulley. A 15-horse Ehrsam motor turned the head at 48 rpm. Leg capacity isn’t listed.

What is listed, though–and we find this quite exciting!–is information about costs that the company records exclude after World War Two.

The grand total for Minatare was all of $19,578.04 less commission. Here is a breakout of individual categories:

  • Labor: $5,526.83 at the rate of 35 cents per hour straight time and 60 cents for overtime
  • Cement: $2,590.75
  • Sand (30,000 cubic yards): $1,149.60
  • Reinforcing steel (J-rods, wires & nipples): $2,156.01
  • Lumber: $835.03
  • Machinery: $4,172.77
  • Structural Steel: $$772.53
  • Electrical materials: $155.07
  • Doors & windows: $47.36
  • Painting & waterproofing: $65.83
  • Hardware (bolts, nails, etc.): $169.71
  • Equipment Expense (depreciation, rentals, etc.): $246.29
  • Freight (not included above F.O.B. job): $509.51
  • W.H. tax & Ins.: $723.82
  • Miscel. (overhead, job office, plans, bond, etc.): $457.11

Double-checking the numbers, we find the total of 19,578.22. That’s 18 cents higher than the amount stated in the records.

The co-op office attached to the elevator. Grain weight and quality were assessed here.

What we would like to learn next is how Tillotson Construction landed those early jobs like Minatare. And how much was the commission?

We have the sense there are more records available at the locations to help us learn about our grandfathers’ grain elevators. One of these days, we want to visit Goltry, Newkirk, Douglas, and Medford, Okla., just for starters, to learn what we can about those early days.

Another look around Wahoo, Neb., yields treasure beyond reinforced concrete

Story by Ronald Ahrens and photos by La Rose Tillotson

The bend on Route 92 as it entered Wahoo, Nebraska, from the east was always welcome. Here, the road dipped down and crossed Sand Creek at the edge of town, then turned into leafy neighborhoods. It was the first shade for us after more than 30 miles under the sun on the flat prairie.

Wahoo was a frequent waypoint when our family visited relatives in David City farther west.

A site of interest in Wahoo was the Saunders County Courthouse, where a torpedo was displayed near the curb. Even when I was eight and nine years old, the torpedo seemed incongruous, being so far from the sea. But we Nebraskans were starved for variety, and leftover munitions from a distant war were deemed tasty morsels.

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Never did it occur to me that the Wahoo grain elevator had been built by my grandfather’s company. We knew he built elevators but assumed they were in far off places like Iowa.

Kristen Cart has already visited Wahoo and written one post.

But there’s new reason to think about the town after Aunt La Rose Tillotson drove there on a recent tour of the countryside. She forwards the pictures you see here.

As a young woman, Aunt La Rose lived in Wahoo for a short time. While going about her daily business, she never gave much thought to the elevator that stands along North Chestnut Street between Fifth and Sixth.

This isn’t a surprise, as a form of amnesia touched many family members after the family business faded out. Grandfather Reginald died in 1960.

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Here are some particulars of the Wahoo elevator:

Tillotson Construction Company used the same plan as from Imo, Okla., which had also been built in 1950. That meant a 150,000-bushel elevator rose from a 54- by 51-foot slab over a pit nearly 16 feet deep. The drawform walls were 120 feet high, and the cupola topped out after another 26.5 feet.

From atop of the Wahoo elevator, you could probably see all the way to Swedeburg, looking south, and Malmo, looking northwest. (Prague–home of Czech Heritage Days–was just a bit northwest of there.) It’s doubtful, though, you could see as far as Valparaiso, in southwestern Saunders County. Ulysses, way to hell and gone in Butler County, was out of the question.

Some other noteworthy aspects of the Wahoo’s single-leg elevator were its use of 3,056 tons of reinforced concrete and its gross weight, when loaded with as much as 4,500 tons of grain, of 8,216 tons.

I don’t see anything else in the specifications that distinguish the Wahoo elevator all that much from Imo, or for that matter, David City, which was built the next year because whatever Wahoo did had to be done in David City, too.

But no other place was like Wahoo. Wikipedia says the name comes from an Indian word for the shrub Euonymus atropurpureus, which yields arrow wood. But who believes it? I think they’re covering up for the day in 1870 when two large casks of beer fell off the delivery wagon.

Remember these four things about Wahoo:

  1. Wahoo Sam Crawford came from Wahoo, played outfield from 1899 to 1917 for the Reds and Tigers, and still holds the Major League record for most triples (309). He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1957.
  2. A wahoo (Acanthocybium solandri)  is a sport fish in the tropical oceans, but as far as I can tell it isn’t the official fish of Wahoo. Lake Wanahoo is barren of wahoos.
  3. Wahoo was a long-running gag on Letterman.
  4. Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Howard Hanson (b. 1896), three-time Academy Award-winner Darryl F. Zanuck (b. 1902), and Nobel Prize-winning geneticist George Beadle (b. 1903) came from Wahoo.

How many towns of Wahoo’s size–about 4,500 souls today–have produced a Hall of Famer as well as Pulitizer Prize, Academy Award, and Nobel Prize winners?

Beyond all that, Wahoo has a Tillotson elevator.

Vandals strike Tillotson’s Vinton Street elevator, leaving the owners with an expensive cleanup

644369_10152681898735294_1745767005_nSometime overnight on Wednesday, May 4, vandals struck the Vinton Street elevator, painting “Dump Trump” graffiti on the south annex’s upper run. The message caused a sensation Thursday morning.

Tillotson Construction Company completed the original 382,880-bushel elevator in 1950. Extensive annexes were later added. We don’t know when operations ceased, but for the last eight years the elevator on five acres of land has been co-owned by Ron Safarik and Richard Brock, who attempted to make a climbing facility comparable to those established at old elevators in Bloomington, Ill., and Oklahoma City.

In 2012, the Vinton Street elevator received national attention after the annexes served as the canvas for a public art project; a nonprofit organization commissioned artists to create themed banners that were draped over the silos.

Reached by phone, Safarik said he and Brock have tried to secure the property, but intruders found a way to pry through and gain access to the top. “I would presume they used the internal ladders that still exist,” he said.

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Photos courtesy of SILO Extreme Outdoor Adventures. 

Safarik and Brock will now be stuck with the cleanup bill. Since SILO Extreme Outdoor Adventures, the partners’ venture, closed in 2013, the elevator has been a burden, he said.

It has been listed for sale since 2014. A post on SILO’s Facebook page says, “The Silos and the 5 acres of industrial land are for sale through Ben Pearson at World Group Commercial Real Estate. Any climbing related buyer will receive the holds, bolts, and supporting gear for starting up a climbing club or business.”

Safarik said the asking price remains $150,000.

Although he said he hadn’t known much of the elevator’s history, he did pass along a story heard from an elderly man named Otto, who lived on Vinton Street and “had intricate knowledge” of events.

According to Otto, the only death that occurred at the elevator happened on a freezing night in an unspecified year. The victim, an elevator employee, locked himself out of the scale house. As he tried to pry back into it, he jammed his arm and couldn’t pull free. Found dead in the morning, he was surrounded by cigarette butts. With his free hand, he had managed to smoke his remaining cigarettes before he froze.

 

 

 

A reader recalls elevator construction and the recent explosion in Hinton, Iowa

By Michael Pelelo

I was born in 1954, the same year the Tillotson headhouse was slipped in Hinton, Iowa. I can see it from my late parents’ farm south of Merrill, Iowa, where I grew up. I knew several local farmers who worked that slip in ’54.

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The Hinton elevator in July 2015. Photos by Kristen Cart.

Within the last month or so, there was an explosion in that workhouse and it looks like the tank walls were breached, so it will probably have to come down. I spent many days in the 70s and 80s working in that complex and remember the old layout quite well.

In the 70s, as a young man, I became a millwright and worked for an outfit out of Oyens, Iowa, that built jump-form silos. Later I worked for D&B Construction out of Sioux City and helped slip workhouses in Oyens and Maurice, Iowa, and the set of tanks to the south of the Tillotson workhouse in Hinton.

I have probably been in every elevator in northwest Iowa at one point or another, and I worked as a millwright out of the sheet metal local, too. A lot of the guys who worked for Dad Sherrill and D&B Construction got their start at Younglove Construction out of Sioux City, which is still slipping elevators today after over a hundred years.

I am now retired and just this afternoon went to look at a pair of very large tanks that are being jump-formed in Sloan, Iowa, by Hoffman Construction. That outfit goes back a long way slipping and jump-forming elevators.

Way back when I was doing that type of work, old guys would come around every day and gawk at what was going on. Now, I am one of the old guys gawking!

* * *

DSC_0455My days in construction are ones I remember fondly, even though the work was hard and dangerous and the hours were long.

One of the companies I worked for was involved in a three-fatality accident at the Ritter, Iowa, Co-op in 1976. We were building 24-foot and 30-foot jump-form silos all up and down the Floyd Valley. I was working on the 24-foot forms in Sheldon, Iowa, south of Ritter at the time.

The March 17 explosion at Hinton was in the main workhouse, which is the Tillotson structure built in 1954.

Back in the ’70s and ’80s, I was very involved with work on several structures in that complex with two different construction companies. Much has been added since I last worked around there. From pictures in the media, it appears that at least one or more of the tanks in the Tillotson structure have ruptured, as I can see grain spilling out in some photos.

A model Tillotson grain elevator is part of Lauritzen’s Model Railroad Garden

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Photo courtesy of Lauritzen Gardens

We were happily surprised to hear from Rosemary Lebeda, director of development at Omaha’s Lauritzen Gardens, which is located along the Missouri River at 100 Bancroft St. She found her way to Our Grandfathers’ Grain Elevators when searching for information about Tillotson Construction Company’s Vinton Street elevator. She wrote:

“I thought you might like to know that a model of the grain elevators is a part of our Model Railroad Garden. This particular garden includes miniature sculptures of historical buildings in Omaha built from natural materials. They are on display throughout the summer and then they are brought inside and displayed as part of our Poinsettia show.

“Families really enjoy seeing the buildings, and the grain elevators are easy to spot. I drive by them almost every day! It was neat to discover your historical page on the web and learn more about the company that built them.

“The Garden is fairly new in comparison to other community attractions such as the zoo or museums. The visitors center opened in 2001 and before that it was pretty much open space.

“Lauritzen Gardens is uniquely positioned as the region’s premier botanical center and garden resource. Situated on 100 acres of lush grounds, the garden exemplifies visionary efforts to provide a quiet, tranquil and serene setting for the study, preservation, and pure enjoyment of some of the region’s most precious resources and flora. Beginning with a grassroots effort to build a garden for the Omaha community, the garden has quickly become a regional destination and has substantiated its position as a major Omaha-area attraction.

“Today, more than twenty themed gardens invite guests to immerse themselves in the beauty of the Nebraska landscape. At Lauritzen Gardens, a diverse palette of plant life combines with fine art, architectural components and water features to create an incredible sensory experience. The grounds change with the seasons and are open year-round for exploration and enjoyment.

“In addition to horticultural displays that inspire, events that entertain and educational programs that cultivate minds of all ages, the garden works to conserve the endangered plants of the Great Plains and to advance the understanding and stewardship of the region’s biological diversity.”