Our 10-year elevator journey has taken us from the bottom of the pit to the top of the cupola

Our Grandfathers’ Grain Elevators marked its 10th anniversary four months ago, but in the crush of the holiday season and early 2022 resort activities in Palm Springs, which is one location of our split headquarters, we forgot to mention it until now.

Thank you to all followers of our blog.

In these 10 years, our 455 posts have attracted 72,271 visitors and 158,294 page views. Just today, we’ve had looks from China, Portugal, Lithuania, Canada, and the Netherlands in addition to the United States.

Also in these 10 years, it can be said that we–Kristen Osborn Cart and Ronald Ahrens–have become excellent friends. You see us pictured above in May of 2021, when Kristen was able to parachute into Palm Springs and accompany me to the track, where I did an assignment for Robb Report. Then we went to the south shore of the Salton Sea and took pictures of burrowing owls.

Through our posts, we’ve made friends with readers, too.

Our favorite moments in this pursuit are personal visits to our grandfather’s elevators, but we also have been lucky in getting our hands on construction records. Not long after we got going on this project, Uncles Tim and Chuck Tillotson put their heads together and came up with valuable documents.

We also love it when comments come in or readers extend their personal stories, photos, and art–all of which have been important to our effort.

On this anniversary, we would like to share a bit more from our personal perspectives.

10-Year Journey, by Kristen Cart

The blog started very much by chance. I wanted to find the elevators my grandfather, Bill Osborn, built. My dad, Jerry Osborn, knew the locations for the projects and the names of grandpa’s boss, Reginald Tillotson, and his superintendents, so I began to scour the internet to find them. That is how I found Ronald Ahrens. In 2009, he had written a post on his personal blog about his grandfather, Reginald Tillotson, and his airplane, which was pressed into service for elevator stuff. I wrote a comment on the blog. So began a very productive relationship.

Early on, we partnered with a photographer and elevator enthusiast named Gary Rich. He was a retired Union Pacific man, and he has since passed away. He traveled around many of the places where our grandfathers plied their trade, and he accumulated a formidable collection of elevator images. He gave us views of elevators that are now demolished—some of which we never had a chance to see. I had occasion to do an elevator tour and photo shoot with him. He would look at my images and tease me about removing the rock in my shoe—almost all of my pictures tilted to one side or the other. He was a very good photographer and critic.

Gary is not the only contributor who has passed on to greener pastures. Many of the men who did the work in the 1940s and 1950s were older than our World War Two veterans, and most of them are gone. The interviews and photos in this blog gave voice to some of these men and women.

Kristen waits for birds near the south shore of the Salton Sea (Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge) in April 2021.

I look through our past posts and see a few that were started and not quite finished—I confess to being the guilty party. Usually some scrap of information was misplaced or missing. If I never got back to it, mea culpa. Palmer, Iowa, was one such post—I still have hopes of finishing it.

I don’t get around to a lot of the places as much anymore. I’m not the stalwart road-tripper I once was. But I will never forget how Ronald taught me about taking strong photos with context, and about interviews that bring people to life in print. 

The blog has been a great ride. Here’s to another ten years.

Figuring out the Hidden Meanings, by Ronald Ahrens

When Kristen tracked me down in 2011, I had just moved to Southern California after 25 years in Michigan, and the last thing on my mind was grain elevators. During my youth in Omaha, Neb., everybody in the family knew that our maternal grandfather, Reginald O. Tillotson, had built grain elevators. But we knew nothing beyond that.

Kristen got the ball rolling. Genealogy was her established interest, and she had come up with some news clips that served as kindling for the great conflagration that’s followed.

Inside the main house at Booker, Texas, April 2018.

It’s hard for me to get to many elevator sites–the nearest one of “ours” is in Tempe, Ariz.–and besides that I keep busy as a freelance writer. But as mentioned, we came into the possession of more records, and by hook and crook, we’ve also managed to visit elevators in Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Nebraska, and Iowa.

My other big challenge has been learning how an elevator works. It certainly can be said that my inventory of lingo has increased. What other buildings come with such a rich lexicon? Boot, manlift, main house, cupola/headhouse, and load-out spout are a few examples.

In my career, I’ve written for 80 magazines and 24 newspapers, including some you’ve heard of. (For example, my byline and in some cases my own photos have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, New York Post, and USA Today.) But I can say with satisfaction that Our Grandfathers’ Grain Elevators is equally significant, and part of the pleasure is in doing it our way.

Here’s to the next site visit!

Blue-line drawings for a main slab and tunnel with breakout details for other sections in Gurley, Neb.

Finally, mercifully, we get to the last of the drawings from Tillotson Construction Co. records, and instead of dark, hard-to-read copies of blueprints, we offer these scanned copies of a “blue line.” They’re for a main slab and tunnel at Gurley, Neb.–which we assume has something to do with an annex–and were completed by Ted Morris on April 18, 1958. The scale is indicated as one-quarter-inch to one foot.

These are among the most detailed drawings in our possession, with abundant dimensional markings and figures for steel reinforcing bars. There are also many notations, some comprehensible and others begging for clarifying comments. In the upper right, the note, “Knock out Exist. Endwall in Tunnel” seems to suggest a conveyor that would connect the annex to the elevator.

Above that, an 11.0-foot gap is indicated between slabs with the note, “Wall to Wall (to Clr. Car Puller). Hmm!

Another one, between the Number Six and Number Four tanks, says, “Truss Bars next to Tank Opg’s. Str. Bars next to Inner Opgs.”

And in Number One we read, “Main Slab Steel to be 2″ Clear from Face of Slab Shown. Main Wall Steel to be 3/4″ clear from Face of Wall Shown.”

Others are far trickier. For example, “Print Walls for Roof” is written in Number Eight, and that’s pretty obscure.

Gurley is located in the Nebraska panhandle a few miles north of Sidney and Interstate 80. A satellite view reveals the annex and main elevator quite clearly amid Crossroad Coop’s complex at 501 Lincoln St. and ought to satisfy reader Suzassippi’s desire to match the two-dimensional drawing with a photographic view.

Readers may please feel free to contribute their own interpretations via the comments feature.

A late-afternoon drive results in precious postcard-like images of elevators at Greenwood, Neb.

By Ronald Ahrens

Our classmate and friend, Kim Cooper, sent a couple of photos from Greenwood, Neb., saying he “took a drive this evening checking out some subject matter. Great light in late afternoon.”

Kim is an artist and the proprietor of Cooper Studio & Gallery, located at 1526 Silver St. in Ashland, Neb. The studio and gallery opened in 2001. He likes to work in the plein air style, which often finds him painting outdoors and trying to capture the subtleties of light and shadow.

Besides the oil paintings, Cooper Studio & Gallery also offers watercolors, pottery, jewelry, and hand-crafted wooden vessels.

Starting in 1969, Kim and I were classmates at Morton Junior High School and then during a sophomore year at Burke High School in Omaha before a realignment swept him away to the brand-new Northwest High.

Besides our friendship, he knows Kristen Cart “fairly well” and her father, Jerry Osborn, who lives in Ashland.

“I met her father before I knew he was her dad,” he says.

We have featured Kim’s work in the past and are always happy to see more. To find those previous posts, enter his name in the search window to the right of this window.

Drawings for a 100,000- to 129,000-bushel grain elevator with detailed plans for all amenities

Among the most detailed drawings in our possession is this print, from the records of Tillotson Construction Co., of Omaha, for a 100,000- to 129,000-bushel, single-leg reinforced-concrete grain elevator.

We assume that Ted Morris executed the drawings for the company. We do not see notations for the scale of these drawings in inches to feet, as in others previously posted. Otherwise, the drawings are meticulously rendered.

To the left above is the cross-section of the structure. The main house has four tanks (silos) with internal diameter of 14 feet six inches and, with 100-foot drawform walls, a 102,500-bushel capacity is achieved. At 120 feet, the capacity increases to 128,900 bushels.

The cupola is marked as 22.0 feet high and 34.0 feet wide. Special markings indicate the dimensions of segments within and atop the cupola. A notation at the roof indicates the centerline of the driveway far below. We also see inscriptions for the head pulley, top of manlift travel, an interior ladder nearby, and to the far left, a 10-inch-diameter, 14-gauge spout.

In the main house, bins are numbered. From left to right, we see internal Bins 5, 11, 12, and 15.

Above the driveway and work floor, a space that extends 17.0 feet accommodates the 12.0-foot steel overhead-curtain-type door and electric truck-lift rails. The grate is 9.0-feet wide. The pit goes 12.0 feet below the main slab. A note indicates “Typ. Base Sash Elev.,” the meaning of which is open to interpretation although it obviously refers to a window. An entry in the Standard Machinery list includes, “Industrial steel windows & Doors @ Cupola & Work Floor.”

Below the cross-section is a Boot Pit Plan showing two pits and a ladder up, with dimensions given.

The Bin and Foundation plans give the various specifications and dimensions, including a 44.0 x 44.0 slab and 9 foot 9-inch radius from center of a tank to the outside perimeter.

The Bin Roof & Cupola Floor Plan includes such juicy details as the dimensions of wall openings under the roof and louvres under eaves and indicates three “B24141 cpd” windows. A key to symbols explains markings for “C.I. 24-inch manhole [with] ladder below,” “C.I. 20-inch roof scuttle,” “S.M. 20-inch removable grate and cover,” and 10-inch 14-gauge spouts. The scale is rated for 10 bushels.

The Work Floor and Driveway Floor Plan shows the driveway curtain door is 11.0 feet wide and opens to an area with 13.0 feet of clearance. The two dump grates are indicated. No. 1 is 9.0 x 3.5 feet )or it could be 5.5 feet), and No. 2 is 9 x 15 feet. Doors are 3070 doors.

The Distributor Floor Plan depicts 18 funnels at 16-inch centers, and a radius of 4 feet 7 inches from center. There are four of the B24141 C.P.O. windows.

The Scale Floor Plan shows the scale, a ladder up, and the load-out spout, as well as various dimensions.

The list of Standard Machinery includes the following:

  • Head & Boot Pulley 60 x 14-inch C.I.
  • Belt 14-inch, six-ply
  • Cups 12 x 6-inch Calumet at 9-inch centers
  • Leg capacity 5,000 bushels/hour
  • Head drive 25 or 30 H.P.
  • Truck Lift 7 1/2 H.P. Elec.
  • Manlift 2 H.P. Elec.
  • Dust col. System 3 H.P. Fan @ Head, Disch[arge] to Bin
  • Leading Out Scale 10 Bu. Richardson
  • Leading Out Spout 8 1/4-inch well casing
  • Cupola Spouting 10-inch-diameter, 14-gauge steel
  • Car Unloading Facilities By Gravity, Direct to Boot
  • Distributor 12-inch Radial-Operate from Wk. Floor
  • Dr’way Doors Overhead Custom-Hand Open

Drawings for an elevator of 100,000- to 125,000-bushel capacity with plans for driveway floor and bins and single- or twin-leg configurations

These drawings reproduced from the records of Tillotson Construction Co., of Omaha, show the general-plan details of a 100,000- to 125,000-bushel, single- or twin-leg, reinforced-concrete elevator. 

To the left above, seen at the scale of one-eighth inch to one foot, is the cross-section of the structure. The main house has four tanks (silos) with internal diameter of 14 feet six inches and, at 100 feet in height, a 100,000-bushel capacity is achieved. At 120 feet, the capacity would increase to 130,000 bushels.

The cupola is marked as 22.0 feet high with a single leg and 30 feet 6 inches with two legs. Notations inscribed in the cupola space label the dust fan, distributor floor, automated scale, and cupola floor. The diameter of the leg’s head pulley is 60 inches.

In the main house, bins are numbered. From left to right, we see Bin 5, Bin 11, Bin 12, and Bin 15.

Above the driveway and work floor, a space that extends 17.0 feet accommodates the steel overhead-curtain-type door and electric truck-lift rails. The main slab is indicated below.

At the very bottom, we see a 13 foot 6 inch depth for the pit with a single leg or 15 foot 9 inch depth for a twin-leg setup.  

The driveway floor plan (center) is rendered at the scale of one-quarter inch to one foot. To the far left, we see a dock. The measure of 13.0 feet is given between the two tanks (Numbers 1 and 4). The driveway is 47.0 feet long–three feet longer than the main slab. It is 30.0 feet from the initial edge of the second dump grate to the driveway exit. The width is 13.0 feet. On the right are the electrical room, an electrically operated manlift, and a manhole.

The variation drawing, “Dvwy Floor Plan 2 Legs,” at the same quarter-inch scale, includes details for a twin-leg elevator. The note at bottom says, “Remainder of Plan same as with 1-leg.”

The Bin Plan at the right shows a 44.0-foot width. (So the main slab is apparently 44.0 x 44.0 feet.) At top we see a dust bin noted as well as bin draw-offs in the interior bins. A number of those bins are marked as 10 feet 4.5 inches across. Number 12 is 7 feet 11 inches wide. Number 16 is 12 feet 10 inches.

At lower right, the twin-leg variation drawing shows the distribution-control cable well–not indicated in other drawings we’ve posted–and the manlift and ladder well and manlift weight box.

The large tanks Numbers 1 to 4 are shown in counter-clockwise order from the upper right. At 100,000-bushels overall elevator capacity, Numbers 1 and 4 hold 11,996 bushels. Numbers 2 and 3 hold 12,066 bushels. At 125,000-bushel capacity, Numbers 1 and 4 hold 14,770 bushels. Numbers 2 and 3 hold 14,840 bushels.

The internal bins are at 100,000/125,000-bushel ratings as follows for single and twin-leg configurations: 

  • Bins 5 & 6: 4,555/5,7770 bushels
  • Bins 7: 2,207/2,400 bushels
  • Bin 8, 13, 14: 4,217/5,400 bushels
  • Bin 9 & 11: 6,030/7,730 bushels
  • Bin 10: 4,790/6,140 bushels
  • Bin 12 (scale): 4,452-4,014 (1-2 leg)/5,800-5,460 (1-2 leg) bushels
  • Bin 15: 4,858 (1-2 leg)/6,150 (1-2 leg) bushels
  • Bin 16: 4,790-4,465 (1-2 leg)/6,070-5,655 (1-2 leg) bushels 
  • Total: 103,042-102,279 (1-2 leg)/128,160-126,405 (1-2 leg) bushels

General Notes:

  1. If cleaner is installed in Bins #7-8-9 & 10 above the dv’y, add 2′ to D.F. [drawform] ht. to maintain capacity.
  2. Bin 5-6-8-13 or 14 can be used in conjunction with drier by placing hopper bottom half way up in bin.

The initials “TWM” in “DR BY:” box at bottom right indicate that Tillotson’s Ted Morris executed the drawings.

Drawings for an elevator of 150,000-bushel capacity with plans for work floor and bins

These drawings reproduced from the records of Tillotson Construction Co., of Omaha, show the general-plan details of a 150,000-bushel, single-leg, reinforced-concrete elevator.

To the left above, seen at the scale of one-quarter inch to one foot, is the cross-section of the structure. The main house has five tanks (silos) with internal diameter of 16.0 feet and achieves a height of 120 feet. No dimensions are shown for the cupola; the only notation in the plan says “automatic scale.”

In the main house are notes saying, “Up Leg” and “Down Leg. Other say, “Elect. Truck Lift” and “Dump Grate.” The driveway door is 13.0 feet high.

A precisely rendered rail car provides a fanciful touch on the far right, where it’s positioned at the load-out spout to receive a cargo.

At the very bottom, we see a 21.0-foot depth below the main slab.

The work floor plan (center) is rendered at the scale of three-sixteenths inch to one foot. We see that the whole structure sits on the slab measuring 50.0 x 47.0 feet. Internal diameter of the tanks is 16.0 feet. Notes show the locations of the electrical room, two manholes, dump grates, and at far right the dock.

The bin plan, also three-sixteenths to one foot, shows the five large tanks with Number 1 in the lower-right and the progression going counter-clockwise to Number 5 on the lower-left.

Sandwiched inside are Bins 6 through 16. We see that Bins 6, 8, 10 and 12-16 are marked as being 10.0 feet wide. Bin 9 is 7 feet 6 inches across. Bin 14, on the far right, is 13 feet 9 inches across. Bin 16 is labeled “Dust Bin.”

The large tanks Numbers 1 to 5 have capacities of 17,650 bushels. The internal bins are as follows:

  • Bins 6-7: 5,300 bushels
  • Bins 8 & 10: 6,790 bushels
  • Bin 9: 6,000 bushels
  • Bin 11: 6,540 bushels
  • Bin 12: 2,640 bushels
  • Bin 13: 5,300 bushels
  • Bin 14: 8,220 bushels
  • Bin 15: 7,980 bushels
  • Bin 16 (Dust Bin): 930 bushels

Unlike any of the other plans we have, this one is dated. One entry in the lower-right says, “Rec’d 3-3-58.” There are two other illegible dates, but at very bottom another date shows 3/31/58.

The initials “TM” would seem to indicate that Tillotson’s Ted Morris executed the drawings.

Drawings for an elevator of 200,000-bushel capacity with bin plan and schedule

The present drawings that are reproduced from records of the Tillotson Construction Co., of Omaha, show details of a 200,000-bushel, single-leg, reinforced-concrete elevator

To the left above, seen at the scale of one-eighth inch to one foot, is the cross-section of the structure. The main house has eight tanks (silos) with internal diameter of 15 feet six inches and achieves a height of 120 feet. The cupola is 30 feet six inches high. At the bottom, we see a depth of 15 feet three inches below the main slab.

In the cupola, we see notations for the distributor, distribution floor, and automatic scale.

Below, numbers of the large tanks and smaller interior bins are noted. The driveway and rolling door are shown above dump pits Number One and Two. The driveway is 12 feet wide, the door is 13 feet high, and a 17-foot distance extends between driveway floor and driveway roof.

Other notes in the lower-right indicate the work floor, back pit, and a track conveyor to be installed at a future time.

Outside the elevator’s wall is a load-out spout for rail cars and the inscription “Track,” showing where a car draw up to be filled.

Ratings for the bin schedule are cut off due to the limitations of our scanner bed and the 11×17-inch sheets that were copied from blueprints by Uncle Tim Tillotson.

The schedule has the large tanks, Number One through Seven, at 16,880 bushels each. Number Eight is 15,495 bushels. Internal bins nine through 20 range in capacity from 3,980 bushels (Number 19) to 6,665 bushels (12 and 14).

The whole structure sits on the slab measuring 48.5 x 62.0 feet.

Number 21, which can barely be seen in the Bin Plan, is an ovalized chute that stands just outside the accommodations for the electrically operated man lift. “Down” is inscribed to the left of the lift, and “loader” and “up” are to the right.

The Bin Plan and Work Floor Plan are shown at the scale of three-sixteenths inch to one foot.

From the bottom, notes in the Work Floor plan show “Trucks” entering in the direction of the arrow to the two dump pits. Additional notes say “Rails for the 7 1/2 H.P. overhead Electr. Truck Lift” and “12′ wide x 13′ high Overhead Steel Curtain Type Door (Opp. end same).”

At far right, notes say “Track Door” and “RR Siding.”

The stairway inside Number Eight is indicated with the note “Down to Bsm’t.” And this stairway is the reason for the tank’s capacity of 15,495 bushels as opposed to the 16,880 bushels of the others.

Drawings for an elevator of 250,000-bushel capacity with bin plan and schedule

Here in sharp detail, at the scale of one-eighth-inch to one foot, we have drawings for a 250,000-bushel Tillotson elevator. The bin plan gives capacity at 252,300. Tillotson Construction Co. built many elevators of this capacity, although we can’t determine how many of them adhered to the drawings we see here.

The level of detail is exceptional. In the cross-section, we see a stairway and its railing, an interior ladder (apparently in the manlift channel), basement window sash, 7.5-horsepower Ehrsam truck lift and hand-operated rolling curtain door, port for inspection of the leg, and the 72×14-inch head and boot pulleys. A note on the lower left says “Future 3 hp – 14″ conveyor,” and broken lines indicate its course. Another note to the left indicates “10[-inch] well casing”. Another note near the top of this channel says, “Rad. Dist. to 3 bins & Loading Spout & Driveway.” This we take to mean radial distribution.

The “car” at far left presumably represents a rail car.

The drawform walls of the tanks (silos) are 120 feet high.

The cupola is 40 feet high and 50 feet 3 inches long. We learn that inside it, a 40-horsepower Howell head-drive turns the head pulley at 42 revolutions per minute. The leg’s 14-inch, six-ply belt has cups of 12×6 inches for a leg capacity of 6,300 bushels per hour.

Another note and a zig-zag arrow indicate “Top of Manlift Travel” and two-horsepower Ehrsam manlift.

Detail drawings inside the cupola show the intake and exhaust for the three-horse exhaust fan. Made of 14-gauge steel, the spouting is 10 inches in diameter. Another notation and additional broken lines indicate “Future 2,500 bu. Hopper Scale.” This is near the automatic scale and the grate platform.

Other plans–each with its own details–are for the roof and the cupola floor, bins, foundation, and work floor and driveway.

Drawings for an elevator of 254,000-bushel capacity with bin plan and schedule

The drawings we have in hand from Tillotson Construction Co. include this plan for a 254,000-bushel reinforced-concrete grain elevator.

While the company built a number of elevators rated at 250,000 and 252,000 bushels, these were likely based on different drawings.

Otherwise, the records show just one elevator of 254,000 bushels–that’s 254,104 bushels, to be exact. It was built in 1950 at Palmer, Iowa.

A 252,000-bushel elevator went up the year before at nearby Pocahontas, Iowa.

The Palmer job was a single-leg elevator with 115-foot-tall tanks (silos) and a cupola measuring 23x60x40 feet. Fully loaded, its gross weight was 12,975 tons.

A dryer bin was included at the time of construction.