Sunset at Rockwell City, Iowa

The Tillotson elevator in Rockwell City, Iowa, as it appeared in 2014

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

Recently, one of our readers sent us some disheartening news. The skyline in Rockwell City, Iowa, has permanently changed, as announced by Paul Grage:

“…I would like to let you know that the Tillotson elevator in Rockwell City, Iowa, is currently being torn down. They blasted the head house because it was too tall for the crane that ran the wrecking ball. They are currently wrecking balling the rest. The rail that used to serve it was abandon[ed] long ago and an airport runway was built on the old bed. The elevator is shot and it’s presence makes about 1200 feet of the runway useless after course corrections. Its demolition was funded by the Iowa DOT and Landus Cooperative.”

Back in 2014 I paid a visit to Rockwell City, Iowa, located a few miles south of U.S. Route 20 in the western third of the state. I stopped to take pictures of the old Tillotson project, which was one of the larger elevators on my route from Nebraska to my home in Illinois.

The Tillotson landmark was permanently closed for business and deserted.

I spoke to an elderly gentleman standing outside of his small bungalow, which was tucked in close to its neighbors on a street radiating from the elevator property. He had recently moved to town, so he didn’t know any local history, but he shared his observations of the old site.  He said that an owl family had moved into the headhouse. Sometimes he would see the birds flying in or out at dusk, or he would hear their hooting at night.

Other than accommodating the new residents, the elevator stood silently, by far the biggest structure in town. Its doom was sealed when the rail line closed. I didn’t know it would be my last visit–the dull light of the day invited another visit for photos, so I set my images aside for a later post. I never got back there. But here are views of the old elevator, as I found it that day.

The tallest landmark in town is now the water tower.

The first Denver office of Mayer-Osborn is for lease at $8,000 a month

The 1717 E. Colfax Ave., Denver, Colo. location is for lease.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

While enjoying our leisurely October road trip, my dad, Jerry Osborn, and I sought out the former business office of the Mayer-Osborn Construction Company, the Denver-based business my grandfather, William Osborn, operated in partnership with Eugene Mayer. It still stands at 1717 E. Colfax Ave.

Mayer ran the business office, while Grandpa was in the field selling their services. Their former office has undergone a smart update, now sporting solar panels and new brick siding, which has added great street-front appeal for potential tenants.

An item from the Farmers’ Elevator Guide

The place was vacant, but it was settled into an optimistic, mixed neighborhood not far from the Denver Botanical Gardens. About four blocks from Denver’s Five Points, the area seemed to be on an economic rebound, though most buildings were older and fairly nondescript.

Dad and I pulled across a busy grocery store parking lot to get a good vantage point. The photo above shows modern updates, including passive solar panels installed to take advantage of Denver’s many days of sunshine.

Dad and I checked off another important historical visit, and went on our way, happy to see Bill Osborn’s Denver digs at last.

Some initials on a bronze plaque in Limon, Colo., help to solve a mystery

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

My father, Jerry Osborn, and I had a rare opportunity this October to take a road trip. Our goals were to see family, check out our hunting camp, and see some of the sights in the west. Dad is in his eighties now, so we don’t put off any chances to do neat stuff. This trip exceeded our expectations. Happily, we also were able to take in some elevators.

Jerry Osborn at Zion National Park, Utah

Our stop at the elevator in Limon, Colo., proved to be a wonderful surprise. There was a truck at the co-op when we arrived, but the office door was locked, so I approached the elevator itself and called out to see if it was deserted. When I turned around, a man was approaching from the office. I went to meet him.

Ed Owens was finishing up paperwork before going home for the night. I asked him about the history of the elevator, and he brought me into the office. Ed said his grandfather, S. L. Sitton, helped build the Limon elevator as well as the earlier, neighboring one in Genoa, Colo. He said his grandfather came into the area in 1939. He went away during the war, then came back and looked for whatever work he could find. Elevator construction provided a part-time laborer job that kept food on the table.

The builder put up the elevator like a layer cake, letting each concrete layer cure for a period before adding another, rather than by the continuous-pour method pioneered by early elevator construction companies. The Limon elevator was built in stages by farmers who built by day and farmed by night. I was impressed by Mr. Sitton’s fortitude, and I would have asked the old gentleman about it, but Ed said he was 97 years old and living in a nursing home in Flagler. He likely wouldn’t remember, and even if he did, he might not appreciate a visit.

The Genoa, Colo., elevator is in a neighboring town.

The best discovery was yet to come. When Ed ushered me into the office, he showed me the bronze plaque which originally adorned the driveway of the Limon elevator. Ed said all of the directors listed on the plaque were dead by now. The elevator was built in 1958, so all the community leaders of the time were long gone. But the key bit of information on the plaque was the name of the builder and designer, M. and A. Enterprises, Inc., of Denver.

I was very excited to see this name. The company was based in Denver, and the designer claimed to be the builder. Based on the design of the elevator, I had a strong suspicion of who that designer might have been. We now had a key piece of information.

Followers of this blog know that we have puzzled over a few mysteries while tracking our grandfathers’ elevators. The most difficult story to reconstruct, thus far, was how the Mayer-Osborn Construction Company met its demise.

The Denver-based enterprise lasted from 1949 until at least 1954, when my grandfather, William Osborn, apparently left the business. In the summer of 1954 he built the Blencoe, Iowa, elevator with the help of my dad, Jerry Osborn; by the summer of 1955, William was home from his Denver office and never worked elevator construction again. Meanwhile, his partner, Eugene Mayer, probably revived the company under various guises, but we know little of what became of him.

With our visit to Limon, Colo., we may have cracked the case.

Usually, the simplest explanation is the true one. The quickest way to explain why a thriving company would go away is to look for a disaster. Family lore says there was one. But I suspect the rumor of a collapsed elevator, lost to a crew that “shorted materials” and made bad concrete, might have been a tall tale that sprung from a much more pedestrian event. No such disasters can be found in 1954 or 1955 newspaper accounts.

The only related problem I could find occurred at the the Mayer-Osborn elevator in Blencoe, Iowa. During construction, when the elevator had reached about twelve feet high, the forms were slipped for the first time. As soon as concrete appeared below the slipped form, it began to slump and crumble. Bad concrete was indeed the culprit, and it necessitated a tear-down. To get back to a twelve foot height, the company had to add a day or two of expensive labor, which directly cut into profit. Could this event explain why William Osborn left the company? It’s the simplest explanation, so perhaps.

Several subsequent elevators bore the Mayer-Osborn manhole covers, but Dad didn’t know about these elevators, and he was certain that by 1955, his dad, William, was home for good.

The Mayer-Osborn elevator at McCook, Nebr. built in 1949

With its signature stepped headhouse, the elevator in Limon bears an uncanny resemblance to the first elevator Mayer-Osborn built in McCook, Neb. In fact, it is the same design, updated somewhat, and dated 1958. So it certainly went up after Grandpa left the business. But what about Eugene Mayer? Dad said that he was the designer, whereas Bill Osborn started as a carpenter and learned his construction skills on the job. Mayer still retained ownership of his elevator designs, which could explain why McCook clones continued to pop up all over the plains in the mid-1950s.

That brings us back to the builder of the Limon elevator, as inscribed on the plaque, “M. and A. Enterprises, Inc.” It seems inescapable that the “M.” was Mr. Eugene Mayer.

The Limon elevator had newer innovations but was built haltingly. Plainly, all was not the same as it had been when Bill Osborn was on the job. Perhaps fewer workers were available. Fewer contracts were awarded as subsidies waned. So the big, ambitious, day-and-night event of an elevator project was toned down somewhat. I expect we will find that Eugene Mayer’s design was eventually sold and others built it, then it passed into history, along with the great concrete elevator boom.

Happily, Limon’s elevator still thrives, and it gives us a peek at the amazing history of elevators on the American plains.

The layout of the elevator is used to record the content of each bin. Flat storage is adjacent to the concrete elevator.

 

 

The engineering behind elevator construction began with retaining walls

 

Before electronic scales weighed the grain, weights and a fulcrum did the trick.

Story by Kristen Cart

Nothing is quite so revealing as a vintage book. Ronald Ahrens alerted me to his discovery of an engineering textbook, written by Milo S. Ketchum, about retaining walls and elevator bins. Prof. Ketchum was the dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Colorado (my alma mater) when he wrote The Design of Walls, Bins, and Grain Elevators. First published in 1907 by the Engineering News Publishing Company, of New York, it boasted a second edition in 1911.

From the first few paragraphs, revelations abound. Most eye-opening is the historical context of its publication.

In 1907, surviving Civil War veterans were well-established in their old age. No one yet considered the possibility of the worldwide conflagrations to come. Comanche wars in Texas were still an ugly living memory, more recent to people than the Vietnam War is to us. Grandmothers shared their memories of living in sod houses on the Great Plains. Movies were not yet a national pastime. Airplanes and automobiles were on the drawing board–the Ford Model T would begin production the following year.

When grain was delivered to elevators, it came by barge, rail, or wagon. The business model that drove the elevator boom was in its infancy. Engineers had just begun working with reinforced concrete for bridges, dams, and skyscrapers, but much remained to be done.

Grain transport by truck was a later innovation.

In the introduction, the book gets right to the nuts and bolts of the problem it purports to solve.

A special subset of engineering concerns granular fluids. Grain acts both as a solid and as a fluid–it can be piled in a conical pile because of internal friction which is absent in liquids, but it can flow very much like water. Containing such a fluid requires an understanding of internal pressures–both vertical and outward–that are exerted on a container. All of these considerations boil down to a mathematical model that accurately describes the materials, structures, and shapes required.

The book first examines retaining walls, the simplest structure for containing granular fluids, and proceeds to bins and elevators from there.

Failure to heed safe engineering principles bore disastrous results in Fargo, North Dakota.

Thus we have a textbook that gets into the weeds of that math and physics, ultimately used to teach future designers how to do grain bins. The young men schooled in the years following 1907 would be the builders, engineers, superintendents, and architects who started the concrete elevator building boom.

The Minatare, Nebraska, concrete elevator mystery solved

The Minatare elevator was an intriguing photography subject.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

My dad, Jerry Osborn, and I were traveling in western Nebraska on a three-day road trip to visit old friends and family when we happened upon the Minatare elevator built by Tillotson Construction. I immediately suspected that it was a special find. I asked my dad to be prepared for an afternoon of investigation, so after our visit with his cousins in Scotts Bluff, we began our inquiry in earnest.

Our first view of the elevator.

The name Minatare rang a bell, and I thought it might be home to an early elevator, catalogued in the Tillotson Construction Company records. But I didn’t have any way to check, being well out of cellphone range, and began to doubt my memory. Perhaps Minatare’s elevator was featured in an early postcard, one of hundreds I had examined on Ebay, while looking through old elevator images. I couldn’t remember where I had seen the name before.

Only the old-fashioned gumshoe method was going to work. Dad went along on our mission in good humor. For a good part of it, he spent his time comfortably hanging out in the air-conditioned car, while I called upon local people and shot every possible camera view.

So how do you check out a mystery elevator? After copious photos, you check out the town office. If the town clerk smiles, shrugs, and sends you down the hall to the library, which is closed, then you go (on her advice) to the local tavern. If you are lucky, the owner is intrigued and makes some calls. Pop into the library when it opens. Jump into and out of the car, drive a few blocks, get Dad a coke from the tavern, where the owner sends you to the next place. Touch base at the new place on the way out of town–then leave, still scratching your head.

It was a fairly typical visit.

No one I talked to in town remembered when the elevator had been in operation. The secretary at the town hall was standing in for someone else, and was relatively new in town. The local policeman laughed and shook his head when I asked him about it. He was a recent resident, too. One young person offered a tidbit–she said that the interior of the elevator might have been seen by teenagers at one time or another. It wasn’t a mystery to everyone in town, apparently. Too bad it was shut up tight, with no one around, so we couldn’t see the inside for ourselves.

A 1940s parade photo shows the elevator in its early years.

The librarian was very helpful. She kept the library open for a very short time because of her poor health, but she pointed us in the right direction. The town of Minatare was featured in a newly published local history, “Minatare Memories,” published by the Minatare Historical Committee. It had a short mention of a concrete elevator built in 1924. That information didn’t fit with any elevator that was of interest to us–it was way too early for a Tillotson job. We thought perhaps the 1924 date pertained to an earlier wooden elevator, the first one erected in the town, but at that moment we weren’t sure.

However, she offered a bookshelf filled with boxes of photographs, among them unattributed parade photos, taken a long time ago. In the parade photos were vintage cars, motorcycles, and best of all, the Minatare movie house marquee with the movie playing at the time, “California,” starring Barbara Stanwyck. In the background, behind the parade, stood the gleaming white Minatare elevator. The photos were thereby dated to about 1947, the latest date the elevator could have been completed.

The movie marquee dates the parade more precisely. The movie, “California,” came out in 1947.

The tavern owner, Dennis Wecker, offered more information on our second visit. He had made some calls, and he now knew the name of the company that owned the elevator–Kelley Bean. He gave us a contact and a location. On our stop at the bean facility, two workers in the office said the general manager at the Minatare location, Chris Hassel, had gone on vacation.

Dad and I left, still scratching our heads, and thinking about dinner. We had a drive ahead of us.

Kelley Bean is the current owner of the property.

It wasn’t until later when I conferred with my blogging partner, Ronald Ahrens, that we had an answer to the elevator’s provenance. He looked up the Minatare elevator in the Tillotson construction records and delightedly reported that it was not only the work of his grandfather, Reginald Tillotson, but it was an early one, built in 1941 very soon after the company was founded.

Eureka! It was a great find, and worthy of another visit. We will stop again and thank everyone who helped us tell its story.

Jerry Osborn, my dad and great traveling companion.

 

 

A slip-formed lesson in character-building at Blencoe, Iowa

Mayer-Osborn pay stubs from August, 1954

Mayer-Osborn pay stubs from August, 1954.

Story by Kristen Cart

Just when you think you know all there is to know about your parent, you find a document that tells you something more. In this case, I found the pay stubs for when my dad, Jerry Osborn, worked for Mayer-Osborn Construction Company in 1954. He wedged a few weeks of hard labor between school in the spring and football in the fall.

The project was a large elevator similar to the first elevator Bill Osborn built with his partner, Gene Mayer, in McCook, Nebraska, in 1949. This example of the type went up in Blencoe, Iowa–and not without incident, as we have related in this blog.

It struck me that his pay rate was just that of a laborer. No cushy job for the son of the boss was offered–he laid steel rebar down during the uninterrupted concrete pour, working his way around the bin top as workers jacked the forms and scaffolding ever higher. Dad mentioned that when he worked for his father, he was paid the same as everyone else–a dollar an hour for back-breaking labor. Not a few times, laborers walked off the job after the first paycheck. It wasn’t easy.

Dad managed to find something to do on the job that was worth even less–he put in a fair amount of time at fifty cents an hour. I can only imagine what that job entailed.

kimberly-osborn188

Jerry Osborn had interests other than building elevators for his dad. He was a champion golfer at Midland College. It seems odd that a good golfer, while cultivating the skill and concentration such sport required, would take time out to heave rebar for a summer job.

I’m not sure which year they won the championship, but I like the juxtaposition between the brutality of the labor and the finesse of golf.

kimberly-osborn186

The summer job added up to a tidy sum for the time. Perseverance paid off.

These days, many of our college-educated young people seem too delicate for such work, especially in exchange for such a meager reward. It would make no sense to them.

But my grandfather, William Osborn, might say that this kind of work built character. Especially if you showed up for that second and third week.

Monuments go up, memories surround them, but all ultimately subside and vanish

McCook Elevator

Story by Kristen Cart

Workers were taking down an old silver maple today on the greenway beside the Boise River. It was a living tree, and I wondered why they chose to remove it. All along the park stood younger trees–sugar maples and walnuts and spruce trees–and under some of them, memorial plaques were placed, probably at the time the trees were planted.

I noticed one plaque had partially sunk in soft ground, and a puddle of water covered most of it, but the birth year of 1911 could still be seen. This person had come into the world 105 years ago. His children, if living, would be in their 70s or 80s perhaps. No one tended the memorial. The Boise State students who strolled by might not know why he was remembered.

These memorial trees were intended to grow in beauty while families and colleagues remembered the dead. When the names are eventually forgotten, the trees will provide shade and nesting places until they become unsightly or weak or damaged. Then they will go.

DSC_0378

Concrete rubble from the Maywood, Neb., elevator. Mayer-Osborn Construction built it during the heyday of elevator building in the 1950s.

I remember a book about the ubiquitous stone walls in Kentucky horse country. The author explained how they came to be, how they disappeared into hillocks of rock, and how they sank back into the soil. Frost heaved stones out of the ground every winter, and farmers endlessly piled them onto the edges of their fields every summer. The stones were stacked and filled into walls, but after many years, weather and erosion consigned the stones back into the earth in a sinking process which all heavy stones must endure.

Today, even the locations of some old walls can only be estimated, in spite of the labor invested into them over many years.

Cemetery monuments–in fact, whole cemeteries–disappear in this manner, taking their inscriptions with them. The identities and locations of the dead are not resurrected unless a caring relative intervenes.

My grandfather’s generation was slighted in the monument department. He lived too late to be conscripted into the Great War, and by the time the next conflagration arrived, he was considered too old to serve. My father slipped through a similar gap between the Korean and Vietnam wars. Whole families lived their lives between one glut of glorious war dead and the next–to their good fortune, but at the cost of corporate memory.

William A. Osborn in 1965

William A. Osborn in 1965.

Grandpa was fortunate, however, to have left the elevators he built. With his name forged into the manhole covers and plaques set into concrete walls, his legacy seems more certain. Grain elevators are a durable memorial–but much like the trees in the park, they only represent him until no one remembers. Eventually, his great and useful contribution to the world will pass into utility, then into obsolescence.

Like the silver maple tree, the elevators will come down when they no longer serve. The plaques and covers will be recycled, and even his name will disappear. And those who loved William Arthur Osborn, beloved father and grandfather, will be past knowing when they go.