A distressed, robotized Tillotson elevator awaiting rescue by Hercules in Wahoo, Neb.

By Ronald Ahrens

We wanted terrific in Wahoo. The fifth and final stop on our Jan. 2 road trip in eastern Nebraska called for it, in keeping with the unusual name of the seat of Saunders County and the town’s colorful history. We are told “wahoo” is taken from a shrub, the eastern wahoo (Euonymous atropurpureus), and the name was also given to a navy sub, the USS Wahoo

An icon for Nebraska 2020 road tripWahoo happens to have produced more than its share of notability. Wahoo Sam Crawford twirled his way into baseball’s Hall of Fame. Howard Hanson composed his way to a Pulitzer Prize. Darryl F. Zanuck swept up three Academy Awards. Geneticist George Beadle shared a Nobel and took over Chicago U. 

There must be something in the water: Wahoo had fewer than 3,000 people until after World War Two. A greater concentration of talent, where?

Electrodes on the brain.

Tillotson Construction Co. built a 150,000-bushel, single-leg concrete elevator there in 1950.

I had passed through Wahoo many times without understanding the elevator’s provenance and would not have thought to see Tillotson embossed on the manhole covers.

Notes in the construction record say our Wahoo house followed the busy year’s Imo, Okla., plan. It means five grand tanks of 16 feet in diameter and 120 feet in height. There’s a 13 x 17-foot center driveway, and the note says, “Split 4 bins over Dr.” 

Construction consumed 1,492 tons of reinforced concrete, 40 tons of plain concrete for the hoppers, and 72.34 tons of steel. 

The slab, 21 inches of reinforced thickness, covered 54 x 51 feet.

  • Pit depth: 15 feet 9 inches.
  • Structure rating: 8,216 tons. 
  • Curve of cupola: 22 1/4 feet wide, 42 1/2 feet long, 26 1/2 feet high. 

Our excitement soon diminished on seeing the subject and its neglect. What a shame to Wahoo. The use as an antenna tower is a terrible disappointment.

Things could be fixed up in a cute robotic way. Lay out a note of history, then rachet up each paying guest in the manlift, serving Wahoo wine on the dining deck. Block the wind and electromagnetic radiation, and it’s a regional phenomenon. People will come all the way from Loup City.

We visited late Saturday. The taverns had filled. Naught else moved. We extracted no information and must imagine circumstances of the elevator’s degradation. 

Wahoo produces all-stars, but the big star amidst, is disheveled and in duress. Like Prometheus, bound to a rock, an eagle preying his liver, Tillotson’s Wahoo house awaits Hercules.

Before Prometheus could be freed, he received a visit from straying Io, garbed as “a most lovely white heifer.” She recognized him, saying: 

You–he who succored the whole race of men? 

You, that Prometheus, the daring, the enduring? 

Tillotson Construction had a wet time of it when building at David City in 1951

By Ronald Ahrens

“Wet pit,” notes the Tillotson Construction Co. record in its details of the David City job of 1951.

An icon for Nebraska 2020 road tripA Tillotson crew put up a single-leg, 180,000-bushel, reinforced-concrete elevator in the seat of Butler County during one of the wettest periods ever recorded in the prairie region.

“Most of Kansas and Missouri as well as large portions of Nebraska and Oklahoma had monthly precipitation totaling 200 percent of normal in May, 300 percent in June, and 400 percent in July of 1951,” says a report by the National Weather Service.

But the work went on. The new David City elevator was built on an original plan with five tanks, or silos, of 18 feet in diameter and rising 120 feet. There was a 13 by 17-foot center driveway, eight bins over the drive, and a total of 15 bins and overflow. “Dust Bin @ Ext.” observes a further note.

The elevator required 1,716 cubic yards of reinforced concrete, 20 yards of plain concrete for hoppers, and 81.16 tons of rebar.

The 21-inch-thick main slab extended over 60 by 55 feet, covering an area (“Act. Outside on Ground”) of 3,057 square feet. It sat over a 17-foot-deep pit. The design incorporated a full basement.

The slab supported 3,513 tons of reinforced concrete and 40 tons of plain concrete. With grain weighing 60 pounds per bushel, there was capacity for 5,400 tons of grain. Along with structural steel and machinery as well as hoppers, the the elevator was rated at 9,458 tons total loaded weight.

An elegant rounded cupola, or headhouse, sat atop the tanks. Its dimension were 19 feet wide, 38 feet long, and 27 1/3 feet high. With the moderately tall cupola and moderately deep pit, the centers of the leg’s head and boot pulleys were 154.83 feet apart.

The pulleys were 72 x 14 x 2 3/16 inches (boot) and 72 x 14 x 3 5/16 (head) and turned the at 42 revolutions per minute.

Calumet supplied the 330-inch, six-ply belt that was 14 inches wide. Cups of 12 x 6 inches were spaced at nine-inch intervals.

A 30-horsepower Howell motor delivered a theoretical leg capacity of 7,140 bushels per hours. Operating at 80 percent, it needed 27.6 hp to deliver actual capacity of 5,700 bushels per hour.

A 1.5-hp motor ran the manlift. The truck lift operated with a 7.5-hp Ehrsam motor.

A further note indicates, “300 Bu. Dryer Split Bin #7 for Dryer.”

Twin David City elevators but only one curved headhouse to mark a Tillotson design

View of David City grain elevators

By Ronald Ahrens

David City, a gorgeous town of about 2,900 people and the seat of Butler County, is unapologetically named for David Butler, the state of Nebraska’s first governor (1867 to 1871) and the only one to date ever to be impeached. It was alleged that he had used school funds to engage in property speculation when he moved the capital from Omaha to Lincoln. The state legislature reviewed the impeachment in 1877 and expunged it from the record.

An icon for Nebraska 2020 road trip

Founded right in the middle of all this controversy, in 1873, David City has a large courthouse square with streets wide enough for islands of parked cars in the middle of the pavement. There is also an impressive municipal park at the south edge of this splendid burg.

Even before our visit on a clear but chilly January afternoon, I had been to David City many times to visit the Horaceks–my aunt, uncle, and cousins on my father’s side of the family. In the summer of 1966, when I was 11 years old, I spent a week with them. Having just acquired a transistor radio as a premium for my work selling magazine subscriptions in the National Youth Sales Club, I spent quite a bit of time walking up and down the sidewalk groovin’ to “Bus Stop,” by the Hollies and “Summer in the City,” by the Lovin’ Spoonful. Omaha was 65 miles away, but station KOIL (“Mighty 1290”) came through just fine even in the daytime.

At the end of my visit I rode the bus back to the big city. We stopped in the village of Brainard with time to look around, so I went into a pharmacy and bought an affordable gift for my mother, a small jar of Vaseline, which seemed practical and useful. She was, as one might suppose, nonplused. 

In all my visits to David City, it never occurred to me that my Grandfather Reginald Tillotson, on my mother’s side, had built there. But records of Tillotson Construction Co. show a 180,000-bushel elevator in 1951, and the purpose of our present visit was to study it.

There are two concrete elevators on the Frontier Cooperative site along the tracks at the southwestern edge of town. Each one has a related flat-storage building. Our problem lay in determining which was the 1951 job and whether the second structure was also by Tillotson. Even with zoom photos of the manhole covers over openings in the tanks, or silos, there’s nothing conclusive to share. The rusty cast-iron plates bear the imprint the Hutchinson Foundry & Steel Co., a regular Tillotson supplier, but because the manholes are so high off the ground, and the plates are rusty, I’ve been unable to read the remaining lettering at bottom. 

Nevertheless, the north elevator is elegantly crowned with a curved cupola, the Tillotson signature headhouse that was perfected by about 1950. Dimensions are 19 feet wide, 38 feet long, and 27 1/3 feet high. Built on an original plan with five tanks rising 120 feet, this elevator has a 13 by 17-foot driveway. Other external features such as doorways with lintels and external lamps are very much in the Tillotson style. 

The question then is about the south elevator. It has a stepped, rectangular headhouse. Who built this elevator and when?

Both headhouses are labeled “Farmers Co-Op Grain Co.” An explanation is given on Frontier’s website: “Over the years, the predecessors of both Frontier and Midwest (Cooperative) completed many mergers and acquisitions, growing their territories across southern and central Nebraska. The Frontier name came into being in 1990, following the merger of Farmers Cooperative Co. of Brainard with Farmers Union Cooperative of Mead.”

A 2015 news report says Farmers Cooperative purchased the David City elevators in 1985.

Deeper insight into the history comes from the State Elevator News roundup in the June 1919 edition of The Co-Operative Manager and Farmer: “Wells Howe has resigned his position as manager of the Nye-Schneider-Fowler Elevator in David City, his resignation to take effect as soon as his successor has been secured. Mr. Howe has been connected with the company fourteen years, and with the David City Elevator eleven years.” 

A note on the Nebraska Memories page of the state’s official site says Nye Schneider Fowler Co., of Fremont, “was organized in 1902 as successor to the former grain and lumber business, Nye Schneider Company. Frank Fowler joined Ray Nye and Rudolf B. Schneider as a named partner.” 

The elevators show scars from hard use, with spalling on the exterior walls and no recent whitewashing, but evidently they remain in good operating order.

As it was Saturday afternoon when we visited, no one was around the facility. There was only a grain dryer’s roar, even stronger than that of the wind: it must be a curse for people in the nearby houses. 

1981 report: 1 dies, 2 critical as Bellwood explosion destroys headhouse

Lincoln Journal Star, April 8, 1981

BELLWOOD–One man died under tons of grain and concrete and two others were listed in critical condition Wednesday in an explosion that ripped through the Farmers Co-Op grain elevator late Tuesday afternoon, authorities said.

The body of Gary Roh, 20, of Linwood was pulled from the debris Tuesday by rescue teams working under floodlights and using heavy equipment, including a bulldozer.

Hospital and elevator officials said Joe Stastny, 58, a rural Bellwood farmer who was unloading grain when the blast was triggered, and elevator employee Larry Navrkal, 28, of Bellwood were in critical condition Wednesday morning at Lincoln’s St. Elizabeth Community Health Center’s burn center.

“It was a pretty big boom,” the elevator’s grain department manager Bob Bell said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “I was here in the office, which is about 50 yards from the elevator. It looked like night outside and we just dived on the floor until the debris stopped flying. Then we called the emergency number.”

Roh was reported missing after the blast, which destroyed parts of the elevator and hurled huge chunks of concrete into nearby streets and homes. Elevator officials had hoped Roh might be trapped alive, but optimism faded as the hours passed.

His body was found about 9:45 p.m.–more than five hours after the blast–in an alleyway pit inside the elevator where Stastny was unloading grain.

John Navrkal of Bellwood, an elevator supervisor and Larry Navrkal’s father, also was injured, but did not require hospitalization.

“We had a farmer (Stastny) in the elevator in a truck unloading grain,” said co-op office manager Maxine McDonald. “We had three employees there, too. The farmer was covered with grain, and they had to dig him out.”

Rescue workers used the Jaws of Life to remove him from his truck.

Witnesses said the blast apparently was triggered somewhere in the south end near Stastny’s unloading truck.

Mrs. McDonald said the 1.5 million-bushel structure was about half full of a mixture of grains and that there had been no fires. She said damage was extensive.

The blast’s cause had not been determined Wednesday morning, and damage estimates were unavailable.

Bell said insurance investigators, State Patrol officers and State Fire Marshall’s office investigators were at the scene Wednesday to try to determine the blast’s cause and whether the facility is structurally sound enough to remove remaining grain.

State Fire Marshall Wally Barnett said Wednesday the cause never may be determined “because it went from one end to the other, blew out the top and even blew out some of the bins.”

Joe Wilson, who owns a barbershop near the elevator, said there were holes measuring 25-by-50 feet in the elevator’s walls.

“The north headhouse is completely blown off,” he said. “A tank on the northeast side of the elevator was split from top to bottom.”

Wilson said the blast shook the area around the elevator, damaging homes on both sides and sending concrete fragments flying for two blocks.

“The house on the east side was riddled with concrete chunks the size of basketballs, and windows were broken,” he said. “Another house a half a block away has holes the side of footballs in the walls.”

The damage to the elevator was so extensive that at one point, the search for Roh was called off because rescue workers feared moving the grain would cause the damaged structure to collapse. Mrs. McDonald said digging resumed after a structural engineer brought in by the co-op’s insurance company examined the elevator.

There were no reports of other serious injuries.

Bellwood’s elevator is the third Nebraska elevator to explode in 1 1/2 months. In late February, an explosion rocked the Southeast Nebraska Farmers Co-op in Beatrice, injuring three men. Then slightly more than two weeks ago, a series of explosions and fires extensively damaged the McMaster Grain Co. in South Sioux City. No one was injured, but damage was estimated at $1 million.

Bellwood, a community of 361 residents, had another explosion Feb. 19 when an explosion and fire at the Farmer’s Co-op service station injured three employees and flattened the garage. None of the men were injured seriously, and the station was back in business soon after the explosion.

Mrs. McDonald said she had worked at the Bellwood elevator for 24 years, and there was another explosion there in 1959.

“But it wasn’t anywhere like this one,” she said. “We are just all in a state of shock. This is a terrible thing–one that you hope you never have to see again.”

Thank you to Susan Allen for providing this article.

1959 news photo shows rounded headhouse of Tillotson's Bellwood, Neb., elevator

Lincoln Journal Star, Saturday, March 28, 1959

BELLWOOD BLAST–A basement explosion in the Bellwood grain elevator knocked out windows and a door at the top of the tubes. One spokesman speculated it might have been a dust blast, sparked by a hot motor. Two men were injured.

Editors’ note: Thank you to Susan Allen for providing the clipping.

History of Tillotson’s massive Bellwood, Neb., elevator includes details of 1959 explosion that injured two

 

By Ronald Ahrens

At 320,000 bushels, Bellwood, Neb., and Canyon, Tex. were the second-biggest jobs for Tillotson Construction Co. when they were built in 1950, some 12 years after the company’s first elevator of reinforced concrete.

There was the early, huge 350,000-bushel facility at Farnsworth, Tex., in 1945.

Otherwise, the 310,000-bushel elevator at Dalhart, Tex., in 1949, was next-largest.

We now find this welcome history of the Bellwood elevator complex–which presents slightly different figures from those in the company record–from a local source:

The first concrete elevator was built in 1950 with a capacity of 324,000 bushels and a cost of $141,000. The first addition followed in 1954 costing $133,000 and holding 344,000 bushels. The second annex of 343,000 bushels followed in 1958 with a price tag of $116,000. The third annex, being the north elevator with the headhouse, was built the next year for $179,000 and has a capacity of 290,000 bushels. Twenty years later, in 1979, two large diameter tanks each holding 165,000 bushels, were built at a total cost of $333,000. This brings the companies (sic) licensed storage capacity to 1,685,000 bushels.

As reported in the previous post, we found the Frontier Cooperative location to be surviving quite nicely after 70 years and two explosions.

Here is this detail of the first one:

An explosion ripped through the first concrete elevator on March 27, 1959 causing considerable damage to the basement and headhouse areas. Seriously injured in this explosion were Jim Mick and Walker Meyers, both employees of the Farmers Co-op Grain Co.

The original house was built with 2,436 cubic yards of reinforced concrete and 20.3 yards of plain concrete for the hoppers.

Reinforcing steel amounted to 143.3 tons, which worked out to 115.3 pounds per cubic yard.

 

The structure sits on a main slab of 66 x 77.5 feet. We work that out to 5,115 square feet, but the construction details in the company records note, “Act. Outside on Ground” and give the figure of 4,806 square feet.

The reinforced concrete and steel weighed in at 5,069 tons, and the tanks could accommodate 9,600 tons of grain. Incorporating other factors like 28 tons of structural steel and machinery, as well as 40.3 tons of concrete for the hoppers, the gross weight loaded was an impressive 14,964 tons.

All this massiveness was quite a testament of progress. We have to remember that just 12 years before–with the period of inactivity during World War Two intervening–the Tillotsons were building cribbed wooden elevators.

The main slab covers a pit of 15 feet 9 inches deep.

Way above the pit, the cupola (headhouse) was quite a specimen at 23 feet wide, 63.75 feet long, and 39 feet high–identical to Canyon and pretty comparable to the 300,000-bushel elevators that were also built in 1950 at Burlington, Colo., and Hartley, Texas. All of these elevators were built on the same plan that was original to Bellwood, yet the tanks at Burlington and Hartley rose to 115 feet instead of 120 feet and the cupolas were five feet taller than those at Bellwood and Canyon.

The single-leg Bellwood house boasted 72-inch-diameter head and boot pulleys that were 166 feet apart; the 14-inch, six-ply Calumet belt stretched an impressive 360 feet. The record shows that the belt’s cups, of 12 x 6 inches, were spaced 8.5 inches “o.c.”

Powered by a 40-horsepower Howell drive, the head pulley could turn a 42 rpm. It provided a theoretical leg capacity of 7,920 bushels per hour. Actual leg capacity at 80 percent of theoretical used 32 horsepower for 6,350 bushels per hour.

The 1981 explosion destroyed the cupola and, we presume, all its contents. We hope to find period photos of before and after.

Records show the 1954 annex with capacity of 340,000 bushels. It consumed 2,129 cubic yards of reinforced concrete and 119.5 tons of steel.

The 24-inch-thick slab–same thickness as at the main house–spread over 45.5 x 107 feet for “Act. Outside on Gd.” of 4,569 square feet.

The 10 tanks of 20 feet in diameter reaching 130 feet high required 4,377.5 tons of reinforced concrete and yielded a gross loaded weight (with 10,200 tons of grain) of 15,628.5 tons.

The cupola, or run, atop this annex was 13 feet wide, 100 feet long, and 8.4 feet high.

Top and bottom belts were 30 inches wide and moved at 600 feet per minute. A 10-horsepower drive at top and 7-horse drive at bottom enabled movement of 9,000 bushels per hour.

As we saw for ourselves, the second annex, a 1958 job, bears manhole covers embossed with the Tillotson Construction Co. stamp. Alas, our records stop at 1955.

The headhouse is long gone, but the Frontier Cooperative elevator at Bellwood, Neb., may be Tillotson’s largest build

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By Ronald Ahrens

We arrived on a quiet Saturday afternoon at the Frontier Cooperative elevator in Bellwood, Neb., knowing a 1981 explosion had taken off the headhouse. By the account of Uncle Tim Tillotson, we were also alerted to the possibility of another explosion there in the late-1950s.

Nebraska 2020Nevertheless, we expected to see an elevator with a replacement structure at its crown.

We found an impressive complex: mighty, smart-looking, and meticulously maintained. Yet it operates with external legs to serve the huge complex–no headhouse whatsoever. The leg over the main house is mantis-like and a little spooky. 

Of course, there was no hint whether the original headhouse was a squared-off rectangle or a curved volume in keeping with the characteristic Tillotson style that was developing after World War Two.

Tillotson Construction Co. built the main house, a 320,000-bushel elevator, in 1950 and followed up with a 340,000-bushel annex in 1954. The main house followed an original plan with eight tanks (silos) of 20 feet in diameter and reaching 120 feet high.

There was the typical central driveway, 13 x 17 feet, for unloading trucks.

Other notes in the company record say “5 bin dist. under scale” and “Prov. for hopper scale.” There were 22 bins and a dust bin.

The 1954 annex, also on an original plan, featured 10 tanks of 20 feet in diameter and reaching 130 feet high. It had a basement, 30-inch belt conveyors, and a tripper.

We also found the Tillotson name embossed on the manhole covers of the second annex, which appears to match the first annex in size and capacity. But company records make no mention of this second annex.

Nevertheless, it appears possible to credit Tillotson with an even 1 million bushels of capacity.

A close look at surfaces on the main house shows patchwork that must represent filled holes from the big blowout.

While preparing this post, I phoned Frontier Cooperative branch manager Justin Riha, who knew of this 1981 explosion.

The elevator works fine with the external legs. “I think it’s better,” Riha said. 

Overall capacity at the location is 2.4-million bushels, a tidy amount at such a small town.