A bucket-list tour of Nebraska courthouses yields some elevator insights

The elevator in Gordon, Nebr. was built by Mayer-Osborn, as attested by its manhole covers. It was built in their iconic style.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

When someone reaches their middle eighties intact and in good health, they can do whatever they want. It’s a reward that comes along with advanced age. Okay–it has to be within reason–say, within the budget, but there shouldn’t be any major obstacles, unless care-giving is in the picture. With my dad, Gerry Osborn, no such obstacle existed in 2019, before Covid-19 made its debut.

Gerry Osborn at the courthouse in Rushville, Nebr.

Dad and I had taken a western driving tour in 2018 to visit the house where I grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, which he had architecturally restored from a sadly worn and altered state. It was a foursquare brick farmhouse with historic ties to early Mormon settlers. The current and longtime owner, Gundi Jones, kindly gave us a tour. We admired her finishing touches, which updated the mid-seventies decor as we had left it, to a European country style. It was beautiful.

We also took in Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park, before heading east for a stop at Mesa Verde, a marvelous place that captured Dad’s imagination. He was especially taken with its large collection of pre-Columbian artifacts.

Then, on our way home, we stopped at the Nuckolls County courthouse in Nelson, Nebr. The place brought back old memories. Dad explained that when he was a young student, he and his friends would play a game where they collected sightings of Nebraska license plates, each identified by a number designating its county of origin, 1 to 93. Each county was assigned a number, to be displayed on the license plate, in the order of the number of automobile registrations extant in each county as of 1922. So the most populous county was assigned the number 1, and plates with the number 93 were quite scarce.

Dad and his friends raced to try to find a plate from every county. The hardest ones to collect were from small counties at the other end of the state from Dad’s hometown of Fremont, Nebr.

Now he said that he would like to find them all by visiting every county courthouse in the state. He also wanted to see each courthouse out of curiosity–he loved the old architecture.

At the far left, the Mayer-Osborn elevator at Gordon, Nebr. displays the stepped, rounded head house typical of the company.

I said, “Sure, why not?” It made perfect sense to me, since I was a collector of all sorts of things, with an irresistible impulse to complete the set, whatever it happened to be. License plates sounded like a great excuse to spend time with my dad, while setting the world in order by collecting them all.

Beginning in early 2019, we started our project. We decided to photograph Dad in front of each courthouse, while surreptitiously snapping a shot of a local license plate. He had great fun Google-mapping our routes and itineraries, and over the course of the year, we completed our mission, taking several day trips and a couple of overnighters. We didn’t research any of the courthouses before we visited the county seats. Instead, we saved our first impressions for later, so each courthouse would be a surprise. Sometimes we would gasp in awe as a magnificent courthouse came into view; other times, we would sigh in disappointment.

The grain elevator in Merriman shares the characteristics of its predecessor in McCook, Nebr. and other Mayer-Osborn elevators, including its neighbor in Gordon, but we have not confirmed its builder.

Dad and I covered the entire state during our courthouse expedition, and incidentally, we crossed paths with his father Bill Osborn’s travels when we stumbled upon some of his grain elevators. Bill Osborn was based in Denver for a good part of his career as a builder, but he got back to Nebraska a few times while building elevators for Joe Tillotson and later for himself as partner in Mayer-Osborn.

A few of those elevators we have documented in this blog, including McCook, Lodgepole, and Big Springs.

Dad recognized the name of one of the elevators we encountered shortly after we visited the courthouse in Rushville, the seat of Sheridan County.

The elevator at Gordon, Nebr. (a town along Hwy. 20) had the trademark Mayer-Osborn rounded and stepped headhouse, and it followed the plan of their other larger elevators. It also sported manhole covers embossed with the name of the builder, which confirmed Dad’s thought that his father had built it. What a happy find!

Another view of the beautiful grain storage facility in Merriman, Nebr.

Its twin in neighboring Merriman, a town further east along Hwy. 20, had the same headhouse as the Gordon elevator and the same general plan as seen from the outside, but we couldn’t corroborate its origin, either by manhole cover, local attribution, or Dad’s memory. Yet we put it down as a strong maybe.

The elevator at Limon, Colo. had confounded us for a long time because of its resemblance to other Mayer-Osborn’s elevators, until we found that it was built after Bill Osborn had left the business. So there’s also a question mark over the elevator at Merriman until we can learn more.

Unfortunately our itinerary was pretty tightly planned, or we would have tried to track down someone who knew the history of the two elevators. We set the locations aside for a future visit. Now, years later, we haven’t been back, but we still have some photos to share here.

The Parable of the Grain Inspector, as told by David Hatch

Story and drawing by David Hatch

David Herbert Hatch is senior pastor at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Green Bay, Wisc. He worked slip-form construction on elevators throughout Iowa in the early to mid-1970s.

I would like to tell you a story.

Word is that one fall, after a grain elevator had serviced the community harvest, a federal inspector came for a look at the facility.

Unable to find the elevator manager, he took the liberty to climb a ladder outside a tank, all the way to the top. He opened a manhole cover, stepped through with his flashlight, and walked over the grain.

Using a re-rod, he probed around, checking the grain. Its high level in the tank at this time of year was a surprise.

“It should have gone to market by now,” he thought.

When he returned to the bottom the manager had arrived.

“Why is it that you have so much grain in the elevator?” the inspector asked.

“There’s no grain in it whatsoever,” the manager said.

He opened a steel door.

The inspector peered into an empty tank.

They shone the flashlight beam to the top and, even to the manager’s shock, saw a frozen ring of grain.

If the inspector had fallen through, with his probe, it would have been the end of his life.

David Hatch was born and raised in Ames, Iowa. Prior to college studies, Pastor Dave worked construction and had hopes of serving in law enforcement until his partial color-blindness prevented that. He did not know what to do with his life. Through God’s Providence and a phone call from his sister, who was a kindergarten teacher in Milwaukee, he enrolled in a college where, unknown to him, many of his future classmates were studying to be pastors. He received his education at Concordia College in Milwaukee; Concordia Teacher’s College, River Forest, Ill.; and Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Ind. His pastoral career began in 1982, following seminary, when he served as an admissions counselor at Concordia College in Bronxville, N.Y. and parish pastor at Love Lutheran Church outside of Albany, N.Y.

Slip-forming relied on grace from above, but there was devil’s play, as David Hatch recalls

Story and drawings by David Hatch

David Herbert Hatch is senior pastor at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Green Bay, Wisc. He worked slip-form construction on elevators throughout Iowa in the early to mid-1970s.

Our operations back in the1970s had many vulnerabilities. That is, there were a lot of, “What ifs?”

The whole operation depended on a constant pour. If we had to shut down, we would have, what I remember them calling, a cold seam. That’s when the whole jacking system stopped. The concrete sat in the forms and dried, and everything had to be restarted again at a later time. 

One absolutely ugly seam would be left around the perimeter of an otherwise beautiful structure. Not only that, but the drying concrete might hang up and attach itself to the forms, and they would not go up. So that’s what we tried to avoid.

Remember, I just ran a winch, and I only had hearsay. I was 18 or 19 and trying to gather information. I can only speak from what I know, and that’s not much.

What things could happen to cause such a shutdown?

  • What if an electrical storm lasted several hours and we had to get off the decks because we were a giant lightning rod?
  • What if the power went out in the city? There would be no electricity to run the jack pumps or the lights around the perimeter of the deck or to operate the electric-powered concrete vibrators!
  • What if only a bare-bones part of the crew showed up for work one day? Would there be enough manpower to lay the steel and push the concrete in ratio to how fast the forms had to be jacked?
  • What if the engine on the winch died? There was no back-up winch. (Setting the winch in place was no small matter. It had to be anchored into the ground just right, and angled perfectly so that the cable would wind properly on the spool. If the cable didn’t wrap right, it would rub against itself during wrapping and begin to fray, and then it would not be reliable.
  • Up on the deck was the jack house, where the jack pumps were kept. If I remember right, there were two of them, a primary and a back-up. The chance of going down, it seems, was low.

There were 1,000 other possible troubleshooting challenges. For example, concrete setting up too fast, hanging up in the form during normal operation and “pulling a hole” that would appear below as the forms began to rise. That would not stop the operation, but it sure would be a problem requiring later patching.  If I remember right, the forms were oiled down prior to the start to help prevent this.

David Hatch was born and raised in Ames, Iowa. Prior to college studies, Pastor Dave worked construction and had hopes of serving in law enforcement until his partial color-blindness prevented that. He did not know what to do with his life. Through God’s Providence and a phone call from his sister, who was a kindergarten teacher in Milwaukee, he enrolled in a college where, unknown to him, many of his future classmates were studying to be pastors. He received his education at Concordia College in Milwaukee; Concordia Teacher’s College, River Forest, Ill.; and Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Ind. His pastoral career began in 1982, following seminary, when he served as an admissions counselor at Concordia College in Bronxville, N.Y. and parish pastor at Love Lutheran Church outside of Albany, N.Y.

At a slip-form site, ground stations supported the rising formwork: David Hatch’s recollections, Part Two

Story and drawings by David Hatch

During the slip operation, the ground was an exciting place to be. The viewing experience would be a little like watching Devil’s Tower rise out of the earth to its finished height in seven days–or the lights going on at the Field of Dreams. “If you build it they will come.” Especially at night, the farmers came. They stood, they watched. Without trying, we stepped out of their cornfields, and they beheld a sight they would never forget. 

David Herbert Hatch is senior pastor at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Green Bay, Wisc. He worked slip-form construction on elevators throughout Iowa in the early to mid-1970s.

At night, the gatherers saw lights, heard a roaring winch engine, and saw concrete trucks lined up. They heard shouts from the deck to the ground: “More vertical rebar!” They could see concrete finishers go around and around the structure, lit with strings of incandescent bulbs. But silent to them were the jacks, lifting the whole unit several inches a minute.

Out in the flatlands, night travelers who were miles away could see a slip going up.

Ground support was by means of various components.

The Steel Pile–There was a steel pile on the ground. The guy running the steel gin pole called down for vertical or horizontal re-rod. He also called down for jack rods or a large drinking-water container with cups. Perhaps he sent up parts or hydraulic oil. Mostly, he sent up steel using a cable choker.

The Concrete Truck and Driver–Here is an important guy, the concrete-truck driver. He filled the concrete bucket as fast as he could, got out of the way, and watched it go up. As the gin pole operator pulled the bucket in for dumping, it went out of sight of the driver below. Then it reappeared in free fall to the ground and the cycle repeated.

I believe concrete-truck drivers had a dangerous job for many reasons. What if the winch operator did not stop the free fall in time? What if a pulley failed or snapped at its axle? What if someone dropped something from above, like the finisher’s bucket or brush? What if a Georgia buggy driver overfilled the form just above the concrete truck?

There were always one or two trucks lined up when the current one was out of mud. Sometimes we had to ask the driver to add more water to the mix as it was too thick. Sometimes we asked them for more calcium to have it set quicker, perhaps if the mud was too thin. Tricky business. They have come out with trucks that unload the concrete from the front. I believe that it is easier for the driver to control his parking and dumping. Those were not legal in Iowa back then as they were too heavy. No clue about the law today.

The Boom Truck–What a cool old truck! Resembling a tow truck, this cob-job lifter moved things around the job site. It was as fun to drive as it was deadly. Every driver was warned, “Don’t drive under low hanging power lines, you will snag them, and it will kill you!”

The Job Superintendent’s Office–This was often a large mobile home. There were blueprints everywhere and concrete dust all over. It couldn’t be helped. That is where you got your new hardhat if you needed one. 

The Townspeople–Putting up an elevator in a small town made for a big gathering. This would be their elevator. Their grain would go into it. Their bread and butter depended on this concrete and steel. And so they came and watched. Seeing a slip-form operation working at night is better than visiting the midway at the state fair. The sights, the sounds, the whole event–wow!

The Winch–The winch that lifted the concrete bucket was powered by a Ford industrial engine. I had always thought it was a six-cylinder inline engine, but it may have been a four. The winch was anchored into the ground, several hundred feet away from the base of the elevator. I never studied the anchoring into the earth, but it must’ve been substantial. 

The engine shroud was red. The operator stood up while running the winch. The throttle was a small wire with a piece of wood as the handle running through the shroud to the carburetor. There was a large foot-brake for the operator’s right foot. It had a hand clutch for the right arm. The hand clutch was tall, like a walking cane or taller, bent over to the right at the top. There were no gears, just single speed. There was no tachometer visible. It would’ve been fun to have a tachometer.

The winch operator had to be alert at all times. He had to have good eyesight for distance. The goal was to get the concrete bucket filled with mud and send it up to the gin-pole operator at the hopper. That gin pole operator would swing the bucket in, dump it as fast as he could into the hopper, and push it back out in the open air. Then the winch operator would begin to free fall the bucket to the ground. Obviously everything I just described cannot be done from at 10 feet off the ground. Once you hit 20 feet and up, things got exciting.

The winch operator had a lot of responsibility, because if he wasn’t being careful, he could run the bucket up into the top gin pole at full speed, knocking the hopper guy off. If he wasn’t careful, when free-falling the bucket to ground and braking late, he could injure folks on the ground–especially the concrete truck driver. 

The winch operator had to keep an eye on the cable winding (spool wrap) so that it did not overlap and pinch itself, causing a frayed cable.

For myself, this job was so intense that when I was not working, I would sit up in bed and run the winch in my sleep. The guys working with me got the biggest kick out of that. We were all piled up in motel rooms as we moved from town to town.

In conclusion, it was a blast! I absolutely loved this job–especially the roar of that engine at full speed under load. 

David Hatch was born and raised in Ames, Iowa. Prior to college studies, Pastor Dave worked construction and had hopes of serving in law enforcement until his partial color-blindness prevented that. He did not know what to do with his life. Through God’s Providence and a phone call from his sister, who was a kindergarten teacher in Milwaukee, he enrolled in a college where, unknown to him, many of his future classmates were studying to be pastors. He received his education at Concordia College in Milwaukee; Concordia Teacher’s College, River Forest, Ill.; and Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Ind. His pastoral career began in 1982, following seminary, when he served as an admissions counselor at Concordia College in Bronxville, N.Y. and parish pastor at Love Lutheran Church outside of Albany, N.Y.

How David Hatch summered as a winch operator on slip-form construction, Part One

Story and drawings by David Hatch

David Herbert Hatch is senior pastor at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Green Bay, Wisc. He worked slip-form construction on elevators throughout Iowa in the early to mid-1970s. 

It was 1973. Vietnam was still rolling along. Woodstock was four years in the rearview mirror, Watergate was only an investigation, and the Supreme Court had just decided Roe vs. Wade. 

My friends and I graduated from high school that spring and signed on with Todd & Sargent out of Ames, Iowa, our hometown. For the next three summers we journeyed from slip to slip around Iowa. 

In slip-form construction, we took–from the ground–a four-foot high honeycomb of wood to 120 feet in a mere seven days. It paid $4 an hour. Fast food was $1.60. I had just set down my mop at McDonald’s in order to learn a lot about slip-form construction.

In the beginning everyone got a little experience at each job. Perhaps it was like what the Navy does on a sub, training each man at each station just in case. I went from pushing a Georgia buggy, to running the concrete hopper, to settling into my saddle as the ground winch operator. 

Rain or shine, cold or wet, once the pouring began it did not stop until you hit elevation or an emergency stop for lightning. The crew worked two 12-hour shifts, pouring 24 hours a day. On my first day I received a white hardhat and gloves. It sure beat the paper hat at the Golden Arches.

I clearly remember looking around and seeing something very complex: the work of a busy-bee carpenter who created an enormous, complex configuration of lumber. There were multiple, circular, honeycomb-like sections (tanks) with endless vertical wood slats (forms), and scores of steel (rebar and jackrods) rising six or eight feet like antennas. It was neat, clean, and super-intricate. There was sawdust everywhere!

On the deck with its several features and teams

The Deck–A plywood floor was attached to the forms. This is where the workers would live for the next seven days. It served like the floor on a regular elevator, but slower, in a business building and would go up with you on it. Or consider it like a stretched trampoline canvas with nothing beneath. Good thing we couldn’t look down.

The Pump Shack–On the deck the pump shack housed the hydraulic pumps. From here the hydraulic lines fed oil to the jacks. On many jobs, a father and son from Arkansas were the jacking experts. And experts they had to be. Lose the pump or blow a line, and the jacking could stall, hanging up a form or creating a cold ugly seam on the outside wall.

The ground winch operator.

The Steel Gin Pole and Winch–On the deck was a gin pole with its own electric winch. This brought up vertical and horizontal steel to be laid in the forms, spaced out and tied into place with wire ties. The gin-pole operator also brought up jackrods. These were threaded on the ends. They were about six feet long and perhaps a solid inch or more in diameter. The operator of the steel gin pole stood at an unprotected opening upon the sky. There had to be a gap for the steel to come through. He had a dangerous job. One of my friends ran this gin pole for awhile and recalled almost falling off when he lit his pipe.

The Concrete Hopper and Gin Pole–This gin pole and its operator received the loaded concrete bucket from the ground, dumped its contents into the hopper, and pushed the bucket into open air for free fall back to the ground and refilling. That pattern continued for seven straight days. The gin pole had a swing arm for the operator to bring in and return the bucket. Two pulleys were on the pole, one at top-center, one at the end of this upside down “L.”

The Steel Layers–Some guys were assigned to lay steel, both vertical and horizontal, inside the forms. The concrete was poured over the steel and all of it disappeared as the jacks lifted the deck, two inches a minute, as I recall. Then more steel would be laid, repeatedly and perpetually, until we hit elevation. Without the steel, the wall might succumb to a blowout

The Jackrodders–These guys went around adding new jackrods where the existing ones were getting shorter and disappearing into the rising form. The jackrods were super-heavy. They had to be threaded onto the top of the other rod, above the jack. These jacks “bit” the rods, lifting and raising the deck in unison around the perimeter. With that, up went the whole structure!

The Concrete Pourer–This stalwart guided a Georgia buggy from the hopper through the narrow track in the formwork. If you pushed all day down Georgia Buggy Boulevard, you never had to join the YMCA.

The Concrete Vibrators–Carrying electric-powered vibrators, they rid the concrete of bubbles inside the forms. A man’s hands got numb, more so than from riding a Harley all day.

Safeway Scaffold Ladder–As the deck went up, new sections were added to the external Safeway ladder system. This was our way up and down. The more days that went by, the higher the ladder.

The Finishers–We never saw these guys from the deck. They stood on a suspended wooden scaffold that went around the perimeter below the deck. With a brush and a bucket of water, they finished the concrete and made it pretty. Around and around they went, never stopping until we hit elevation. Sometimes the blueprint called for a door or window to be dropped into the form at a certain elevation. The finishers would pretty-up the edging around that door or window as it came out of the form. If the door or window was uneven–no changing that.

Part Two tomorrow.

David Hatch was born and raised in Ames, Iowa. Prior to college studies, Pastor Dave worked construction and had hopes of serving in law enforcement until his partial color-blindness prevented that. He did not know what to do with his life. Through God’s Providence and a phone call from his sister, who was a kindergarten teacher in Milwaukee, he enrolled in a college where, unknown to him, many of his future classmates were studying to be pastors. He received his education at Concordia College in Milwaukee; Concordia Teacher’s College, River Forest, Ill.; and Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Ind. His pastoral career began in 1982, following seminary, when he served as an admissions counselor at Concordia College in Bronxville, N.Y. and parish pastor at Love Lutheran Church outside of Albany, N.Y.

The challenge of moving around in elevator construction also brought opportunities and cultural enrichment

By R. Janet Walraven

R. Janet Walraven, M.Ed, retired 35-year teacher and international-award author of four books, resides near Albuquerque, N.M. She is the youngest of Bill and Sadina’s three daughters.

For our family, the nomadism of the grain-elevator construction business had its challenges. We moved 33 times in the 16 years from 1948 to 1964. My two older sisters changed schools 22 or 23 times; I changed 26 times. We were all good students. Since neither of our parents had the privilege of attending college, both set the standards high. With a lot of support and unconditional love, the expectation was always straight A’s, and we worked to accomplish that. 

Because my eldest sister, Ramona Sue, had severe asthma and eczema, some of the high-humidity places were very difficult for her. She struggled with her health until ninth grade when doctors said she needed to be in a dry climate. Serendipitously, Daddy was assigned to the jobsite in Albuquerque, N.M., where Ramona enrolled in a private high school. Rita, second in line, and I continued moving with our parents. 

Rita was very social; she was like a magnet collecting a group of friends wherever we moved. It became difficult to say goodbye, especially to boyfriends, when she reached high school. That’s when she decided she wanted to be in the private high school with Ramona, and I reluctantly joined them for two of the four years.

My parents made sure we visited attractions in various places. Paulding, Ohio was close enough to Canada to visit Niagara Falls. Moving to Florida brought adventures in learning to water ski, fishing for red snapper in the ocean with Daddy, and exploring the islands all the way to Key West. New Mexico was another adventure–learning about the Pueblo people, being fascinated with turquoise mines, and understanding the variety of Southwest cultures. We also learned to love sopapillas!

Left to right: Ramona Sue, Janet, and Rita

Most of Daddy’s crew quit following us around by the time their children reached junior high. Some of the men went back and forth from home to work on his jobs. Changing schools for the kids was difficult, and many of the wives got tired of moving. Mama did not.

When Daddy became vice president of Chalmers & Borton in 1964, Mama knew that was the end of the adventures. She had embraced all the different cultures, the historic sites, the people. They bought their very first home and settled down in Hutchinson, Kan. 

Daddy enjoyed flying in the company plane to check on all the jobs around the country. Sitting in an office day after day was not his cup of tea. He imposed his strict standards on every superintendent in the company, but as his mentor Andy Milnar put it, no one ever lived up to Bill’s standards. 

Note: Reno County Museum in Hutchinson, Kan. houses many of the archives of Chalmers & Borton, Inc. 

Sadina’s list of moves from 1947 to 1964

1947 LaCrosse and Bison, Kan.

1948 Dighton and Bucklin, Kan.

1949 Hereford, Tex.

1950 Utica, Kan. and Aurora, Mo.

1951 Girard, Kan.

1952 Manter, Dighton, Bison, and Mullinville, Kan.

1953 Perry, Okla; McPherson and Kiowa, Kan.; Ponca City and Enid, Okla.

1954 Hereford, Tex.

1956 Sunray, Tex.; Paulding, Ohio

1957 Homestead, Fla; Hutchinson, Kan.

1958 Tampa, Fla; Ft. Worth, Tex; Albuquerque, N.M.

1960 Clovis, N.M.; Tampa, Fla.

1961 Wilmington, N.C.; Chattanooga, Tenn.

1962 Hutchinson, Kan.; Liberty, Mo.

1963 Plainview, Tex.

1964 Greeley, Colo.; Hutchinson, Kan.

The nomadic life in elevator construction provided lessons in loyalty, industriousness, and workmanship

R. Janet Walraven, M.Ed, a retired 35-year teacher and international-award author of four books, resides near Albuquerque, N.M. She is the youngest of Bill and Sadina’s three daughters.

By R. Janet Walraven

As a child growing up in the slip-form concrete industry, I probably never heard of most of the challenges my parents faced. But I do remember some. 

My mother, Sadina, was intrigued by slip-form construction, as I have been all my life. There is something special about revisiting what I call prairie skyscrapers across the Great Plains. 

Being a superintendent, Daddy usually went ahead in his pickup to start a job. Mama would follow with my two sisters and me, stair-stepped closely in age, with everything we owned in the trunk of the car. Finding a place to live was challenging; many times, she would be turned away because owners did not want to rent to “construction rats.” Most of the time the apartment or house she found was old, small, and sometimes not very nicely kept. Mama would have the place spic-and-span by the time Daddy got home for supper. Her motto: “Always leave it better than you found it.”

As time went on, Daddy collected a group of loyal foremen–carpenters, steelworkers, electricians, and laborers–whose wives and families followed wherever the job took us. Many chose to live in trailer houses pulled by their pickups. Daddy refused to live in a trailer house. 

Bill and Sadina Walraven

Mama was the best teammate Daddy could have found. She cooked, baked, and cleaned, and she sewed all the clothes for us girls and herself. She planted a garden if we would be in one place long enough. She washed, starched, and ironed to perfection with only a wringer-washer most of the years. And she served as Bill’s payroll bookkeeper. In addition, she planned social gatherings for the crew: picnics, baseball games, birthdays, and roller-skating parties. She knew it was important to keep the crew together. Daddy and Mama made lifelong friends, even after some of them drifted off when their wives and children no longer wanted to keep moving around.

While in Albuquerque in 1958 to 1960, Daddy purchased the 38-unit Texas Ann Motel on Route 66. Mama operated it for two years. When his next job required another move, she found managers and was thrilled to be back on the road experiencing new adventures. 

‘Safety first’ in a hazardous undertaking

One of Daddy’s priorities was safety first. Working on a slip-form concrete job was very dangerous. He paid attention by always being where the action was and insisted on everyone keeping the jobsite orderly. In all of his dozens of jobs, I remember only two incidents where he lost a man. One was in Hereford, Tex., where a man fell to his death from the top of the elevator. Daddy was in deep grief; he felt responsible for the tragedy and took on the responsibility of caring for the bereaved family. 

The second was in Plainview, Tex., where a subcontracted electrician, standing at the top of the elevator, accidentally stepped into his own toolbox and fell through a manhole. 

While building, Daddy endured a few situations of his own. Once climbing the ladder up the side of an elevator, he fell and broke his leg. A week later, not being able to get around on the job well enough, he sawed off the cast and limped around until the leg was healed. He never lost one day of work in his entire career. 

Unions can also be challenging. When the Teamsters went on strike, they were stopping the non-union cement truck drivers and pushing the trucks over into the ditch. The drivers then refused to continue. Daddy got into the driver’s seat of a truck, held a gun out the window, and drove across the strike line. No one messed with my dad, and the strike was over.

Another incident was when he had to fire a laborer. The next day, the man came onto the job, came up behind Daddy, and hit him in the head with the hammer claw. A foreman took the guy down, drove Daddy to the emergency room to get stitches, and they both went back to work. That same foreman who saved Daddy’s life was Will Evans, a black man whose family was very close to ours. I was riding with Daddy when we moved to Sunray, Tex. and was shocked to see a billboard at the city limits that read: “All Negroes must be out of town by sunset.” 

“What does that mean?” I asked. “Where will Will and his family live?” 

Daddy gritted his teeth and said, “I’ve bought him a trailer house to put out on the jobsite.” 

It was my first encounter with prejudice. Daddy looked after that family until all their children were grown.

Excitement of ‘The Pour’ and pride in workmanship

I loved riding with Daddy to the next town. As soon as I could read, he taught me how to navigate by map, letting him know what the next highway route was, though he probably already knew. As we rode along, passing through small towns that had grain elevators built by someone else, he would say, “See the lines running horizontally in those tanks? That’s where the superintendent in charge kept pouring concrete even when the weather was below freezing. A freeze line is a weak place that can cause a blowout in the tanks. I will not let that happen.” 

I had a great sense of pride in his perfectionism. He was also proud of grain elevators that had a headhouse and “Texas house” that contained the equipment: the uppermost leg and the “run” to the storage tanks. He said all other elevators were messy-looking because so many mechanisms were outside the structure. To this day, I can spot a Chalmers & Borton grain elevator miles away.

One of the most exciting times of my childhood was watching a week-long pour. Daddy stayed on the job night and day, coming home only to eat, bathe, and change clothes. 

In the evenings, Mama would drive us to the job so we could watch the pour. It was like watching magic, all the lights twinkling, seeing men running the wheelbarrows (buggies) full of concrete and the men pumping by hand the jacks as the wooden, rounded slip-forms edged up. I was fascinated to see the concrete “grow” until the tanks finally topped out.

I once observed Daddy running his hands through the gravel that had just been dumped at the job site. He immediately stopped the truck and told the driver to take it all back because it was too coarse. It had to be exactly the right grade to prevent blowouts.

He often ran his hands along the tank walls as the pour was happening, knowing instinctively how the surface should feel. 

As I grew older, wearing a hard hat just like Daddy, I loved being with him on the job site. I was impressed that he would stop and talk to the men who followed job to job. He knew their wives’ names and always asked about the children. 

Daddy has always been my hero. 

Working for Chalmers & Borton, the close-knit Walraven family left Kansas on a journey of prodigious building 

By R. Janet Walraven

R. Janet Walraven, M.Ed, a retired 35-year teacher and international-award author of four books, resides near Albuquerque, N.M. She is the youngest of Bill and Sadina’s three daughters.

Standing on his family’s front porch in east Texas, nine-year-old Bill Walraven declared, “Someday I am going to be somebody. I will not be poor, and I don’t want to stay in the South.” 

William E. “Bill” Walraven was born September 25, 1912, the middle child of 11 by their Choctaw mother, Georgia Allice Addy and Dutch father, William Alfred Walraven. 

I called him Daddy. He graduated from high school in 10th grade–that’s as far as it went–and got a job in a sawmill. By 1940, he was building army barracks in Enid, Okla., where he met my Mama, Sadina M. Wagner, and rose to the top as construction superintendent. After high school graduation, Mama had moved to Enid to find a job near her married sister.

World War Two interrupted things, and he went to Europe with the 579th Field Artillery Battalion. After the War, he met Clinton H. Chalmers, partner in Chalmers & Borton. 

By then, Bill and Sadina had already married. Their love story is told in Rainbow of Promise: A World War II Romance, my family’s legacy and tribute to my parents. Upon his return from Europe to Kansas, Daddy went to work in La Crosse, 150 miles northwest of Wichita. He filed saws on the Farmers Union elevator under Chalmers & Borton superintendent R. Alberding. 

Early days of Chalmers & Borton and exciting adventures

Cpl. William E. Walraven. All photos are courtesy of R. Janet Walraven.

Chalmers & Borton started out in 1927 with wooden elevators. The men and their wives lived together in one boxcar. After building up a big company, Chalmers–being mindful of the army barracks project management–promoted Daddy in 1948, to superintendent on Farmers Cooperative in Shields, Kan.—a 100,000-bushel slip-formed concrete elevator.

Born June 27, 1919, Mama was smart, gregarious, and madly in love with Daddy. She was excited about his job and happily became the best partner he ever wanted. She took on payroll duties. For her, moving around was an exciting adventure. The full extent of it is recorded in the company’s Book of Superintendents.

We moved in 1948 to Dighton, the central Kansas town where Mama had graduated high school 11 years earlier. For a while, we lived with Grandma Wagner in Bison. Daddy drove back and forth as he built an elevator for Co-op Equity Exchange of Mullinville. Later it was Bucklin, Kan. for Bucklin Cooperative’s new elevator.

Mama presided as we moved to Hereford, Tex. in 1949. It was a new state and bigger job—500,000-bushels of storage for Pitman Grain Co. Daddy finished Summerfield, Tex. for Pitman also. Most jobs in Kansas, Oklahoma, and the Texas Panhandle were 100,000 to 750,000 bushels. Later, he tackled one to 10 million bushels, whether grain elevators or storage units. 

Chalmers visited regularly, introducing Daddy to Andy Milnar, a superintendent since 1927. Andy mentored Daddy at every chance. They both loved to fish. As their friendship grew, Andy realized Daddy was a math genius. Without having taken geometry, knowing no formulas for calculations, he could look at a pyramid-shaped pile of sand or gravel the size of a huge building, and know exactly the volume. He calculated the concrete, lumber, and steel needed for the structure. In fact, Daddy sometimes had to persuade Andy and Chalmers to modify blueprints.

“This won’t work,” he would say while redrawing. The college-graduate engineers in the office had it wrong.

The family grows while staying on the move

Bill and Sadina Walraven in 1967.

By this time, there were three of us daughters: Ramona Sue (1944), Rita (1945), and me (1947). 

In 1950, we moved to Utica, Kan. where Daddy built an elevator for Utica Grain as well as storage for Farmers Coop in Shields. Utica was the first place he constructed an office where grain trucks would drive onto a scale. He was quite proud of it. 

Next came Aurora, Mo. for Missouri Farmers Association, and then Girard, Kan. for Consumers Co-op. The year 1952 took us to Manter, Kan. for Collingwood Grain and back to Mullinville for Co-op Equity Exchange. 

We moved in 1953 to Ponca City, Okla.–near Hazelton, Kan.–for Farmers Co-op Equity, before completing a 4-million-bushel monster for W.B. Johnston Grain in Enid. With energy to spare, Daddy also did an elevator for Farmers in Perry, Okla. 

While in Hereford Tex. in 1954, he completed a one-million-bushel elevator for Pitman Grain, another elevator for Sears Grain, and a storage nine miles to the southwest in Summerfield. Still nearby in 1955, in Bovina, there was a storage for Sherley Grain, an elevator in Dimmitt, and a storage in Farwell. We lived in Sunray, a tiny town with a huge public swimming pool we enjoyed every day. My first encounter with prejudice was that blacks weren’t allowed after sundown within city limits. Daddy purchased a trailer house for his black foreman’s family to live on the job site. 

The Walravens turn eyes eastward–and back–for huge triumphs 

During the summer of 1956, Mama brimmed with anticipation about getting out of the Texas Panhandle for something very different in Paulding, Ohio: two storage units for Consolidated Cement Corp. 

That was the inflection point in our adventures.

In 1957 we moved to Homestead, Fla. for a cement plant on drained swampland. But we were soon back to Kansas to build a storage for Montezuma Co-op Exchange. 

During 1957 and 1958, Daddy took on a seven-million-bushel elevator for Farmers Co-op in Hutchinson, Kan.—his first construction of hexagonal tanks. He enjoyed the diversity and challenge in building. At half a mile, that elevator became the world’s longest. Workers rode bicycles from end to end. 

We moved back to Florida—now Tampa—in 1958 for a subcontract job for Mills & Jones, today known as Federal Construction. Yet within the same year, we went to Albuquerque, N.M. on a two-year cement plant job for Robert E. McKee in Tijeras Canyon near the base of Sandia Mountain. During that year, Daddy also completed a 10-million-bushel elevator in Topeka, Kan. Then back to Bovina, Tex. (We lived across the state line in Clovis, N.M.) for 1.56-million bushels of storage for Sherley-Anderson Grain. But how could we call a calendar year complete without going back to Tampa for cement tanks and some buildings in Busch Gardens for The Austin Company?

The next few years capped Daddy’s career. In 1961, he superintendended a cement plant in Wilmington, N.C. for Rea Construction. 

General Portland, a cement producer in Chattanooga, followed in 1962. Then on to Kansas City, Mo. for two million of storage for KC Terminal Grain. Another 4.7-million storage and office came in 1963 for Producers Grain Corp. of Plainview, Tex.—including, for the first time, steel tanks. 

Our final stop, in 1964, was Eaton, Colo. (we stayed in Greeley) for a Great Western Sugar mill.

That summer, at Andy Milnar’s urging and honoring Chalmers’ perspective, Daddy was promoted to vice president and field superintendent. Chalmers, who by then had passed away, thought of him as the best they ever had among the long journey of 125 superintendents in far-flung sites from 1927 onward. 

Determined to succeed, Daddy stayed at it and did what he loved until his own tragic death at 59–just before retirement–in 1972. Mama survived him by 17 years when she died in a car accident. 

This autonomous, battery-electric farming machine would surprise our grandfathers and the Farmall crowd

Considering the prevalence of robot vacuum cleaners and lawn mowers, it was only a matter of time until the predictions of autonomous farming machines came true.

Say hello to the John Deere robo-tractor. Had you known about Deere’s $33-million R&D center that opened in Urbandale, Iowa, in 2018? It helps lead to this.

The design staff must have had a great time working on it, although unlike automotive designers who create a concept vehicle, there’s only one color to play with.

The attachable cab calls to mind an insect that can fit its own head to the abdomen and thorax.

Maybe our readers will get a laugh from the 2-minite 43-second video. The music is inspiring in a “Chariots of Fire” sort of way. 

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!