A photography outing reveals beauty at the Mayer-Osborn elevator in Byers, Colorado

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A documentary photograph of the Byers, Colo. elevator.

In the fall of 2012, Gary Rich, contributor to this blog, treated me to a photo tour of western Colorado elevators. I made a special stop to meet Gary and his wife Sandy. The last few years Gary has specialized in elevator photography, capturing the beauty and spare elegance of grain elevators, identifying their builders as he went. The Byers, Colo., elevator is one of the loveliest.

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Gary Rich, camera in hand, looks for a better shot.

Sandy Rich is a very good photographer in her own right, and she has challenged Gary to greater creativity in his compositions.  He explained how her inspiration led him away from “documentary” shots and toward more artistic photography. When we stopped at Byers, Colo., we took some of her ideas to heart, and we were very pleased with the results.

Mayer-Osborn construction built the Byers elevator in 1950, as noted in a contemporary newspaper account. My father Jerry Osborn remembers his dad William Osborn working on it.

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Using the foreground to frame the subject adds interest to the photograph. Gary shot this composition first as can be seen on his photo site.

Retaining some of the characteristics of the earlier J. H. Tillotson elevators, the Byers elevator recalls those at Traer and Hanover, Kan. The Byers elevator is bigger than the Hanover elevator, and you can see where design adjustments accommodate the greater volume. The windows are very similar to those at Traer. The manhole covers on the exterior at Byers represent an innovation to fulfill local needs.

Since elevator designs continued to improve over time, an elevator design genealogy becomes apparent. The innovations cross company boundaries and are seen by looking at elevators chronologically, especially where the same builders and architects continued working in the business, bringing their ideas to one company after another. This is a chronology we are still trying to understand.

As we strive to understand elevator history, we take pictures. Elevators are worthy of our understanding and preservation for their beauty, not just their utility. Beautiful photos convey that message in a way that words can never express.

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The manhole covers on the exterior of the Byers elevator identify Mayer-Osborn as the builder.

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The elevator at Bradshaw, Nebraska, still hides the identity of its builder

DSC_0107Story and photos by Kristen Cart

A couple of years ago, before we started this blog, I tried to find pictures of the projects we knew my grandfather William Osborn built. Sometimes I would find photos of look-alike structures at locations that my dad couldn’t remember. Most of these mysteries were eventually resolved with the help of Gary Rich, a retired Union Pacific man with an indefatigable curiosity. He visited the locations, identified a number of the builders, took beautiful photographs, and contributed his findings to this blog.

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The J.H. Tillotson look-alike at Bradshaw, Neb.

The Bradshaw, Neb., elevator remains an unsolved mystery. I visited the elevator early last year and photographed it from all sides. The style was a dead ringer for the elevators at Fairbury and Daykin, Neb., and Linn, Kan., all J. H. Tillotson, Contractor jobs. But since I had no access to the inside of the elevator, my tentative identification remained unverified.

Mr. Gordan, who lived across the street from the elevator, commented about the structure and its history, but his details were sparse. He said the elevator had a twin that no longer stood.

“It had problems with the headhouse,” he said.

And in another town he did not name, a similar elevator had been struck by lightning and burned.

Since the look-alike elevator in McAllaster, Kan. was demolished before we could resolve its provenance, and others also seem to have perished, it is clear that an unknown number of this type of elevator once existed. We hope to find the business records of Mayer-Osborn Construction and its predecessor, J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, to learn more about them.

The Bradshaw elevator bears an old FCA logo, but United Farmers Cooperative is apparently the current owner.

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New elevators

Mr. Gordan’s mother came out to greet me, but the meeting is a little vague in my memory, because I only made notes about it later. Both mother and son said the Bradshaw elevator was retired, but that the nearby gas station still operated, and the newer elevators a little down the rail line handled the grain.

I hope to visit again when the co-op is open, to learn more.

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Bradshaw, Nebraska

The town of Bradshaw is neat and clean, and displays a good amount of civic pride. Most notable is the broad main street–the expansive use of space has the look of a western town, rather than the neatly packed economy you see in the East. It inhabits a flat Nebraska landscape, nearly midway between Grand Island and Lincoln, with distant horizons and plenty of elbow room.

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Gas station

Bradshaw is well worth a return visit, preferably during harvest. Perhaps a local farmer can sit down for a cup of coffee and color in the details of this lovely Nebraska town.

Blue skies at Lodgepole, Nebraska, and a perfect photo opportunity

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The J. H. Tillotson concrete elevator, built in 1948, and operated by Frenchman Valley Coop

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

On the way home from our Wyoming hunt last fall, we drove through Lodgepole, Neb. one more time. Gorgeous weather quelled the protests from the truck’s back seat, and with windows open, everyone settled down with books and gadgets while Mom (that would be me) got out with her camera.

I hope you enjoy some of the results as much as I did. This elevator, built by J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, in 1948, still stands proudly along old Lincoln Hwy. 30, in a town that is still a tourist destination. No one seemed curious about a lady with a camera–seems like it’s not so unusual around here.

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A track-side view of both elevators in Lodgepole, Neb.

The wooden elevator in the town is still in use, less than half a mile down the rail line. It appears to be in spiffy condition and ready for business. The town obviously takes pride in its agriculture and its heritage.

Happily, the history of the town intersects with the history of my grandfather, builder William Osborn, and our family. It has become a destination for us and a beautiful stop alongside the road.

Even the kids grudgingly admit it isn’t too bad, for an elevator.

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The wooden elevator with metal siding, flanked by metal bins

A look at grain operations at the J. H. Tillotson elevator in Lodgepole, Nebraska

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A Union Pacific train rolls by the elevators in Lodgepole, Neb.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

A beautiful elevator can be truly inspiring. My first visit to Lodgepole, Neb., was on a hazy October day, on the way to Wyoming, where we hunt elk. The misty skies did not show the elevator to its greatest advantage, so the best photography had to wait for a later visit. But this time I had the chance to visit the office and learn more about the elevator and the town.

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Melvin Paulsen inside the elevator driveway during corn transfer.

Melvin Paulsen, a two-year employee of the Frenchman Valley Coop, hailing from Julesburg, Colo., kindly showed me inside the main elevator. The interior lacked the embossed manhole covers that would reveal the builder, J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, but we knew the origins of this elevator from the recollections of my father Jerry Osborn.

The Denver-based builder had lost its owner, Joe Tillotson, and superintendent, Bill Morris, in separate traffic accidents during construction at Lodgepole. The mishaps ended a successful run of elevator projects. My grandfather, William Osborn, soon picked up the pieces and started his own company, Mayer-Osborn Construction Company, also based in Denver.

Melvin explained that the elevator was in the process of shifting grain from a main bin to the annex. The grain dryer attached to the elevator was no longer operational, so only grain that was sufficiently dry (with 18 percent or less original moisture content) could be accepted for storage. Grain that was on the moist end of the acceptable range had to go to the annex, which had ventilation fans, to prevent damage from overheating.

A fair pile of dust could accumulate during the grain transfer, so the elevator driveway was kept open to help blow it out. A shovel leaned nearby to take care of the remainder. Dust had to be cleared out completely to prevent an explosive hazard.

One of the newer bins was home to an emergency response relay for radio communications between dispatch and fire and emergency responders.

Elevator photos006Inside the Frenchman Valley Coop office was an old aerial photo of the elevator and one that was taken during its construction. Melvin kindly furnished me with an extra copy of the aerial shot. The elevator looked very much like its J. H. Tillotson brethren.

Lodgepole celebrates Old Settlers’ Days each year. The park alongside the railroad tracks fills with horses and buggies, tractors, vendors, and all manner of activities. A parade winds along the streets. The scene recalls a time when a farmer would drive his wagon up to the old wooden elevator on the rail line, and dump his grain in the pit, hoping for higher prices.

The town also attracts visitors when the old Union Pacific steam engine, UP844, stops on a regular scheduled visit.

Lodgepole’s elevator was a milestone in my grandfather’s building career. It remains one of the most attractive elevators in Nebraska.

History is preserved in pictures at St. Francis, Kansas

Story by Kristen Cart

Farmers line up their grain trucks at St. Francis, Kan.

Farmers line up their grain trucks at St. Francis, Kan.

One of the most pleasant surprises at the St. Francis Mercantile Equity Exchange was their historical record preserved in pictures. In its hundred-year history, the exchange has maintained a continuous presence on the site of the present elevator, and has seen many changes in technology. Fortunately, photos exist that document the old way of doing things, and  Shirley Zweygardt, the site grain manager, was kind enough to provide copies.

In this photo dated 1951, an old wooden elevator stands immediately behind the concrete house. It was demolished to make room for the second bank of concrete bins, built in 2000.

In this photo dated 1951, an old wooden elevator stands immediately behind the concrete house. It was demolished to make room for the second bank of concrete bins, built in 2000.

It is always a fantastic find when you locate a pictorial history of an elevator.

A picture album, filled with historical treasures, which Shirley Zweygardt was pleased to share

A picture album, filled with historical treasures, which Shirley Zweygardt was pleased to share

I had already acquired a 1947 dated postcard depicting the elevator, so we knew its age. These additional photos, dated on the reverse “1951,” show its stately beauty. They depict two additional wooden elevators, which have long since disappeared. The vintage automobile in the foreground of the first image substantiates the date of the caption. Without the car, this photo would appear timeless, even though it was taken shortly before the addition of the first annex built by Chalmers and Borton.

Another view, dated 1951

Another view, dated 1951

It was quite a lovely thing; by 1951, the largest known elevator built by J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, was celebrating its fifth year, and was still white and stark against the sky. The elevator at McCook, Neb., was only two years old when this photo was taken, and my grandfather, builder William Osborn, had gone on to other projects with the Mayer-Osborn Construction Company.

Shirley Zweygardt told me an elderly resident of the town had preserved these photos in an album, which she brought to the elevator office, where they became part of the records of the equity exchange. The prints, reproduced here, were duplicate copies, now part of my growing library of historical images.

The visit to St. Francis was a happy one, capping an October 2012 elevator tour. This elevator marked the pinnacle of J. H. Tillotson’s construction career. Impressive still, it is a fitting monument to the skill, ambition, and industry of its builders.

Discovering the J. H. Tillotson elevator at St. Francis, Kansas, as a centennial looms

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The J. H. Tillotson elevator in St. Francis, Kan. is nestled between two annexes.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

St. Francis, Kan., stayed on my mind for months after I failed to find any sign of the work of my grandfather, William Osborn, on our first visit.

Out on the western end of Kansas, the town was well clear of any route our family would take on the way to somewhere else. It was a very intentional stop on our itinerary. On our first visit, we took a wide loop, arriving just after sundown, and we lost the opportunity to investigate further than one cursory look at the wrong elevator. The visit to St. Francis was shelved for several months, and I almost didn’t go, but when I did, I made sure to be there before nightfall.

The weather caught up, however.

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St. Francis Mercantile Equity Exchange grain merchandiser, Shirley Zweygardt.

This time, I headed toward the highest structure in town. By the time I pulled up to the elevator office, fat flakes of snow wafted down and splotched the truck’s windshield, melting on contact with the ground. It was October, and the trees, which still held their leaves, were a golden brown backdrop for the early snow. I shook off the cold and entered the co-op.

A surprise awaited. A long-time employee of St. Francis Mercantile Equity Exchange, Shirley Zweygardt, greeted me at the door. Raised on a farm just down the road, she was intimately familiar with the elevator’s history and purpose, so in 1979, when a job opportunity arose, she was glad to fill in where needed.

It has been a happy arrangement. Shirley started as a bookkeeper, then worked in grain accounting and is presently in charge of grain merchandising. She has seen the St. Francis Mercantile Equity Exchange through many changes over the years.

She asked me to sit down and have some coffee, and she shared her experiences of working around the old St. Francis elevator.

The manhole cover on the interior of the driveway identifies the builder

The manhole covers on the interior of the driveway identify the builder.

St. Francis Mercantile Equity Exchange was incorporated in 1913. As slip-formed concrete construction methods advanced, the equity exchange looked for a company to build their first concrete elevator. Once it was completed in 1946, their quarter-million-bushel elevator was the biggest and most modern in western Kansas. It more than doubled the storage capacity of its lesser neighbors. And lo and behold, it was built by J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, of Denver, with the construction supervised by my grandfather, William Osborn.

It was not the only grain storage on the site for long. Soon, the capacity proved to be too little for the 1940s and 1950s boom years, so Chalmers and Borton came along and built the first annex.

Later, the site incorporated a flat storage facility which only holds wheat, since its air system does not ventilate adequately for moist corn. A second three-bin annex was built in 2000, using the same old technique of lifting concrete up to a dump cart that ran on a track around the perimeter of the rising elevator. It was completed just before the onset of a seven-year drought, and it took a few good harvest years to recoup the investment, since the annual wheat yield was too low at first to fill the bins.

Wall Street would not be the only beneficiary of perfect prognostication. The present snowfall was gladly welcomed in St. Francis.

The St. Francis Mercantile Equity Exchange will be celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. It has been and is the cornerstone of the town, and the center of business and economic life. Stay tuned for a little more of the history, and wonderful images, of this fine elevator, which Shirley kindly shared.

The Chalmers and Borton annex is in the foreground, and the new annexes are behind the main house.

The Chalmers and Borton annex is in the foreground, and the new annex bins are behind the main house. The flat storage shed is on the left.

Hunting for a J. H. Tillotson elevator in St. Francis, Kansas

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Postcard of early concrete elevator in St. Francis, Kan.

Story by Kristen Cart

Grandpa was pretty good at naming his elevators when he talked to the press. While building the McCook, Neb., elevator, William Osborn spoke about a number of his previous projects that were built while he worked for J.H. Tillotson, Contractor.

He named six elevators he built in Maywood, Wauneta, Daykin, Fairbury, and Lodgepole, Neb., and Traer, Kan.

McCook’s elevator, then under construction, was much larger than the rest, but he named one other elevator in the area that was of similar size, that one in St. Francis, Kan. He said he built that one, too.

The newspaper clipping and my dad’s recollections were all we had to go on when our family made the first trip to western Nebraska and Kansas to see grandpa’s elevators.

All of the elevators–save one–were easy to find (even Maywood, whose present incarnation is a rubble pile not far from the surviving elevators).

When we visited St. Francis, we stopped at one likely elevator complex, where my hopes were dashed when I saw the “Jarvis” name on the manhole covers. The other complex in town seemed far too big and looked very much like every other Chalmers and Borton project I had ever seen. Besides, it was getting dark and we had to put more miles behind us, since this elevator nonsense was just one of “Mom’s diversions” from the primary mission of going kayaking on the Niobrara River. So our first opportunity passed without finding grandpa’s elevator.

Dated 1947, the postcard highlights a major local landmark

Dated 1947, the postcard highlights a major local landmark

I scoured eBay for a while looking for images of Grandpa’s elevators, and I even bought an early postcard from St. Francis, and regarded it doubtfully when it arrived. What was it doing with a rectangular headhouse, if it was grandpa’s elevator? It was set aside on a growing pile of assorted elevator images.

The answer would have to wait for another visit and a close-up look at the elevator I had tossed off as a probable Chalmers and Borton edifice.

The second visit would reveal some surprises and challenge what I thought I knew about Grandpa’s elevators.

Stay tuned.

J. H. Tillotson’s project at Lodgepole, Neb., was the end of the line for Supt. Bill Morris

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The Lodgepole, Neb. elevator viewed through a rainy windshield on a blustery day.

Story and photo by Kristen Cart

It was the heyday of elevator construction, and J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, of Denver, was riding the crest of the building wave, when a new elevator was begun along Highway 30 (the Lincoln Highway), in the sand hill country of western Nebraska. Lodgepole was a sleepy town along the rail line that connected Sidney to the west, with Chappell and Big Springs to the east.

My grandfather, William Osborn, had been building for several years, and he accompanied Joe Tillotson to Denver when Joe made his break with the family business, Tillotson Construction of Omaha, and set out on his own. The new company had several projects under its belt, and several others ongoing in 1947, when Lodgepole’s elevator was started.

Bill Morris, an employee poached from the parent company, was superintendent for the job.

The dangers of the business were well known. But for the J. H. Tillotson company, fate was especially cruel, though the disasters that befell the builders were of a more mundane sort. In about March of 1947, Bill Morris was changing a tire on the side of Highway 30 near Lodgepole when a car struck him, and he was killed.

Of course the construction project went forth, and my grandfather played a role, since he had the experience to step in where Bill Morris left off.

It was not long afterward that Joe Tillotson met his maker in a car accident–only a matter of a few weeks. In those days safety in vehicles was an afterthought, and the Grim Reaper was guaranteed a regular harvest.

Joe’s death opened doors for my grandfather, since there were elevators to build and contracts to fulfill. By September of 1948, Bill Osborn had joined with Eugene Mayer, Joe’s brother-in-law, and together they formed the partnership of Mayer-Osborn Construction Company. My dad said Grandpa had to put up some money to opt into the business, and then he continued as before, building elevators as fast as they would go up.

The McCook, Neb., elevator marked their first joint effort.

Timeline for Tillotson Const., J.H. Tillotson, and Mayer-Osborn companies and jobs

Ronald Ahrens and Kristen Cart cofounded this blog. Gary Rich is a primary contributor. We have visited elevators around the United States and Canada.

Ronald’s maternal grandfather was Reginald Oscar “Mike” Tillotson.

Kristen’s paternal grandfather was William Arthur Osborn.

Reginald O. Tillotson

R. O. Tillotson

Reginald’s company was Tillotson Construction Co., of Omaha. The company had been building and repairing wooden elevators since the 1920s, when it was led by Reginald’s father Charles H. Tillotson. Before his death, experiments were made with slip-form concrete construction techniques.

1938: Charles dies, and the company passes to his sons Reginald and Joseph H. Tillotson and daughter Mary V. Tillotson. They begin to perfect slip-forming and refine their design strategy, which includes a rounded headhouse.

1945: Tillotson Construction builds a concrete elevator in Giddings, Tex. William Osborn works on this project. He is probably employed by the company by late in ’44. Tillotson Construction wins the contract to build in Elkhart, Kan., and starts construction.

1946: The 225,000-bushel elevator in Elkhart is completed. “Shortly after the war, my Dad and Joe decided they couldn’t see eye to eye, so they split,” writes Charles J. Tillotson in “The Tillotson Construction Story” on this blog. Joe forms J.H. Tillotson, Contractor in Denver. William Osborn works for Joe Tillotson.

William A. Osborn in 1965

William A. Osborn in 1965

1947: Tillotson Construction builds  the Vinton Street elevator in Omaha. Joe Tillotson dies in a car accident in March. J.H. Tillotson, Contractor builds at Daykin and Fairbury, Neb., and Hanover and Linn, Kan., with William Osborn supervising the projects. Maxine Carter leaves Tillotson Construction on Oct. 7 to wed Russell L. Bentley.

1948: Formed in September from the residue of J.H. Tillotson, Contractor, the Mayer-Osborn Company builds its first elevator at McCook, Neb. Joe Tillotson’s wife Sylvia was a Mayer, and her brother Eugene Mayer is one of the partners. William Osborn is the other. Meanwhile, Reginald begins to use a light airplane for business travel in the postwar years. Reginald’s nephew John Hassman joins Tillotson Construction in September; among many other duties, he pilots the company plane to jobs in Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Tillotson’s projects that year are in Paullina, Iowa, and Montevideo, Minn.

1949: John Hassman’s father Ralph, Reginald’s cousin, joins Tillotson Construction in sales and stays through 1952.

1950: Construction begins in November on the Tillotson house, which is built of concrete. It still stands north of Omaha. Tillotson employee Jess Weiser weds Lavonne Wiemers on Dec. 22.

1951: Drafted into the Air Force, John Hassman leaves Tillotson Construction in January.

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An inside look at the J. H. Tillotson elevator at Hanover, Kansas

The J. H. Tillotson straight-up elevator in Hanover, Kan. just after a rain

The J. H. Tillotson straight-up elevator in Hanover, Kan. just after a rain. 

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

One of the loveliest elevators J. H. Tillotson, Contractor ever built is still in use at Hanover, Kansas. Last October, during a visit to this small Washington County town just seven miles south of the Nebraska border, I photographed the elevator under moody skies and marveled at its clean, graceful lines. Then it was time to get to the business of finding out about it.

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Ryan Riekenberg takes a moment to show me around the elevator.

Fortunately, Ryan Rieckenberg, a twenty-year employee of the Farmers Cooperative Association, was on hand to show me inside. He had previously worked for the grain department and currently worked as a crop sprayer. He said before the Hanover location joined the Worchester-based Farmers Cooperative, it operated its own association called the Farmers Union of Hanover. He said the elevator was currently used for milo.

The manhole cover identified the builder

Manhole cover

He pulled up in his truck, fished out his keys, and took me into the elevator to look at its interior, including the manhole covers that positively identified the elevator as a J. H. Tillotson project.

As he unlocked the door, Ryan supplied some historical details. The elevator had been built beside an old wooden elevator, which was used as a feed mill until it was demolished about eight years ago. We entered the doorway a couple of steps up from the gravel drive where the old wooden edifice used to stand.

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The elevator leg

Once inside, we could see the leg in the center of the elevator. A grate covered the pit, and Ryan opened the grate to display the sloped bottom where the grain would funnel toward the base of the leg, to be scooped up and carried to the top of the elevator for distribution to the bins. The leg extended all the way to the bottom of the pit. A ladder went into the pit from another opening, providing access for cleaning and maintenance.

Nearby, a cage-enclosed man-lift gave access to the integral head-house at the top of the elevator. The cage was almost certainly a later modification, since the old man lifts didn’t have them.

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The distribution diagram

Prominently displayed on one of the bins was a diagram of the elevator and its annex. Here the storage assignments for each of the bins were noted, including the neighboring steel bin, which was served by the same integral head-house with a chute from the top of the elevator. Presumably, “M” stood for milo, and a note indicated that the steel bin held corn. Perhaps “F’ indicated feed, but that is just a guess.

I’m not sure why someone wrote “I love #1 house,” but if they meant this lovely elevator that my grandfather, William Osborn, built for Joe Tillotson’s company in 1947, I must share the sentiment. It was a dandy, and it appeared to have a long, useful life ahead of it.

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A view from the west side where the feed mill used to stand.