Conversation with Sherman Johnson, scion of Johnson Construction, of Salina, Kansas

We were happy to be able to give Sherman Johnson a call the other day. Sherman, a flooring contractor in Shawnee, Kansas, is one of Virgil Johnson’s six sons. Johnson Construction, Virgil’s contracting firm, operated out of Salina, Kansas, and built a whole lot of elevators. We have speculated about the existence of a strong link, perhaps a common architectural designer, between Johnson Construction and Mayer-Osborn Construction. Johnson Construction sometimes acted in partnership with Rex Bratcher, and we know something about Johnson & Sampson. The design themes spread through those channels.

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Brad Perry took this photo in Atlanta, Kansas. “I think it’s a Johnson house,” he said. The rounded and stepped headhouse suggests Mayer-Osborn and Tillotson design influences.

Sherman was born in 1945 and went to elevator construction sites as a kid. “I remember going to Texas and Oklahoma. We lived in Salina, but most of the jobs were in Oklahoma and Texas, in the Panhandle of Nebraska, and in Iowa.” 

We had many other questions for Sherman, and he tried to help as much as possible. One thing he seemed pretty certain of was that Virgil talked about Tillotson Construction Company, of Omaha. “I heard my dad talking about them!” he said. “My father, he worked for Tillotson, I think. I don’t know for sure. I heard the name Tillotson, Chalmers and Borton, people like that.” 

Kristen Cart: Do you remember being on any job sites when you were a kid?

Sherman Johnson: Oh, yeah.

KC: Are there any memories you’d like to share?

SJ: Oh, like I said, I was just a kid. I remember going to Texas and Oklahoma–Newkirk (Okla.) and Blackwell and Conlon, Texas.

Ronald Ahrens: How long was Johnson Construction active?

SJ: As near as I can tell, at first it was my father and my uncles. And then Rex Bratcher was his partner for a while.

KC: The Sampsons were your uncles?

SJ: My dad’s wife’s brothers, Darwin and Sherman. I’m named after one.

RA: Do you remember the name Darrell Greenlee?

SJ: Darrell and Rosina. They were very, very nice people, great people. They had six girls.

RA: He was a foreman for your dad’s construction company, right? 

SJ: Superintendent.

RA: Can you characterize him?

SJ: In the summertime I had to work for him, and he worked me pretty hard. He was a good guy: a hard worker, a smart guy. We’d go out in the summertime, I don’t remember what the jobs were, they had me doing all the grunt work. I guess that’s why I’m not a contractor. 

KC: My dad described installing rebar.

SJ: Laying it and tying it. And it seemed like you always had a shovel in your hand doing something. 

KC: We had comments from Emily Frank, whose grandparents were Darrell and Rosina.

SJ: He built an elevator in Rushville, Illinois, and he retired there. If she’s still alive, she’s there. I don’t know if she’s still alive or not. 

Editors’ note: Here is the link to Rosina’s obituary.

KC: A couple of jobs, I’m going to ask if they’re familiar. Grand Island?

SJ: I don’t know.

KC: Atlanta, Kansas?

SJ: That rings a bell but I wouldn’t tell you that we did.

KC: One of the things we do is visit the elevators, and right on the manhole covers is the name of the company.

SJ: Oh, yeah. They used to make those at Wyatt Manufacturing in Salina. There was a foundry for a long time.

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

Mayer-Osborn pay stubs from August, 1954

Mayer-Osborn pay stubs from August, 1954.

Story by Kristen Cart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Story by Kristen Cart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

William A. Osborn in 1965

William A. Osborn in 1965.

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

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

A tour of Odebolt, Iowa, reveals much about its historic Mayer-Osborn elevator

The Mayer-Osborn elevator in Odebolt, Iowa was one of the few they built that was never painted white.

The Mayer-Osborn elevator in Odebolt, Iowa was one of the few they built that was never painted white.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

Recently, I took a detour quite out of the way of the Interstate system to visit the town of Odebolt, where my grandfather, William Osborn, built an elevator. I introduced the western Iowa site in a previous post.

Tim pointed out the bin diagram for the elevator.

Tim pointed out the bin diagram for the elevator.

Tim Gunderson made a great tour guide for the site and the town. The part-time elevator worker and full-time farmer wanted to know the age of the Mayer-Osborn elevator as much as I did. It was an old stepped-headhouse, slip-formed, concrete elevator in the style of earlier Mayer-Osborn efforts in McCook, Neb., and Roggen, Colo., and it stood at the center of a sprawling grain operation.

During our inspection of the elevator, we saw tantalizing details that indicated mid-1950s architecture. The mechanical workings (never altered during renovation) recalled intact examples of my grandfather’s previous work. The reliance on mechanical controls was a clue to the early design.

The big wheel controls grain distribution to the bins. It is a simple, elegant solution to a mechanical problem.

The big wheel was a simple, elegant (mechanically speaking), way to distribute grain to the bins.

Most of the standard clues to an elevator’s age were absent or misleading. The manhole-covers inside the elevator bore no date (usually they do), but perhaps Mayer-Osborn ordered a quantity of manhole-covers, embossed with only their name, toward the end of their operations in the mid-1950s.

The "blue leg" is an original, painted in Mayer-Osborn's standard color

The “blue leg” is original, painted in Mayer-Osborn’s standard trim color

The elevator showed no signs of exterior paint. This was a deviation from the norm, and a sign of more modern construction. I began to suspect the elevator was built after Mayer-Osborn ceased operations, using left-over parts. But answers would come from elsewhere, in town, where we looked for a witness to the elevator’s beginnings.

Our next stop was the library, where we perused daily papers from 1955. As I thumbed through a number of pages, I realized I didn’t know which year to search, much less what day. It would not be an effective use of time–I could only stay a couple of hours before heading to the next elevator on my route.

Tim was looking up friends who might know more. We crossed the street to the bank, where Renae Babcock referred us to an insurance office nearby. There we met Dick Duffy, and he told us a story.

Dick Duffy was in high school when the elevator went up–he thought it was in 1954 or 1955. On dark evenings while spending time with a friend (who graduated in 1955), he watched construction activity at the brightly lit elevator site. Flood lights illuminated every corner of the scene. He recalled that the concrete pour went day and night, and as he shared some personal reminiscences, he said, “You won’t write that, will you?”

Dick Duffy shares memories of 1954

Dick Duffy shared memories of 1954.

One detail he did mention, which tightened the time range further, was a tragedy that happened during the fall of the year the elevator was built. It was 1954 when a young boy was run over by a car and killed in town. Dick thought the child’s name was Kevin Bower. The event was traumatic–it fixed the time of the year’s events forever in the minds of residents.

“Was that the year that boy Kevin died?”

“Yes, I believe it was.”

We have pegged the construction date for the Odebolt elevator to the spring and summer of 1954. At the same time, the Mayer-Osborn elevator at Blencoe, Iowa, was built under supervision of my dad’s brother, Dick. The concrete there was improperly mixed and two days of work were wasted. Shortly afterward, Mayer-Osborn ceased operations, and Grandpa Bill Osborn left Denver behind and returned to Nebraska to his family.

Heartfelt thanks go to the residents of Odebolt–those mentioned and unmentioned here–for their kindness and helpfulness. I don’t think I have ever experienced a friendlier reception while pursuing historical elevators.

The town deserves a good historical expose that goes beyond the scope of the blog. It is a town with a fascinating history, great civic pride, and a strong sense of identity from its days as a ranch property to today. I hope to learn all about it and to come back again.IMG_2256

 

The elevator in Odebolt, Iowa exemplifies the integrity of Mayer-Osborn’s style

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Story and photos by Kristen Cart

In March I had the chance to stop in Odebolt, Iowa, to investigate one of the last elevators built by Mayer-Osborn Construction, the company based in Denver and headed by my grandfather William Osborn and his partner Eugene Mayer.

Odebolt is a middling town in western Iowa. The grain facility looked deserted when I drove up, except for a man with a skid loader doing something I couldn’t quite make out. He disappeared through the elevator driveway, and was nowhere to be seen when I drove around to the other side.

A busy fertilizer operation sat adjacent to the elevator, and when I stepped into a nearby office, I had the pleasure of meeting the mayor of Odebolt, Mike Hoefling. He said I missed my mark and should drive past the bank (a neoclassical, tidy marble edifice in the center of town) to find the co-op in a green building. It was easy to find.

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The neoclassical-styled bank makes a stately neighbor to the sprawling grain facility in Odebolt, Iowa.

As a result of the April 1st merger of two Iowa stalwarts–the Farmers Cooperative Company and the West Central Cooperative, the Odebolt elevator complex will lose its “FC” signage and gain the name Landus. Landus is a brand new, giant cooperative based in Ames, Iowa (painters will soon be dangling off the sides of elevators all over Iowa implementing the name change). During my visit, the co-op in Odebolt was adjusting to its first day under new management.

A lady greeted me outside the co-op (I regret that I did not get her name). I asked her who built the old elevator, and when. She said she didn’t know, but at that moment a truck drove up, and she and two companions pointed out the driver and said he would know. As soon as the man stepped from the truck, she said “Do you remember when the old elevator was built?” The man, probably in his fifties, looked a little stunned and said “No!” Everyone howled with laughter. The 1950s vintage elevator was already on the scene before he was born.

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A vintage photo found in a 1974 history of the town, showing the Mayer-Osborn elevator.

The gentleman driving the truck introduced himself as Tim Gunderson. He said he worked at the elevator part-time to “help out,” but his full time work was farming. He offered to take me to the elevator to check it out. I hopped in the truck, and off we went.

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Tim Gunderson, standing in a basement doorway. Each concrete archway is beveled at the edge–for what purpose? We don’t know.

The elevator, sporting a stepped headhouse much like the McCook, Neb., elevator my grandfather built, was set among a cluster of newer additions. It sat silent, Tim said, because a leg had become clogged and awaited repairs. Tim led the way and I followed, donning a safety vest per regulations, and we entered the driveway and from there proceeded into the heart of the elevator.

Tim pointed out the “blue leg” which was the original, he said. Mayer-Osborn Construction painted the trim on all of its elevators blue–including the metal exterior of the leg.

We were on a level of the elevator beneath the bins (but not all the way into the pit) where a grain conveyor ran beneath the attached annex. Tim pointed out the workmanship and detailing of the concrete. “They didn’t have to do this,” he said, pointing to a neat beveled edge. “No one would ever see it here.”

According to Tim, the elevator was built with a pride of workmanship that you never see today. I noticed the same thing as we toured the elevator–utilitarian, routine equipment was thoughtfully designed to create a harmonious whole, imparting an impression of completeness and integrity.

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Neatness and graceful style, down to the switches and pulleys, exemplify a Mayer-Osborn elevator.

The elevator was impressive. It was remarkably clean and dust-free, a sign of a safety-conscious operation.

Tim also took the time to help me discover the vintage of the old house, and to this end we made several stops and visited more folks in the town. In the next post we will share more photos of this iconic elevator and delve into its history.

 

Tillotson’s orphan designs of the 1940s gave way to popular elevator plans

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This Mayer-Osborn oddity in Cordell, Okla. was only built once for a customer with specialized needs

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

In the last post, we checked out two of Tillotson Construction Company’s earliest designs and their derivatives. In the 1940s, many elevator plans departed substantially from Tillotson’s first efforts, and they had plan names of their own. Some of those elevators were one-of-a-kind.

I will examine the orphan designs and a few that were used more than once, but failed to catch on, in the next two posts.

Orphan designs were unique storage plans, made to meet unusual customer needs. Non-standard-sized elevators were built to mimic Tillotson’s more basic offerings. Annexes were custom built. If an elevator and annex were built together, certain features were unique.

Here are the orphans of the 1940s.

Peterson Plan:

Peterson 01Peterson, Iowa (1944) was “storage, mainly,” with no driveway, a “x spout to leg,” and 12 1/2-foot-diameter tanks. It had a conveyor belt and a wooden, hand-operated man-lift. Its capacity was only 37,550 bushels. This was one of the smallest elevators Tillotson ever built, though a few were even smaller.

Farnsworth Plan:

Farnsworth, Tex. (1945) was the largest elevator Tillotson built to date, with a 350,000 bushel capacity. It had 19 bins with six 20-foot-diameter tanks, and a tunnel with a conveyor belt. A semi-truck driveway was built with a machine room directly overhead. Projects of this size were uncommon.

Peterson 02Farnsworth, Tex. will require a site visit, because we don’t know if a Tillotson elevator still stands. Three large elevators exist in Farnsworth, but none is typical of Tillotson’s style–two have hexagonal bins (the design made a big media splash in 1949), and the other could be a Tillotson, but looks more like a Chalmers and Borton elevator.

Dalhart Plan:

Dalhart, Tex. (1947) was a bit of an oddball, having an attached driveway rather than a center driveway. It had no basement and no distributor floor, but sported the “standard cupola.” It had four 20-foot-diameter tanks and could hold 150,000 bushels of grain. A 98,000-bushel annex was built alongside it at nearly the same time, which could explain the oddities: direct cross-spouts from the elevator provided gravity flow to the annex pit.

A second elevator was built in Dalhart, Tex., in 1949, which also gave is name to a plan: this “Dalhart Plan” described a large elevator with 310,000-bushel capacity.

Eva Plan:

Eva, Okla. (1947) was a very small elevator with only a 13,500 bushel capacity. The description says “cupola in D.F. [draw-form] wall.” The driveway was attached. It had two 14-foot bins, a “rope drive” and motor room.

Moscow Plan:

Moscow, Kan. (1948) is featured in an earlier post on this blog. It was a smallish elevator of 100,000 bushel capacity, four 14 feet-diameter tanks, and a 13 x 17 foot driveway with six bins directly overhead. It incorporated a dust bin.

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Minneapolis, Kan., mill building, elevator, and annex

Mill Building:

Minneapolis, Kan. (1948) is a site that fooled me on first examination. No manhole covers were evident on any structures except for the mill building. I didn’t expect an elevator with a rectilinear headhouse to be a Tillotson creation, so when we featured the mill building in our post (follow link), I added specifications which describe the elevator beside it! We will publish the mill building specifications in a later post.

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Greenwood, Neb. ca. 1951 with attached Tillotson annex

Hordville Plan:

Hordville, Neb. (1949) was a 70,000 bushel capacity elevator with four twelve-foot-diameter tanks, a driveway, and eight bins directly above the driveway. Its rounded headhouse, by 1949, was already standard on Tillotson elevators.

Hordville’s outward appearance is a miniature version of Tillotson elevators of the same vintage–a style that continued into the early 1950s. Greenwood, Neb. (1951), which was built using the Churdan plan, circa 1949, is a larger-scaled example of the type.

Pierson Plan:

Pierson, Iowa (1949, storage) had a 80,200 bushel capacity, four 15 1/4 foot-diameter tanks, a dump pit, one way scale, a spout floor below the bin roof, and cross spouts. It was designated “storage,” a structure more like an annex than a self-contained elevator.

Clare Plan:

Clare, Iowa (1949) was built to hold 88,800 bushels of grain with four 15 1/4 foot-diameter tanks. It had a spout floor below the bin roof and an attached drive.

The artists of the Tillotson Construction Company–architects and engineers, those creative, ingenious men–were prolific producers during the 1940s when elevator technology bloomed. The flower of their achievements can be seen scattered across the prairies, either finding useful work, or passing into idleness, while curious onlookers snap their pictures and move on.

After the 1940s, almost all of the first Tillotson designs were dropped or modified as technology advanced. Only two designs (Churdan and Jackson) of the late 1940s carried into the 50s, and they were rapidly replaced after that, as will be seen in the next post.

The Atlanta, Kan., elevator suggests our grandfathers’ signature designs

 

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Photo by Brad Perry

Editor’s note: Contributor Brad Perry sent this photo of Valley Coop’s elevator in Atlanta, Kan. The rounded, stepped headhouse suggests Tillotson and Mayer-Osborn design influences. A call to the elevator put us in touch with Katherine Grow, who runs it with her husband Darren.

“I think it’s a Johnson house. I remember when they built it. All the men in the community helped when they started pouring. Markle was the head of the crew that did it. I think it was ’58 or ’59 when it was constructed. In fact, it’s better designed than a lot of places. We added an outside leg. We used to load out on the rail but don’t any more. We’ve done maintenance and made safety updates. We’ve had it painted once. We were told it is the kind of concrete that has to be kept painted. It’s easy to work with, the way it’s put together with the inside leg. We’ve been pleased with it. I was a teenager or preteen when they built it. Once started, they kept pouring. With the lights at night, it reminded you of when you see a riverboat all lit up going down the river. It was cool. When we built this other bin and they could do it in sections, it was kind of different. They just pour so much and go round and round with a little cart, and come night, why, they’d quit and go home.”