Update on redevelopment of the Mayer-Osborn elevator in Tempe, Ariz.

IMG_0607

We have discovered news in the Arizona Republic about progress at the derelict Hayden Mill and Mayer-Osborn grain elevator site in Tempe.

As the Republic’s story reveals, a developer plans to refresh the buildings and make a multipurpose facility that will entail converting the elevator into a hotel.

We visited Tempe in 2012 and posted this story and photos.

And we spoke a few months ago to John Southard, historic preservation officer for the city of Tempe, discussing some details of the project.

This is a beautiful, sleek elevator that integrates the headhouse into the main house in a singular manner and represents Mayer-Osborn at the top of their game.

We plan to return to Tempe in a few weeks to get the low-down, and of course we will report further right here at Our Grandfathers’ Grain Elevators.

Final thoughts after 1,800 miles, 20 grain elevators, and one Czech sausage

IMG_9438

By Ronald Ahrens

As Kristen Cart and I have been blogging about Our Grandfathers’ Grain Elevators since 2012, she has been able to make the most of her Midwestern location by visiting “our” elevators in Iowa and Nebraska. But I live near Palm Springs, Calif., which is much better known for its midcentury modern houses. Down in the southern end of the valley they grow dates, grapes, strawberries, and leafy greens. No need for an elevator there.

Texas-Okla Logo 04I had only been to the Mayer-Osborn elevator in Tempe, Ariz., and Tillotson Construction Co.’s 1947 terminal in my hometown of Omaha. (Also, a superficial look-see at an elevator-mill complex in Colton, Calif., about an hour from my house.)

So I’ve been winging it.

The 1,800-mile road trip from April 15 to 22, 2018, was an education. I had to go about 1,000 before the first visit to one of “our” elevators in Hereford, Tex. But in the next 84 hours I visited 18 more locations, saw for myself the distinctions from one to the next, and learned a great deal.

IMG_9415

Workbench and storage in Pond Creek, Okla.

Subsequent conversations with my uncles, Chuck and Tim Tillotson, have sharpened those distinctions.

And of course, as I’ve been at my desk writing the posts in this series, I’ve pored over the company records as never before.

My takeaway from all this can be distilled into a few points.

  1. The people I met in Canyon, Bushland, and Booker, Tex., are super-smart and know their business inside and out. In Conlen, Tex., an employee named Jamie said the elevator there was “older than dirt.” In Meno and Pond Creek, Okla., I was encouraged by the astuteness of Matthew Thomsen, Tracie Rhodes, and Jeff Johndrow. They’re not so different from the leaders I interview in my assignments as a reporter for automotive and business magazines. I could see them in Silicon Valley or Detroit.
  2. IMG_9421

    Pond Creek basement.

    Seeing the elevators–most of them in pretty good shape–and watching the work is gratifying. The first Tillotson concrete elevator, in Goltry, Okla., has not been operational for about a decade. But the fourth one ever built, in 1941, is still in use at Medford, Okla., and is looking at its 80th birthday in 2021. I’m sure my grandfather, Reginald O. Tillotson, would be proud. Kristen’s grandfather, William Osborn–who may have worked on some of these jobs when he was with Tillotson and who built one of the elevators that greeted me in Follett–would be the same. They did a splendid thing.

  3. On the Great Plains of the Texas Panhandle and western Oklahoma, it’s quite possible to see how these grain castles, some as high as 175 feet, changed the landscape. We know it happened in a 15-year period between Tillotson’s first effort at Goltry and 1954, when most of the building was done. Excepting the intensive effort to out-produce the Germans and Japanese during World War Two–the period from 1942 to 1944 when no elevators were built–the transformation happened even faster. If at the moment you weren’t in view of a grain elevator, you soon would be.

It was a propitious moment to do this road trip. Most of the elevators were still going about their noble business, but 20 years from now they’ll be reaching what we conceive as their maximum life-cycle. I fear that more and more of them will stand as decrepit monuments. Someone asked if they’ll be knocked down. The answer is that I didn’t hear any of the farmers’ cooperative employees mention a budget for pulverizing, in the case of Tillotson’s 350,000-bushel elevator at Farnsworth, Tex., 1,875 cubic yards of concrete and 127 tons of reinforcing steel.

IMG_9404

Tillotson Construction Co. manhole cover and other detail from Pond Creek.

Perhaps a good lesson comes from the news that Ford Motor Co. has acquired the Michigan Central terminal in Detroit. This building, abandoned for decades, became the chief emblem of “ruins porn,” those photos of the Motor City’s decrepitude. Ford will restore the building over four years and devote some space to its expanding innovations hub in the city.

We can only hope for the same with elevators. Not that Ford would be involved, but that the innovators we’ve written about–vertical farmers, property developers, recreation entrepreneurs–will find new uses or refine old ones.

Here I extend a big salute to the readers who’ve followed along on our road trip series. Your companionship and comments have been appreciated.

 

A Friday photofest from Follett

IMG_9185

Tillotson headhouse and ladder-climb challenge.

By Ronald Ahrens

Who wants to read an long rambling story about my travels through the Texas Panhandle and western Oklahoma when the weekend is coming and, before leaving work, you’d rather look at waders on the Cabela’s site?

Texas-Okla Logo 04How about we look at a few more pictures from Follett, Tex., instead? We have the unique circumstance of a Tillotson elevator and a Mayer-Osborn elevator at the same site.

The Tillotson stands on the south end and the Mayer-Osborn on the north. The Tillotson has center and outside driveways and a gigantic 52-foot-tall headhouse. Even though it started with the standard Medford plan, it ended up a singular thing.

The Mayer-Osborn has only an outside driveway, making the main house sleek as an eel, a showpiece with sheen. The east side smooths along like “On the Atchison, Topeka & the Santa Fe”–Johnny Mercer’s huge hit of 1945 (when neighbor Tillotson was built).

OK, let’s roll the pictures.

IMG_9213

Mayer-Osborn has a boom, like many of the elevators I visited. As far as can be told, it’s a boom without a bust.

 

IMG_9233

Tillotson, left, with High Headhouse and central driveway, and Mayer-Osborn, right, with dual outside driveway and the sleek, smooth profile. Both main houses have storage-annex extension. Quite a nice cottage, as well, on the corner of Nagel St. and Travis or Frazier Ave. 

IMG_9231

So long from Follett, Tex.!

 

Looking for details of the Mayer-Osborn elevator in Follett, Tex.

By Ronald Ahrens

As I observed on Monday, we know a few locations where Mayer-Osborn built–for example, Roggen, Colo.; McCook and Maywood, Neb.; Odebolt and Blencoe, Iowa; and Cordell, Okla.

Texas-Okla Logo 04This Mayer-Osborn elevator in Follett, Texas, came as a surprise.

It’s a handsome one, probably dating to the late-1940s, and in good condition. And it has a new owner. We would love to know his plans.

Meanwhile, let me show you more photos of the mighty M-O elevator. One aspect you’ll note are the X-braced windows. My guess is it’s related to the routine, high winds.

IMG_9233

How Follett residents see their elevators. The 1945 Tillotson stands left, the Mayer-Osborn elevator on right. Without a central driveway, like the Tillotson, the M-O presents a sleeker, more streamlined profile.

IMG_9213

The headhouse has a step. This elevator was probably built in the late-1940s. In coming years M-O would enlarge the headhouse of their new elevators and curve the corners.

IMG_9221

The west side of the main house has a different shape from the east, which is smooth. The run from the headhouse and extending over the storage annex is unusually graceful.

IMG_9199

Smooth business on the east side. Note the generous double-driveway. Not only was reinforced concrete used for additional storage, but a metal bin joined the team as well

A few more details to share. Hover over each photo to make the caption appear.

In Follett, Tillotson and Mayer-Osborn twins are sold to new owner

IMG_9227

By Ronald Ahrens

The northeast corner of the Texas Panhandle was the subject of dispute of between Texas and Oklahoma for 79 years, from 1850 to 1929, despite the precise boundary coordinates having been given as 100 degrees longitude and 36 degrees and 30 minutes latitude.

Texas-Okla Logo 04A historical marker outside Follett says nine surveys were made to locate the Panhandle’s corner. None coincided. Nevertheless, land was annexed to Texas in 1903.

One man claimed he went to bed in Oklahoma and woke in Texas.

Finally, in 1929, the United States Supreme Court had a survey done, lines were moved, and that was that.

IMG_9219

The stepped headhouse would become a more exaggerated–and rounded–feature of Mayer-Osborn’s elevators. 

Whereas the officials had a hard time setting the boundary, the people on either side of it sure were good at growing grain, and it needed to be stored.

We find in Follett the unusual, perhaps singular, circumstance of a Tillotson elevator and a Mayer-Osborn one on the same site. See yesterday’s post for an explanation. The M-O house and annex are seen at the top of this post and in pictures throughout.

We know Tillotson’s was a 1945 job; without Mayer-Osborn’s records, I have to guess. Although this M-O has a stepped headhouse, which was their signature, it is composed of rectangles and has unique window arrangements, with three small daylight windows coyly stacked atop one another on the south face. (Again, this is seen in the topmost photo.) Like the Tillotson elevator, it is labeled “Farmers.” Both elevators have annexes by Chalmers & Borton.

My guess is this was an early job for Mayer-Osborn.

The exterior walls of the Mayer-Osborn’s main house have an attractive flat surface over the silos. It looks aerodynamcally efficient, even if that’s not the point of a massive structure of reinforced concrete sticking up 150 feet on the windy Plains.

The paint was excellent, almost glossy.

IMG_9225

Another feature was the outside double-driveway, something we hadn’t encountered before.

No one was around. I went over to the office and saw a sign saying “Farmers Grain & Sply Co” painted on the backrest of a bench. A paper sign hanging in the window said Tri-State Ag & Environmental LLC.”

I called the number given there and learned the elevators had recently been sold and was given a name and another number. But so far there’s been no response to my voice message.

Arriving in Follett, Tex., and stumbling onto a big surprise

IMG_9149

By Ronald Ahrens

As I drove east from Booker, Tex., on that peaceful Wednesday morning, there was no suggestion I was in for a shocking surprise.

Texas-Okla Logo 04Following Route 15, I passed through the tiny town of Darrouzett, heading for Follett. This is the last town in the northeastern corner of the Texas Panhandle.

Like Booker and Spearman, it was named for a railroad man, Horace Follett, a “locating” engineer. Even Darrouzett was named for a railroad attorney.

From a high point among the land’s gentle undulations, I got a glimpse of the elevator complex in Follett. Looming on the horizon, two elevators faced each other. I would have guessed the Tillotson job of 1945 was the one on the right with the rectangular headhouse. Later in the ’40s, they perfected their signature curved headhouse.

The other elevator with the stepped headhouse was rather mysterious.

IMG_9150Here, it’s necessary to remind you of some basic information. My grandfather on my mother’s side was Reginald O. Tillotson. He and his brother, Joe, took over Tillotson Construction Co. after my great-grandfather, Charles H. Tillotson, died in 1938. They started building concrete elevators, instead of wooden ones, the next year.

Reginald and Joe split up in 1948, and Joe went to Denver, where he established his own company. He built a few elevators before dying in a car accident.

My partner in this blog is Kristen Osborn Cart. Her grandfather, William A. Osborn, became a partner in Mayer-Osborn Construction Co., also of Denver, around that same time. Bill Osborn had worked for Tillotson Construction Co. before starting in business for himself.

IMG_9147

Looking west toward Darrouzett’s elevator and antenna tower.

We have Tillotson’s construction record, but so far the equivalent from Mayer-Osborn has eluded us. We do know of a few locations where Mayer-Osborn built–for example, Roggen, Colo.; McCook and Maywood, Neb.; Odebolt and Blencoe, Iowa; and Cordell, Okla. 

I was unable to guess that here, in the very northeastern corner of the Texas Panhandle, I was walking right into what may be a one-of-a-kind pairing.

When I got into town, I poked around the Pryor Avenue site. The two elevators looked to be in nice enough shape, but there was no sign of recent activity. I got my pictures of the Tillotson elevator. Then I marched across the yard to the other elevator, the mysterious and more handsome one with the stepped headhouse.

IMG_9204Much to my surprise, the manhole covers were engraved with Mayer-Osborn’s name. It was like having heard of a grand cathedral in some distant land but arriving there and finding it face-to-face with another great cathedral. 

And it made me wonder about something: Had Bill Osborn worked on the Tillotson elevator here in ’45 and made business connections?

I took a photo with my phone and sent it to Kristen right away.

 

 

 

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.

AtlantaKansas

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.