The first Denver office of Mayer-Osborn is for lease at $8,000 a month

The 1717 E. Colfax Ave., Denver, Colo. location is for lease.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

While enjoying our leisurely October road trip, my dad, Jerry Osborn, and I sought out the former business office of the Mayer-Osborn Construction Company, the Denver-based business my grandfather, William Osborn, operated in partnership with Eugene Mayer. It still stands at 1717 E. Colfax Ave.

Mayer ran the business office, while Grandpa was in the field selling their services. Their former office has undergone a smart update, now sporting solar panels and new brick siding, which has added great street-front appeal for potential tenants.

An item from the Farmers’ Elevator Guide

The place was vacant, but it was settled into an optimistic, mixed neighborhood not far from the Denver Botanical Gardens. About four blocks from Denver’s Five Points, the area seemed to be on an economic rebound, though most buildings were older and fairly nondescript.

Dad and I pulled across a busy grocery store parking lot to get a good vantage point. The photo above shows modern updates, including passive solar panels installed to take advantage of Denver’s many days of sunshine.

Dad and I checked off another important historical visit, and went on our way, happy to see Bill Osborn’s Denver digs at last.

Some initials on a bronze plaque in Limon, Colo., help to solve a mystery

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

My father, Jerry Osborn, and I had a rare opportunity this October to take a road trip. Our goals were to see family, check out our hunting camp, and see some of the sights in the west. Dad is in his eighties now, so we don’t put off any chances to do neat stuff. This trip exceeded our expectations. Happily, we also were able to take in some elevators.

Jerry Osborn at Zion National Park, Utah

Our stop at the elevator in Limon, Colo., proved to be a wonderful surprise. There was a truck at the co-op when we arrived, but the office door was locked, so I approached the elevator itself and called out to see if it was deserted. When I turned around, a man was approaching from the office. I went to meet him.

Ed Owens was finishing up paperwork before going home for the night. I asked him about the history of the elevator, and he brought me into the office. Ed said his grandfather, S. L. Sitton, helped build the Limon elevator as well as the earlier, neighboring one in Genoa, Colo. He said his grandfather came into the area in 1939. He went away during the war, then came back and looked for whatever work he could find. Elevator construction provided a part-time laborer job that kept food on the table.

The builder put up the elevator like a layer cake, letting each concrete layer cure for a period before adding another, rather than by the continuous-pour method pioneered by early elevator construction companies. The Limon elevator was built in stages by farmers who built by day and farmed by night. I was impressed by Mr. Sitton’s fortitude, and I would have asked the old gentleman about it, but Ed said he was 97 years old and living in a nursing home in Flagler. He likely wouldn’t remember, and even if he did, he might not appreciate a visit.

The Genoa, Colo., elevator is in a neighboring town.

The best discovery was yet to come. When Ed ushered me into the office, he showed me the bronze plaque which originally adorned the driveway of the Limon elevator. Ed said all of the directors listed on the plaque were dead by now. The elevator was built in 1958, so all the community leaders of the time were long gone. But the key bit of information on the plaque was the name of the builder and designer, M. and A. Enterprises, Inc., of Denver.

I was very excited to see this name. The company was based in Denver, and the designer claimed to be the builder. Based on the design of the elevator, I had a strong suspicion of who that designer might have been. We now had a key piece of information.

Followers of this blog know that we have puzzled over a few mysteries while tracking our grandfathers’ elevators. The most difficult story to reconstruct, thus far, was how the Mayer-Osborn Construction Company met its demise.

The Denver-based enterprise lasted from 1949 until at least 1954, when my grandfather, William Osborn, apparently left the business. In the summer of 1954 he built the Blencoe, Iowa, elevator with the help of my dad, Jerry Osborn; by the summer of 1955, William was home from his Denver office and never worked elevator construction again. Meanwhile, his partner, Eugene Mayer, probably revived the company under various guises, but we know little of what became of him.

With our visit to Limon, Colo., we may have cracked the case.

Usually, the simplest explanation is the true one. The quickest way to explain why a thriving company would go away is to look for a disaster. Family lore says there was one. But I suspect the rumor of a collapsed elevator, lost to a crew that “shorted materials” and made bad concrete, might have been a tall tale that sprung from a much more pedestrian event. No such disasters can be found in 1954 or 1955 newspaper accounts.

The only related problem I could find occurred at the the Mayer-Osborn elevator in Blencoe, Iowa. During construction, when the elevator had reached about twelve feet high, the forms were slipped for the first time. As soon as concrete appeared below the slipped form, it began to slump and crumble. Bad concrete was indeed the culprit, and it necessitated a tear-down. To get back to a twelve foot height, the company had to add a day or two of expensive labor, which directly cut into profit. Could this event explain why William Osborn left the company? It’s the simplest explanation, so perhaps.

Several subsequent elevators bore the Mayer-Osborn manhole covers, but Dad didn’t know about these elevators, and he was certain that by 1955, his dad, William, was home for good.

The Mayer-Osborn elevator at McCook, Nebr. built in 1949

With its signature stepped headhouse, the elevator in Limon bears an uncanny resemblance to the first elevator Mayer-Osborn built in McCook, Neb. In fact, it is the same design, updated somewhat, and dated 1958. So it certainly went up after Grandpa left the business. But what about Eugene Mayer? Dad said that he was the designer, whereas Bill Osborn started as a carpenter and learned his construction skills on the job. Mayer still retained ownership of his elevator designs, which could explain why McCook clones continued to pop up all over the plains in the mid-1950s.

That brings us back to the builder of the Limon elevator, as inscribed on the plaque, “M. and A. Enterprises, Inc.” It seems inescapable that the “M.” was Mr. Eugene Mayer.

The Limon elevator had newer innovations but was built haltingly. Plainly, all was not the same as it had been when Bill Osborn was on the job. Perhaps fewer workers were available. Fewer contracts were awarded as subsidies waned. So the big, ambitious, day-and-night event of an elevator project was toned down somewhat. I expect we will find that Eugene Mayer’s design was eventually sold and others built it, then it passed into history, along with the great concrete elevator boom.

Happily, Limon’s elevator still thrives, and it gives us a peek at the amazing history of elevators on the American plains.

The layout of the elevator is used to record the content of each bin. Flat storage is adjacent to the concrete elevator.

 

 

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

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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

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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.

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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.
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    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.

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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

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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.

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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.

 

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.