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.
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.
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.
“Louise Bereuter: Grain Elevators,” a new exhibit of paintings by the Lincoln, Neb. artist, opens Saturday, Nov. 21 at Bone Creek Museum of Agrarian Art in David City, Neb.
The exhibit will continue until Feb. 28, 2021.
Top: Louise Bereuter, “Malmo Elevator,” oil and canvas on board. Above: Louise Bereuter, “Neligh Elevator,” oil on canvas board. All images courtesy of the artist and Bone Creek Museum of Agrarian Art.
Bereuter explains the paintings were done when she and her husband lived near Cedar Bluffs, Neb.
“It was easy finding inspiration for landscapes, many of which were areas seen while roaming the rural back roads of Nebraska as well as views surrounding our Nebraska home along the Platte River,” she said in a promotional statement released by the museum.
During studies at the Boston School of the Museum of Fine Arts some 60 years ago, Bereuter met the great Edward Hopper, whose work gave her inspiration.
We see the connection in her loving depictions, which are delivered in a spare, precise style. Light and shadow are handled with special mastery.
“This is the accomplishment for which Bereuter and all realist artists strive, to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary,” the museum’s promotional flyer says.
Admission is free during museum hours. The museum is closed on Monday and Tuesday. Appointments and tours are available.
“We do have some COVID-19 safety regulations in place in our museum, which we have listed on our website and in the newsletter,” collections manager Gabrielle Comte writes in an email. “Sometimes it is good to inform people ahead of time so they can plan ahead. You would be surprised how shocked people have been to learn of our mask requirement here.”
We thank the artist and the museum for providing the images that appear with this post.
Bone Creek Museum of Agrarian Art is at 575 E Street, David City, Neb. Telephone: (402) 367-4488.
A wooden scale lies beside the old brick scale house.
Story and photos by Kristen Cart
This old mill in Billings, Montana was too good to pass up. A trip around all sides revealed its current occupation as a tire company or body shop–old cars and an old wood elevator inhabit the yard beside it, but a large quantity of tires are piled adjacent to the road on the other side. But the area pictured above shows that it once handled grain.
The door to the scale house admits no one.
I have never seen a wooden scale before. The scale house next to it is shut up tight with iron bars–it could have been a jail, perhaps, in a later life. The mill itself shows signs of repeated brick repair. The story of these buildings invites a more thorough investigation.
The mill is in a historic part of Billings and sits across the street from the railroad lined with coal cars. If you could imagine it opening up to a brick-paved street illuminated with gas lights, this structure would fit right in. But it is a bit odd in its present setting.
The modern look undoubtedly bears no resemblance to the original view.
The mill appears to be well maintained and will, with care and good luck, grace this historic street for another hundred years.
Flying into the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport the other day delivered a pleasant surprise in the form of three handsome elevators soon after we drove away from the passenger terminal.
One elevator was right there in Belgrade, Montana, where the airport is. It was an old house adapted to operate with metal silos.
Another had concrete silos, and a third looked like a simple wooden house.
These photos are all we can offer. The elevators weren’t Tillotson or Mayer-Osborn jobs, but we were excited to see them and now share with eagerness. Perhaps at a future time we can learn more details.
Vertical Innovations’ first vertical farm is planned for this elevator. Photos courtesy of Vertical Innovations.
By Ronald Ahrens
Jim Kerns and David Geisler called up the other day from Springfield, Missouri, to ask a question of our readers: Are you aware of any municipally owned, abandoned grain elevators?
Kerns and Geisler run Vertical Innovations, an enterprise formed in December of 2014 to repurpose old elevators, making them into incredibly productive vertical farms for growing leafy green vegetables. They have developed a patent-pending method of hydroponic production, a “structure-driven design” that adapts to the circular shapes.
“The silos tell us what to do,” said Kerns, who has a background in organic farming and leads the company’s innovation, design and construction efforts. “I see them as giant environmental control structures, giant concrete radiators.”
Significant energy savings can result from implementation of circular shapes, which among other things require far less lighting and the corresponding energy use, he said.
Jim Kerns explores elevator guts.
David Geisler, CEO and general counsel, has worked out a lease for a disused elevator in downtown Springfield.
For its next steps, the company has targeted an available elevator in South Hutchinson, Kan., and approached the owner of Tillotson Construction Co.’s Vinton Street elevator in Omaha.
“What an awesome facility,” Geisler wrote in a follow-up email, thinking of Vinton Street.
Geisler and Kerns have cast their eyes far beyond the Midwest, though, from big terminals in Buffalo, N.Y., to San Francisco’s threatened Pier 92.
“We really need to save that facility if it’s structurally sound,” Kerns said. “It could put out about 50 million pounds of green leafy vegetables per year.”
Their most unique discovery source is YouTube videos posted by those who have flown drones around elevators.
But word-of-mouth works, too, and Kerns issues this appeal to readers: “Submit to us pictures and locations of concrete grain terminals in good condition all across the United States, sea to shining sea, north to south.”
Vertical Innovations can be contacted through its website.
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.
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.
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.
The Tillotsons were adept at seizing opportunities, such as the demand for grain storage in the 1940s.
Story by Kristen Cart
Abraham Tillotson, the direct ancestor of Charles H. Tillotson, the builder of wooden grain elevators, joined the Continental Army in 1775 and served for more than a year, earning the grateful thanks of our new nation. After the war he became a farmer, but in old age he asked for a pension based upon his service.
In 1818, Congress authorized pension payments for veterans who had fallen on hard times. It was not until the 1830s that the pensions were offered to widows and orphans. Veterans had to prove their service (inconveniently, the British burned all of the Revolutionary War service records held in Washington during the War of 1812). To that end, they had to produce witnesses to their service. They also had to prove that they were poor and unable to care for themselves.
Sometimes, veterans navigated the rules adroitly and obtained their pensions without much trouble, and retired in relative comfort. Sometimes it took years for them to prove their service. And sometimes, many letters flew back and forth before a grudging pittance was approved–enough to usher the elderly veteran quietly to his grave.
Abraham’s pension file, digitally preserved at Fold3.com, provides an amusing counterpoint to the usual, sorrowful packet of letters.
On Oct. 9, 1819, Abraham Tillotson, a resident of Casenovia, aged 63, appeared before the Court of Common Pleas in Madison County, New York to make his statement of service. He said he enlisted on Dec. 18, 1775, serving in Capt. Levi Wells’ company, Col. Samuel Wylie’s Regiment, in the 22nd Connecticut Line of Continental Establishment. He was discharged at Fishkill, New York, on Jan. 1, 1777. He had fought in the Battles of Flatbush and Long Island, and at the taking of General Burgoyne. He produced a witness to his service in the person of Henry Champion.
According to the court, Abraham’s statement averred that “he is in reduced circumstances and stands in need of assistance from his country for support.” Apparently, Abraham had no trouble getting onto the pension rolls. His trouble came later.
Abraham’s consternation was evident in the letter he wrote on July 11, 1822:
“… I am informed of the suspension of my pension until I produce satisfactory evidence doing away [with] information received at the War Department of my being ‘worth more than five to six thousand dollars.’ From whatever source this information may have been received, it is totally false, without a shadow of foundation, and must have been engendered in the brain of some malicious and corrupt villain. The information indirectly charges me with false swearing and if I knew the malicious informant, I would (as I did the enemies of my country) chastise him for his audacity, old and infirm as I am.”
He went on, protesting his honesty: “In obtaining the bounty of my country, for which I fought and bled (when, probably, your informant was in his cradle), I pursued an honest correct course and such as prescribed by the love of my country…”
He was up against a formidable stack of evidence to the contrary.
The Honorable E. Litchfield was the first to alert authorities to Abraham’s wealth, after he learned that Abraham Tillotson was worth between five and six thousand dollars. Abraham’s pension was suspended from that date, Dec. 6, 1821.
Further investigation yielded more.
“State of New York,
We, the subscribers, freeholders and inhabitants of the town of Cazenovia in the County of Madison and of the town of Pompey in the County of Onondaga and state aforesaid, do certify–that we have been acquainted with Abraham Tillotson of said Cazenovia for a number of years–that we have lived and do still live [as] neighbors to him–that we have considered him one of our most independent farmers, one who has money to loan, whenever he can obtain extravagant interest, or dispose of some property at a high price and obtain good security–that his property year before last was valued by the assessors at about eighteen hundred dollars–and further we consider him the said Tillotson abundantly able to support himself and family–and under the existing law authorizing the payment of pensions do not think him entitled to a pension–given under our hands this 21st day of August 1822.
Rufus Lyon, Joseph Atwell, Daniel Allen, James McCluen, Joseph Atwell Jr., Elijah Hill.”
Other affidavits contain the same sort of accusations. Needless to say, Abraham never recovered his pension. He died two years later in 1824. His widow tried to reinstate his pension in the 1830s, also to no avail.
Abraham offered to pay Rufus Lyon, one of his accusers, to testify in his favor
So began a Tillotson tradition of success and wealth, of sharp business dealings, and of a willingness to partner with the U.S. Government when advantageous–a perfect template for the private/public partnership that became the grain elevator boom of the 1940s and 50s. I would be quite proud of such a clever ancestor, notwithstanding a bit of shading of the truth. His neighbors (debtors?) might not quite agree.