Three elevators near Bozeman, Montana, provide a little variety

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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.

 

A small Missouri company has big plans for idle elevators to serve as vertical farms

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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.

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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.”

Pier 92 San Francisco (1)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.

 

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

McCook Elevator

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.

Abraham Tillotson, who fought in the Revolution, was too wealthy for a pension

 

The Tillotson family was adept at seizing opportunities such as the demand for grain storage in the 1940s.

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.

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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.

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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.”

Whoops.

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.

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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.

 

The DeBruce Grain elevator disaster in Wichita reexamined

This photo appeared with Mr. Gustafson's cautions in 1939.

Grain dust has caused fires since elevators were first built.

Story by Kristen Cart

The dangers of storing grain have been well known for decades; however, history tends to repeat itself in spite of previous accidents and loss of life. When an operation falls into shoddy practices, and when safety measures are deemed too troublesome and expensive, the operation may continue for a time without incident.  Eventually, the inevitable happens, and the investigators come in to discover why. The answers seem obvious in retrospect.

The explosion and fire at the gigantic DeBruce Grain facility near Wichita on June 8, 1998, was a perfect example of complacency and its consequences.

The elevator was built in 1954 by Chalmers and Borton of Hutchinson, Kan., for the Garvey Grain Company. It was a terminal elevator with arrays of tangential 30-foot-diameter bins, three abreast, with star shaped bins in the interstices. The bins were built 120 feet high and arranged symmetrically on either side of a 197-foot-tall, 21-story headhouse.

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A typical Chalmers and Borton plaque, installed at their American Falls, Idaho, elevator, dated 1944

In 1955 the elevator was extended on either end, roughly doubling its capacity to nearly 21 million bushels. In total, 246 circular bins and an additional 164 interstice bins (for a total of 310) were available to store grain, in a structure that extended over half a mile. In its heyday it was the largest elevator in the world.

A key factor in the explosion of the facility was the arrangement of the runs atop the bins and the tunnels beneath. These communicated with all of the bins. A run extended in both directions from the headhouse, each containing a conveyor for distributing grain to the bins from the top using a tripper. Under each bank of bins on either side of the headhouse were two tunnels, each with a conveyor supplying the four headhouse legs. The pairs of tunnels on either side of the headhouse each had a connector tunnel between them.

All of the structure was interconnected in such a way that a fire or explosion could propagate throughout the elevator. And in fact, after the accident, that is what investigators found had happened.

For an explosion to begin, five factors must exist: fuel, oxidizer, containment, dispersion, and ignition. All of these factors are momentarily present in the controlled environment of a piston or turbine engine. In a grain elevator, the fuel is grain dust, the oxidizer is the oxygen in the air, the containment is the elevator structure, the dispersion is the suspension of dust in the air (stirred by operation of elevator components), and the ignition is the accidental trigger (a worn component, an electrical spark, or negligent smoking, for instance).

All these factors must be controlled to keep a grain elevator operation safe.

The DeBruce Grain elevator fire started with a seized bearing on an operating conveyor in one of the tunnels. The roller with the failed bearing stopped turning while the belt continued to run over it, causing excessive wear and heat. Dust grains in contact with the roller ignited. The fire touched off an explosive mix of suspended grain dust and air stirred up by conveyor operation. Very quickly, the entire elevator was involved in the disaster.

The concussion of the first explosion suspended more grain dust, causing a chain reaction. In a series of explosions, the fire propagated through that tunnel and through the crossover to the other tunnel on that side of the headhouse, running from end to end, then to the headhouse from below, and up and back into the run on top of the bins on that side, where it flamed out in an area that had been cleaned of dust. Only that run failed to explode. From the headhouse, the explosions propagated into the run, bins, and tunnels on the opposite side, until all of the explosive fuel was consumed.

The initial and follow-on blasts caused massive destruction. The headhouse sustained multiple explosions as the concussion reflected back in that direction at multiple points of entry. It was pulverized. Workers were trapped in the headhouse on floors above the worst of the destruction. On one side of the elevator, most of the bins blew their tops, utterly destroying the run above. The tunnels filled with grain that spilled from the bottoms of the wrecked bins, greatly complicating rescue and recovery efforts.

Seven employees and contractors died on the site–four in or near the tunnel adjacent to the ignition point, one in and one near the headhouse, and another blown clear of the elevator. Another ten were injured. Three of the hurt were trapped in the headhouse and another made his way out onto a bin roof. Some were outside of the elevator when they were injured by the blast.

A fascinating account of the rescue is included in the accident report. Eventually, a construction crane deposited rescuers and retrieved survivors. A helicopter from Fort Riley also plucked survivors from the top of the structure.

This was a textbook case of negligence, according to investigators. The dust was allowed to build up well beyond safe levels, and installed dust control systems were allowed to fill up and clog and become inoperable. Limited cleaning was done by employees by hand. The faulty bearing had ignited before, just days before the explosion, but it was not repaired.

The accident prompted interested parties to initiate an investigation, which was later sponsored by OSHA. The report is published on the OSHA site. The Grain Elevator Explosion Investigation Team (GEEIT) report is the source for the details presented here.

For those interested in learning more about the accident, an excellent article detailing the aftermath can be found at grainnet.com.

Travel notes from a Wyoming hunting trip

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Cozad, Nebraska

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

How do you start an essay about the places you miss while traveling? Rolling along a two-lane highway as it becomes dark is a good way.

As you slip beyond the scenes of daylight, your awareness imperceptibly closes in on you until the oval of light from your headlights is your entire world. The highway center-line stripes brighten as they slide by your left knee, keeping a hypnotic rhythm as you fight to stay alert. You see the occasional shadow of a grayish body slipping across, almost out of sight on the edge of your pavement pool save for a momentary flash of eyes, cautiously regarding your progress, shimmering like a pair of reflectors in the ditch.

The rhythm lulls you and you reach for the chewing gum and start looking for a friendly gas station with a tolerable cup of coffee.

Then you know you are missing things.

If it were not for a fortuitous change in our schedule on the way out, when of course we had no time to stop, I would not have known that this inconvenient sunset would obscure two elevator sites. Usually on this trip, this highway is where we stretch the mileage after dark until we can go no further. It is true whether we are starting from camp and stretching the return trip past Ogallala, or rolling from Ashland and hoping to make it as far as Torrington, on the way our hunting spot beyond Lysite.

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Morrill, Nebraska

Somehow, the view on this road is only as wide as the pavement, every time.

On other trips the stopping spot has been Sidney, where we stay the night, then in the morning we drop into the Cabelas on the way toward Casper for last minute items like socks and bb’s. On our return trip, we overnight in Sidney again to visit Cabelas to get the stuff we forgot so we have it for next year (of course by that time, the new stuff has been misplaced and we go through the whole routine again).

On those occasions we bypass this road altogether.

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Mitchell, Nebraska

On our way back through–this time, after dark, Llewellyn is the first newly discovered elevator site we see. The old wooden house stands hard by the road with bins lined up on either side. A Purina checkerboard shows faintly in the darkness, but a photograph is out of the question. We are pushing the miles, and the setup for this dark building would be time consuming and the results would be marginal, so we pass it by. I note the town for future reference, for that imaginary trip when we will be rolling through in full sun with all the time in the world.

The second elevator location comes into view when we are just about at the end of our rope in Ogallala. I have gone through a pack of gum, and I have made reservations for a motel somewhere nearby for the night. We are stumbling in past midnight. One old wooden elevator displays a Nutrena sign from it’s spot at the end of a short lane, where it nestles among round bins and bathes in dimly yellowish artificial light. As we roll across the viaduct in town, which takes us over the tracks, we see another silvery old-timer on our left which looks intriguing. I will have to check these elevators later.

Of course.

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Morrill, Nebraska

In the morning, all is forgotten as we get on our way toward Ashland.

This is how you leave a patch of geography perpetually obscured in darkness, and scarcely notice its absence. The absence doesn’t breach your consciousness until you notice what is missing, and that can take a long time.

I spend my professional life flying across the continent in the dark, with things like the Grand Canyon and the Rocky Mountains passing below unremarked. A scattering of lights strewn across the land are all the clues to life below—like droplets of water on black velvet, illuminated by an unseen light, they twinkle and tease.

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Lingle, Wyoming

The familiar cockpit lights are my entire world with little else to distract—the gum to keep me alert, or coffee sometimes, and a cozy hotel to look forward to.