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.

 

Omaha’s Florence Mill offers antiquities to elevator enthusiasts in Oct. 24 sale

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A friend of Our Grandfathers’ Grain Elevators has called the following item to our attention, and we are presenting the notice that appears on the historic Florence Mill’s Facebook page: Unusual vintage items for sale on Saturday, October 24, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sale Address: 3034 Sprague St., Omaha, Nebr.

Nebraska’s oldest business site and first mill was a ruin in 1998…but destined for preservation. Items worth saving were removed so that cleaning and restoration could begin.
The warehouse where these items have been stored since 1998 has been sold. Included in the sale: Country Grain Elevator Primitives, Vintage Machinery, Scales, Old Wood Boxes, Odd Metal Items, Tools, Wood Flooring, Wood Timbers, Trunks, Bins, Windows, Doors, Tools, some household items, four solid wood (with glass) kitchen-cabinets from the 1919 Tomlinson home…and much more. Everything must go! Warehouse must be empty before November.

Hunting trips afford opportunities for two types of photography

DSC_0889Story and photos by Kristen Cart

We live far from the preponderance of the nation’s grain elevators. Time and money are not unlimited, so it takes a good excuse to go look at elevators when the family has other things on the agenda. Western hunting expeditions are a splendid source for such excuses, so once or twice on each trip, I sneak in an elevator stop.

On a typical trip west, when you have a camera and the inclination to take pictures, vistas of country living make you suddenly pull over, disentangle the camera strap from the seatbelt, and send snack wrappers tumbling to the floor. A few epithets escape your lips when you find the ISO is still set for the moon shot of the night before, but unless a fleeing bird made you stop, the problem is quickly fixed.

DSC_0502In the hotel at night you eagerly page through the day’s images, occasioning a few more blue words, but often great satisfaction. You have elevators and neat old buildings, and you also have scenery. The rest of your family members roll their eyes and talk about elk and pheasants and bird dogs.

The fruits of your labor make it worth the effort–especially if you come home with beautiful pictures and meat for the freezer.

On the eve of another hunting trip, here are a few photos from earlier trips, including the odd elevator picture or two that slipped into the mix.

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Bruce Selyem, an old hand in elevator photography, is still in the game

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Ione, Oregon

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

An eagerly awaited package arrived in the mail the other day. I opened it to find Bruce and Barbara Selyem’s 2016 elevator calendar–a vivid sampling of the photography work that Bruce has done over the years. Barbara Selyem called me to see if I would like one this year–I am an old customer, and I get one every year. So of course I asked her to send it.

Thirteen carefully selected images grace the calendar, and it does not disappoint.

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Indus, Alberta, Canada

Selyem Enterprises also produces framed elevator images for home and business, and if I bought everything I liked, I would run out of wall space very quickly. Bruce has documented many beautiful old wooden elevators in the United States and Canada that have gradually disappeared. Over the 20-plus years Bruce has been shooting elevators, most of the structures have only his photos to remember them by.

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Mossleigh, Alberta, Canada

If my kids had anyone to blame for the numerous side trips, excursions, and stops we have made to take pictures of wooden elevators in the wild, Bruce Selyem would top their list. I have studied his website carefully to plan for elevator photography trips in Idaho and Oregon. Many times the kids have admonished me for the odd elevator stop on the way to Nebraska. I can’t help it. They are beautiful.

Though not many of my wooden elevator photos have been published here, there is quite a collection of them. It is a passion, and I come by it honestly.

My grandfather, William Osborn, took many photos when I was a little girl. I remember the bellows on his camera, the camera body he carefully set up on a tripod, and his advice to sit still. He would pull the Polaroid photo out of the back of the camera while he started his buzzing timer. The hand on the timer would move interminably, and I would stand on tip-toe, eagerly awaiting the magic moment. Then he would peel the negative away and voila, a damp image would emerge, which I would hold gingerly by the edges while it dried.

As a girl, I wondered at the photo of his first elevator in McCook, Nebraska, that he built for Mayer-Osborn. I never knew I would combine his love for photography with his life’s work one day, and share all of it here.

To check out the photography of Bruce Selyem, visit his website at grain elevator photos. Bruce and Barbara Selyem welcome you.

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A concrete beauty. Nyssa, Oregon

Elevator investigations move farther afield with a side trip to Alta, Iowa

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The trademark rounded headhouse identifies the Tillotson elevator, shown here behind the office and truck scale.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

It is getting harder to visit our grandfathers’ elevators. All of the elevators within a half hour either side of the I-80 corridor have already been exhausted, so a stop for photography requires real planning and extra gas, time, and effort, even when piggybacked on our normal family visit to Nebraska.

The trip to Alta, Iowa, required just such an extra investment in driving time. The town and its Tillotson elevator is just north-west of Storm Lake in the northwestern corner of the state, and is not, quite frankly, on the way to anywhere.

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The Tillotson elevator in Alta, Iowa, where the old structure is mostly obscured by later bins.

I wonder how our kids put up with it. This trip in particular required over an hour’s northward jaunt before angling generally east-northeast, with a 30-minute divot or two along the Nebraska-to-Illinois route. Each detour took in wayward sites, including Alta.

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A look up the rail line opposite the Tillotson elevator revealed the historical trappings of town, with a backdrop of new grain bins.

It is normally a 10-hour drive to get home from visiting their grandparents, but this elevator excursion would tax my children’s patience for several more hours. To be fair, we got an extra early start. But that meant the serious backseat fidgeting would start sooner.

You would think that I would study Tillotson records first, and inject some discipline and efficiency into planning our route.

But no, that task was left for after the trip, so I could see how closely we approached several sites without seeing them.

I don’t think the kids minded the near misses–but they’ll get to see the countryside again when we go through to mop up the strays.

 

A mystery unfolds at the Tillotson elevator of Blencoe, Iowa

This elevator is attributed to the Tillotson Construction Company of Omaha, but evidence points elsewhere

This elevator is attributed to the Tillotson Construction Company, but evidence points elsewhere.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

In an earlier post, we showed that the elevator built by the Tillostson Construction Company in the northwest Iowa town of Blencoe had a structural failure prior to completion. A photo provided by Tim Tillotson showed that the concrete slumped over the driveway after the slip-form pour had progressed considerably past the point of failure. Construction would have halted there. The question of how the elevator was completed was never answered.

In the company records we have, the specifications log ended by 1956, while the company continued to build elevators beyond that date. So later records are lost to us. Tim Tillotson estimated that this mishap occurred in about 1955. I discovered, on review, that Blencoe was not in the specifications at all. Why?

A photo of the manhole cover on the rail side of the elevator could provide the answer. It is not typical for Tillotson elevators to have exterior manhole covers on elevators of this type, so the existence of these was a little surprising. More shocking was the identity of the company that placed them.

"Grain Storage Const. Co, 1959, Council Bluffs, Iowa" is embossed on the manhole cover

“Grain Storage Const. Co, 1959, Council Bluffs, Iowa” is embossed on the manhole cover.

The Grain Storage Construction Company of Council Bluffs, Iowa, is not familiar to us. It may be the company called in to repair the damage when the failure occurred.

We don’t know if Tillotson Construction was fired on the spot. But it is also possible that Tillotson was given a second chance–the design of the elevator clearly follows the trademark Tillotson design, whether copied by some one or built by the original contractor.

I wonder if the original repair destroyed the structural integrity of the elevator, and Grain Storage Construction was brought in to replace two of the bins. We know it was a later job because of the 1959 date on the manhole covers. Unfortunately, I made my visit on a Saturday, and the co-op was closed, so there was no one there to ask.

It is a beautiful, functional elevator today. It stands beside the older Mayer-Osborn elevator, which is also clearly in use sixty years after it was built. Both elevators had problems during construction, but the capacity was urgently needed, so both projects were finished. How the Tillotson elevator ultimately became a Grain Construction Company branded elevator is a mystery we will try to solve in a future post.

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Could the previously unidentified Tillotson employee be Mary Melia?

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Photo from the Virginia Slusher archive

We believe the woman on the far right is Mary Melia. Her husband Marvin also worked for Tillotson Construction Company and served as a pilot. Virginia Slusher is second from right.

Mary Melia died six months ago. Here’s an obitiuary:

Melia, Mary Clare (Burns) Aug 31, 1922 – Dec 29, 2014

Preceded in death by husband, Marvin G. Melia. Survived by children, Marvin G. Melia II of Pleasant Valley, Mo., Mary Lou (Timothy) Brennan, Steven M. (Janet) Melia of Cheyenne, Wyo., and Donald L. Melia; brother, Jack (Carol) Burns of Twenty Nine Palms, Calif.; 10 grandchildren; 10 great grandchildren and many nieces and nephews.

VISITATION Thursday, January 1, 2015 from 4-7 pm with a Rosary at 7 pm at Roeder Mortuary 108th Street Chapel.

FUNERAL SERVICE Friday, January 2, 2015 at 10am at St. Philip Neri Church 8200 N. 30th Street.

Interment Holy Sepulchre Cemetery.

Mechanization and the Russian wheat deal caused elevator construction booms

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Story and photos by Brad Perry

These photos are from my travels across Highway 34: Aurora Cooperative and their branch at Murphy. The workhouses would indicate Tillotson. The new two-tank annex at Aurora was done by Todd & Sargent. I believe the four-tank annex at Murphy was T&S as well.

You’ve gotten me thinking about all the construction I was involved in.  Here comes some more history.

Prior to the past eight to 10 years, there were two boom periods of elevator construction in the Midwest. The first is well documented by your blog— early ’50s thru mid 60’s. That was the mechanization age of United States agriculture.

By the ’60s, however, we were building flat storage buildings for the Commodity Credit Corporation. This and the United States Department were our market–and our only market. I still remember being in St. Edward, Neb., in 1975, and being told that the co-op had just gotten shipping orders on 250,000 bushels of wheat that had been in storage there for 12 years.

That’s what paid for the monster terminals in Hutchinson, Salina, Wichita, and Enid.

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The second boom period followed the Russian wheat deal of 1972 and 1973. After that purchase, the USDA eliminated diverted acres and we went to wall-to-wall production. It created the need for new, and faster capacity.

This boom lasted into the early 1980s. It was assisted in Nebraska by center-pivot irrigation.

Most of the elevators were built by co-ops. Cargill, Continental, and a few local privates built in Nebraska, but not many. Peavey was a purchaser rather than a builder.

Farmland Industries served as the general contractor on virtually all of these elevators and annexes. At the Bank for Cooperatives, we waived the need for a performance bond if Farmland was the general contractor.

An aerial view of Utica, Neb. With the round headhouse, Brad Perry thinks it looks like it could be a Tillotson elevator.

An aerial view of Utica, Neb. With the round headhouse, Brad Perry thinks it could be a Tillotson elevator. Existing records don’t indicate company activity there. 

That saved a ton of money for the client, and also Farmland paid patronage dividends on the project. Farmland then subbed out the contracts to the major builders that they used.

These were Mid-States, Jarvis, and Borton as the main players. Farmland also brought Wilson, Venturi, and Jordan into Nebraska when demand heated up.

Todd & Sargent did several projects in Nebraska, but mainly stayed in Iowa—lots more grain (and new elevators built) over there.

Quad States built a few facilities (Rising City, Shelby, Benedict, Hooper, and Milford) in Nebraska as well.

The old house at Tamora, which is just off Route 34 between Utica and Seward. Note the stepped, or partial,  headhouse. The feed mill beside it was kind of a standard blueprint as well and would have been 1950s or 1960s construction. Sisters to it are found in Leigh, Minden, Holdrege, and Beatrice, Neb., and Red Oak and Shenandoah, Iowa.

The old house at Tamora, which is just off Route 34 between Utica and Seward. Note the stepped, or partial, headhouse. The feed mill beside it was kind of a standard blueprint as well and would have been 1950s or 1960s construction. Sisters are found in Leigh, Minden, Holdrege, and Beatrice, Neb., and Red Oak and Shenandoah, Iowa.

There are a couple of odd ones that occurred when the general manager had had experience with a contractor from a different state.

For example, the big elevator at Tamora was built by Conger, a Minnesota company, and the newer workhouse at Plymouth by Weigel, also of Minnesota.

During this period, most facilities–elevators and annexes–were built with 24- to 28-foot diameter tubes.

Toward the end of this boom time, we started seeing en masse conveyors used on annexes, replacing Texas headhouses and open belts with trippers.

We also saw the movement away from small tube elevators to 40 ft and larger diameter tubes.

This was due to two factors: the producers’ yields and harvest speed and the movement to outbound unit trains.

In Hampton, Neb., the grain elevator could be from the Tillotson Construction lineage

Brad Perry Hampton Nebr.

Story and photos by Brad Perry

Bradshaw, Neb.

Bradshaw, Neb.

I was a loan officer in Nebraska and financed many of the elevators built from 1975 to 1980. The dominant Nebraska builder was probably Mid-States, out of Omaha, along with Jarvis. Borton wasn’t very active in Nebraska at that time, but Farmland Industries brought more players in. Venturi and Jordan were two of them. Farmland served as the general contractor on the majority of elevators built by co-ops in the 1970s and 1980s. The players in Iowa were Younglove and Todd & Sargent, but the lowest-priced builder was always Quad-States out of Des Moines. It’s easy to tell their elevators—they only had one design! This photo above is from Hampton, Neb. Looks like a Tillotson, but I think it was Sampson. There was a twin to it at Bradshaw, 10 miles east, that was hit by lightning and had to be torn down.

Elevator operators once implicated labor activists in mysterious explosions

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A 1920 Department of Agriculture experiment showing that accumulations of grain dust would ignite under the right conditions

Story by Kristen Cart

Elevator fires have been a great concern since the days when Charles H. Tillotson first built wooden elevators with his army of carpenters at the beginning of what would become the family business.

When elevators started to randomly ignite and explode in the early twentieth century, suspicions ran rampant.

Shortly after 1900, labor violence was on the rise, and businesses had reason to be worried.

In the Midwest, elevator owners suspected the labor unionist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or Wobblies, had committed acts of sabotage, torching the structures to make their anarchistic point.

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Then, cooler heads prevailed as engineers found a scientific explanation.

Using a scale model in the manner of a college lab experiment, the United States Department of Agriculture demonstrated that grain dust would ignite and explode under the right conditions, leaving destruction and injury in its wake.

The Wobblies were off the hook.