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

Evevator test003

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.

Evevator test004

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.

Welcome to Alta. Please slow-down and see our new grain elevator!

scan0009

Story by Ronald Ahrens, photo from the Neil A. Lieb archive

Why would we not be blamed for thinking the sign in the photo was actually about the new elevator that Tillotson Construction Company had just completed in Alta, Iowa? Or do we read too much into it?

Just think what was required to build the elevator in 1950. Men started in the mud and gloom of early spring. All they had were piles of sand and lumber and steel bars, relatively few, simple tools, and an ingenious way of keeping the formwork level. They were about to perform an amazing feat.

By midsummer, the job was done, the lettering affixed to the headhouse, and farmers could more efficiently store and ship their corn.

The men who built the elevator moved on to another job, maybe in Iowa, maybe in Texas.

What they left behind towered over the countryside of Buena Vista County. Some folks had probably never seen a monument this grand.

Shucks, by scrooching up your eyes, you might even have been able to see it all the way from Storm Lake, three miles down Route 7.

How an Iowa grain business flourished without a concrete elevator and silos

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

Cogdill Farm Supply Inc. is a family business, founded in 1979. It flourished as the grain business underwent big changes. Gone were the days of government-subsidized concrete grain elevators, but this operation, one step at a time, went from a small feed and grain business, operating a terminal-style wooden elevator, to a full-service farm supply company sprawling across several towns in western Iowa. The business skipped the concrete-elevator stage as it grew without price supports, relying instead on good business practices and a growing economy.

DSC_5821

Brand new shiny bins (not shown) stood by to replace the old wooden ones at the mill in Dunlap. The shed roof was gone, exposing the wall for the first time in generations.

The company showed no signs of slowing down as it modernized. When I visited over a year ago, new bins were going in at the Dunlap feed mill.

As I photographed the mill, Rob Cogdill came down and greeted me. He said that temporary feed facilities were set up as the old shed roof came down (animals don’t quit eating for a day while the mill is down for repairs). Steel bins stood by across the street, waiting for installation. He told me that the side of the mill, now bared, had not seen daylight for a hundred years.

DSC_5736

Cogdill feed mill in Logan, Iowa.

The Cogdill feed mill facility in Logan, Iowa, another town along U.S. 30, was idle and slated to come down, according to Rob Cogdill. It was another step to be taken to streamline and modernize the business.

DSC_5811

Old Cogdill elevator in Dunlap, Iowa.

Rob also told me about his plans to replace the older wooden elevators as they became obsolete. He pointed out the elevator in Dunlap and said he hated to operate the thing any more—it had become difficult to keep in working condition. He had spent his youth in that elevator, and he said it was close to time for it to go.

It is easy to appreciate the aesthetic beauty of these old buildings, but when their service life ends, they cannot be saved and must be replaced. However, it is not only the beauty that makes them hard to destroy—sometimes, their history keeps them in service well beyond their heyday. “The crookedest elevator in Iowa,” in Dow City was one such case. That elevator represented the beginnings of Cogdill Farm Supply Inc. I went on down the road to see it, and while there, I met the founder of the company.

DSC_5830

“The crookedest elevator in Iowa” still had its Purina logo, visible from the rail line, in Dow City, Iowa.

Pat Cogdill, Rob’s father, gave me the run of the site to take pictures. Afterward, he gave each of my kids a soda and told me about the old elevator. Clearly, there was a sentimental attachment.

The Cogdill operation took over the old wooden elevators in Dow City, which were built in 1946 and 1953. The larger one had two rows of bins. Conveyors were installed above and below—an arrangement which allowed a custom mix of grain for each individual customer. Pat said it was a “terminal elevator. It can mix anything.”

He said, “It’s the crookedest elevator in Iowa,” describing how the marshy soil allowed one corner to sink during construction.

When I asked if it would be replaced any time soon, Pat said, “This elevator paid for all of this,” indicating the whole operation with a wave of his arm. “It will provide the boards for my coffin.”

dsc_5949

Dow City Mills from an early day, courtesy Pat Cogdill.

 

 

 

 

How ‘the crookedest elevator in Iowa’ was built

DSC_0416Story and photos by Kristen Cart

It was a terminal elevator, a family operation, capable of supplying a custom mix of feed fine-tuned to the individual farmer’s requirements. It sat along a rail line that ran through Dow City, Iowa, along U.S. 30 in the western part of the state. And it had been crooked as long as it existed.

There were two different explanations offered for its seemingly casual slouch. The first was intended for credulous tourists, and the last was a more scientific tale. But I liked the first story better.

You see, when the wooden elevator was built, the crew employed for nailing the boards was instructed to rotate around the structure as they built it. That way, the fellows who hammered harder would work their way around the elevator, keeping it even. That precaution had been neglected. The slackers on one side of the elevator, by not pounding as hard, left the rising wall noticeably taller on their side than did the guys who could swing a hammer. Thus, the finished elevator gained a noticeable tilt.

dsc_5941I bought every word of it. I imagined the men smacking the boards tightly on one side, and their chagrin when they discovered what they had done. But alas, the truth was far less romantic.

According to the owner, the builders set the foundation in soggy ground left from years of servicing steam locomotives, and the elevator sagged into the bog as soon as it was built.

Humbug.

dsc_5929In the next post, I will explain how this pay-as-you-go family operation skipped the concrete elevator stage of business. The present effort to modernize must do so without the subsidies that characterized the concrete elevator boom.

 

 

 

Visitors from 113 countries checked in on grain elevators in 2014

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 16,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 6 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Collin Quiring delivers a load of corn to Tillotson’s Aurora South elevator

IMG_5453

Collin Quiring, a 26-year-old reader of this blog who farms with his brother in Henderson, Nebr., made contact and offered to send some photos when he took a load of grain to the Aurora South elevator, which was built by Tillotson Construction Company in 1959.

Collin had first commented on one of Kristen’s posts.

A view of Tillotson Construction Company's Aurora South elevator, as seen Nov. 2, 2014, by Collin Quiring.

A portrait of Tillotson Construction Company’s Aurora South elevator, as seen Nov. 2, 2014, by Collin Quiring.

“It’s funny that you drove through Hampton,” he wrote. 

“I’ve been following this blog for a while now and started looking at all the manhole covers on elevators that I haul to, and sure enough there were a lot of Chalmers-Borton, Tillotson, and Mayer-Osborn elevators around.

Hampton has the manhole covers on the outside of the silos and they’re 10 feet or so off the ground, so I’ve been wondering who made it for a while now!

It looks like you just saw the one downtown elevator in Aurora though?

The other elevator is called Aurora South and is on the southwest edge of town. It used to be a Cargill elevator, but Aurora Coop purchased it.

I’m pretty sure that’s a Tillotson elevator, too.”

So Collin did some more reconnoitering and took pictures on his next run.

IMG_5454

Collin’s view from the scale house.

“We’ve been alternating where we were taking corn, and I was planning to get back there for a few more pics.

But harvest will be over in an hour.

So I won’t be getting back there anytime soon.

Here’s what I did get while trying not to hold up the line.

End of this week or beginning of next I will be hauling to Hampton and will send you some from over there.”

Two days later, he made the run to Hampton but found it was not a Tillotson elevator; instead, it was built in 1959 by Grain Storage Construction Company, of Council Bluffs, Iowa.

A last farewell to a wooden elevator at Ryegate, Montana

DSC_5220

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

The search for our grandfathers’ elevators has led us to many small towns and many grain operations. Among our discoveries have been ancient wooden elevators, now quaint relics among their larger concrete cousins. In some towns, wooden elevators still have jobs to do, but their time is short.

Charles H. Tillotson built wooden elevators long before his children took up the slip-formed concrete building technique, and at one time, every Midwestern town with a rail line had a row of them serving the local farmers. Now it is increasingly rare to find a town with more than one wooden elevator in service, or for that matter, still standing.

DSC_5225

The Ryegate, Mont., elevator is flanked by its replacement fertilizer plant.

In the last year or two, in several towns, locals have told me that their wooden elevators were no longer used and would shortly be destroyed. I made an extra effort to document those elevators. This week, I almost missed one. In Ryegate, Mont., a new fertilizer plant was put into operation last year, and the elevator that had served the purpose was now slated for destruction.

When I stopped to photograph the pair of wooden elevators at Ryegate, a town on U.S. 12 in east-central Montana, I went into the local cafe for a burger. A fellow at the bar introduced himself as Ken. He wondered where my hometown was, and the purpose of my visit. When I told him I was a bit of an elevator tourist, he told me about the Ryegate elevators. DSC_5156

Ken worked at the Ryegate facility. He said that over the years, he had been employed as a grain hauler and in almost every other aspect of elevator work.

The smaller elevator was built in 1917. Ken said grain dropped 70 feet from the top of the grain spout to a truck below while loading. The elevator had been in use as recently as two years ago, then the new fertilizer plant was built nearby to replace it.

The larger elevator, built in 1914, was still used for storage—it had fresh siding and looked neat and clean on an immaculate lot. But the smaller elevator, equally handsome, would be razed next week. He hoped I would get out and take more pictures before it was gone.

Our discussion ranged from elevators to the military. Ken served in the U.S. Army, had great admiration for the old C-130 aircraft, and expounded with enthusiasm about the M-1 Abrams tank and the Tow missile. He got a kick out of talking with another veteran who shared his interest. He also spoke with reverence about serving under President Ronald Reagan.

DSC_5253

The interior of the shed addition.

Our conversation was interrupted as a young lady burst into the cafe, exclaiming,

“I just got a deer!”

As two men moved to follow her out the door to see her trophy, she said,

“Come see. I got my mulie.”

Her announcement passed without any comment at the bar. Apparently, during deer season, such declarations are expected.

Before I departed to take a closer look at the doomed elevator, Ken introduced himself more formally as Sgt. Ken Davis, and shook my hand. It was an honor to meet this veteran who served back when we had a 600-ship Navy (in the good old days, about three wars ago).

As I took another circuit around the old elevator to shoot a few last pictures, the sun played on the high clouds, projecting light like a halo radiating about the old structure. I thought it a fitting farewell.

In honor of Veterans Day, I salute Sgt. Davis and his life’s work. I hope he enjoys the pictures. DSC_5231

DN Tanks builder explains differences between concrete tanks and elevators

DSC_9897

A water tank built by D N Tanks in Cary, Illinois

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

At first glance, a water storage tank and a grain elevator seem to have a few things in common, both in function and appearance, though they present a number of differing engineering challenges. I had the opportunity to interview Joseph Carroll, a project superintendent for D N Tanks, while flying on a commercial airline to start one of my trips. When he realized the lady sitting next to him had some engineering background, and actually was interested in concrete construction methods, he warmed to his subject with enthusiasm.

I wanted to find out how the construction of a tank answered the problems that grain elevator designs had to address–the management of stress (both vertical and lateral), the aging of the tank, interior access, wrecking out, weather considerations, and basic construction methods.

D N Tanks had been in the business since 1949, and some of their tanks (still in service) were built before 1950. During the heyday of elevator building, when our grandfathers operated at the cutting edge of concrete design, water tank builders were innovating right alongside them. The types of problems they had to solve had common elements with those of elevator designers, but their solutions were widely divergent.

After looking at our Tillotson construction specifications, Mr. Carroll commented that the design bearing load (the pressure of the water against the tank walls, expressed in pounds per square inch) of his tanks is about double the bearing load in a grain elevator.  Elevator builders relied on a continuous concrete pour and steel reinforcement to provide the required strength. Obviously, something had to be done differently to build a water tank that would sustain that kind of load.

D N Tanks, instead, builds tank panels which are poured in curved sections separately, then tensioned externally with wire winding as they are assembled on site.

Cold weather also creates a design challenge for concrete construction. I mentioned that in Canada, wood construction for grain elevators was preferred, because rigid concrete could crack under differential heating–an elevator would experience freezing temperatures on one side and solar heating on the other. Water tanks require insulation to prevent freezing, though they can handle surface freezing to the depth of about six inches. The tank walls are built thicker, and an insulating material of styrofoam blankets the tank exterior for installations in Alaska and other northern locations.

After the concrete roof is poured, wrecking-out is required (internal wooden concrete forms are removed). It is a process required for both elevator bins and tanks. Elevators retain the manholes used to remove the wrecking-out debris for later access to bin bottoms for cleaning. For water tanks, an access opening is left at the side to permit this process, but it is sealed afterwards. No access is needed from the side, because under normal use, the tank remains filled with water. Access to electrical systems for the pumps is from the top.

Concrete elevators are subject to much more wear and tear than water tanks. Internal friction is an issue with grain elevators:  filling and emptying of grain bins abrades the inner concrete surfaces, eventually causing cracking and damage after many years.  Tanks suffer from no such problems.

Fire is an ever present danger in grain elevators, and cleanliness is a constant battle. Tanks tend to be cleaner and safer, and if built correctly from the start, will long outlast the most robust grain elevator.

DSC_9898I happened upon one of these water storage facilities, built by D N Tanks, while attending my son’s football game at Cary Junior High School in northern Illinois. It appeared just as Mr. Carroll described as a typical D N Tank project: it was bordered with a two-foot wide lip, and topped with a white vent.

The tanks are built in cities and towns to comply with a requirement for an emergency water supply. The tank or tanks must hold enough water to last for three days after normal municipal service is lost. Unlike the many grain elevators that dot the Midwest, which rise to monumental heights, these tanks are designed to blend seamlessly into the community with as little visual impact as possible. The D N Tank website pictures a number of disguises, including architectural treatments, and fully underground construction.

D N Tanks also produces tanks for glycol used for aircraft deicing, water treatment tanks, and various other tank types.