For our family, the nomadism of the grain-elevator construction business had its challenges. We moved 33 times in the 16 years from 1948 to 1964. My two older sisters changed schools 22 or 23 times; I changed 26 times. We were all good students. Since neither of our parents had the privilege of attending college, both set the standards high. With a lot of support and unconditional love, the expectation was always straight A’s, and we worked to accomplish that.
Because my eldest sister, Ramona Sue, had severe asthma and eczema, some of the high-humidity places were very difficult for her. She struggled with her health until ninth grade when doctors said she needed to be in a dry climate. Serendipitously, Daddy was assigned to the jobsite in Albuquerque, N.M., where Ramona enrolled in a private high school. Rita, second in line, and I continued moving with our parents.
Rita was very social; she was like a magnet collecting a group of friends wherever we moved. It became difficult to say goodbye, especially to boyfriends, when she reached high school. That’s when she decided she wanted to be in the private high school with Ramona, and I reluctantly joined them for two of the four years.
My parents made sure we visited attractions in various places. Paulding, Ohio was close enough to Canada to visit Niagara Falls. Moving to Florida brought adventures in learning to water ski, fishing for red snapper in the ocean with Daddy, and exploring the islands all the way to Key West. New Mexico was another adventure–learning about the Pueblo people, being fascinated with turquoise mines, and understanding the variety of Southwest cultures. We also learned to love sopapillas!
Most of Daddy’s crew quit following us around by the time their children reached junior high. Some of the men went back and forth from home to work on his jobs. Changing schools for the kids was difficult, and many of the wives got tired of moving. Mama did not.
When Daddy became vice president of Chalmers & Borton in 1964, Mama knew that was the end of the adventures. She had embraced all the different cultures, the historic sites, the people. They bought their very first home and settled down in Hutchinson, Kan.
Daddy enjoyed flying in the company plane to check on all the jobs around the country. Sitting in an office day after day was not his cup of tea. He imposed his strict standards on every superintendent in the company, but as his mentor Andy Milnar put it, no one ever lived up to Bill’s standards.
Note: Reno County Museum in Hutchinson, Kan. houses many of the archives of Chalmers & Borton, Inc.
Sadina’s list of moves from 1947 to 1964
1947 LaCrosse and Bison, Kan.
1948 Dighton and Bucklin, Kan.
1949 Hereford, Tex.
1950 Utica, Kan. and Aurora, Mo.
1951 Girard, Kan.
1952 Manter, Dighton, Bison, and Mullinville, Kan.
1953 Perry, Okla; McPherson and Kiowa, Kan.; Ponca City and Enid, Okla.
1954 Hereford, Tex.
1956 Sunray, Tex.; Paulding, Ohio
1957 Homestead, Fla; Hutchinson, Kan.
1958 Tampa, Fla; Ft. Worth, Tex; Albuquerque, N.M.
As a child growing up in the slip-form concrete industry, I probably never heard of most of the challenges my parents faced. But I do remember some.
My mother, Sadina, was intrigued by slip-form construction, as I have been all my life. There is something special about revisiting what I call prairie skyscrapers across the Great Plains.
Being a superintendent, Daddy usually went ahead in his pickup to start a job. Mama would follow with my two sisters and me, stair-stepped closely in age, with everything we owned in the trunk of the car. Finding a place to live was challenging; many times, she would be turned away because owners did not want to rent to “construction rats.” Most of the time the apartment or house she found was old, small, and sometimes not very nicely kept. Mama would have the place spic-and-span by the time Daddy got home for supper. Her motto: “Always leave it better than you found it.”
As time went on, Daddy collected a group of loyal foremen–carpenters, steelworkers, electricians, and laborers–whose wives and families followed wherever the job took us. Many chose to live in trailer houses pulled by their pickups. Daddy refused to live in a trailer house.
Mama was the best teammate Daddy could have found. She cooked, baked, and cleaned, and she sewed all the clothes for us girls and herself. She planted a garden if we would be in one place long enough. She washed, starched, and ironed to perfection with only a wringer-washer most of the years. And she served as Bill’s payroll bookkeeper. In addition, she planned social gatherings for the crew: picnics, baseball games, birthdays, and roller-skating parties. She knew it was important to keep the crew together. Daddy and Mama made lifelong friends, even after some of them drifted off when their wives and children no longer wanted to keep moving around.
While in Albuquerque in 1958 to 1960, Daddy purchased the 38-unit Texas Ann Motel on Route 66. Mama operated it for two years. When his next job required another move, she found managers and was thrilled to be back on the road experiencing new adventures.
‘Safety first’ in a hazardous undertaking
One of Daddy’s priorities was safety first. Working on a slip-form concrete job was very dangerous. He paid attention by always being where the action was and insisted on everyone keeping the jobsite orderly. In all of his dozens of jobs, I remember only two incidents where he lost a man. One was in Hereford, Tex., where a man fell to his death from the top of the elevator. Daddy was in deep grief; he felt responsible for the tragedy and took on the responsibility of caring for the bereaved family.
The second was in Plainview, Tex., where a subcontracted electrician, standing at the top of the elevator, accidentally stepped into his own toolbox and fell through a manhole.
While building, Daddy endured a few situations of his own. Once climbing the ladder up the side of an elevator, he fell and broke his leg. A week later, not being able to get around on the job well enough, he sawed off the cast and limped around until the leg was healed. He never lost one day of work in his entire career.
Unions can also be challenging. When the Teamsters went on strike, they were stopping the non-union cement truck drivers and pushing the trucks over into the ditch. The drivers then refused to continue. Daddy got into the driver’s seat of a truck, held a gun out the window, and drove across the strike line. No one messed with my dad, and the strike was over.
Another incident was when he had to fire a laborer. The next day, the man came onto the job, came up behind Daddy, and hit him in the head with the hammer claw. A foreman took the guy down, drove Daddy to the emergency room to get stitches, and they both went back to work. That same foreman who saved Daddy’s life was Will Evans, a black man whose family was very close to ours. I was riding with Daddy when we moved to Sunray, Tex. and was shocked to see a billboard at the city limits that read: “All Negroes must be out of town by sunset.”
“What does that mean?” I asked. “Where will Will and his family live?”
Daddy gritted his teeth and said, “I’ve bought him a trailer house to put out on the jobsite.”
It was my first encounter with prejudice. Daddy looked after that family until all their children were grown.
Excitement of ‘The Pour’ and pride in workmanship
I loved riding with Daddy to the next town. As soon as I could read, he taught me how to navigate by map, letting him know what the next highway route was, though he probably already knew. As we rode along, passing through small towns that had grain elevators built by someone else, he would say, “See the lines running horizontally in those tanks? That’s where the superintendent in charge kept pouring concrete even when the weather was below freezing. A freeze line is a weak place that can cause a blowout in the tanks. I will not let that happen.”
I had a great sense of pride in his perfectionism. He was also proud of grain elevators that had a headhouse and “Texas house” that contained the equipment: the uppermost leg and the “run” to the storage tanks. He said all other elevators were messy-looking because so many mechanisms were outside the structure. To this day, I can spot a Chalmers & Borton grain elevator miles away.
One of the most exciting times of my childhood was watching a week-long pour. Daddy stayed on the job night and day, coming home only to eat, bathe, and change clothes.
In the evenings, Mama would drive us to the job so we could watch the pour. It was like watching magic, all the lights twinkling, seeing men running the wheelbarrows (buggies) full of concrete and the men pumping by hand the jacks as the wooden, rounded slip-forms edged up. I was fascinated to see the concrete “grow” until the tanks finally topped out.
I once observed Daddy running his hands through the gravel that had just been dumped at the job site. He immediately stopped the truck and told the driver to take it all back because it was too coarse. It had to be exactly the right grade to prevent blowouts.
He often ran his hands along the tank walls as the pour was happening, knowing instinctively how the surface should feel.
As I grew older, wearing a hard hat just like Daddy, I loved being with him on the job site. I was impressed that he would stop and talk to the men who followed job to job. He knew their wives’ names and always asked about the children.
Standing on his family’s front porch in east Texas, nine-year-old Bill Walraven declared, “Someday I am going to be somebody. I will not be poor, and I don’t want to stay in the South.”
William E. “Bill” Walraven was born September 25, 1912, the middle child of 11 by their Choctaw mother, Georgia Allice Addy and Dutch father, William Alfred Walraven.
I called him Daddy. He graduated from high school in 10th grade–that’s as far as it went–and got a job in a sawmill. By 1940, he was building army barracks in Enid, Okla., where he met my Mama, Sadina M. Wagner, and rose to the top as construction superintendent. After high school graduation, Mama had moved to Enid to find a job near her married sister.
World War Two interrupted things, and he went to Europe with the 579th Field Artillery Battalion. After the War, he met Clinton H. Chalmers, partner in Chalmers & Borton.
By then, Bill and Sadina had already married. Their love story is told in Rainbow of Promise: A World War II Romance, my family’s legacy and tribute to my parents. Upon his return from Europe to Kansas, Daddy went to work in La Crosse, 150 miles northwest of Wichita. He filed saws on the Farmers Union elevator under Chalmers & Borton superintendent R. Alberding.
Early days of Chalmers & Borton and exciting adventures
Chalmers & Borton started out in 1927 with wooden elevators. The men and their wives lived together in one boxcar. After building up a big company, Chalmers–being mindful of the army barracks project management–promoted Daddy in 1948, to superintendent on Farmers Cooperative in Shields, Kan.—a 100,000-bushel slip-formed concrete elevator.
Born June 27, 1919, Mama was smart, gregarious, and madly in love with Daddy. She was excited about his job and happily became the best partner he ever wanted. She took on payroll duties. For her, moving around was an exciting adventure. The full extent of it is recorded in the company’s Book of Superintendents.
We moved in 1948 to Dighton, the central Kansas town where Mama had graduated high school 11 years earlier. For a while, we lived with Grandma Wagner in Bison. Daddy drove back and forth as he built an elevator for Co-op Equity Exchange of Mullinville. Later it was Bucklin, Kan. for Bucklin Cooperative’s new elevator.
Mama presided as we moved to Hereford, Tex. in 1949. It was a new state and bigger job—500,000-bushels of storage for Pitman Grain Co. Daddy finished Summerfield, Tex. for Pitman also. Most jobs in Kansas, Oklahoma, and the Texas Panhandle were 100,000 to 750,000 bushels. Later, he tackled one to 10 million bushels, whether grain elevators or storage units.
Chalmers visited regularly, introducing Daddy to Andy Milnar, a superintendent since 1927. Andy mentored Daddy at every chance. They both loved to fish. As their friendship grew, Andy realized Daddy was a math genius. Without having taken geometry, knowing no formulas for calculations, he could look at a pyramid-shaped pile of sand or gravel the size of a huge building, and know exactly the volume. He calculated the concrete, lumber, and steel needed for the structure. In fact, Daddy sometimes had to persuade Andy and Chalmers to modify blueprints.
“This won’t work,” he would say while redrawing. The college-graduate engineers in the office had it wrong.
The family grows while staying on the move
By this time, there were three of us daughters: Ramona Sue (1944), Rita (1945), and me (1947).
In 1950, we moved to Utica, Kan. where Daddy built an elevator for Utica Grain as well as storage for Farmers Coop in Shields. Utica was the first place he constructed an office where grain trucks would drive onto a scale. He was quite proud of it.
Next came Aurora, Mo. for Missouri Farmers Association, and then Girard, Kan. for Consumers Co-op. The year 1952 took us to Manter, Kan. for Collingwood Grain and back to Mullinville for Co-op Equity Exchange.
We moved in 1953 to Ponca City, Okla.–near Hazelton, Kan.–for Farmers Co-op Equity, before completing a 4-million-bushel monster for W.B. Johnston Grain in Enid. With energy to spare, Daddy also did an elevator for Farmers in Perry, Okla.
While in Hereford Tex. in 1954, he completed a one-million-bushel elevator for Pitman Grain, another elevator for Sears Grain, and a storage nine miles to the southwest in Summerfield. Still nearby in 1955, in Bovina, there was a storage for Sherley Grain, an elevator in Dimmitt, and a storage in Farwell. We lived in Sunray, a tiny town with a huge public swimming pool we enjoyed every day. My first encounter with prejudice was that blacks weren’t allowed after sundown within city limits. Daddy purchased a trailer house for his black foreman’s family to live on the job site.
The Walravens turn eyes eastward–and back–for huge triumphs
During the summer of 1956, Mama brimmed with anticipation about getting out of the Texas Panhandle for something very different in Paulding, Ohio: two storage units for Consolidated Cement Corp.
That was the inflection point in our adventures.
In 1957 we moved to Homestead, Fla. for a cement plant on drained swampland. But we were soon back to Kansas to build a storage for Montezuma Co-op Exchange.
During 1957 and 1958, Daddy took on a seven-million-bushel elevator for Farmers Co-op in Hutchinson, Kan.—his first construction of hexagonal tanks. He enjoyed the diversity and challenge in building. At half a mile, that elevator became the world’s longest. Workers rode bicycles from end to end.
We moved back to Florida—now Tampa—in 1958 for a subcontract job for Mills & Jones, today known as Federal Construction. Yet within the same year, we went to Albuquerque, N.M. on a two-year cement plant job for Robert E. McKee in Tijeras Canyon near the base of Sandia Mountain. During that year, Daddy also completed a 10-million-bushel elevator in Topeka, Kan. Then back to Bovina, Tex. (We lived across the state line in Clovis, N.M.) for 1.56-million bushels of storage for Sherley-Anderson Grain. But how could we call a calendar year complete without going back to Tampa for cement tanks and some buildings in Busch Gardens for The Austin Company?
The next few years capped Daddy’s career. In 1961, he superintendended a cement plant in Wilmington, N.C. for Rea Construction.
General Portland, a cement producer in Chattanooga, followed in 1962. Then on to Kansas City, Mo. for two million of storage for KC Terminal Grain. Another 4.7-million storage and office came in 1963 for Producers Grain Corp. of Plainview, Tex.—including, for the first time, steel tanks.
Our final stop, in 1964, was Eaton, Colo. (we stayed in Greeley) for a Great Western Sugar mill.
That summer, at Andy Milnar’s urging and honoring Chalmers’ perspective, Daddy was promoted to vice president and field superintendent. Chalmers, who by then had passed away, thought of him as the best they ever had among the long journey of 125 superintendents in far-flung sites from 1927 onward.
Determined to succeed, Daddy stayed at it and did what he loved until his own tragic death at 59–just before retirement–in 1972. Mama survived him by 17 years when she died in a car accident.