The story behind the WSJ’s story of a cast-off elevator in Burlington, Colo.

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By Ronald Ahrens

From reading Wayne G. Broehl, Jr.’s huge history of Cargill, I’ve become alert to other news about the grain-trading behemoth. So a Wall Street Journal article, titled “Growers’ New Clout Tilts Farm Economy,” caught my eye on Aug. 16 

“Powerful farmers push Cargill, ADM for better prices, and may soon compete,” the sub-headline reads.

According to Jacob Bunge’s story, several factors have risen in importance to give large farmers more leverage.

One is that farmers have more storage capacity for their grain. They don’t have to sell soon after harvest, going to the local elevator and accepting the current price.

A second factor is more options for direct sale of crops to stock feeders or ethanol plants.

And like everything else, there’s a digital aspect. “Venture capital-backed startups are developing services that scan a wider range of grain buyers or connect farmers directly with food makers,” Bunge reports.

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Bunge’s story in the Journal tells of a Cargill grain buyer who “said his job got harder still after Cargill in 2016 sold the Burlington, Colo., grain elevator–and later, nearby cattle feedlots that were reliable destinations for the grain grown by many of [the buyer’s] contacts.”

Here we skidded to a stop. Burlington, Colo., is in the records of Tillotson Construction Co. My uncle, Charles J. Tillotson, worked on Burlington and recalls a 1950 incident there involving a train and cement mixer. The locomotive derailed, but no one was injured.

The 300,000-bushel Burlington elevator had eight tanks of 20 feet in diameter and 115 feet in height. It was a twin-leg elevator with a pit 19 feet deep. The cupola measured 23 feet wide, 63.75 feet long, and 44 feet high. Pulley centers were 168 feet apart.

Could this be the same elevator Cargill sold two years ago? The big company has “divested itself of some far-flung grain elevators that aren’t near a railroad or river.”

And Bunge recounts another marvel: the anecdote concerns an Illinois farmer–one who tills 9,000 acres and rents out 5,000 more–who partnered with another farmer to buy a 750,000-bushel Cargill elevator. 

If they don’t find it too expensive to operate and insure, dispatching large quantities of grain when and where they want will be a challenge for Cargill and ADM to face.

 

Tillotson built a 181,000-bushel annex at Weatherford, Okla., in 1954

Reader Terry Christensen found himself wondering about something, so he wrote this comment, which is lightly edited for style:

Hello and thanks millions for these awesome stories!

My dad, George T. Christensen, worked for Tillotson Construction in the early ’50s, and he died in an unrelated accident while building the elevator in Boxholm, Iowa, in 1955. My mom told us that he worked on several elevators in Oklahoma, and I would love to see the construction notes for all the elevators they built in Oklahoma. I think they built the one in Weatherford, Okla., in 1952 or 1953 and maybe the one at Hydro Okla.?

Thanks again,

Terry Christensen

Well, in fact,  we don’t know anything about Hydro, but Tillotson Construction Co. sure did build at Weatherford–a 181,000-bushel storage annex in 1954.

We find specifications in the construction record. At the top of the entry, the coded notes tell us there were eight tanks of 17 feet in diameter by 115 feet in height. Two 24-inch conveyor belts moved grain through the run atop the tanks. There was a tunnel, probably from the main house to the annex. And a tripper would sweep grain off the belt into a storage tank.

“The key feature of the steam-powered conveyor belt that ran alongside the tops of the grain bins was the ‘trimmer’ or ‘tripper,’ a device that deflected the flow of grain off the belt, and down and into a particular grain bin,” writes William J. Brown in American Colossus: The Grain Elevator 1843 to 1943.

Here are the notes for Weatherford (as well as Dacoma and Orienta, Okla.); Newell, Iowa; and Bellwood, Neb.:

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Looking to Greenwood from I-80, we see it, twice as tall as the trees

Co-op from Greenwood from I80 overpass IIII

In this photo, our friend Kim David Cooper shows the same refined sense of composition as in his oil paintings. “A different view of your Greenwood elevator,” he says.

The photo’s slug line notes the shot was taken from an overpass on Interstate 80.

Standing at least twice the height of the tallest tree, doesn’t the elevator make a handsome addition to the landscape?

In Waverly, Neb., a Ford is older than the Tillotson elevator of 1955

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Once again, our friend Kim Cooper provides a photo, this time from Waverly, Neb.

Six miles farther southwest on U.S. 6 than Greenwood, featured yesterday, Waverly is very close to Lincoln.

The Tillotson elevator seen on the left in the photo was built here in 1955, a few years after the Ford you see on the lower right.

Waverly is one of the last elevators in the company records, which cover the period from 1939 to 1955.

The elevator followed the plan established at Drummond, Okla., in 1950. This meant a single-leg, center-drive house of 199,400-bushel capacity.

To have so much integrated storage, the plan provided for eight tanks of 15.5 feet in diameter rising to 120 feet in height. The cupola, or headhouse, added another 35 feet.

We can only guess at the meaning of four notes in the record:

  1. Main slab including 3″ pile cap 33 c.y.
  2. 8 bin aerat’n tubes
  3. Dryer bin
  4. Piling

The pit was 15 feet 3 inches deep. Perhaps a high water table or unconsolidated subsurface material at Waverly made the pilings necessary.

The photo shows the elevator in remarkable condition.

We welcome our readers’ interpretation of the notes.

Atmospheric view of a classic Tillotson elevator in Greenwood, Neb.

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Our friend Kim Cooper sent this atmospheric photo from Greenwood, Neb. We see a classic Tillotson grain elevator: single leg, center driveway, rounded headhouse.

It was built in 1951 on the plan established at Churdan, Iowa, some two years earlier. While Churdan was 102,000 bushels, Greenwood–which sits on U.S. 6 between Omaha and Lincoln–had 129,000-bushel capacity.

Each of the four tanks was of 14.5 feet in diameter and rose 120 feet. The cupola, or headhouse, went up another 22 feet.

A note in the records says, “Rainy @ start.” We can imagine the difficulty of excavating the 12-foot-deep pit, setting forms in the mud, and getting the project off the ground.

An additional note is more cryptic: “30-inch slab proj.” I don’t know how to explain it, especially because the main slab was 18 inches thick, as at Churdan.

Yet another note says, “Inside steps. Dryer prov. (split bin).” That one the reader can interpret for himself.

Kingfisher Co-op history, Part 3: Further expansion and maturity

Here are the final pages of the 11-page history published in 1984 by Kingfisher Cooperative Elevator Association.

In 1955, after notifying contractors to send in bids, the co-op added a 320,000-bushel elevator. This supplemented the 240,000-bushel elevator built by Tillotson Construction Co., of Omaha, in 1946.

“A new skyscraper had been added to the landscape, and the farmers took pride in the contribution they had made to their community’s appearance and prosperity,” the history says.

You will find the Tillotson elevator on the left in the aerial view of the 1955 skyline (p. 8).

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Kingfisher Co-op history, Part 2: Incorporation and steady growth

This is second of our three postings to give you the 11 pages of history published by the Kingfisher Cooperative Elevator Association on its 50th anniversary.

In these pages you’ll learn that one surviving founder of the co-op recalled “with pleasure how the grain cooperative changed farmers’ lives” in the area. On March 10, 1934, a group of 10 men met and arranged for articles of incorporation. Later, they hired a manager for $125 per month.

On the third page here, you will see the 240,000-bushel elevator built by Tillotson Construction Co., of Omaha, in 1946.

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Kingfisher Coop

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