Home-built travel trailers and the demise of a tricked-out ’53 Ford in Iowa

HomemadeThe topic of staying in a travel trailer while working at grain elevator construction sites has prompted Charles J. Tillotson (“Uncle Chuck”) to do some reminiscing and dig through his archive of photos.

He writes:

The first one is a photo of the last trailer Dad built in 1937, which was an upgrade to the one that your mom and I are standing in the doorway of. He had covered the exterior of this trailer with some kind of protective fabric, which doesn’t seem to be attached very well.

The previous trailer had an exposed plywood exterior that was either stained or painted and it evidently didn’t hold up. The focus should be on the small size of the trailers which were probably about 15 feet long, much like the size of the early camper trailers of the 1950s and 1960s. If you allow room for the stove, toilet, closet and even a fold-down tabletop with a little settee, where did we all sleep?

The photo [below] was taken in late summer in Albert City, Iowa, and shows my Dad and me standing along side of my 1953 Ford with another older gentleman who I assume was the Albert City superintendent packing something into the trunk. We had finished up our work on Albert City, and Dad had assigned the three of us to travel across the state to a job he was starting in Clinton, Iowa.


Soon after the photo was taken we three boys [Chuck, Tim, and Mike] left Albert City and took along with us a couple of men who wanted to continue working for Tillotson Co. We took off in my beautiful ’53 Ford, which I had modified with a two-tone paint job, a Continental fake-spare-tire kit (remember those?) and lowering blocks among other things. I was driving very fast and in a pattern learned from my Dad, taking short cuts via the old one-mile graveled country roads through the tall cornfields. Zooming along and approaching an intersection ahead I spotted a dust trail from a vehicle approaching the same intersection on my right. With the road being gravel I decided that rather than stop for the oncoming vehicle (that had the right of way) to instead outrun it.

I had almost made it through the intersection when the oncoming vehicle clipped my rear bumper and put me into a sideways spin. I countered the spin by yanking the wheel in the opposite direction which brought me out of the spin, but the action was so fast it put me into another spin in the opposite direction. We zigzagged back and forth for a bit and eventually headed into a huge irrigation ditch, which we entered, rolled over, and flipped upside down. I remember my bro Mike standing up in the back seat hollering at me to ‘straighten out the car’ but to no avail. I think there were five of us in the car including my bros, none of which had seat belts fastened but by some miraculous ending, we were all able to crawl out of the car without a scratch.

The farmer who hit me was a local fellow, and he rounded up a tractor with an operator and the car was pulled back upright and out of the ditch, whereby it was towed off to a local mechanic’s shop.

I don’t remember who came to rescue us, but somehow we continued on to the Clinton job where we put in some closing days of the summer, laboring there. 


When it came time to go home, my bro Tim and I went and picked up the Ford which still was operable (a testimonial to Ford), but the vehicle had multiple dents and bruises including missing a windshield which had been knocked out in the crash.

Tim and I bought a pair of goggles and proceeded to hit the trail (in a light drizzle) to Omaha with the wind and rain in our hair and elsewhere. My Dad knew of the accident but he had never seen the car until we got home whereby he came out of the house and I’m sure almost had a heart attack when he viewed the pile of junk that once was my beautiful ’53 Ford. As I recall, he had the car towed away to the junk yard.

It’s funny how viewing old photos can bring back memories of both the exciting and dull days gone by. It’s too bad the photographs taken today are no longer hard-copied by most people and their memories no longer documented to tell the stories of days gone by for both their own revisitation as well as their offspring.

A postcard reveals Tillotson elevator activity before the big changes of 1938

Post Card 01

We have found what may be a rare record of the Tillotson construction enterprise as it existed before 1938. Back then, Charles H. Tillotson led the company, which specialized in wooden elevators. After he died in ’38, his sons Reginald and Joe partnered in Tillotson Construction Co., and started to experiment, and then build, with reinforced concrete.

This card from July 2, 1936 is penned by Sister Mary Concepta, the older sister of Margaret Irene McDunn Tillotson (my grandmother) and sister-in-law to Reginald.

Sr. M. Concepta, born on Sep. 27, 1901, in Emerson, Nebraska, and christened Catherine McDunn, was the second of nine children. (Margaret, born Feb. 9, 1903, was third.) Sr. M. Concepta belonged to the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, with a motherhouse at Mount Loretto in Dubuque, Iowa.

The parents were William McDunn (b. Feb. 4, 1871, Des Moines, Iowa) and Bridget Loretta Dorcey McDunn (b. March 27, 1872, Luken or Lucan, Ontario). Records show William as a laborer in Omaha in 1891. He became a conductor on the Nebraska Division of the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis & Omaha Railway, and the family became established in Emerson, the town named for Ralph Waldo Emerson, which had come into being in 1881 at a junction on the CSPM&O (known as the Omaha Road). 

The family history comes from These U.S. McDunns: Family Tree of Patrick McDunn and Mary O’Donnell, compiled by John McDunn, of Lodi Wisc., in April 1989. The McDunns homesteaded in Pennsylvania in 1835. 

My Uncle, Charles J. Tillotson, whose name appears in many of this blog’s posts, had kept his grandfather William’s railroad watch–a Hamilton, of course–until a burglar struck in the late-1980s.

Post Card 02Uncle Charles notes that in the mid-1930s Reginald and Margaret lived with the elder Tillotsons at 624 N. 41st Street. They towed a travel trailer to job sites. In early July of 1936 they would also have towed along Uncle Charles, then 18 months old, and my mother Mary Catherine, who was nearly five months old.

On this postcard Sr. M. Concepta addresses her sister Margaret (Mrs. Reginald Oscar Tillotson) at Carlyle, Neb.

Carlisle–note the difference in spelling–is an unincorporated town in Fillmore County.

“I know the name because Mom used to talk about it,” Uncle Charles says.

We presume there was a wooden elevator. Carlisle is an unincorporated community in Fillmore County, about 135 miles southwest of Omaha. It doesn’t appear on our Rand McNally page nor does Google Maps seem to know anything about it. 

MapThe USGS gives coordinates for Carlisle on its Davenport Quadrangle map (named for a town in neighboring Thayer County), and we see a speck on Road X, west of Little Sandy Creek, that could be Carlisle. We called the Fillmore County sheriff’s office, in Geneva, and asked. “Nope,” a very nice woman said. “We don’t have a Carlisle.” 


“Dear Margaret + Reginald + babes,” Sr. M. Concepta begins.

Post Card 03“This card tells you where we are. Saw your Mother and Mary, Reginald. Mary is truly a nice girl and your mother surely is not strong. Won’t be leaving here now until Sat. morning. Just thought you might be coming in for the 4th. Don’t try it just for me though. Love, Sr. M. Concepta.”

Mary Tillotson was Reginald’s sister who became important to the family business and also is named in many posts here.

It’s hard enough to find a trace of Carlisle, but we would love to know if any remnant of a wooden elevator exists there.





Conversation with Sherman Johnson, scion of Johnson Construction, of Salina, Kansas

We were happy to be able to give Sherman Johnson a call the other day. Sherman, a flooring contractor in Shawnee, Kansas, is one of Virgil Johnson’s six sons. Johnson Construction, Virgil’s contracting firm, operated out of Salina, Kansas, and built a whole lot of elevators. We have speculated about the existence of a strong link, perhaps a common architectural designer, between Johnson Construction and Mayer-Osborn Construction. Johnson Construction sometimes acted in partnership with Rex Bratcher, and we know something about Johnson & Sampson. The design themes spread through those channels.


Brad Perry took this photo in Atlanta, Kansas. “I think it’s a Johnson house,” he said. The rounded and stepped headhouse suggests Mayer-Osborn and Tillotson design influences.

Sherman was born in 1945 and went to elevator construction sites as a kid. “I remember going to Texas and Oklahoma. We lived in Salina, but most of the jobs were in Oklahoma and Texas, in the Panhandle of Nebraska, and in Iowa.” 

We had many other questions for Sherman, and he tried to help as much as possible. One thing he seemed pretty certain of was that Virgil talked about Tillotson Construction Company, of Omaha. “I heard my dad talking about them!” he said. “My father, he worked for Tillotson, I think. I don’t know for sure. I heard the name Tillotson, Chalmers and Borton, people like that.” 

Kristen Cart: Do you remember being on any job sites when you were a kid?

Sherman Johnson: Oh, yeah.

KC: Are there any memories you’d like to share?

SJ: Oh, like I said, I was just a kid. I remember going to Texas and Oklahoma–Newkirk (Okla.) and Blackwell and Conlon, Texas.

Ronald Ahrens: How long was Johnson Construction active?

SJ: As near as I can tell, at first it was my father and my uncles. And then Rex Bratcher was his partner for a while.

KC: The Sampsons were your uncles?

SJ: My dad’s wife’s brothers, Darwin and Sherman. I’m named after one.

RA: Do you remember the name Darrell Greenlee?

SJ: Darrell and Rosina. They were very, very nice people, great people. They had six girls.

RA: He was a foreman for your dad’s construction company, right? 

SJ: Superintendent.

RA: Can you characterize him?

SJ: In the summertime I had to work for him, and he worked me pretty hard. He was a good guy: a hard worker, a smart guy. We’d go out in the summertime, I don’t remember what the jobs were, they had me doing all the grunt work. I guess that’s why I’m not a contractor. 

KC: My dad described installing rebar.

SJ: Laying it and tying it. And it seemed like you always had a shovel in your hand doing something. 

KC: We had comments from Emily Frank, whose grandparents were Darrell and Rosina.

SJ: He built an elevator in Rushville, Illinois, and he retired there. If she’s still alive, she’s there. I don’t know if she’s still alive or not. 

Editors’ note: Here is the link to Rosina’s obituary.

KC: A couple of jobs, I’m going to ask if they’re familiar. Grand Island?

SJ: I don’t know.

KC: Atlanta, Kansas?

SJ: That rings a bell but I wouldn’t tell you that we did.

KC: One of the things we do is visit the elevators, and right on the manhole covers is the name of the company.

SJ: Oh, yeah. They used to make those at Wyatt Manufacturing in Salina. There was a foundry for a long time.

The Minatare, Nebraska, concrete elevator mystery solved

The Minatare elevator was an intriguing photography subject.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

My dad, Jerry Osborn, and I were traveling in western Nebraska on a three-day road trip to visit old friends and family when we happened upon the Minatare elevator built by Tillotson Construction. I immediately suspected that it was a special find. I asked my dad to be prepared for an afternoon of investigation, so after our visit with his cousins in Scotts Bluff, we began our inquiry in earnest.

Our first view of the elevator.

The name Minatare rang a bell, and I thought it might be home to an early elevator, catalogued in the Tillotson Construction Company records. But I didn’t have any way to check, being well out of cellphone range, and began to doubt my memory. Perhaps Minatare’s elevator was featured in an early postcard, one of hundreds I had examined on Ebay, while looking through old elevator images. I couldn’t remember where I had seen the name before.

Only the old-fashioned gumshoe method was going to work. Dad went along on our mission in good humor. For a good part of it, he spent his time comfortably hanging out in the air-conditioned car, while I called upon local people and shot every possible camera view.

So how do you check out a mystery elevator? After copious photos, you check out the town office. If the town clerk smiles, shrugs, and sends you down the hall to the library, which is closed, then you go (on her advice) to the local tavern. If you are lucky, the owner is intrigued and makes some calls. Pop into the library when it opens. Jump into and out of the car, drive a few blocks, get Dad a coke from the tavern, where the owner sends you to the next place. Touch base at the new place on the way out of town–then leave, still scratching your head.

It was a fairly typical visit.

No one I talked to in town remembered when the elevator had been in operation. The secretary at the town hall was standing in for someone else, and was relatively new in town. The local policeman laughed and shook his head when I asked him about it. He was a recent resident, too. One young person offered a tidbit–she said that the interior of the elevator might have been seen by teenagers at one time or another. It wasn’t a mystery to everyone in town, apparently. Too bad it was shut up tight, with no one around, so we couldn’t see the inside for ourselves.

A 1940s parade photo shows the elevator in its early years.

The librarian was very helpful. She kept the library open for a very short time because of her poor health, but she pointed us in the right direction. The town of Minatare was featured in a newly published local history, “Minatare Memories,” published by the Minatare Historical Committee. It had a short mention of a concrete elevator built in 1924. That information didn’t fit with any elevator that was of interest to us–it was way too early for a Tillotson job. We thought perhaps the 1924 date pertained to an earlier wooden elevator, the first one erected in the town, but at that moment we weren’t sure.

However, she offered a bookshelf filled with boxes of photographs, among them unattributed parade photos, taken a long time ago. In the parade photos were vintage cars, motorcycles, and best of all, the Minatare movie house marquee with the movie playing at the time, “California,” starring Barbara Stanwyck. In the background, behind the parade, stood the gleaming white Minatare elevator. The photos were thereby dated to about 1947, the latest date the elevator could have been completed.

The movie marquee dates the parade more precisely. The movie, “California,” came out in 1947.

The tavern owner, Dennis Wecker, offered more information on our second visit. He had made some calls, and he now knew the name of the company that owned the elevator–Kelley Bean. He gave us a contact and a location. On our stop at the bean facility, two workers in the office said the general manager at the Minatare location, Chris Hassel, had gone on vacation.

Dad and I left, still scratching our heads, and thinking about dinner. We had a drive ahead of us.

Kelley Bean is the current owner of the property.

It wasn’t until later when I conferred with my blogging partner, Ronald Ahrens, that we had an answer to the elevator’s provenance. He looked up the Minatare elevator in the Tillotson construction records and delightedly reported that it was not only the work of his grandfather, Reginald Tillotson, but it was an early one, built in 1941 very soon after the company was founded.

Eureka! It was a great find, and worthy of another visit. We will stop again and thank everyone who helped us tell its story.

Jerry Osborn, my dad and great traveling companion.



Records for Tillotson’s Minatare, Neb., job include specs, give total cost picture

Story by Ronald Ahrens, photos by Kristen Cart

The small concrete elevator in Minatare, Nebr., is the oldest we have visited that was built by Tillotson Construction. After forming in 1938 as a partnership between Reginald and Joe Tillotson, and with their sister Mary also involved, Tillotson Construction built their first concrete elevator in 1939 and another in 1940. Both were in Oklahoma. But 1941 was a big year with five elevators, a pair of which, also in Oklahoma, were quite large with capacity of 212,000 bushels.

The Minatare elevator in this town in eastern Scotts Bluff County was built according to a plan original to the site. Company records show it had a side driveway with bins over the drive, 11 bins, two tanks with capacity of 16,000 bushels and two with capacity of 15,300 bushels.

The elevator and dryer stand idly by the Minatare rail siding.

Construction details show 690 cubic yards of reinforced concrete were used and 27.5 tons of reinforcing steel.

Gross weight when loaded was 3,377 tons.

The drawform walls rose 100 feet, and the cupola’s dimensions were 15 feet wide, 28 feet long, and 18 feet high. The center of the head pulley was at 116.16 feet above the ground.

This was a single-leg elevator. The head pulley was 48 x 14 x 3 7/16 inches, which was an inch and a quarter wider than the boot pulley. A 15-horse Ehrsam motor turned the head at 48 rpm. Leg capacity isn’t listed.

What is listed, though–and we find this quite exciting!–is information about costs that the company records exclude after World War Two.

The grand total for Minatare was all of $19,578.04 less commission. Here is a breakout of individual categories:

  • Labor: $5,526.83 at the rate of 35 cents per hour straight time and 60 cents for overtime
  • Cement: $2,590.75
  • Sand (30,000 cubic yards): $1,149.60
  • Reinforcing steel (J-rods, wires & nipples): $2,156.01
  • Lumber: $835.03
  • Machinery: $4,172.77
  • Structural Steel: $$772.53
  • Electrical materials: $155.07
  • Doors & windows: $47.36
  • Painting & waterproofing: $65.83
  • Hardware (bolts, nails, etc.): $169.71
  • Equipment Expense (depreciation, rentals, etc.): $246.29
  • Freight (not included above F.O.B. job): $509.51
  • W.H. tax & Ins.: $723.82
  • Miscel. (overhead, job office, plans, bond, etc.): $457.11

Double-checking the numbers, we find the total of 19,578.22. That’s 18 cents higher than the amount stated in the records.

The co-op office attached to the elevator. Grain weight and quality were assessed here.

What we would like to learn next is how Tillotson Construction landed those early jobs like Minatare. And how much was the commission?

We have the sense there are more records available at the locations to help us learn about our grandfathers’ grain elevators. One of these days, we want to visit Goltry, Newkirk, Douglas, and Medford, Okla., just for starters, to learn what we can about those early days.

Another look around Wahoo, Neb., yields treasure beyond reinforced concrete

Story by Ronald Ahrens and photos by La Rose Tillotson

The bend on Route 92 as it entered Wahoo, Nebraska, from the east was always welcome. Here, the road dipped down and crossed Sand Creek at the edge of town, then turned into leafy neighborhoods. It was the first shade for us after more than 30 miles under the sun on the flat prairie.

Wahoo was a frequent waypoint when our family visited relatives in David City farther west.

A site of interest in Wahoo was the Saunders County Courthouse, where a torpedo was displayed near the curb. Even when I was eight and nine years old, the torpedo seemed incongruous, being so far from the sea. But we Nebraskans were starved for variety, and leftover munitions from a distant war were deemed tasty morsels.

Tillotson Wahoo 01

Never did it occur to me that the Wahoo grain elevator had been built by my grandfather’s company. We knew he built elevators but assumed they were in far off places like Iowa.

Kristen Cart has already visited Wahoo and written one post.

But there’s new reason to think about the town after Aunt La Rose Tillotson drove there on a recent tour of the countryside. She forwards the pictures you see here.

As a young woman, Aunt La Rose lived in Wahoo for a short time. While going about her daily business, she never gave much thought to the elevator that stands along North Chestnut Street between Fifth and Sixth.

This isn’t a surprise, as a form of amnesia touched many family members after the family business faded out. Grandfather Reginald died in 1960.

Tillotson Wahoo 02

Here are some particulars of the Wahoo elevator:

Tillotson Construction Company used the same plan as from Imo, Okla., which had also been built in 1950. That meant a 150,000-bushel elevator rose from a 54- by 51-foot slab over a pit nearly 16 feet deep. The drawform walls were 120 feet high, and the cupola topped out after another 26.5 feet.

From atop of the Wahoo elevator, you could probably see all the way to Swedeburg, looking south, and Malmo, looking northwest. (Prague–home of Czech Heritage Days–was just a bit northwest of there.) It’s doubtful, though, you could see as far as Valparaiso, in southwestern Saunders County. Ulysses, way to hell and gone in Butler County, was out of the question.

Some other noteworthy aspects of the Wahoo’s single-leg elevator were its use of 3,056 tons of reinforced concrete and its gross weight, when loaded with as much as 4,500 tons of grain, of 8,216 tons.

I don’t see anything else in the specifications that distinguish the Wahoo elevator all that much from Imo, or for that matter, David City, which was built the next year because whatever Wahoo did had to be done in David City, too.

But no other place was like Wahoo. Wikipedia says the name comes from an Indian word for the shrub Euonymus atropurpureus, which yields arrow wood. But who believes it? I think they’re covering up for the day in 1870 when two large casks of beer fell off the delivery wagon.

Remember these four things about Wahoo:

  1. Wahoo Sam Crawford came from Wahoo, played outfield from 1899 to 1917 for the Reds and Tigers, and still holds the Major League record for most triples (309). He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1957.
  2. A wahoo (Acanthocybium solandri)  is a sport fish in the tropical oceans, but as far as I can tell it isn’t the official fish of Wahoo. Lake Wanahoo is barren of wahoos.
  3. Wahoo was a long-running gag on Letterman.
  4. Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Howard Hanson (b. 1896), three-time Academy Award-winner Darryl F. Zanuck (b. 1902), and Nobel Prize-winning geneticist George Beadle (b. 1903) came from Wahoo.

How many towns of Wahoo’s size–about 4,500 souls today–have produced a Hall of Famer as well as Pulitizer Prize, Academy Award, and Nobel Prize winners?

Beyond all that, Wahoo has a Tillotson elevator.

Vandals strike Tillotson’s Vinton Street elevator, leaving the owners with an expensive cleanup

644369_10152681898735294_1745767005_nSometime overnight on Wednesday, May 4, vandals struck the Vinton Street elevator, painting “Dump Trump” graffiti on the south annex’s upper run. The message caused a sensation Thursday morning.

Tillotson Construction Company completed the original 382,880-bushel elevator in 1950. Extensive annexes were later added. We don’t know when operations ceased, but for the last eight years the elevator on five acres of land has been co-owned by Ron Safarik and Richard Brock, who attempted to make a climbing facility comparable to those established at old elevators in Bloomington, Ill., and Oklahoma City.

In 2012, the Vinton Street elevator received national attention after the annexes served as the canvas for a public art project; a nonprofit organization commissioned artists to create themed banners that were draped over the silos.

Reached by phone, Safarik said he and Brock have tried to secure the property, but intruders found a way to pry through and gain access to the top. “I would presume they used the internal ladders that still exist,” he said.


Photos courtesy of SILO Extreme Outdoor Adventures. 

Safarik and Brock will now be stuck with the cleanup bill. Since SILO Extreme Outdoor Adventures, the partners’ venture, closed in 2013, the elevator has been a burden, he said.

It has been listed for sale since 2014. A post on SILO’s Facebook page says, “The Silos and the 5 acres of industrial land are for sale through Ben Pearson at World Group Commercial Real Estate. Any climbing related buyer will receive the holds, bolts, and supporting gear for starting up a climbing club or business.”

Safarik said the asking price remains $150,000.

Although he said he hadn’t known much of the elevator’s history, he did pass along a story heard from an elderly man named Otto, who lived on Vinton Street and “had intricate knowledge” of events.

According to Otto, the only death that occurred at the elevator happened on a freezing night in an unspecified year. The victim, an elevator employee, locked himself out of the scale house. As he tried to pry back into it, he jammed his arm and couldn’t pull free. Found dead in the morning, he was surrounded by cigarette butts. With his free hand, he had managed to smoke his remaining cigarettes before he froze.