Tillotson’s Cedar Bluffs, Neb. elevator did without such luxuries as a central driveway or full basement

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By Ronald Ahrens

The reinforced-concrete elevator that Tillotson Construction Co. built for Farmers Union Cooperative Association for $60,000 in 1950 did without expensive options like an integrated central driveway, a full basement, and an electrically operated manlift. But it was still a substantial and well-made structure that continues in operation in Cedar Bluffs, Neb.

Nebraska 2020Today, according to Randy Carlholm, the co-op’s general manager and CEO, an electrically driven manlift serves in place of the original hand-operated one. Farmers deposit grain in the external enclosure, and it is conveyed below ground to the leg.

Our records say this elevator had four tanks, or silos, of 16 feet in diameter and rising 120 feet. Storage capacity was 130,675 bushels. There were nine internal bins. From outside it appears there are more tanks. Without a walk-through, we are unable to reconcile this discrepancy. Are we talking apples and apples here?

The construction process consumed 1,024 cubic yards of reinforced concrete and 44.19 tons of steel.

Another 2.3 yards of plain concrete went for the hoppers.

The main slab was 21 inches thick and covered an area 46×46 square feet to support a gross loaded weight of 6,365 tons. The pit was 16 feet 7 inches deep.

Atop the tanks, the cupola, or headhouse, measured 14 feet wide, 24 3/4 feet long, and 21 1/2 feet high.

This is a single-leg elevator with the boot and head pulleys spaced 150 feet apart. The boot pulley was 60 x 12 x 2 3/16 inches while the head pulley was 1 1/4 inches wider. The head turned at 40 rpm thanks to a 25-horsepower Howell motor. The pulleys carried an 11-inch, 6-ply Calumet belt with cups 10 inches wide and 6 inches deep spaced 7 1/2 inches apart.

IMG_20200104_100430644_HDRTheoretical leg capacity rated at 5,972 bushels per hour; actual capacity was 80 percent of theoretical, which rounded off to 4,780 (4,777.6) bushels per hour. This required just 22.3 horsepower.

J.B. Ehrsam and Sons Manufacturing Co. provided the hand-operated manlift.

The dump grate was 6 x 5 feet.

With the 10-bushel load-out scale and 8 1/4-inch spout, we can’t guess how long it would take to fill a rail car with corn, but a fascinating document we found suggests that filling a car with wheat would take about 80 minutes.

 

Farmers Union Cooperative operates a well-preserved Tillotson elevator in Cedar Bluffs, Nebr.

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By Ronald Ahrens

Ace scout Rose Ann Fennessy and I visited five Tillotson elevators in Nebraska’s Saunders and Butler Counties on Jan. 4. 

IMG_20200102_163303436The first was at Cedar Bluffs, a village of 600 overlooking the Platte River. The Farmers Union Cooperative Association location was quiet when we arrived around 9.30 a.m., so we invited ourselves to walk the site and take photos.

Cedar Bluffs is a smart-looking operation, as might be expected from “Nebraska’s Oldest Cooperative Since 1888.” The main house, about to celebrate its 70th birthday, and the annex that came along nine years later appear to be in fine shape.

Tillotson Construction Co., of Omaha, completed this 130,675-bushel elevator in 1950–a big year in eastern Nebraska: my grandfather Reginald’s company also built elevators in Bellwood, Aurora, Omaha, and Wahoo.

Nebraska 2020The Cedar Bluffs job is noteworthy for its rectangular headhouse. The company’s graceful signature, the oval headhouse, was still to be perfected.

Other elevators built in this same year–namely, Wahoo and Richland–reflect the movement toward ovalization.

Another unusual circumstance is the lack of a central driveway going through the structure. A note with the entry says, “Truck Dump Grate No Dr’way.”

A history on the co-op’s website shows that “Elevator C, the first concrete elevator” was built in 1950 for $60,000. The co-op, which dates from 1888, had paid $10,000 for a steam-powered elevator and sheds in 1915. In 1934, the 40,000-bushel Elevator A was constructed. Six years later, Elevator B was acquired from Updike Grain Co. for $5,000 but was “disposed of” later.

The co-op lists capacity of Elevator C at 110,000 bushels–a discrepancy when compared to Tillotson records.

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Without an integral central driveway, an outside dumping grate serves the elevator, now starting its eighth decade.

Cedar Bluffs was built on an original plan that included four storage tanks of 16 feet in diameter and reaching 120 feet in height.

In 1950, a concrete elevator was a big splurge for a small co-op. Besides no central driveway, Cedar Bluffs did without the luxury of an electrically operated manlift–it was hand-operated.

The 300,000-bushel annex and the grain dryer were added in 1959 for $150,000. It is unknown who did this job; the manhole plates are blank. We do know that Tillotson was pretty much finished with new construction by then.

We hope to learn more. Meantime, this is the first of two posts from Cedar Bluffs. Complete specs will follow.

 

 

 

 

Former Kingfisher, Okla., GM Bob Case recalls elevator fixes after his start at the co-op in 1967

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Bob Case retired as general manager of the Kingfisher Cooperative on Jan. 1, 1991 and hasn’t been back. But a telephone conversation proved he still has a good sense of the business.

We know Bob through his late-wife Velma’s fine history of the Kingfisher operation. They came to Kingfisher in 1967. By that time, the cooperative had a long history and Bob already had significant experience running things.

“I started out with management in Red Rock when I was 25 years old,” he says. “I was the youngest co-op manager in Oklahoma. They didn’t have people 25 years old managing cooperatives.”

Co-op Way 08The Cases went from Red Rock to Rogers, Ark., to run a poultry cooperative that was in ruinous competition with Tyson. A year later they moved to McPherson, Kan. The large co-op there had three different locations with a grocery market, grain elevator and mill, and large petroleum operation–the largest in Kansas, he recalls.

With Bob’s parents in their 80s, he wanted to get back to Oklahoma. The Kingfisher job came up, and the co-op board was ready to hire him on the spot. The co-op was “about to go under” after three years of losses. He took a little pause during the interview to let things cool off.

“I went outside for about 20 minutes. When I came back, they asked,  ‘Would it be all right to have a used pickup to drive instead of a new one?'” This reduction of the offer didn’t stop him from accepting the job.

“The first full year, we made money. I built a spirit within the community to make them realize they had to work together to get things done.” Bob instilled the same spirit into the employees. They wore uniforms. The facilities received new paint.

There were two grain elevators. The south elevator, which we take to be the 250,000-bushel Tillotson house erected in 1946, was seamed in three locations where the continuous pour had evidently stopped, and of course there were leaks. To fund construction of this elevator, the co-op had reincorporated for $130,000. Then the existing 34,000-bushel elevator was knocked down.

“The old elevator was wearing out,” Velma writes in her 50-year history of the Kingfisher Cooperative Elevator Association published in 1984. “It had started leaning badly, making it necessary to fill the bins carefully and to distribute the weight evenly. Otherwise the cups would bind, and the cantankerous old machinery would refuse to budge.”

One of Bob’s first matters was to fix the big concrete elevator. “We had a company come in and go around and seal those places. I don’t recall what it was. It probably would be Gunite. The biggest problem was, they had that leakage of course, but also a manager who allowed wet grain to come into that elevator.” Instead of moisture content below 13 percent, Bob guesses it was more like 15 percent. “That’s going to spoil every time. It was very damaging and expensive to get rid of all that.” Greater care was used from then on.

“We tried to keep them running in good shape all the time. As we expanded we took in the flour mill that was just north of us.” The larger elevator not only provided the most storage but also handled grain faster. The first elevator, which wasn’t used as much afterward, was reserved for grains other than wheat.

While Bob was immersed in business, Velma wrote for the newspaper in Kingfisher. Her popular, regular features included a cook’s page and a long series of interviews with people 90 years old and up. She also taught music at a Catholic school.  

The Kingfisher Co-op grew and expanded, becoming the largest fertilizer dealer and leading supplier of agricultural chemicals in Oklahoma, Bob recalls. All this volume of business led to its becoming one of the largest cooperatives in the state.

“I had made a prediction,” Bob says. “We’ve got to become larger to become competitive. We would have five to six major cooperatives in state of Oklahoma.”

And in fact, he sees fewer and fewer cooperatives all the time–and they’re regionalized. The collapse of Farmland Industries in 2002 “destroyed a lot of smaller and even larger ones that were invested them.”

Bob lost Velma to a heart attack on June 29. He is 90 years old and, as he says, “still active.” On Thanksgiving he hosted 23 people, providing a “huge ham and turkey.” Family support has sustained him, he says. “They’ve been very comforting to me.”

An old letter reveals some details about the Tillotsons’ early days in wooden elevators

Charles H. Tillotson

By Ronald Ahrens

A letter from my grandmother Margaret Irene McDunn Tillotson reveals some details about the early nomadic life of my grandfather Reginald Oscar Tillotson. As we have documented in this blog, Charles H. Tillotson (seen in the photo above), who was Reginald’s father, built wooden elevators.

When Charles H. died in 1938, Reginald and his brother Joe took the helm of the family’s construction company and learned how to build elevators by slip-forming concrete. That positioned Tillotson Construction Company to advance as the new method served to meet demand for greater storage capacity at rural cooperatives.

My grandmother’s missive of Oct. 6, 1978 gives a few details of those early days.

Charles_Tillotson_Obit__The_Nebraska_State_Journal__Lincoln__Nebr___19_June_1938“When they moved from place to place with the construction company they had many funny places for a home. Your grandfather moved ten times one school term. They built cribbed elevators during those days. This was made by placing a two by four on a two by four to build the walls for the outside and to make the bins. The fields of corn and grain were used by the farmers so they had no great need for storage or grain elevators. So many jobs were to add on to bins or repair them. This made small jobs and many changes in places to live.

“One time they lived in a school house. Many times when it was a small job they lived in the elevator office. During the cold weather they got to live in parts of others’ homes and tried not to have to move. Construction those days was almost nil during the cold weather. They wished many times they were farmers when they had big snow storms.

“After his grade school days they settled in Omaha. Reginald worked in stores. His recreation was sports which I mention (tennis, baseball, football).”

Sunset at Rockwell City, Iowa

The Tillotson elevator in Rockwell City, Iowa, as it appeared in 2014

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

Recently, one of our readers sent us some disheartening news. The skyline in Rockwell City, Iowa, has permanently changed, as announced by Paul Grage:

“…I would like to let you know that the Tillotson elevator in Rockwell City, Iowa, is currently being torn down. They blasted the head house because it was too tall for the crane that ran the wrecking ball. They are currently wrecking balling the rest. The rail that used to serve it was abandon[ed] long ago and an airport runway was built on the old bed. The elevator is shot and it’s presence makes about 1200 feet of the runway useless after course corrections. Its demolition was funded by the Iowa DOT and Landus Cooperative.”

Back in 2014 I paid a visit to Rockwell City, Iowa, located a few miles south of U.S. Route 20 in the western third of the state. I stopped to take pictures of the old Tillotson project, which was one of the larger elevators on my route from Nebraska to my home in Illinois.

The Tillotson landmark was permanently closed for business and deserted.

I spoke to an elderly gentleman standing outside of his small bungalow, which was tucked in close to its neighbors on a street radiating from the elevator property. He had recently moved to town, so he didn’t know any local history, but he shared his observations of the old site.  He said that an owl family had moved into the headhouse. Sometimes he would see the birds flying in or out at dusk, or he would hear their hooting at night.

Other than accommodating the new residents, the elevator stood silently, by far the biggest structure in town. Its doom was sealed when the rail line closed. I didn’t know it would be my last visit–the dull light of the day invited another visit for photos, so I set my images aside for a later post. I never got back there. But here are views of the old elevator, as I found it that day.

The tallest landmark in town is now the water tower.

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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