Tillotson family’s 1930s Omaha home at 624 N. 41 St is revealed

By Charles J. Tillotson

“My oh my! The old house is still standing after all these years, which is at least 89 years.

“This is my Grandpa and Grandma’s (Charles H. and Rose A. Brennan Tillotson’s) home and where Dad and Mom (Reginald O. and Margaret I. Tillotson) lived intermittently for three years after they got married.

“I was born in 1935 in Creighton [University]’s St. Joseph Hospital and lived here for my first three years when Dad wasn’t on a construction site too far to come home. Dad built a small house-trailer so that he could take Mom and his kids along with him when going away. 

“When Dad finally decided to settle down three years later [after the death of Charles J. and formation of Tillotson Construction Co. with brother Joe], he bought a house with a fruit orchard located on the northern outskirts of Omaha. 

“I have a bunch of photos of the house while I was standing in front of it with my winter togs on, and of course it was painted white at that time.” 

1947 clipping gives details of the impressive Potter, Neb., elevator by J. H. Tillotson, Contractor

The Nebraska State Journal (Lincoln, Nebraska), Sunday, Feb. 16, 1947

POTTER, Neb. (AP). One of Nebraska’s largest grain elevators–a quarter-million bushel structure of reinforced concrete–will be built here this spring.

The huge elevator is expected to be completed in time for the 1947 harvest season in the wheat-rich panhandle. The first dirt will be turned in March.

The Potter Co-Op Grain company, which will build the structure, said it will be on the Union Pacific right-of-way about two blocks west of the Potter depot. Contract has been let to the Tillotson Construction company of Denver. Estimated cost of the elevator is $100,000.

* * *

STEEL ALREADY is being delivered at the site. The elevator will be about 130 feet high and will be built in one compact unit containing 26 individual storage bins. A gravity feed storage system and other new operating features will be installed.

Normal capacity of the elevator will be 225,000 bushels but storage up to 256,000 bushels will be possible. The Co-Op also will retain control of the 16,000 bushel elevator it already is operating here.

* * *

FUNDS WERE borrowed from farmers in this area under a plan whereby the lender gets 1 1/2 bushels of reserved storage for each dollar invested up to a maximum of 7,500 bushels. The storage space will be reserved during the peak harvest season at a time when many farmers are forced to pile their wheat in the open.

Huge scales capable of handling a truck and semi-trailer loads up to 50 tons will be installed.

The Potter Co-Op serves one of the state’s largest wheat territories including farms in Cheyenne, Kimball and Banner counties. It has more than 400 patrons.

Aside from a larger structure at Chappell, which has a storage capacity of close to 300,000 bushels, the new Potter elevator will be the largest in western Nebraska.

The headhouse is long gone, but the Frontier Cooperative elevator at Bellwood, Neb., may be Tillotson’s largest build

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By Ronald Ahrens

We arrived on a quiet Saturday afternoon at the Frontier Cooperative elevator in Bellwood, Neb., knowing a 1981 explosion had taken off the headhouse. By the account of Uncle Tim Tillotson, we were also alerted to the possibility of another explosion there in the late-1950s.

Nebraska 2020Nevertheless, we expected to see an elevator with a replacement structure at its crown.

We found an impressive complex: mighty, smart-looking, and meticulously maintained. Yet it operates with external legs to serve the huge complex–no headhouse whatsoever. The leg over the main house is mantis-like and a little spooky. 

Of course, there was no hint whether the original headhouse was a squared-off rectangle or a curved volume in keeping with the characteristic Tillotson style that was developing after World War Two.

Tillotson Construction Co. built the main house, a 320,000-bushel elevator, in 1950 and followed up with a 340,000-bushel annex in 1954. The main house followed an original plan with eight tanks (silos) of 20 feet in diameter and reaching 120 feet high.

There was the typical central driveway, 13 x 17 feet, for unloading trucks.

Other notes in the company record say “5 bin dist. under scale” and “Prov. for hopper scale.” There were 22 bins and a dust bin.

The 1954 annex, also on an original plan, featured 10 tanks of 20 feet in diameter and reaching 130 feet high. It had a basement, 30-inch belt conveyors, and a tripper.

We also found the Tillotson name embossed on the manhole covers of the second annex, which appears to match the first annex in size and capacity. But company records make no mention of this second annex.

Nevertheless, it appears possible to credit Tillotson with an even 1 million bushels of capacity.

A close look at surfaces on the main house shows patchwork that must represent filled holes from the big blowout.

While preparing this post, I phoned Frontier Cooperative branch manager Justin Riha, who knew of this 1981 explosion.

The elevator works fine with the external legs. “I think it’s better,” Riha said. 

Overall capacity at the location is 2.4-million bushels, a tidy amount at such a small town.

Uncle Chuck affixes a generator to his memory, and Van Ness Construction comes alive

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Great-grandma Margaret’s general store, Shields, Kan., 1910. Margaret A. Tillotson was Grandpa Charles’s mother. I don’t know why Mother (Margaret Irene) thought it was my Great Aunt Mary’s store. Maggie was a nickname for Margaret, and my Dad would call Mom “Maggie” every once in a while to tease her because he knew she didn’t like it.

By Charles J. Tillotson

I forgot to add in my comments [on company origins] what little I know about Grandpa Charles’s experience with Van Ness Construction.
I’m really stretching the memory, and I have to start with Grandpa Charles’s father:
Charles H. Tillotson was the son of John Wheeler and Margaret A. (Jackson) Tillotson.
John and Margaret to my knowledge had at least six children: Raymond, Charles (grandpa), Bertha, Mary Alice (known as Lovie), Walter, and May.
  1. Raymond took over the homestead.
  2. Charles worked as a carpenter.
  3. Bertha married a telegraph operator.
  4. Mary Alice (Lovie) married Ralston Van Ness, elevator builder.
  5. Walter worked as a landscaper.
  6. May married Zomer Dryden and lived on a farm in Ohio.
My mother used to call Mary Alice, Aunt Lovie, so that is how I remember her. Aunt Lovie married Ralston Van Ness (he was 26 years old) in 1902 in Shields, Kan., where he operated his wooden grain elevator construction business. However, within a year’s time, they had relocated to Omaha where their daughter Mary was born. The couple also had twin daughters who died at birth in 1906 and a son, Ralston, who also died at birth in 1908.
By 1930, Ralston and Mary had built up quite a reputation for the construction of wooden grain elevators, and it was about then that Grandpa Charles went to work for them. I know for sure that Dad also went to work for Ralston as a laborer. (I don’t know about Uncle Joe). I have no exact date for when Ralston passed away, but I think it was around 1935 when I was born. Around 1935 Ralston died and left Aunt Lovie with the business.
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Very interesting that, on my birth certificate from 1935, Dad is listed as a laborer employed by Van Ness Construction, and he had been employed in this work for a period of three years. Dad was listed as 26 years of age and Mom at 31. Place of residence for them (and me) is listed as 624 N. 41 St., Omaha, Neb. That is where Grandpa Charles and Grandma Rose lived and where Dad and Mom bunked up when they were not on a construction job using Dad’s trailer as home.
From what I can determine, Aunt Lovie wanted to continue in the building business, but she wanted to build homes for the growing Omaha community. So Grandpa and Dad gradually finished up the Van Ness contracts and in 1938 decided to form their own company.
Aunt Lovie eventually moved out to California where she built homes in Mill Valley and San Rafael. Although Mom and Dad fell out of contact with her, after my discharge from the Army, in 1957, I  managed to track her down and had a nice visit over the phone. She was in her early 70s by then and wanted to retire. Her daughter, Mary, stayed in Omaha, married Guy Stribling, and they had three children, the youngest was born in 1940. I don’t know if the offspring are still living.
Van Ness Construction Co. built wood grain elevators. Their field of influence was centered in Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, and a portion of Texas.

Formation of Tillotson Construction Co. pinned down thanks to news clipping

By Ronald Ahrens

We knew Tillotson Construction Co. was formed in 1938 after the death of my great-grandfather, Charles F. Tillotson. Family records show that he died in June of 1938 in New CorpsConcordia, Kan.

Sons Joseph H. Tillotson and Reginald O. Tillotson decided the future lay in reinforced-concrete elevators.

While they may have continued construction and repair of wooden elevators, the company’s construction record shows the first concrete elevator went up at Goltry, Okla., in 1939.

A notice of “New Corporations” in the Sep. 9, 1938 edition of the Lincoln Journal Star announces:

“Tillotson Construction company (sic), Omaha. The construction, erection, repair, reconstruction and rebuilding of grain elevators, storage warehouses and buildings of similar nature and description, $5,000. Joseph H. Tillotson, Reginald O. Tillotson, Rose A. Tillotson.”

Born in the late 1880s as Rose Brennan, Rose A. Tillotson, was the surviving widow of Charles and mother of Reginald and Joe. She died in the 1950s. 

These details help us to construct a timetable while also showing the Tillotson brothers took bold steps to embrace new techniques and processes, moving the family enterprise forward.

Thank you to blog follower Suzassippi for passing along this clipping.

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.

 

 

 

 

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).”

The first Denver office of Mayer-Osborn is for lease at $8,000 a month

The 1717 E. Colfax Ave., Denver, Colo. location is for lease.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

While enjoying our leisurely October road trip, my dad, Jerry Osborn, and I sought out the former business office of the Mayer-Osborn Construction Company, the Denver-based business my grandfather, William Osborn, operated in partnership with Eugene Mayer. It still stands at 1717 E. Colfax Ave.

Mayer ran the business office, while Grandpa was in the field selling their services. Their former office has undergone a smart update, now sporting solar panels and new brick siding, which has added great street-front appeal for potential tenants.

An item from the Farmers’ Elevator Guide

The place was vacant, but it was settled into an optimistic, mixed neighborhood not far from the Denver Botanical Gardens. About four blocks from Denver’s Five Points, the area seemed to be on an economic rebound, though most buildings were older and fairly nondescript.

Dad and I pulled across a busy grocery store parking lot to get a good vantage point. The photo above shows modern updates, including passive solar panels installed to take advantage of Denver’s many days of sunshine.

Dad and I checked off another important historical visit, and went on our way, happy to see Bill Osborn’s Denver digs at last.

Some initials on a bronze plaque in Limon, Colo., help to solve a mystery

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

My father, Jerry Osborn, and I had a rare opportunity this October to take a road trip. Our goals were to see family, check out our hunting camp, and see some of the sights in the west. Dad is in his eighties now, so we don’t put off any chances to do neat stuff. This trip exceeded our expectations. Happily, we also were able to take in some elevators.

Jerry Osborn at Zion National Park, Utah

Our stop at the elevator in Limon, Colo., proved to be a wonderful surprise. There was a truck at the co-op when we arrived, but the office door was locked, so I approached the elevator itself and called out to see if it was deserted. When I turned around, a man was approaching from the office. I went to meet him.

Ed Owens was finishing up paperwork before going home for the night. I asked him about the history of the elevator, and he brought me into the office. Ed said his grandfather, S. L. Sitton, helped build the Limon elevator as well as the earlier, neighboring one in Genoa, Colo. He said his grandfather came into the area in 1939. He went away during the war, then came back and looked for whatever work he could find. Elevator construction provided a part-time laborer job that kept food on the table.

The builder put up the elevator like a layer cake, letting each concrete layer cure for a period before adding another, rather than by the continuous-pour method pioneered by early elevator construction companies. The Limon elevator was built in stages by farmers who built by day and farmed by night. I was impressed by Mr. Sitton’s fortitude, and I would have asked the old gentleman about it, but Ed said he was 97 years old and living in a nursing home in Flagler. He likely wouldn’t remember, and even if he did, he might not appreciate a visit.

The Genoa, Colo., elevator is in a neighboring town.

The best discovery was yet to come. When Ed ushered me into the office, he showed me the bronze plaque which originally adorned the driveway of the Limon elevator. Ed said all of the directors listed on the plaque were dead by now. The elevator was built in 1958, so all the community leaders of the time were long gone. But the key bit of information on the plaque was the name of the builder and designer, M. and A. Enterprises, Inc., of Denver.

I was very excited to see this name. The company was based in Denver, and the designer claimed to be the builder. Based on the design of the elevator, I had a strong suspicion of who that designer might have been. We now had a key piece of information.

Followers of this blog know that we have puzzled over a few mysteries while tracking our grandfathers’ elevators. The most difficult story to reconstruct, thus far, was how the Mayer-Osborn Construction Company met its demise.

The Denver-based enterprise lasted from 1949 until at least 1954, when my grandfather, William Osborn, apparently left the business. In the summer of 1954 he built the Blencoe, Iowa, elevator with the help of my dad, Jerry Osborn; by the summer of 1955, William was home from his Denver office and never worked elevator construction again. Meanwhile, his partner, Eugene Mayer, probably revived the company under various guises, but we know little of what became of him.

With our visit to Limon, Colo., we may have cracked the case.

Usually, the simplest explanation is the true one. The quickest way to explain why a thriving company would go away is to look for a disaster. Family lore says there was one. But I suspect the rumor of a collapsed elevator, lost to a crew that “shorted materials” and made bad concrete, might have been a tall tale that sprung from a much more pedestrian event. No such disasters can be found in 1954 or 1955 newspaper accounts.

The only related problem I could find occurred at the the Mayer-Osborn elevator in Blencoe, Iowa. During construction, when the elevator had reached about twelve feet high, the forms were slipped for the first time. As soon as concrete appeared below the slipped form, it began to slump and crumble. Bad concrete was indeed the culprit, and it necessitated a tear-down. To get back to a twelve foot height, the company had to add a day or two of expensive labor, which directly cut into profit. Could this event explain why William Osborn left the company? It’s the simplest explanation, so perhaps.

Several subsequent elevators bore the Mayer-Osborn manhole covers, but Dad didn’t know about these elevators, and he was certain that by 1955, his dad, William, was home for good.

The Mayer-Osborn elevator at McCook, Nebr. built in 1949

With its signature stepped headhouse, the elevator in Limon bears an uncanny resemblance to the first elevator Mayer-Osborn built in McCook, Neb. In fact, it is the same design, updated somewhat, and dated 1958. So it certainly went up after Grandpa left the business. But what about Eugene Mayer? Dad said that he was the designer, whereas Bill Osborn started as a carpenter and learned his construction skills on the job. Mayer still retained ownership of his elevator designs, which could explain why McCook clones continued to pop up all over the plains in the mid-1950s.

That brings us back to the builder of the Limon elevator, as inscribed on the plaque, “M. and A. Enterprises, Inc.” It seems inescapable that the “M.” was Mr. Eugene Mayer.

The Limon elevator had newer innovations but was built haltingly. Plainly, all was not the same as it had been when Bill Osborn was on the job. Perhaps fewer workers were available. Fewer contracts were awarded as subsidies waned. So the big, ambitious, day-and-night event of an elevator project was toned down somewhat. I expect we will find that Eugene Mayer’s design was eventually sold and others built it, then it passed into history, along with the great concrete elevator boom.

Happily, Limon’s elevator still thrives, and it gives us a peek at the amazing history of elevators on the American plains.

The layout of the elevator is used to record the content of each bin. Flat storage is adjacent to the concrete elevator.