Elevator operators once implicated labor activists in mysterious explosions

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A 1920 Department of Agriculture experiment showing that accumulations of grain dust would ignite under the right conditions

Story by Kristen Cart

Elevator fires have been a great concern since the days when Charles H. Tillotson first built wooden elevators with his army of carpenters at the beginning of what would become the family business.

When elevators started to randomly ignite and explode in the early twentieth century, suspicions ran rampant.

Shortly after 1900, labor violence was on the rise, and businesses had reason to be worried.

In the Midwest, elevator owners suspected the labor unionist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or Wobblies, had committed acts of sabotage, torching the structures to make their anarchistic point.

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Then, cooler heads prevailed as engineers found a scientific explanation.

Using a scale model in the manner of a college lab experiment, the United States Department of Agriculture demonstrated that grain dust would ignite and explode under the right conditions, leaving destruction and injury in its wake.

The Wobblies were off the hook.

A last farewell to a wooden elevator at Ryegate, Montana

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Story and photos by Kristen Cart

The search for our grandfathers’ elevators has led us to many small towns and many grain operations. Among our discoveries have been ancient wooden elevators, now quaint relics among their larger concrete cousins. In some towns, wooden elevators still have jobs to do, but their time is short.

Charles H. Tillotson built wooden elevators long before his children took up the slip-formed concrete building technique, and at one time, every Midwestern town with a rail line had a row of them serving the local farmers. Now it is increasingly rare to find a town with more than one wooden elevator in service, or for that matter, still standing.

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The Ryegate, Mont., elevator is flanked by its replacement fertilizer plant.

In the last year or two, in several towns, locals have told me that their wooden elevators were no longer used and would shortly be destroyed. I made an extra effort to document those elevators. This week, I almost missed one. In Ryegate, Mont., a new fertilizer plant was put into operation last year, and the elevator that had served the purpose was now slated for destruction.

When I stopped to photograph the pair of wooden elevators at Ryegate, a town on U.S. 12 in east-central Montana, I went into the local cafe for a burger. A fellow at the bar introduced himself as Ken. He wondered where my hometown was, and the purpose of my visit. When I told him I was a bit of an elevator tourist, he told me about the Ryegate elevators. DSC_5156

Ken worked at the Ryegate facility. He said that over the years, he had been employed as a grain hauler and in almost every other aspect of elevator work.

The smaller elevator was built in 1917. Ken said grain dropped 70 feet from the top of the grain spout to a truck below while loading. The elevator had been in use as recently as two years ago, then the new fertilizer plant was built nearby to replace it.

The larger elevator, built in 1914, was still used for storage—it had fresh siding and looked neat and clean on an immaculate lot. But the smaller elevator, equally handsome, would be razed next week. He hoped I would get out and take more pictures before it was gone.

Our discussion ranged from elevators to the military. Ken served in the U.S. Army, had great admiration for the old C-130 aircraft, and expounded with enthusiasm about the M-1 Abrams tank and the Tow missile. He got a kick out of talking with another veteran who shared his interest. He also spoke with reverence about serving under President Ronald Reagan.

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The interior of the shed addition.

Our conversation was interrupted as a young lady burst into the cafe, exclaiming,

“I just got a deer!”

As two men moved to follow her out the door to see her trophy, she said,

“Come see. I got my mulie.”

Her announcement passed without any comment at the bar. Apparently, during deer season, such declarations are expected.

Before I departed to take a closer look at the doomed elevator, Ken introduced himself more formally as Sgt. Ken Davis, and shook my hand. It was an honor to meet this veteran who served back when we had a 600-ship Navy (in the good old days, about three wars ago).

As I took another circuit around the old elevator to shoot a few last pictures, the sun played on the high clouds, projecting light like a halo radiating about the old structure. I thought it a fitting farewell.

In honor of Veterans Day, I salute Sgt. Davis and his life’s work. I hope he enjoys the pictures. DSC_5231

Charles H. Tillotson straddled the divide between wood and concrete

Charles H. Tillotson

By Ronald Ahrens

My Great-grandfather Charles H. Tillotson may have been following his trade by instinct, but he opened the way for descendants to distinguish themselves in the business of elevator construction.

I know the Tillotsons saw themselves primarily as carpenters. My Uncle Charles J. Tillotson went to work as an apprentice carpenter for Tillotson Construction, which was founded after the death of his grandfather Charles. My Uncle Michael Tillotson learned carpentry on through the family business and worked as a carpenter throughout his career. When I helped him finish concrete sidewalks on a couple of side jobs in the 1970s, he preached a gospel that carpenters could do it all, whether it be concrete or painting. And in elevator construction, it was true.

Charles H. Tillotson was born in Brunswick, Mo., in 1880. He married Rose Brennan in Riverside, Iowa.

He and my Great-grandmother Rose had an apparently cozy life in Omaha with their three grown children, Joseph, Reginald, and Mary, all of whom became involved in elevator construction. Kristen Cart’s research has found the Tillotsons listed in the 1930 census. They lived at 624 N. 41st.

A 1936 city directory listed Charles H. as president of Van Ness Construction, a company that built mills and elevators. Joseph served as secretary-treasurer and Reginald was a foreman. Mary worked as a clerk-typist at the Federal Land Bank.

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By then, Reginald was married to my grandmother, Margaret Irene McDunn Tillotson. Their firstborn Charles J., had arrived in 1935, followed the next year by my mother, Mary Catherine.

Uncle Tim Tillotson, the middle of their three sons between Charles J. and Michael (who was born in a home-built house trailer at a Smith Center, Kan., job site), says a story exchanged among the uncles was that Great-grandfather Charles H. would tell Reginald, “Put out that cigarette,” when they were working on jobs. The danger of fire was constant. How ironic, then, that Charles H. held a cigarette for his portrait.

After the death of paterfamilias Charles H., the Tillotson Construction Company was formed by Reginald, Joseph, and Mary. We would love to learn more about how this proceeded.

Meanwhile, the transition to slip-formed concrete construction was under way, with the Tillotsons’ carpentry skills being readily applied to the formwork.

A search for Van Ness elevator images yields surprising results

Story by Kristen Cart

When hunting for ancient elevators–and by ancient, I mean hundred-year-old, steel-sheathed, wooden construction–you run into a serious problem: most of them no longer exist.

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A 1936 Omaha directory

The elevator you are looking for may have burned down years ago, followed by a replacement that also burned down. The things liked to catch fire, as a search of old newspapers will show.

Concrete construction was meant to reduce the problem, but the new elevators would burn in spectacular fashion when grain dust ignited, throwing debris and victims sky high.

The fertile ground for old elevator hunting remains the Internet, thanks to bloggers, satellite imagery, photographers, and the odd stuff that accumulates online.

Recently, we turned up some truly fascinating finds. We had discovered Charles H. Tillotson was president of Van Ness Construction Company, of Omaha, in the 1930s. He was the original founder of the construction business (and its progeny) that his children and their associates operated into the 1950s, as documented in this blog.

Charles H. Tillotson

Charles H. Tillotson

Now that we had a company name for his earlier efforts, the hunt for Van Ness elevators was on.

Rydal, Kan., was home to an early Van Ness elevator. The town was profiled in the blog Dead Towns of Kansas, a project by the Hutchinson, Kan., journalist Amy Bickel. On her page is a marvelous 1950s vintage aerial photograph of bridge construction showing two 1888- to 1907-vintage elevators, one of which was built by Van Ness. One of the two pictured elevators burned in 1952. We do not know if the fire consumed them both.

Luckily, a Van Ness mill and elevator in Grenola, Kan., was deemed historical, and the Kansas State Historical Society successfully nominated it for the National Register of Historic Places. Since grain was no longer stored there, the greatest threat to its survival was gone.

It is the only example we have found that still stands.

The architect of this elevator, designed and built in 1909, was P. H. Pelkey Company, with the construction completed by the R. M. Van Ness Construction, of Fairbury, Neb.

This company could have been the predecessor to the Van Ness Construction Company that Charles H. Tillotson led, and it may have been his earlier employer. A little more research could tease out the history of the Van Ness building enterprises in Nebraska.

But the elevator is representative of the typical construction of the time, when Charles would have been working in the business.

This old elevator is located in Grenola, Elk County, Kan., on a railroad siding which was formerly on a mainline of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad, Southern Kansas Division.

A mystery is solved with the discovery of elevator builder Van Ness Construction

The wooden elevator at Wymore, Nebraska, is representative of the style of Van Ness Construction

The wooden elevator at Wymore, Neb., is representative of the style of Van Ness Construction.

Story and photo by Kristen Cart

When we began investigating the elevators our grandfathers built, we had no idea how far the project would take us or what surprises would unfold. With the discovery of Van Ness Construction Company of Omaha, we have learned about the beginnings of the Tillotson family enterprise, and have entered a new phase of our search.

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The Nebraska State Journal, June 19, 1938

We knew that Charles H. Tillotson, patriarch of the family and great-grandfather of Ronald Ahrens, built elevators before the days of slip-formed concrete. We found only one Tillotson elevator, made of wood, that predated the elegant concrete structures that sprang up all over the Midwest in the ’40s and ’50s–at least we found its obituary in a news video of its fiery demise. That 1940 vintage elevator, in Hawarden, Iowa, was built two years after Charles died. It burned down in 2006. We didn’t find, at the time, a project that we could attribute to Charles.

Then we had a breakthrough, thanks to Ancestry.com.

Ancestry has a wonderful collection of city directories. I had seen listings for the Tillotson family in Omaha before, but I missed a significant data point. While searching for Sylvia (Mayer) Tillotson, the wife of Joe and sister of Eugene Mayer, I discovered an Omaha directory for 1936 in which Charles H. Tillotson was listed as president of Van Ness Construction Company. Further Internet searches revealed some of the sites where Van Ness built its small steel-cased wooden elevators, but as yet we have found none that have survived.

Now we hope to find an existing elevator from the days before Joe and Reginald Tillotson dreamed up their slip-formed concrete designs. So far the closest we have come is an elevator that perished in a fire in Scribner, Neb., in 1971 , a nightmare that repeated itself in June, 2013.

Also, in a Google satellite image of the town of Diller, Neb., another identified site, a square concrete pad with a grain spout lying alongside it is located near new steel bins, right where an old elevator should have been. In Rydal, Kan., you can see a concrete pad with concrete pits near a horizontal storage building, with the remains of a rail siding alongside. I was a little surprised to find evidence of earlier elevators at these sites, but of course digging up tons of concrete for no special reason would be unnecessarily expensive, so there are remains.

Everywhere we looked for these ancient elevators, we found evidence of obsolescence and ultimate destruction, with little left to identify the sites. Newspapers were the only way to find the locations. Fire certainly destroyed some of them. For those that remained, the adoption of concrete and much larger storage facilities turned these old Van Ness elevators into relics and ultimately spelled their doom.

Timeline for Tillotson Const., J.H. Tillotson, and Mayer-Osborn companies and jobs

Ronald Ahrens and Kristen Cart cofounded this blog. Gary Rich is a primary contributor. We have visited elevators around the United States and Canada.

Ronald’s maternal grandfather was Reginald Oscar “Mike” Tillotson.

Kristen’s paternal grandfather was William Arthur Osborn.

Reginald O. Tillotson

R. O. Tillotson

Reginald’s company was Tillotson Construction Co., of Omaha. The company had been building and repairing wooden elevators since the 1920s, when it was led by Reginald’s father Charles H. Tillotson. Before his death, experiments were made with slip-form concrete construction techniques.

1938: Charles dies, and the company passes to his sons Reginald and Joseph H. Tillotson and daughter Mary V. Tillotson. They begin to perfect slip-forming and refine their design strategy, which includes a rounded headhouse.

1945: Tillotson Construction builds a concrete elevator in Giddings, Tex. William Osborn works on this project. He is probably employed by the company by late in ’44. Tillotson Construction wins the contract to build in Elkhart, Kan., and starts construction.

1946: The 225,000-bushel elevator in Elkhart is completed. “Shortly after the war, my Dad and Joe decided they couldn’t see eye to eye, so they split,” writes Charles J. Tillotson in “The Tillotson Construction Story” on this blog. Joe forms J.H. Tillotson, Contractor in Denver. William Osborn works for Joe Tillotson.

William A. Osborn in 1965

William A. Osborn in 1965

1947: Tillotson Construction builds  the Vinton Street elevator in Omaha. Joe Tillotson dies in a car accident in March. J.H. Tillotson, Contractor builds at Daykin and Fairbury, Neb., and Hanover and Linn, Kan., with William Osborn supervising the projects. Maxine Carter leaves Tillotson Construction on Oct. 7 to wed Russell L. Bentley.

1948: Formed in September from the residue of J.H. Tillotson, Contractor, the Mayer-Osborn Company builds its first elevator at McCook, Neb. Joe Tillotson’s wife Sylvia was a Mayer, and her brother Eugene Mayer is one of the partners. William Osborn is the other. Meanwhile, Reginald begins to use a light airplane for business travel in the postwar years. Reginald’s nephew John Hassman joins Tillotson Construction in September; among many other duties, he pilots the company plane to jobs in Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Tillotson’s projects that year are in Paullina, Iowa, and Montevideo, Minn.

1949: John Hassman’s father Ralph, Reginald’s cousin, joins Tillotson Construction in sales and stays through 1952.

1950: Construction begins in November on the Tillotson house, which is built of concrete. It still stands north of Omaha. Tillotson employee Jess Weiser weds Lavonne Wiemers on Dec. 22.

1951: Drafted into the Air Force, John Hassman leaves Tillotson Construction in January.

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By 1930, the Tillotsons are prospering — with a radio set!

By Ronald Ahrens

On April 4, 1930, the census-taker knocked at the Tillotsons’ door at 624 N. 41 St., in Omaha, and found them prospering.

Charles H. Tillotson, 51, was head of household and gave his occupation as superintendent in construction. Census code 73X1 supports this. It appears he was an employee.

Rose Tillotson, 52, was home. The age given here corroborates my belief that Rose’s age, given as 38 in 1920, was incorrect.

Charles was 23 and Rose 24 when they were wed.

Son Joseph, 23, was employed as a salesman in the wholesale grocery business, as census code 4590 supports. Son Reginald, 21, as well as daughter Mary, 19, also lived in the home.

The Tillotsons owned their home, which was valued at $3500. And they cooperated in supplying an extra bit of data: they had a radio set.

By 1935, Reginald would be the father of Charles J. Tillotson, the first of six children with Margaret Irene McDunn Tillotson. The grandson would barely know his grandfather: Charles H. would die in June 1938 at Concordia, Kansas.