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.

Charles_Tillotson_Obit__The_Nebraska_State_Journal__Lincoln__Nebr___19_June_1938

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.

1920 census finds the Tillotsons settled in Omaha

By Ronald Ahrens

After their sojourn on Alda Street in Elba, Nebraska, where they were living at the time of the 1910 census, the family of Charles H. and Rose A. Tillotson found their way to Omaha.

When the census-taker came to the door in 1920, my great-grandfather gave his occupation as a “mechanic” in construction. This tells me several things. One is that just fifteen years earlier, the term “mechanician” was frequently used in the press. So it might be said that the language was in a sense settling.

Another thing is that mechanic was rather loosely defined. During the 1930s, Bill Knudsen, who became president of General Motors in 1937, gave speeches and interviews in which he insisted that every boy should learn the mechanic’s trade. This didn’t necessarily mean auto mechanics. It was more a case of learning the manual arts: sheet-metal work, electrical, maybe even plumbing or pipefitting.

But in the case of “Chas. H,” as he’s here listed (he was Charlie in 1910), I suspect it has something to do with assembling the legs and other internals of grain elevators.

Note that, whereas he was evidently an employer in 1910, he’s now a worker. The family was living at 624 N. 41 St, where they would be found again in 1930.

My grandfather’s name is entered incorrectly as “Oscar R.” instead of Reginald Oscar.

Joseph H. was 13, Reginald was 11, and Mary V. was 9. (Although that numeral may at first glance look like a 7, inspection by magnifying glass of a printed copy shows that it’s in fact a 9 with the loop nearly closed.)

Meanwhile, it’s certainly unusual that my great-grandmother Rose was thirty-five years old in 1910 but here is thirty-eight. Hers had to be the most effective anti-aging strategy ever!

1939 Omaha directory locates Tillotson Construction in Grain Exchange Building

The Omaha city directory for 1939, found by Kristen on Ancestry.com, verifies the status of the Tillotsons. From these pages it emerges that Tillotson Contruction Company kept offices at 720 Grain Exchange Building. Joseph H. Tillotson was president, Reginald O. Tillotson was vice-president, and their mother Rose A. (Brennan) Tillotson was secretary-treasurer in this  year.“Grain elev,” as seen in the listing, would refer to the company’s specialty.

Company president Joe Tillotson appears to have lived at 345 N. 41 St. with his wife Sylvia.

For the other Tillotsons, what could be a residential address of 1804 Dodge St. is given, although the directory’s abbreviations aren’t clear. Included here are Mrs. C.H. (Rose) Tillotson, who was by then the widow of Charles H. Tillotson, and Mary Tillotson, Reginald’s sister.

It seems unlikely that Reginald lived with his mother and sister at 1804 Dodge St. because by 1939 he and his wife Margaret already had at least four children of their own.

All this is in keeping with the announcement the previous autumn of Tillotson Construction Company’s establishment.