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.





Making sense of a chimney near a wooden elevator in Alta, Iowa


Commentary by Tim Tillotson, photo from the Neil A. Lieb archive

Note: What follows is from a phone interview on May 14. Uncle Tim is speculating about the reason why some Tillotson Construction Company employees stayed behind for this small job after completing the concrete elevator at Alta, Iowa, in the summer of 1950.

That chimney is probably about 30 inches in diameter. They’ve got a mortar mixer down there for masonry, a hand line going up, and the framework is scaffolding. The building in front is eight-inch block. Every three blocks is two feet. The building is 12 foot to the eaves.

There’s a reason for that damn stack, and it’s got to have something to do with fire down below. [Brother] Charles [Tillotson] said it could’ve been an iron-working shop.

Why does that car have chock blocks front and rear? Is it some kind of an anchor? It’s a 1935 or 1936, possibly DeSoto.

If you were burning coal, you wouldn’t get sparks. Maybe they were baking bread, cornbread. They’re carrying that stack high enough to get above the wooden elevator. What the hell it could be made of to be that thin and not be braced?

I don’t understand what’s with the masonry mixer down there. If that stack, for example, was a heavy metal tube, I don’t know that you could plaster it.

The gun fired, and continuous action of many processes began in Alta, Iowa


In this post, Charles J. Tillotson elaborates on Neil A. Lieb’s previous comments, describing the above photo from his archive. The jack rods referred to in the text are the tall, slender steel poles seen throughout the photo.  

They often say, a picture is worth a thousand words and this one fits the bill perfectly. The photo is truly an aid to describing the method of slipform construction that was used in grain elevator construction. Neil mentions the one-handed placement of the jack rod, so I’ll start with that.
Slipform construction is made up of many complex disciplines which have to all work together in order to provide the final poured-in-place concrete product.

As mentioned prior to this, the slipping of the formwork used in this type of construction was provided by a series of screw jacks placed apart by an engineered calculation sufficient to lift each jack’s portion of the formwork assembly.

Each screw jack was supported by a wooden, U-shaped yoke, the legs of which were attached to the vertical concrete formwork. Inserted in the top (or horizontal) portion of each yoke was a screw jack (similar to that used in jacking building foundations). A smooth one-inch jack rod was then inserted into the top head of the jack and threaded down through it until stopping at the foundation slab. 

The formwork is clearly seen at the Alta elevator rises. The catwalk around the bottom was for the concrete finisher, who smoothed and patched the freshly formed surface. Photo from the Neil A. Lieb Archive.

The wooden formwork is clearly seen at the Alta elevator rises. The scaffolding around the bottom was for the cement finishers, who smoothed and patched the freshly formed surface. Photo from the Neil A. Lieb Archive. 

A series of horizontal wooden rails at about waist height (looks like a railroad track) were then built directly above the open formwork, the “ties” of which were placed at prescribed intervals and used as a template spacer for inserting the actual vertical reinforcing steel. (See the small, half-inch rebar rods extending vertically out of the open bin forms at each cross tie). The vertical rebar was staggered slightly in an alternating fashion so as to allow the half-inch horizontal rebar to be threaded through the vertical rebar. On the vertical 2x4s that are attached to the exterior side of the formwork and rise above the entire deck assembly, so-called targets placed on their tops were used in leveling the deck in order to provide a final elevator that rose plumb and straight above the foundation.

As the screw jacks were turned (each jack was turned the same amount), the foreman on deck used a leveling instrument and sighted on each target to insure that the formwork was rising true plumb and level. If any of the targets did not align with true level, the portion of the deck out of plumb was corrected by extra turns of the screw jack or jacks as necessary to bring that portion of the deck up level with the rest of the formwork. 

Not shown in the photo is the horizontal rebar that was required to form a steel reinforced grid integrally cast in the concrete to form a reinforced concrete structure. Initially, the horizontal steel was wire-tied in place to the vertical rebar prior to one side of the forms being installed.  This placement occurred only to the height of the wood bin forms. Once the form-lifting began, the horizontal steel was placed by hand by pushing and threading the rebar horizontally through the vertical rebar. Because of the vertical movement of the formwork, close attention was required as to the spacing between horizontal rebar. 

Now, try to imagine: the start gun is fired and the continuous action of the many processes begins, never to stop until the wooden forms and finished structure reaches the prescribed vertical height (some 120 feet) eight days later. Manual labor is involved in each discipline. Personnel changes occur, but each position is filled by a replacement. The gun is fired, cement is mixed and lifted to the deck of the formwork via a Georgia buggy, and the content is dumped into the open form. The pouring of the cement into the formwork is continued in a circular fashion around the entire deck until it reaches a prescribed height in the form. 

The finished elevator. Photo from the Neil A. Lieb Archive.

The finished elevator. Photo from the Neil A. Lieb Archive.

Once the cement is allowed to solidify in the forms on the foundation slab, the jacking operation begins and the formwork starts its vertical lifting and slipping process. The jacks are turned, the cement is poured, the vertical rebar and jackrods are placed and spliced, and all the while the horizontal rebar is positioned at the proper height and spacing. Pour cement, turn jacks, place rebar, check deck level, and on and on through night and day until the construction reaches final height. The most problematic aspect of this system is the placing of the horizontal steel at the correct spacing, the placement of formed openings in the bins, keeping the hoist in operation, mixing the cement, and obtaining enough set time of the cement mixture so that as the finished concrete walls do not fall apart or slough off.     

Also, hanging beneath the formwork structure is the scaffolding for the cement finishers who dutifully serve to patch and smoothly finish the concrete surfaces appearing at the bottom of the vertically slipping formwork. 



Analysis of photos from Tillotson Construction’s job in Alta, Iowa



By Charles J. Tillotson with photos from the Neil A. Lieb archive

The images from the Neil A. Lieb Archive are the best historical, phase-by-phase photos that I’ve seen yet. They give the layman a good concept of what actually takes place, from start to finish, in building a grain elevator.

A few comments I might add:

The excavation for the foundation began with dynamite.

Excavating the foundation began with a bang.

Neil writes about the use of dynamite during the excavation process. Dynamite was used for foundation excavation on many a job because of the deep frost. We even used it for cutting the foundation of the reinforced concrete garage we built on the old place in Omaha. We were young ’ns then, but still got to set (light) the fuses to a few charges.

I remember getting the neighbors excited about what the hell we were doin’ now.

By the way, the garage utilized slip-form construction with steel stays instead of wood for the formwork—another of Dad’s experiments. He was interested in finding materials that could be reused over and over, rather than having to buy lumber formwork for every new job. I guess this method didn’t make a lot of sense, as he never tried it out on an elevator.


This photo is an historical testimony as to how the so-called unskilled, common man could be taught layout along with measuring, wood cutting, and other carpentry skills. The labor used to build these forms and construct the entire grain elevator structure was obtained, for the most part, from the inhabitants of the local vicinity where the elevator was to be built. Most of the workmen had no experience whatsoever in the construction industry.


People used to marvel at how the cement went into the top of the formwork and came out the bottom of the forms, in a set-up, semi-solid state, all occurring whilst the deck and forms continued to extend upwards, being jacked up on screw jacks. Once the slipping of the forms began, it never stopped, unless by a power outage, a severe storm, or some other interference.


Beneath the deck and main formwork, a sub-scaffolding was constructed to provide access to the exterior face of the concrete structure, which required patching and touch-up for a final smooth finish. A rich mixture of cement, sand, and lime was used which was applied to the concrete face by hand, usually covering the entire exterior surface, removing all blemishes. The finish material was hoisted in five-gallon buckets to the finishers. These workmen traversed the scaffold of wood planking—usually two, 2 x 12s laid flat between the wooden hanger frames that attached to the formwork above. Very dangerous work without a safety net!

At the ground level, a workman on a tractor would load a Georgia buggy with cement, to be hoisted to the top and placed in the formwork. Small skip loaders, tractors with scoop-type buckets mounted on the front, were an essential tool used during construction. This included scooping up the sand, gravel, and cement to make concrete and placing them in a mixer.

Neil A. Lieb collection Once the concrete was ready for placement, the tractor scoop was filled with the cementitous mixture and transported to the side of the elevator whereby the tractor would dump its load into a Georgia buggy to be hoisted up to the deck for placement.

Because of the extensive use of the tractor, more than one would be worn out. During the extremely active 1950s, Tillotson Construction Company would purchase Ford Ferguson tractors a dozen at a time, just to keep up with the need for replacement

The logistics of material supply was always challenging for the grain elevator builder. Usually, the projects were located in very rural farmland areas, where the supply of lumber, steel, sand, gravel, cement, gasoline, and oil was miles from the site. Because the construction utilized the slip-form method, the operation never stopped once it began, making it paramount that the supply of materials be established beforehand along with a comfort level that there would be no interruption once the job started.

Neil has noted (in an as yet unpublished commentary) the mixture of the gleaming, white, finished “paint,” which wasn’t really paint at all but instead a cementitious mixture that lasted for a very long time. Some of the elevators existing today still boast the original finish. Tillotson was among the few contractors that finished out their jobs this way.


Training the local unskilled labor in the processes of placing and wire-tying the reinforcing steel –and of pouring concrete, turning screw jacks, keeping the slip-form deck level, et cetera– were just a few of the many headaches the job superintendent had to bear during the initial start-up phases.

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.


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.

Wrecking out details are provided in drawings from Tillotson records

Charles H. Tillotson

By Ronald Ahrens

The papers we received from my Uncle Tim Tillotson included not only the record of Tillotson Construction Company’s building activities, but also these pages showing details of building a wrecking-out platform as well as jack rod assemblies and formwork details. Page two is dated November 12, 1954.

A wrecking-out platform was needed as workers disassembled the formwork on the inside of the completed elevator.

Charles H. Tillotson 1

Uncle Charles Tillotson has previously written about his close call when cable clamps failed.

In that post he described a wrecking-out platform this way:

The final scaffold then becomes a square platform suspended in a round tank.

The void on each side of the scaffold is used for lowering or throwing the wood material into the tank’s dark abyss. After all the overhead wrecking has been accomplished, another team gains access to the tank’s bottom via a manhole in the side of the tank at or near ground level.

Charles H. Tillotson 3

The drawings and details presented in the notes included here are invaluable. For example: The hole in the roof is formed with a one-quart motor oil can. (“Remove can & plug hole,” the addendum reminds.)

Charles H. Tillotson 5

The handwritten note in the upper right corner of the first page says, “I put my center needle beam under the manhole then it is easy to get plank on and easy to get on scaffold. If you think this helps O.K. other wise [illegible] to a goose going south.”

“I’ll pick it up when I catch him down about Galveston,” this section concludes.

Charles H. Tillotson 4

Another note is on the quality of timbers: “I’ve been using these for 20 years if you use 3 good 2 x 6 they work fine and save over the 3 x 6 & all that steel and all you have to do is cut the ones you use in the tanks and they will work in small bins.”

We look forward to readers’ comments on the pages.

Charles H. Tillotson 7