The Cordell, Oklahoma elevator project fused engineering prowess with family ties

Story by Kristen Cart

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Edwin Christoffersen was the superintendent on the Mayer-Osborn Construction project in Cordell, Okla. in 1950. His son and namesake kindly provided a notebook that gave a glimpse of the concrete engineering that went into the elevator. By trial and error, the company learned best practices, creating an enduring structure which would still operate more than sixty years later.

Edwin Louis Christofferson was the son of Jens “James” Lauritz Christoffersen, a first generation American who farmed and operated a farm stand in Fremont, Neb. Edwin was one of nine children. Ed’s sister Alice married William Osborn in 1923.

When the Mayer-Osborn enterprise was in full swing, Bill Osborn tapped relatives to manage projects or to provide manual labor. He followed a common practice.

Sons Dick and Jerry Osborn worked at various times building elevators. Bill Osborn entered partnership with Eugene Mayer, the brother of Joseph H. Tillotson’s wife Sylvia. At the Tillotson Construction Company of Omaha, Bill Osborn worked with Iver Salroth, husband of Emma, a Christoffersen cousin.

Naturally, when the opportunity arose, Ed Christoffersen found employment with his brother-in-law’s company an attractive proposition.

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Edwin Louis Christoffersen with his only child.

Ed’s son has kept a number of Mayer-Osborn keepsakes, in memory of his dad, who died when he was still quite young. One intriguing item was the logbook that Ed kept for the Cordell, Okla. elevator, recording concrete tests.

Various sand, gravel, and concrete mixtures were tested to a failure point to determine the ideal formula for a given project. The date and time of day was recorded for each test. In this journal, we discovered the year of construction for the Cordell elevator.

The elevator business brought families together to accomplish a common goal, and now, many years later, writing about the elevators brings the builders and their sons and daughters together again. The memories are kept in small personal repositories of clippings, photos and documents, and in tales of the job, and are captured fleetingly before the witnesses leave us.

Looking up at these great landmarks, we also look up to the patriarchs who built them, with respect, and awe.

J. H. Tillotson’s project at Lodgepole, Neb., was the end of the line for Supt. Bill Morris

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The Lodgepole, Neb. elevator viewed through a rainy windshield on a blustery day.

Story and photo by Kristen Cart

It was the heyday of elevator construction, and J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, of Denver, was riding the crest of the building wave, when a new elevator was begun along Highway 30 (the Lincoln Highway), in the sand hill country of western Nebraska. Lodgepole was a sleepy town along the rail line that connected Sidney to the west, with Chappell and Big Springs to the east.

My grandfather, William Osborn, had been building for several years, and he accompanied Joe Tillotson to Denver when Joe made his break with the family business, Tillotson Construction of Omaha, and set out on his own. The new company had several projects under its belt, and several others ongoing in 1947, when Lodgepole’s elevator was started.

Bill Morris, an employee poached from the parent company, was superintendent for the job.

The dangers of the business were well known. But for the J. H. Tillotson company, fate was especially cruel, though the disasters that befell the builders were of a more mundane sort. In about March of 1947, Bill Morris was changing a tire on the side of Highway 30 near Lodgepole when a car struck him, and he was killed.

Of course the construction project went forth, and my grandfather played a role, since he had the experience to step in where Bill Morris left off.

It was not long afterward that Joe Tillotson met his maker in a car accident–only a matter of a few weeks. In those days safety in vehicles was an afterthought, and the Grim Reaper was guaranteed a regular harvest.

Joe’s death opened doors for my grandfather, since there were elevators to build and contracts to fulfill. By September of 1948, Bill Osborn had joined with Eugene Mayer, Joe’s brother-in-law, and together they formed the partnership of Mayer-Osborn Construction Company. My dad said Grandpa had to put up some money to opt into the business, and then he continued as before, building elevators as fast as they would go up.

The McCook, Neb., elevator marked their first joint effort.

By making tricky distinctions, it’s possible to discern the builder of an elevator

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

The question whether each elevator construction company had a signature style has become a topic of intense discussion and research here, and we don’t have all of the answers yet.

Johnson-Sampson Construction Company, of Salina, Kan., built elevators that were very similar to those of J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, of Denver and Mayer-Osborn Construction, also of Denver, prompting a great deal of debate about how that came to be.

Our pages for McCook, Neb., and Blencoe, Iowa, show elevators each with a stepped, rounded headhouse and about a quarter-million-bushel capacity. It was a standard elevator style for Mayer-Osborn, even appearing in their ads, until they closed their doors in 1954.

After that date, Johnson-Sampson was building a nearly identical elevator. We don’t know whether the architect moved on to work for Johnson-Sampson or the design was sold. The elevator at Limon, Colo., is in the same style, but there is no indication who built it—no paperwork, and no name on the manhole covers or the interior of the elevator.

Mayer-Osborn’s elevator at Kanorado, Kan., shows the company’s typical grooved vertical style.

So the question becomes: was the style proprietary to one company or to one designer who sold his design to all comers?

The Kanorado, Kan., elevator was built by Mayer-Osborn, in a design adopted from J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, after Joe Tillotson died in 1948. The same company essentially carried on under the new partnership of William Osborn and Eugene Mayer, and some of the earlier designs remained unchanged. The grooved vertical lines are only found on elevators made by those two companies.

Identical detailing can be found on elevators in Lodgepole and Wauneta, Neb., and Monument, Traer, and Goodland, Kan., among others—all of which were built by J. H Tillotson.

Another example, at Page City, Kan., comes from Johnson-Sampson, as proven by the manhole covers. The operator says it was built in the late 1950s. It looks very similar to the elevators in Wauneta, Neb., and Traer, Kan., built by J. H. Tillotson before his death in 1948. A few details and dimensions differ, and in this case the changes appear to be distinctive for Johnson-Sampson elevators. I feel fairly confident that the Page City elevator is an example of an identifiable Johnson-Sampson design.

Johnson-Sampson’s elevators in Brandon, Colo., and Page City, Kan., are clones to each other. They look very much like the Mayer-Osborn design but have slightly different dimensions and lack the vertical grooves.

Arriba, Colo., is another of the same type.

Johnson-Sampson’s Page City elevator lacks the vertical grooves.

My best guess is the larger, successful companies had a few standard designs for their customers. If a customer wanted to request a proposal, they would give specifications, and the company would customize to meet the described needs, presenting the plans in their contract bid. Upon acceptance, the elevator would rise, with enough differences from the basic design to make it unique.

A few telltale details suggest the builder’s identity, but you can’t be absolutely sure until you see a document or a manhole cover to confirm your suspicion.

In Monument, Kansas, the elevator is closed to visitors and its story sealed

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

I approach this post with a little bit of trepidation, since the Monument, Kan., elevator does not invite tourists–even those with family connections. It is operated by a large corporation which primarily supplies corn for ethanol. It seems that an overly inviting manager might be risking his job, so I contented myself with photos taken from off of the property. But I was able to cobble together some information about it, from a variety of sources. Suffice it to say, it would not be prudent to reveal all of them.

A view of the Monument, Kan., elevator, taken from off-property. Visitors weren’t permitted at the facility.

I was able to determine the builder for the stand-up elevator with its integral head house. The manhole covers are stamped with the company name of J. H. Tillotson, Denver, Colo. The annex on the left has unmarked ports, but the annex on the right has man-hole covers stamped with the company name Mayer-Osborn. I did not see any of the ports for myself, so I am relying on secondhand information. But my grandfather apparently made a return trip after building the original house.

The original elevator was built for a Mr. Bertrand, whose son is still living. The elevator once had a brass plaque installed, which has since been removed and may still be with the Bertrand family. There were also early photographs of the elevator, and it is believed that they went with the plaque.

I spoke with a gentleman named Fred Wassemiller, who said, “These elevators were the best thing going–they should have kept building them.” He also said it was too bad that the “old-timers around here are gone.”

Apparently, they could have told me a lot.

Searching for Mayer-Osborn’s office in Denver produces a good possibility

Story and illustration by Kristen Osborn Cart

Looking for the original offices my grandfather used while putting up elevators for a living, I checked maps for the buildings that stood at the old Mayer-Osborn Company addresses. Google gives a bird’s-eye view. The newer address at 5100 York, in Denver, has no building and seems to be a parking lot full of junker cars and abandoned trailers. There is a small white cinderblock-looking building next door that might be that old, but it is nothing to speak of. I am sure the old building where William Osborn and his partner Gene Mayer located their business is long gone.

The address at 1717 E. Colfax has a handsome, two-toned, tan-and-brown brick building, three stories high, with a glass-brick corner feature on each floor and a style very like some of the better buildings from the Forties and Fifties. It has white-framed windows. It looks like it could have been newly built, if it was their office back then. A mural painted on the side looks like old Nebraska historical scenes, and a canvas awning shades the entry.

If I were any good at all at remembering architectural terminology from my college art history class, you would have a pretty good idea what it looks like just from my description.

Alas, there’s no way of knowing from a photo exactly when it was built, and whether Mayer-Osborn set up there in the old office of Holmen and Mayer, but I suspect so. The building would have made a very presentable impression on clients who came in looking for a reputable, established elevator construction company.

 


Mayer-Osborn’s new Roggen elevator contrasts with the old wooden one

New Elevator at Roggen Skyscraper of the Plains

A skyscraper on the plains of Weld county is the cement and steel grain elevator of the Farmers Grain and Bean association at Roggen. 

It is 119 and a half feet to the top of the bins and 157 feet to the top of the head house. The eight silos in the elevator have a network of 19 bins with a total capacity of 250,000 bushels.

Completion of the elevator in September gave the association a total storage capacity of 330,000 bushels, with the old elevator, shown in the foreground.

It also provided the association with the most modern equipment for grinding, rolling and mixing grain.

The contractor was Mayer-Osborn company of Denver.

Photo by Robert Widlund, Greeley (Colo.) Daily Tribune, undated (1950)

 

Engaged in sales, William Osborn spent serious time on the road

Gerald Osborn makes this point in an email to Kristen Osborn Cart:

Just for the record, your grandfather [William Osborn, of Mayer-Osborn Company] spent a lot of time on the road selling elevators. I remember waiting in the car during one stop he made; I believe it was at Le Mars, Iowa. I don’t believe it is correct to attribute all the sales to Gene Mayer.

In fact, my understanding was that Gene spent most of his time in the office in Denver and likely was involved with drawing up the contracts, doing the cost analysis, and issuing the bid package. There was also the financial side of things that I don’t think my dad was very involved with:  payroll, purchasing, accounting, et cetera.