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.

The 1945 vintage elevator at Lodgepole, Nebraska, and the death of Bill Morris

DSC_0446Story and photo by Kristen Cart

A newspaper article recently came to light that upended our elevator construction timeline, causing us to reconsider the story of the Lodgepole, Neb., elevator and the careers of Joseph H. Tillotson and my grandfather William Arthur Osborn.

My dad, Jerry Osborn, said that the death of Bill Morris, the superintendent on the Lodgepole job, and that of Joe Tillotson, the owner of J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, came within a month or so of each other. Now it appears likely that the season was the same, but both fatal car accidents occurred in different years–1945 and 1947–a fact easily misunderstood by the young boy my father was at the time, as he listened to the adults talk about business.

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We believe this photo by William Osborn is from Lodgepole, Neb.

The article appeared in the Nebraska State Journal on Oct. 8, 1945:

Omahan dies after car accident

SIDNEY, Neb. (AP). W. B. Morris, 36, an employee of the Tillotson Construction company, of Omaha, was fatally injured Saturday night when struck by a car driven by Howard B. Kirk, 48, of Lodgepole, Neb., Deputy Sheriff Arnold Braasch said Sunday.

The deputy sheriff reported Morris was changing a tire on his car about ten miles east of here when the accident occurred. He died in a hospital about five hours later.

Braasch said Morris’ home was in Texas, but that he was living in Lodgepole while working on the construction of a new grain elevator.

County Attorney R. P. Kepler said he will decide on Monday whether an inquest is to be held.

We attributed the Lodgepole elevator’s construction to J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, the independent company Joe Tillotson started after his parting of the ways with Tillotson Construction of Omaha. We wrongly believed that both Bill Morris and Joe Tillotson had died in 1947 while working on the Lodgepole job. Now we know that Bill Morris died in 1945 while working for Joe Tillotson. The new fact pins down the date of Joe’s departure from the Omaha company–a move my grandfather made at the same time.

When interviewed in 1949 about his first, independent, Mayer-Osborn Construction venture in McCook, Neb., William Osborn named a number of elevators he had built before. We still believe all of the elevators Bill Osborn listed were J.H. Tillotson elevators.

According to the McCook article, Bill Osborn said the elevators in Maywood, Traer, Wauneta, and Lodgepole were built in 1945. If the reporter was right about Bill Morris’ employment, all of the 1945 elevators would be too early to be J. H. Tillotson elevators. However, none of them were recorded in the Tillotson Construction specifications and none built in the Omaha company’s style.

The reporter writing about Bill Morris’ death in 1945 was unaware of the freshly minted company Joe Tillotson had started, and wrongly identified Bill Morris as a Tillotson Construction of Omaha employee.

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An early photo of the Lodgepole elevator was kept at the location.

The fact that in 1945, Bill Morris went from a superintendent job at a verified Tillotson Construction project in Giddings, Tex to a superintendent position at the Lodgepole elevator job, a project demonstrably not built by the Omaha company, precisely dates the time Joe Tillotson chose to go out on his own.

The 1945 construction date of the Lodgepole elevator gives us a much more accurate understanding of the birth of J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, a venture that lasted about four years, until my grandfather built the McCook elevator for Mayer-Osborn Construction in 1949.

A tragedy took Morris in his prime, but my grandfather stepped into his place, gaining valuable experience as a builder. To this day, the graceful Lodgepole elevator serves as a fitting monument to Morris’ productive career.

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.

Mayer-Osborn’s proposals were rejected at Wauneta, Nebraska

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Mayer-Osborn Construction lost their bid to build this annex.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

Our blog contributor Gary Rich was the first to visit Wauneta, Neb. in the hunt for elevators built by Mayer-Osborn Company and J. H. Tillotson, Contractor. He discovered that the Frenchman Valley Co-op had retained original documentation including blueprints for the original elevator, and the two annexes, which all still operate today. The various documents painted a confusing picture. Gary told me enough that I knew I needed to get down there and see for myself, which I finally did in October of 2012.

The builder of the original elevator was unclear, but presumably J. H. Tillotson had built it, based its appearance.  Mayer-Osborn soon returned with a proposal for the first annex, and a close reading of those documents seemed to indicate that the first elevator was completed by the same people, which at that time worked for the J. H. Tillotson, Contractor operation. But nothing definitive was found to that effect–even the manhole covers of the main house were blank after a renovation.

FVC BP6aThe most interesting discovery was a set of blueprints and drawings completed by Mayer-Osborn for their annex that was never built. Their proposal was submitted twice, once in 1950 and once a few years later, but the town finally decided on a different contractor after some delay. For some reason, the co-op retained all of the paperwork at the site. This blueprint, dated Feb. 17, 1950, was the first of these designs.

The co-op has retained the original written contract proposals, which will be detailed in a later post. It would be very interesting to discover what held up the original building plan. Because the annex finally went up in about 1957, it’s possible that the co-op just waited too long and built the annex after the demise of the Mayer-Osborn Company. The existing annex looks much like the original proposal. Did they show another company the plans, and ask, “How close can you come to this design?”

J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, built their elevator scale houses with distinctive flair

The scale house at Monument, Kan., above, is almost identical to the one at Lodgepole, Neb.

The details of the scale house at Monument, Kan., above, are almost identical to those at Lodgepole, Neb. Photo by Kristen Cart

Story by Kristen Cart

Elevator construction was driven by stringent engineering requirements, lending a degree of commonality to the buildings. A few distinguishing details could be noticed, but from a distance you would be hard pressed to determine the builder. When contractors built the accompanying buildings, however, they had free reign to build in a style they could call their own. Often the scale houses would be instantly recognizable.

Lodgepole, Neb.

Lodgepole, Neb. Photo by Kristen Cart

J. H. Tillotson’s designs lent themselves well to the addition of a stylish scale house built alongside the main elevator. In some cases, when visiting an elevator, our access was limited. Then the lines of the scale house would be the only clue that we were looking at a J. H. Tillotson elevator.

Below are a few examples, each adapted to its individual setting, but each showing some distinguishing details that were common to all. Each J. H. Tillotson scale house was built of concrete, with a rectilinear floor plan. Usually they incorporated a protruding bay window, on the side facing the scale, for added visibility. Stairs, usually with steel railings, led to a door to accommodate truckers’ entry into the building. Carefully executed details in the concrete expressed the architect’s personal sense of style.

The scale house at the now demolished elevator at McAllister, Kan., is the only clue we have to its builder. Photo by Gary Rich

The scale house at the now demolished elevator at McAllaster, Kan., is a clue to its builder. Photo by Gary Rich

The scale house at Bradshaw, Neb. sports new siding over its concrete walls. Photo by Kristen Cart

The scale house at Bradshaw, Neb., sports new siding over its concrete walls. Photo by Kristen Cart

The scale-house at the Farmers Co-op, Daykin, Neb. shows characteristic corner details. Photo by Kristen Cart

The scale house at the Farmers Co-op, Daykin, Neb., shows characteristic corner details. Photo by Kristen Cart

While the builder of the elevators at McAllaster and Bradshaw has not been established with certainty, a fair case can be made that they were J. H. Tillotson designs based on details of the elevators themselves, the driveways, and the scale houses, when compared with known elevators. The scale house at Daykin, Neb., is included here for comparison.

J. H. Tillotson’s designs were visually appealing, with scale houses that contributed to a harmonious whole. When considering a builder, buyers would judge the quality of the elevator by its beauty, among other things. In this regard, J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, was more successful than most.

Scale houses express graceful utility, epitomize contemporary style

Daykin, Neb. scale house built by J. H. Tillotson, Contractor

Daykin, Neb., scale house built by J. H. Tillotson, Contractor.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

An often unnoticed feature of every grain elevator is the scale house. The scale house is home to the cooperative site office, and is the place where the elevator conducts its primary business. It is usually an unassuming building where empty grain trucks pull up to be weighed before filling up. The trucks make a second visit when laden with grain, and the difference in weight is tallied in the office. Conversely, when a full grain truck pulls up to deposit its grain, it must return after unloading to determine how much has been loaded into the elevator. Inside the scale house, a small sample of the grain is tested for quality and moisture content.

The scale house in Benton, Kan.

The scale house in Benton, Kan.

Many scale houses are metal or brick buildings, often unattached to the elevator and some distance away. Most are  unremarkable. But some of the old concrete scale houses have unique charm. The scale houses that accompanied J. H. Tillotson elevators were particularly attractive, and are one of the first things to look for when identifying their elevators.

Scale house in Willows, Calif.

Scale house in Willows, Calif.

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Other builders also produced some remarkable scale houses. Elevator building was driven by engineering and economical constraints, but in some cases the scale houses received special attention. In Willows, Calif., I photographed an example that had to take first prize. This dandy building recalls a 1960s drive-in burger joint, complete with car-side speakers and root beer floats. While it is not an example of our grandfathers’ work, it deserves notice.

The simple lines of the back of the scale house at Kanorado, Kan.

The simple lines of the back of the scale house at Kanorado, Kan.

Joseph H. Tillotson developed a characteristic style for the scale houses his company built. Those I have visited appeared to be concrete, and many had attractive details. For more typical examples of his work, stay tuned.