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.

A photo tour at Kanorado, Kansas, reveals subtle J. H. Tillotson design details

DSC_0642Story and photos by Kristen Cart

One of the best stops on my elevator tour last October was Kanorado, Kan. It was a fortuitous visit, made in the golden hour of photographic light. We have profiled the elevator before, based upon a visit by Gary Rich while the elevator was operating and open for an impromptu tour. But I wanted to see for myself the elevator my grandfather William Osborn built.

No one was there when we arrived, but I was able to get a good look at all sides of the structure. The straight up, classic lines were unique to  J. H. Tillotson elevators.

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A view of the integral headhouse with windows to admit light

Other companies built similarly styled elevators, such as the Greenwood, Neb. elevator built by Tillotson of Omaha in 1951. But those differed in shape and concrete detailing. The elevator at Kanorado was an earlier effort, and should be compared with those at Traer, Kan., Goodland, Kan., and Wauneta, Neb., among others.

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Late afternoon shadows are cast across the drive-through scale

 

Another design element that seems to be unique to Joseph H. Tillotson’s Denver-based company is the squat concrete scale house, a deceptively simple building with lovely proportions, as can also be seen with the J. H. Tillotson elevator at Daykin, Neb.

DSC_0687It is good to see another 1940s vintage elevator still doing its job nearly 70 years later. It is a testament to a work ethic that seems quaint in our present day, and a personal investment in quality beyond the next payday. My grandfather would be proud.

Elevator builders turned to wartime projects during World War II

Unknown, Gerald Osborn, William Osborn, Iver Salroth

Jerry Osborn (standing) with his father Bill Osborn (center) and Iver Salroth (right) in Galveston, Texas in 1945 during construction of Tillotson’s Fairmont building in Giddings.

By Kristen Cart

We have very limited information about the activities of Tillotson Construction of Omaha during World War Two. The other two elevator builders we profile, J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, and Mayer-Osborn, of Denver, Colo., began their operations after the war, but individuals working for both companies gained their experience during wartime, either at Tillotson Construction, or elsewhere.

Eugene Mayer, a partner in Mayer-Osborn Construction, previously worked in a partnership, Holmen and Mayer, based in Denver. Orrie Holmen was a University of Chicago-trained architect. Eugene’s sister Sheila was the wife of Joe Tlllotson. At some point after 1938, Joe left his brother Reginald in charge of the parent company, Tillotson Construction, of Omaha, and moved to Denver to start his own elevator business, accompanied by old Tillotson hands William Osborn and Bill Morris.

It would be fascinating to trace the wartime activities of each of these principal builders, if they can be learned.

Elevator photos026In the Tillotson company records, we found concrete elevator specifications beginning a few years before the War and resuming immediately afterward, but conspicuously absent were records of elevator construction during the War.

However, we know Tillotson Construction was active between 1942 and 1945. We found one snippet in an old newspaper, which we transcribed on the blog: https://ourgrandfathersgrainelevators.com/2012/05/08/nebraska-firms-get-government-contracts/.

When we learn more about the activities of the company during that time, we will certainly write about it here. It is an open line of inquiry, and we are eagerly seeking more information.

A look at grain operations at the J. H. Tillotson elevator in Lodgepole, Nebraska

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A Union Pacific train rolls by the elevators in Lodgepole, Neb.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

A beautiful elevator can be truly inspiring. My first visit to Lodgepole, Neb., was on a hazy October day, on the way to Wyoming, where we hunt elk. The misty skies did not show the elevator to its greatest advantage, so the best photography had to wait for a later visit. But this time I had the chance to visit the office and learn more about the elevator and the town.

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Melvin Paulsen inside the elevator driveway during corn transfer.

Melvin Paulsen, a two-year employee of the Frenchman Valley Coop, hailing from Julesburg, Colo., kindly showed me inside the main elevator. The interior lacked the embossed manhole covers that would reveal the builder, J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, but we knew the origins of this elevator from the recollections of my father Jerry Osborn.

The Denver-based builder had lost its owner, Joe Tillotson, and superintendent, Bill Morris, in separate traffic accidents during construction at Lodgepole. The mishaps ended a successful run of elevator projects. My grandfather, William Osborn, soon picked up the pieces and started his own company, Mayer-Osborn Construction Company, also based in Denver.

Melvin explained that the elevator was in the process of shifting grain from a main bin to the annex. The grain dryer attached to the elevator was no longer operational, so only grain that was sufficiently dry (with 18 percent or less original moisture content) could be accepted for storage. Grain that was on the moist end of the acceptable range had to go to the annex, which had ventilation fans, to prevent damage from overheating.

A fair pile of dust could accumulate during the grain transfer, so the elevator driveway was kept open to help blow it out. A shovel leaned nearby to take care of the remainder. Dust had to be cleared out completely to prevent an explosive hazard.

One of the newer bins was home to an emergency response relay for radio communications between dispatch and fire and emergency responders.

Elevator photos006Inside the Frenchman Valley Coop office was an old aerial photo of the elevator and one that was taken during its construction. Melvin kindly furnished me with an extra copy of the aerial shot. The elevator looked very much like its J. H. Tillotson brethren.

Lodgepole celebrates Old Settlers’ Days each year. The park alongside the railroad tracks fills with horses and buggies, tractors, vendors, and all manner of activities. A parade winds along the streets. The scene recalls a time when a farmer would drive his wagon up to the old wooden elevator on the rail line, and dump his grain in the pit, hoping for higher prices.

The town also attracts visitors when the old Union Pacific steam engine, UP844, stops on a regular scheduled visit.

Lodgepole’s elevator was a milestone in my grandfather’s building career. It remains one of the most attractive elevators in Nebraska.