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.

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.

History is preserved in pictures at St. Francis, Kansas

Story by Kristen Cart

Farmers line up their grain trucks at St. Francis, Kan.

Farmers line up their grain trucks at St. Francis, Kan.

One of the most pleasant surprises at the St. Francis Mercantile Equity Exchange was their historical record preserved in pictures. In its hundred-year history, the exchange has maintained a continuous presence on the site of the present elevator, and has seen many changes in technology. Fortunately, photos exist that document the old way of doing things, and  Shirley Zweygardt, the site grain manager, was kind enough to provide copies.

In this photo dated 1951, an old wooden elevator stands immediately behind the concrete house. It was demolished to make room for the second bank of concrete bins, built in 2000.

In this photo dated 1951, an old wooden elevator stands immediately behind the concrete house. It was demolished to make room for the second bank of concrete bins, built in 2000.

It is always a fantastic find when you locate a pictorial history of an elevator.

A picture album, filled with historical treasures, which Shirley Zweygardt was pleased to share

A picture album, filled with historical treasures, which Shirley Zweygardt was pleased to share

I had already acquired a 1947 dated postcard depicting the elevator, so we knew its age. These additional photos, dated on the reverse “1951,” show its stately beauty. They depict two additional wooden elevators, which have long since disappeared. The vintage automobile in the foreground of the first image substantiates the date of the caption. Without the car, this photo would appear timeless, even though it was taken shortly before the addition of the first annex built by Chalmers and Borton.

Another view, dated 1951

Another view, dated 1951

It was quite a lovely thing; by 1951, the largest known elevator built by J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, was celebrating its fifth year, and was still white and stark against the sky. The elevator at McCook, Neb., was only two years old when this photo was taken, and my grandfather, builder William Osborn, had gone on to other projects with the Mayer-Osborn Construction Company.

Shirley Zweygardt told me an elderly resident of the town had preserved these photos in an album, which she brought to the elevator office, where they became part of the records of the equity exchange. The prints, reproduced here, were duplicate copies, now part of my growing library of historical images.

The visit to St. Francis was a happy one, capping an October 2012 elevator tour. This elevator marked the pinnacle of J. H. Tillotson’s construction career. Impressive still, it is a fitting monument to the skill, ambition, and industry of its builders.

Discovering the J. H. Tillotson elevator at St. Francis, Kansas, as a centennial looms

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The J. H. Tillotson elevator in St. Francis, Kan. is nestled between two annexes.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

St. Francis, Kan., stayed on my mind for months after I failed to find any sign of the work of my grandfather, William Osborn, on our first visit.

Out on the western end of Kansas, the town was well clear of any route our family would take on the way to somewhere else. It was a very intentional stop on our itinerary. On our first visit, we took a wide loop, arriving just after sundown, and we lost the opportunity to investigate further than one cursory look at the wrong elevator. The visit to St. Francis was shelved for several months, and I almost didn’t go, but when I did, I made sure to be there before nightfall.

The weather caught up, however.

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St. Francis Mercantile Equity Exchange grain merchandiser, Shirley Zweygardt.

This time, I headed toward the highest structure in town. By the time I pulled up to the elevator office, fat flakes of snow wafted down and splotched the truck’s windshield, melting on contact with the ground. It was October, and the trees, which still held their leaves, were a golden brown backdrop for the early snow. I shook off the cold and entered the co-op.

A surprise awaited. A long-time employee of St. Francis Mercantile Equity Exchange, Shirley Zweygardt, greeted me at the door. Raised on a farm just down the road, she was intimately familiar with the elevator’s history and purpose, so in 1979, when a job opportunity arose, she was glad to fill in where needed.

It has been a happy arrangement. Shirley started as a bookkeeper, then worked in grain accounting and is presently in charge of grain merchandising. She has seen the St. Francis Mercantile Equity Exchange through many changes over the years.

She asked me to sit down and have some coffee, and she shared her experiences of working around the old St. Francis elevator.

The manhole cover on the interior of the driveway identifies the builder

The manhole covers on the interior of the driveway identify the builder.

St. Francis Mercantile Equity Exchange was incorporated in 1913. As slip-formed concrete construction methods advanced, the equity exchange looked for a company to build their first concrete elevator. Once it was completed in 1946, their quarter-million-bushel elevator was the biggest and most modern in western Kansas. It more than doubled the storage capacity of its lesser neighbors. And lo and behold, it was built by J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, of Denver, with the construction supervised by my grandfather, William Osborn.

It was not the only grain storage on the site for long. Soon, the capacity proved to be too little for the 1940s and 1950s boom years, so Chalmers and Borton came along and built the first annex.

Later, the site incorporated a flat storage facility which only holds wheat, since its air system does not ventilate adequately for moist corn. A second three-bin annex was built in 2000, using the same old technique of lifting concrete up to a dump cart that ran on a track around the perimeter of the rising elevator. It was completed just before the onset of a seven-year drought, and it took a few good harvest years to recoup the investment, since the annual wheat yield was too low at first to fill the bins.

Wall Street would not be the only beneficiary of perfect prognostication. The present snowfall was gladly welcomed in St. Francis.

The St. Francis Mercantile Equity Exchange will be celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. It has been and is the cornerstone of the town, and the center of business and economic life. Stay tuned for a little more of the history, and wonderful images, of this fine elevator, which Shirley kindly shared.

The Chalmers and Borton annex is in the foreground, and the new annexes are behind the main house.

The Chalmers and Borton annex is in the foreground, and the new annex bins are behind the main house. The flat storage shed is on the left.