Virginia Slusher remembers her years as Tillotson Contruction’s office girl

Virginia Slusher 05

Story by Virginia Slusher, photos from her collection

Editor’s note: Virginia Slusher, who lives near Kansas City, contacted us to share these recollections and photos. We have previously written about The Office, part of the old Anheuser-Bush brewery on Jones Street, which served as Tillotson Construction’s headquarters in the 1950s. 

Beginning in the fall of 1951, I worked for Mike (Reginald) and Mary Tillotson for seven years. I was the “office girl”–some bookkeeping, receptionist, et cetera.

I went to Commercial Extension School of Commerce, and Johnny Hassman was my date for our graduation party. He was in the office quite often. I think Johnny helped with sales. IMG_1390

One morning I arrived first, and the safe was hanging open. Because of the burglary, I immediately ran down to the gas station on the corner. The thief took the petty cash they kept in the safe. I don’t think he bothered anything else. The police came to investigate.

I loved working there; they were so good to me.

The three guys and I would sit up on the balcony and play cards sometimes when Mary was gone. It was a raised area where Wayne and Ted, the two engineers, sat. Bob the bookkeeper sat just below.

I loved the guys. They took me out for my first legal drink when I turned 21 years old. They teased me unmercifully but were so good to me.

I remember typing about 2000 W-4s at the end of the year. Men would work for one or two days and quit. I also sent all the “give us your business” cards to the small towns in multiple states. Virginia Slusher 01

The other woman–I can’t remember her name–was working there when I started.

They had a huge NCR bookkeeping machine that she taught me how to operate. Shortly after I started there, the company sold it to, I think, China.

Mary was different to say the least. She had an ugly Boxer that came to work with her sometimes. He would slobber on me; therefore, I did not like him!

She used to tape a St. Christopher medal on her desk. We joked that we wondered if the desk would take her somewhere.

Johnny Hassman and Virginia Slusher celebrate her business school graduation. Photo from the Virginia Slusher archive.

Johnny Hassman and Virginia Slusher celebrate her business school graduation.

She was very good to me, gave me nice bonuses at the end of the year, not quite as big as the three guys. But very good for the ’50s. I received $1000 to $15oo. The men usually around $10,000. Very large amount for the times.

Mike (Reginald) was funny, not in the office much. I had to write the checks to pay the family bills.

I was still Virginia Engel but married William Slusher while working there, 60 years now, and they were very nice to us.

When the company closed, Mary found a new job for me at Power District credit union.

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.

Charles_Tillotson_Obit__The_Nebraska_State_Journal__Lincoln__Nebr___19_June_1938

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.

Dennis Russell reflects on his brother Jim’s tragic death on the Murphy, Neb., elevator

This photo, provided by Kurtis Glinn, shows Tillotson Construction's Murphy elevator in the early 1960s. Note the ground storage of grain sorghum on the right.

This photo, provided by Kurtis Glinn, shows Tillotson Construction’s Murphy, Neb., elevator in the early 1960s. Note the ground storage of grain sorghum on the right, and the old wooden elevator on the left.

By Ronald Ahrens  

A recent telephone conversation with Dennis Russell, who lives in Plano, Tex., revealed more details about the Russell family and his brother Jim, who died in an accident during construction of the Murphy, Neb., elevator. Dennis was the youngest of eight brothers: Bob, Roger, Jim, Jack, Byron, Bill, and Mark.

Their father William, born in 1900, had done construction on ammunition depots during World War Two, Dennis recalled. William, known as Bill, went to work for Tillotson Construction Company at an unknown date after the War.

“He worked for them a long time,” Dennis said. “He left Tillotson’s and started Mid States Construction Company with Gordon Erickson and another individual. I think he was a partner for a brief period and then ran jobs for them as a superintendent until his retirement.”

The name was changed to Mid States Equipment Company. Grain elevators and feed mills were the main specialties. Bill Russell retired in 1972, but he “always had fond memories working for Tillotson, I know that,” Dennis said. “I remember he was awful fond of Mary.”

Jim Russell’s promising future cut short 

Dennis was born in 1949. “My whole life was elevators. We moved every year from ’59 till I graduated high school.”

All the Russell brothers worked on elevators, Dennis recalled. “I worked on those quite a bit myself every summer.”

“Jim, he was third-oldest, he died in, like, ’58 in Murphy, Neb., right outside of Aurora. There was an article about that in the Aurora paper at the time. We lived in Vermillion, South Dakota, but that summer I was in Aurora, we were staying with Dad. I remember Mom taking that phone call.”

At the time of his death in a freak accident (the links below tell the story), Jim was married to Shirley, a nurse, and had one year of law school remaining at the University of South Dakota.

Timeline for Tillotson Const., J.H. Tillotson, and Mayer-Osborn companies and jobs

Ronald Ahrens and Kristen Cart cofounded this blog. Gary Rich is a primary contributor. We have visited elevators around the United States and Canada.

Ronald’s maternal grandfather was Reginald Oscar “Mike” Tillotson.

Kristen’s paternal grandfather was William Arthur Osborn.

Reginald O. Tillotson

R. O. Tillotson

Reginald’s company was Tillotson Construction Co., of Omaha. The company had been building and repairing wooden elevators since the 1920s, when it was led by Reginald’s father Charles H. Tillotson. Before his death, experiments were made with slip-form concrete construction techniques.

1938: Charles dies, and the company passes to his sons Reginald and Joseph H. Tillotson and daughter Mary V. Tillotson. They begin to perfect slip-forming and refine their design strategy, which includes a rounded headhouse.

1945: Tillotson Construction builds a concrete elevator in Giddings, Tex. William Osborn works on this project. He is probably employed by the company by late in ’44. Tillotson Construction wins the contract to build in Elkhart, Kan., and starts construction.

1946: The 225,000-bushel elevator in Elkhart is completed. “Shortly after the war, my Dad and Joe decided they couldn’t see eye to eye, so they split,” writes Charles J. Tillotson in “The Tillotson Construction Story” on this blog. Joe forms J.H. Tillotson, Contractor in Denver. William Osborn works for Joe Tillotson.

William A. Osborn in 1965

William A. Osborn in 1965

1947: Tillotson Construction builds  the Vinton Street elevator in Omaha. Joe Tillotson dies in a car accident in March. J.H. Tillotson, Contractor builds at Daykin and Fairbury, Neb., and Hanover and Linn, Kan., with William Osborn supervising the projects. Maxine Carter leaves Tillotson Construction on Oct. 7 to wed Russell L. Bentley.

1948: Formed in September from the residue of J.H. Tillotson, Contractor, the Mayer-Osborn Company builds its first elevator at McCook, Neb. Joe Tillotson’s wife Sylvia was a Mayer, and her brother Eugene Mayer is one of the partners. William Osborn is the other. Meanwhile, Reginald begins to use a light airplane for business travel in the postwar years. Reginald’s nephew John Hassman joins Tillotson Construction in September; among many other duties, he pilots the company plane to jobs in Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Tillotson’s projects that year are in Paullina, Iowa, and Montevideo, Minn.

1949: John Hassman’s father Ralph, Reginald’s cousin, joins Tillotson Construction in sales and stays through 1952.

1950: Construction begins in November on the Tillotson house, which is built of concrete. It still stands north of Omaha. Tillotson employee Jess Weiser weds Lavonne Wiemers on Dec. 22.

1951: Drafted into the Air Force, John Hassman leaves Tillotson Construction in January.

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By 1930, the Tillotsons are prospering — with a radio set!

By Ronald Ahrens

On April 4, 1930, the census-taker knocked at the Tillotsons’ door at 624 N. 41 St., in Omaha, and found them prospering.

Charles H. Tillotson, 51, was head of household and gave his occupation as superintendent in construction. Census code 73X1 supports this. It appears he was an employee.

Rose Tillotson, 52, was home. The age given here corroborates my belief that Rose’s age, given as 38 in 1920, was incorrect.

Charles was 23 and Rose 24 when they were wed.

Son Joseph, 23, was employed as a salesman in the wholesale grocery business, as census code 4590 supports. Son Reginald, 21, as well as daughter Mary, 19, also lived in the home.

The Tillotsons owned their home, which was valued at $3500. And they cooperated in supplying an extra bit of data: they had a radio set.

By 1935, Reginald would be the father of Charles J. Tillotson, the first of six children with Margaret Irene McDunn Tillotson. The grandson would barely know his grandfather: Charles H. would die in June 1938 at Concordia, Kansas.

Census data, genealogical work establish Tillotsons from 17th-century onward

In the following passage, Kristen, an experienced genealogist, destroys the myth that my grandmother, Margaret Irene McDunn Tillotson, always perpetuated about the Tillotsons being an Irish family:

I seem to have had a run of very good luck. Your [Tillotson] tree is verified back to 1816 with the census and before that, other researchers have the family back to the 1750s in Connecticut. It was an early family. Lots of families moved west around the time of the Civil War, and some of these very earliest families seem to have gravitated toward Nebraska. It does not surprise me at all to find a New England root for your family.

Charles [father of Reginald] was the son of John W. Tillotson, and his father was John W. Tillotson. They came from Cazenovia, Madison County, New York. The younger John moved to Missouri, then Iowa, then Nebraska. The online researcher has an Ephraim as father of the older John, and an Abraham before that. (I have evidence that Abraham Tillotson served in the Revolutionary War, and got a pension.) The researcher said they came from Hebron, Connecticut. I have not chased down wives. The elder John had a good amount of land—220 acres—in 1860, improved and worth quite a bit of money.

One webpage has data as far back as the 17th century.

The 1910 census reveals important information. Charlie and Rose Tillotson were 30 and 35 years old, respectively, were able to read and write, and lived on Alda Street in Elba, Howard County, Nebraska. (The seat of this east-central county is St. Paul.) They had already had brought Joseph, age four, and Reginald, age two, and an as yet unnamed baby daughter into the world. Both boys were born in Iowa, but the girl, undoubtedly Mary, had been born in Nebraska, so the Tillotson family had come there within the last two years. Charlie’s occupation is given as carpenter, his place of occupation was an elevator, he evidently had employees, and the family rented a house.

1940 Omaha directory shows new home addresses for Tillotsons

The Omaha city directory for 1940 shows new information for the Tillotsons as compared to the year before.A change within the business organization was that Rose Tillotson had relinquished her duties as treasurer to daughter Mary V. Tillotson. But Rose continued to serve as company secretary.

All the home addresses were different for 1940.

Joe and Sylvia Tillotson were living at 2205 Jones, apartment 213.

Rose and Mary Tillotson, mother and daughter, shared a place at 3100 Chicago St.

And Reginald’s address is given as RD 2, Florence. RD could be the abbreviation for rural delivery. His family lived in the hills north of Florence, which was the village at the far north of Omaha.