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.

All specs, and the Bouncing Czech’s photos, delineate elevators in David City

The Tillotson Construction of Omaha elevator also serves as a satellite antenna tower.  Photo by Tom McLaughlin

The Farmers Cooperative elevator, built by Tillotson Construction Company, of Omaha, Neb., also serves today as a satellite antenna tower. Photo by Tom McLaughlin

Story by Kristen Cart

My blogging partner Ronald Ahrens said he hoped we would find the motherlode of history about the elevators his grandfather Reginald Tillotson had built. With luck and the help of his family, we finally did it.

Reginald Tillotson’s sons, Charles, Tim, and Mike have all recently shared their memories from the job sites. Tim Tillotson also found and restored a treasure trove of company documents and photos. Best of all was a set of blueprint specifications for over 100 Tillotson Construction Company slip-formed concrete elevators and annexes. Eureka!

A historical image taken in David City, dated October 28, 1964. This is not the Tillotson Construction elevator, but it's neighbor a short distance down the rail line.

A historical image taken in David City, dated October 28, 1964. This is not the Tillotson Construction elevator, but its neighbor a short distance down the rail line.

David City, Neb., is a town due west of Fremont in the eastern half of the state. One of the two elevators in town was listed in the Tillotson blueprints. Armed with our new information, I looked for pictures of the newly found elevator.

I discovered some history, instead.

The grain piled next to the elevator in the 1964 press photo is milo, a feed grain, and the pile-up was attributed to a shortage of rail cars. Scenes like this were observed all over Nebraska that year.

The elevator in the photo didn’t quite have the Tillotson look, so a quick peek at David City on a Google map showed a washed-out image with just the suggestion of a curved headhouse on a second elevator in town. Further search brought me to “The Bouncing Czech” Flickr page and beautiful photos of the Farmers Cooperative elevator I was looking for. With Tom McLaughlin’s kind permission, they are posted here.

Tom McLaughlin likes to stop and check out elevators.

In an exchange of e-mails, he wrote, “A friend of our family owned the Magowan Elevator, in Gordon, Neb., so I’ve been in that one several times. I still remember my first manlift ride–that was the scariest ride I’ve ever taken.

David City's "other" elevator. Photo by Tom McLaughlin

David City’s “other” elevator. Photo by Tom McLaughlin

“Back in the 1950s, my dad used to ‘walk the pipeline’–he literally walked the natural gas pipeline in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska, looking for signs of leaks, before they went to aerial photography and control valves.

“So he always liked to wander around the back roads and small towns, and I think that’s where I got the bug. When we would go on a trip, we never knew what route he’d take. I don’t think he did either!”

Tom’s enthusiasm is contagious.

The small towns are peaceful, yet inviting, and the elevators are fascinating. It won’t be too much longer before this blogger takes another grain elevator trip.

Specifications 

Tillotson Construction Company records show the David City elevator was built in 1951 according to the “David City Plan.” This includes five tanks, each one 18 feet in diameter and 120 feet high.

Total capacity: 180,000 bushels

Driveway: 13×17 feet with eight bins over the drive

Bins: 15 in all and overflow, with a dust bin at the exterior

Reinforced concrete: 1716 cubic yards

Plain concrete (hoppers): 20 cubic yards

Reinforcing steel (including jack rods): 81.16 tons

Steel and concrete:

Below main slab: 6632 pounds and 45 cubic yards

In main slab: 22,233 pounds and 180 cubic yards

Drawform walls: 106,320 pounds and 1253 cubic yards

Driveway and work floor: 2543 pounds and 15 cubic yards

Deep bin bottoms: 8081 pounds and 38 cubic yards

O.H. bin bottoms: 2917 pounds and 22 cubic yards

Bin root: 6122 pounds and 44 cubic yards

Scale floor: 285 pounds and 10 cubic yards

Cupola (headhouse) walls: 2830 pounds and 70 cubic yards

Distributor floor: 1494 pounds and 8 cubic yards

Cupola roof: 1586 pounds and 14 cubic yards

Miscellaneous (Boot, leg, headhouse, Tr., sink, steps, etc.): 1273 pounds and 15 cubic yards

Mike Tillotson remembers Flagler (1953), Albert City (1954), and Lincoln (1955)

By Mike Tillotson

I don’t have access to a computer nor know how to use one. I barely get a radio signal, and my tin-can barb-wire phone is not always clear here in the hills either.

As for the elevators I was thirteen on my first summer with my brothers. I just graduated from Grade School. Our Father helped his Father build Wood Elevators, and often was told to put out that cigarette.

Mike stands at the center of the frame while Tim captures Charles just after he has taken a rest break on the way to Flagler.

Mike stands center-frame while Tim Tillotson captures Charles after a rest break en route to Flagler with the ’53 Ford and mystery trailer.

We headed for Flagler, Colorado; seventy five miles East of Denver. Charles was driving a 53 Ford 4-door our Father bought for him. Two-tone tan that Charles had nosed, and added fender skirts, and a continental kit. We were pulling a sixteen foot trailer that we lived in for the summer.

We were paid $1.00/Hr.–60 Hrs./Week with time and one half over 40 hours. I was the time keeper, and drove a tractor with a front-end loader. I filled up the three-bag concrete mixer with sand. Someone else put the cement and limestone in the hopper. We mixed our own concrete because we were in the middle of no-where.

I remember the Super catching me putting pennies on the rail track, and helping me with the time-sheet so I could go to Denver with my brothers for the week-end.

Tillotson Home

The Tillotson home in the Ponca Hills north of Omaha. Mike still lives there. 

I remember Charles had a girl-friend, and when we came back to Omaha in September; she came in to visit him. When Charles went to meet her at the place she was staying; Sharon went with him. When Charles and Sharon met her she said she forgot something in her room, and went back to get it. After waiting about one half hour Charles sent the door man to the room. He returned and said the room was empty, and the window was open.

You have to remember this was 1953 when we were at the age of innocence, and life was pure and simple.

The following summer (1954) we went to Albert City, Iowa, 75 miles North of Council Bluffs. We rented rooms in a private home. We worked with a 20 something guy that ran the winch pulley bucket to the top of the elevator as it progressed, and brought building materials down. We also rode the bucket up and down to get on deck. The elevator bens were 125 feet to the top with a Head-House of 75 on top of that.

The winch guy went to work on another elevator the Company had going in a town about 30 miles away. This was an addition to an existing elevator–an add-on.

At noon one day he went to the top with new boots on. There were four or five planks at the top from old to new grain bens.

No hand rails or anything. They were not required at the time. I doubt OSHA even existed. He either fell or jumped going from old to new.

Some said he might have tripped with the new boots.

Charles and I bought a nice 40 Ford sedan for $75.00 off a used car lot. He didn’t want to use the 53 any more than necessary. Coming back to Omaha one week end we were zipping down a country road with corn as high-as-a-sky and started through an intersection with no stop signs.

It could be Mike waving at the photographer in this photo from atop the Flagler annex. The Ford and 16-foot trailer are also evident.

It could be Mike waving at the photographer, who is perched atop the Flagler elevator, built in 1950. The foundation for the new annex is seen at lower left.

We got broad-sided by some farmer who put us in a ditch; up side down. Later in the day when we crossed the Mormon Bridge in North Omaha; one of us reached through the front of the car to pay the Toll. The windshield was gone.

The next summer (1955) I worked in Lincoln, Nebr. by myself. My sister Mary’s future brother-in-law Merle worked on the job also.

The Elevators at that time required about 12-15 men per shift. Two shifts per day–twenty four hour continuous pour. Usually about 18-20 days to get to the top of the tanks. The jacks that raised the forms were all manually operated. Today with the advanced electrical operated jacks the number of men required is probably half.

That is the story of my teenage years in MAYBERRY.

Go West, young men, to Flagler, Colorado, and build a grain elevator!

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What could help the three teenaged sons of Reginald and Margaret Tillotson sons to grow up? Nothing better than going from Omaha, Neb., where Tillotson Construction Company was located, to Flagler, Colo., to build the annex to a grain elevator in 1953.

Charles, 18, Tim, 16, and Mike, 13, drove across the Great Plains in a new Ford, towing the trailer that would serve as their home and the job office.

Having started for the company as an assistant carpenter when he was 12, Charles was already quite skilled in elevator construction techniques.

But how did they fare for themselves? For instance, what did they eat during their weeks on the job?

“Regarding what we ate, I really don’t remember but it was probably beans and wieners,” Charles recalls. “We also ate at the local cafe in Flagler. That was when Tim and I weren’t screaming over to Elitches Park Outdoor pavilion in Denver (some 120 miles to the west) to squeeze in a night of dancing and return at daybreak to assume our work shift–no sleep of course. I think we left Mike alone in Flagler to fend for himself.

Mike spent many hours in the trailer, serving as timekeeper and reading hot rod magazines when he could.

Taking it from the top at Tillotson Construction’s annex in Flagler, Colorado

Scan

This photo from the Tillotson Construction Company archives shows the staging deck, on which all formwork was built to ensure it was dead level. The square section was probably the form for a conveyor or bucket shaft, or for a man lift. The triangular section, called a groin form, was made for the void where two rows of bin forms were placed together. The excavation hole for the new annex is seen, lower left, at the foot of the 252,000-bushel elevator the company built in 1950, modeling it after their one in Pond Creek, Okla. 

By Ronald Ahrens

In 1953, my grandfather Reginald Tillotson decided to send his three sons, Charles, 18, Tim, 16, and Mike, 13, to work on an annex to the Flagler, Colo., elevator Tillotson Construction Company had built three years earlier.

My grandmother Margaret didn’t like the idea.”You can’t send those kids out there,” she protested.

“It’s about time they grew up,” Reginald said.

Indeed, my uncles were sent, leaving Omaha in a new Ford and pulling the travel trailer that would be their home for the next few weeks.

“I don’t remember that he even came out,” Uncle Tim said recently of Reginald.

From left, Tim and Chuck Tillotson and La Rose Tillotson Hunt in 2012.

From left, Tim and Chuck Tillotson and La Rose Tillotson Hunt in 2012.

While Charles and Tim labored on the formwork that rose toward the sky, Mike stayed in the trailer, which doubled as their bunkhouse and the job office. His task was that of timekeeper.

“I don’t recall him bein’ out there when we was jackin’ and pourin’,  jackin’ and pourin,'” Tim said, although he did recall him reading hot rod magazines.

Once the pouring started, it couldn’t stop. A cold joint between concrete that had already set and a new pour wasn’t at all desirable, for it would leak.

“You had to treat that damn good when you started over,” Tim said.

Work went on in twelve-hour shifts. As the concrete was dumped out of a Georgia buggy–a V-shaped tub riding on large wheels behind a U-shaped handle–someone with a spud hoe would follow the pour and work the concrete, releasing the air from around the rebar. “The only way you shut down was an emergency,” Tim said. Lightning, for example, was an emergency because it was attracted to the rebar being used to bolster the concrete.

_DSC0033_9425The crew was made up of some trusted old hands and an assortment of locals. “You never knew who you were workin’ next to,” Tim said.

He remembers the local sheriff asking himself why he should put up anyone in the jail when they could work and earn their keep. One of the convicts toiling alongside Tim had a funny thought. “You think you can hang onto that hoist handle hard enough if I push you off?” he said.

Any number of mishaps could occur. “You ought to see one of them Georgia buggies go off the top,” Tim said. “Or the cotter pin come off the wheel and the wheel go off.”

At ground level the pour was made in six-inch increments, but the speed increased as the elevator rose.

To keep the screw jacks on the same plane and maintain plumb, the crew used a water-level system on the deck. A clear hose was fed by water from a 55-gallon drum. Tim said the hose had a level “that you marked before you ever pulled off the ground. And believe it or not, you’d get one hundred and some feet up, and you’d be plumb!”