A postcard reveals Tillotson elevator activity before the big changes of 1938

Post Card 01

We have found what may be a rare record of the Tillotson construction enterprise as it existed before 1938. Back then, Charles H. Tillotson led the company, which specialized in wooden elevators. After he died in ’38, his sons Reginald and Joe partnered in Tillotson Construction Co., and started to experiment, and then build, with reinforced concrete.

This card from July 2, 1936 is penned by Sister Mary Concepta, the older sister of Margaret Irene McDunn Tillotson (my grandmother) and sister-in-law to Reginald.

Sr. M. Concepta, born on Sep. 27, 1901, in Emerson, Nebraska, and christened Catherine McDunn, was the second of nine children. (Margaret, born Feb. 9, 1903, was third.) Sr. M. Concepta belonged to the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, with a motherhouse at Mount Loretto in Dubuque, Iowa.

The parents were William McDunn (b. Feb. 4, 1871, Des Moines, Iowa) and Bridget Loretta Dorcey McDunn (b. March 27, 1872, Luken or Lucan, Ontario). Records show William as a laborer in Omaha in 1891. He became a conductor on the Nebraska Division of the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis & Omaha Railway, and the family became established in Emerson, the town named for Ralph Waldo Emerson, which had come into being in 1881 at a junction on the CSPM&O (known as the Omaha Road). 

The family history comes from These U.S. McDunns: Family Tree of Patrick McDunn and Mary O’Donnell, compiled by John McDunn, of Lodi Wisc., in April 1989. The McDunns homesteaded in Pennsylvania in 1835. 

My Uncle, Charles J. Tillotson, whose name appears in many of this blog’s posts, had kept his grandfather William’s railroad watch–a Hamilton, of course–until a burglar struck in the late-1980s.

Post Card 02Uncle Charles notes that in the mid-1930s Reginald and Margaret lived with the elder Tillotsons at 624 N. 41st Street. They towed a travel trailer to job sites. In early July of 1936 they would also have towed along Uncle Charles, then 18 months old, and my mother Mary Catherine, who was nearly five months old.

On this postcard Sr. M. Concepta addresses her sister Margaret (Mrs. Reginald Oscar Tillotson) at Carlyle, Neb.

Carlisle–note the difference in spelling–is an unincorporated town in Fillmore County.

“I know the name because Mom used to talk about it,” Uncle Charles says.

We presume there was a wooden elevator. Carlisle is an unincorporated community in Fillmore County, about 135 miles southwest of Omaha. It doesn’t appear on our Rand McNally page nor does Google Maps seem to know anything about it. 

MapThe USGS gives coordinates for Carlisle on its Davenport Quadrangle map (named for a town in neighboring Thayer County), and we see a speck on Road X, west of Little Sandy Creek, that could be Carlisle. We called the Fillmore County sheriff’s office, in Geneva, and asked. “Nope,” a very nice woman said. “We don’t have a Carlisle.” 


“Dear Margaret + Reginald + babes,” Sr. M. Concepta begins.

Post Card 03“This card tells you where we are. Saw your Mother and Mary, Reginald. Mary is truly a nice girl and your mother surely is not strong. Won’t be leaving here now until Sat. morning. Just thought you might be coming in for the 4th. Don’t try it just for me though. Love, Sr. M. Concepta.”

Mary Tillotson was Reginald’s sister who became important to the family business and also is named in many posts here.

It’s hard enough to find a trace of Carlisle, but we would love to know if any remnant of a wooden elevator exists there.





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.


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.

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.

1920 census finds the Tillotsons settled in Omaha

By Ronald Ahrens

After their sojourn on Alda Street in Elba, Nebraska, where they were living at the time of the 1910 census, the family of Charles H. and Rose A. Tillotson found their way to Omaha.

When the census-taker came to the door in 1920, my great-grandfather gave his occupation as a “mechanic” in construction. This tells me several things. One is that just fifteen years earlier, the term “mechanician” was frequently used in the press. So it might be said that the language was in a sense settling.

Another thing is that mechanic was rather loosely defined. During the 1930s, Bill Knudsen, who became president of General Motors in 1937, gave speeches and interviews in which he insisted that every boy should learn the mechanic’s trade. This didn’t necessarily mean auto mechanics. It was more a case of learning the manual arts: sheet-metal work, electrical, maybe even plumbing or pipefitting.

But in the case of “Chas. H,” as he’s here listed (he was Charlie in 1910), I suspect it has something to do with assembling the legs and other internals of grain elevators.

Note that, whereas he was evidently an employer in 1910, he’s now a worker. The family was living at 624 N. 41 St, where they would be found again in 1930.

My grandfather’s name is entered incorrectly as “Oscar R.” instead of Reginald Oscar.

Joseph H. was 13, Reginald was 11, and Mary V. was 9. (Although that numeral may at first glance look like a 7, inspection by magnifying glass of a printed copy shows that it’s in fact a 9 with the loop nearly closed.)

Meanwhile, it’s certainly unusual that my great-grandmother Rose was thirty-five years old in 1910 but here is thirty-eight. Hers had to be the most effective anti-aging strategy ever!

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.

1939 Omaha directory locates Tillotson Construction in Grain Exchange Building

The Omaha city directory for 1939, found by Kristen on Ancestry.com, verifies the status of the Tillotsons. From these pages it emerges that Tillotson Contruction Company kept offices at 720 Grain Exchange Building. Joseph H. Tillotson was president, Reginald O. Tillotson was vice-president, and their mother Rose A. (Brennan) Tillotson was secretary-treasurer in this  year.“Grain elev,” as seen in the listing, would refer to the company’s specialty.

Company president Joe Tillotson appears to have lived at 345 N. 41 St. with his wife Sylvia.

For the other Tillotsons, what could be a residential address of 1804 Dodge St. is given, although the directory’s abbreviations aren’t clear. Included here are Mrs. C.H. (Rose) Tillotson, who was by then the widow of Charles H. Tillotson, and Mary Tillotson, Reginald’s sister.

It seems unlikely that Reginald lived with his mother and sister at 1804 Dodge St. because by 1939 he and his wife Margaret already had at least four children of their own.

All this is in keeping with the announcement the previous autumn of Tillotson Construction Company’s establishment.