A mystery unfolds at the Tillotson elevator of Blencoe, Iowa

This elevator is attributed to the Tillotson Construction Company of Omaha, but evidence points elsewhere

This elevator is attributed to the Tillotson Construction Company, but evidence points elsewhere.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

In an earlier post, we showed that the elevator built by the Tillostson Construction Company in the northwest Iowa town of Blencoe had a structural failure prior to completion. A photo provided by Tim Tillotson showed that the concrete slumped over the driveway after the slip-form pour had progressed considerably past the point of failure. Construction would have halted there. The question of how the elevator was completed was never answered.

In the company records we have, the specifications log ended by 1956, while the company continued to build elevators beyond that date. So later records are lost to us. Tim Tillotson estimated that this mishap occurred in about 1955. I discovered, on review, that Blencoe was not in the specifications at all. Why?

A photo of the manhole cover on the rail side of the elevator could provide the answer. It is not typical for Tillotson elevators to have exterior manhole covers on elevators of this type, so the existence of these was a little surprising. More shocking was the identity of the company that placed them.

"Grain Storage Const. Co, 1959, Council Bluffs, Iowa" is embossed on the manhole cover

“Grain Storage Const. Co, 1959, Council Bluffs, Iowa” is embossed on the manhole cover.

The Grain Storage Construction Company of Council Bluffs, Iowa, is not familiar to us. It may be the company called in to repair the damage when the failure occurred.

We don’t know if Tillotson Construction was fired on the spot. But it is also possible that Tillotson was given a second chance–the design of the elevator clearly follows the trademark Tillotson design, whether copied by some one or built by the original contractor.

I wonder if the original repair destroyed the structural integrity of the elevator, and Grain Storage Construction was brought in to replace two of the bins. We know it was a later job because of the 1959 date on the manhole covers. Unfortunately, I made my visit on a Saturday, and the co-op was closed, so there was no one there to ask.

It is a beautiful, functional elevator today. It stands beside the older Mayer-Osborn elevator, which is also clearly in use sixty years after it was built. Both elevators had problems during construction, but the capacity was urgently needed, so both projects were finished. How the Tillotson elevator ultimately became a Grain Construction Company branded elevator is a mystery we will try to solve in a future post.

DSC_0427

A low-wing airplane sped up business for Tillotson Construction Company

Navion

Commentary by Tim Tillotson

Note: What follows is from a phone interview on May 14. Here, Uncle Tim recalls flying with Tillotson Construction Company’s pilot Ted Morris.

I remember taking a few trips in that Navion with him. It was one of the last planes Dad bought, the only one with a low wing. That Navion was fast, too, a faster plane. I remember being with him somewhere–where the hell were we?–trying to find a spot to land and picked a spot that looked absolutely wonderful from up there. We didn’t realize till we were almost on the ground that the spot had three-foot-tall grass. We went plowing through that grass and also an electric fence that was in the middle. We had to plow our way out.  

Dad [Reginald “Mike” Tillotson] could never get a license because he had double hernia and all that. Ted was our pilot and we also had Marvin Melia, he flew dad, too. Marvin was giving me flyin’ instructions. We’d go out there to the airport, North Omaha. Marvin’s the one that flew Dad around. They didn’t fly every day, or every week necessarily. He’d been flying Dad two years before. 

Ted came back from KS one time in that Navion, and he said something about, “Let’s go home fast.”

So he’s flying like 200 feet off the ground, really a lot of fun. He radioed in to get clearance for landing, and the communication that came back said, “Where the hell are you? We cant pick you up on the radar!”

Ted said, “I guess we better get up off the deck so they can see it.” 

Neglecting to lag an elevator’s head pulley led to disaster in Bellwood, Neb.

Commentary by Tim Tillotson

Note: What follows is from a phone interview on May 14. He tells of a grain elevator repair job undertaken for Ted Morris, who by 1959 was a former employee of Tillotson Construction Company.

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.

Ted Morris was the pilot. He worked in the office with Wayne doing the drawing and getting the specs together. He flew Dad when Dad would go out to the jobs. Ted used to take me flying out to the job. He was a fun guy, good natured. He tried going into business himself. Matter of fact, when Mart and I got married, we went out to York, Nebraska, to do a repair job that he had a contract on, in the dead of the winter. That was in ’59. It was Bellwood–the one that had the explosion. It blew the damn headhouse apart. Mart and I were married in November ’59 and we went out.

They were dumping grain in the drive pits to feed it up to the tanks. It was cold and also windy, I believe. When they rolled the damn overhead doors down to shut off the wind tunnel through the drive, the dust built up and that was also a job … I don’t know who decided not to lag the head pulley; it’s like putting a tire on a steel wheel. I don’t know what the hell was supposed to be such a big savings. I don’t know we were the only ones that did it, the other grain elevator contractors did, too, they quit lagging the head pulley. That big pulley would slip for a little bit till it got some speed up. Eventually, they found out the hard way, it was taking the facing off the back of the belt and exposing the fiber web in it. The damn web spots would get hot and start on fire.

Conveyor_head_pulley_lagging_for_V_shaped[1]They called it lagging because they’d fasten or wrap a lag of grain elevator belt around real tight like a rubber tire to give it grip.

When I say we would lag the pulley, we didn’t do it. Where we purchased the pulley, they did it before they shipped. There was supposed to be some kind of cost savings. When you’re trying to pull 110, 120 foot of belt, with grain, it takes quite a bit to get thing rolling.

I guess because of the wind, they closed the overhead doors. The dust built up from the trucks just dumpin’ that grain, you can imagine, and it built up, The fire actually started in the boot pit. They were running that grain up, and I think they stopped the belt for a little bit because somebody went down into the pit to grease the bearing, and there was a fire and it exploded. It slammed him into the little steel ladder. The fire went right up the leg well, which was full of dust, and it just blew out in the headhouse.

The distributor floor was quite a height off the roof deck in the headhouse, and of course it was up overhead. You had to have some heights for the spider legs that went out to the tubes. That’s where it did its big explosion. It had enough force to actually bulge the headhouse walls. The distributor floor was concrete but held in place by a key way in the headhouse wall. They call it a key way when you slip the headhouse walls at a certain level. You put tapered two-by-four blocks in the forms that you could peel out later like teeth, so when you poured the floor it went into the keyways and that’s what held the distributor floor walls up. The explosion bulged the headhouse walls out so that they turned loose that distributor floor, which left it standing on the feed pipes that went into the tanks.

I’m trying to remember if Bellwood was the one with the galley out to the annex blowing the windows out of it, and it knocked the tripper–a little feeder that went out across the annex building and would fill whatever tanks you wanted–off its tracks.

The Bellwood Gazette reported the Holland Brothers' elevator fire in 1902.

The Bellwood Gazette reported the Holland Brothers elevator fire in 1902. It was the third elevator that had burned “inside of a year,” and as the town was gaining such notoriety, the Gazette was considering becoming a daily paper.

They were doing the repair on it. I think we pulled off because the temperature was so damn low you couldn’t put your bare hand on a piece of metal; it would stick. I remember we come back into Omaha and wasn’t out there that long. Mart and I came back to Omaha, stayed at my Uncle Ralph (Hassman’s) house, Johnny’s dad, before we got that apartment on the second floor of an old house that was turned into an apartment on Izard Street. That’s when I went to work for Leo A. Daly, the architects, in Omaha, for $300 a month. I went to work for them on the drawing table.

We were actually in York. It might have been a different repair job. Now that I think about it, I’m not even sure it was one of Dad’s elevators. We were married on Armistice Day of ’59. We had to be out there in December. I was working for Daly maybe a week when Dad passed on January 5, 1960.

The York job was a repair, and it was a repair from an explosion but nothing compared to Bellwood. I remember we were up in the headhouse when were there. The one asshole I didn’t know, and either did the other guy. He loaded, like, a shoebox on the floor with acetylene ’cause it’s a heavy gas, and it laid down in that box, and he turned around and threw a match over there and that that box blew up. I damn near ran off the frigging roof to get out of that headhouse. He thought that was so damn funny. I was about ready to bust him. I don’t like his sense of humor.  

Ted wasn’t doing well at the business. I remember a time or two he called Mother. He was distraught, he wasn’t making it. I don’t remember what happened to Ted.

Making sense of a chimney near a wooden elevator in Alta, Iowa

scan0018

Commentary by Tim Tillotson, photo from the Neil A. Lieb archive

Note: What follows is from a phone interview on May 14. Uncle Tim is speculating about the reason why some Tillotson Construction Company employees stayed behind for this small job after completing the concrete elevator at Alta, Iowa, in the summer of 1950.

That chimney is probably about 30 inches in diameter. They’ve got a mortar mixer down there for masonry, a hand line going up, and the framework is scaffolding. The building in front is eight-inch block. Every three blocks is two feet. The building is 12 foot to the eaves.

There’s a reason for that damn stack, and it’s got to have something to do with fire down below. [Brother] Charles [Tillotson] said it could’ve been an iron-working shop.

Why does that car have chock blocks front and rear? Is it some kind of an anchor? It’s a 1935 or 1936, possibly DeSoto.

If you were burning coal, you wouldn’t get sparks. Maybe they were baking bread, cornbread. They’re carrying that stack high enough to get above the wooden elevator. What the hell it could be made of to be that thin and not be braced?

I don’t understand what’s with the masonry mixer down there. If that stack, for example, was a heavy metal tube, I don’t know that you could plaster it.

A freak accident led to the fatal fall of Bill Russell’s son

The Aurora Coop's Murphy elevator and annex. Jim Russell died in a fall during the elevator's construction.

The Aurora Cooperative’s Murphy elevator and annex. Jim Russell died in a fall during the elevator’s construction. Photo by Kurt Glinn.

Story by Ronald Ahrens

My uncle, Tim Tillotson, recalls some details of the death of a son of Bill Russell, a superintendent for Tillotson Construction Company. Russell was the father of eight sons in all. The accident occurred in the 1950s.

Although he can’t remember which job [it was the Aurora Cooperative’s Murphy location in central Nebraska] or when it happened, Uncle Tim, who was not present at the time, recalls from on-the-scene reports that two of Russell’s sons were running the night crew.

The two were working with a storey pole, a measuring device of ancient origin. In this case, the storey pole was a metal tape, and it was used to verify the height of vertical sections. One son was on top, fifty-five feet up, feeding the tape down to the other on the ground.

“It was blowing in the wind, and he was letting it out,” Uncle Tim says. “The wind caught it to some power lines, and it gave him a jolt.”

A fall to the ground ensued.

“One side of him hit the Georgia buggy, which kind of spun him around. He was conscious on the ground, saying he thought he’d broken a leg. But by the time the ambulance got there, he’d died of shock.”

Uncle Tim suggests the likelihood of a brain hemorrhage as well.

Concrete problems plagued consecutive elevator projects at Blencoe, Iowa

DSC_0578Story and photos by Kristen Cart

In the summer of 1954, Mayer-Osborn Construction built an elevator with a stepped headhouse in the northwestern Iowa town of Blencoe. As my dad, Jerry Osborn, explained, after the crew poured the first ten feet of concrete in the slip-form process, the concrete sides below the forms showed signs of crumbling. An investigation revealed that the concrete mixture had not been set correctly. It took as many hours to remove the concrete and start over as it did to pour it. Dad worked on the project and saw the fallout first hand.

The larger Tillotson elevator stands to the left. The Mayer-Osborn elevator obstructs the view of its large annex which extends behind it.

The larger Tillotson elevator stands to the left. The Mayer-Osborn elevator on the right serves a large annex which extends behind it. Photo by Kristen Cart

Builders were required to do a destructive test on the concrete mix at various stages of curing, to ensure the proper strength for each part of the elevator structure. Engineers tested various mix ratios to decide upon the best one. Naturally, this process was used at Blencoe, but when the mix was finally set and the pour began, it was done incorrectly. I can imagine the blue language wafting from the site as the concrete was taken down. Someone on the site had his ears pinned back pretty fiercely. But the construction continued, and a handsome elevator still stands there today, nearly 60 years later.

Not until this year, when Tim Tillotson located the Tillotson company records and photographs, did we discover that Tillotson Construction of Omaha faced a similar problem as they built their elevator nearby about a year later. This time, the error was not caught as early, and the consequences became immediately apparent.

Tim Tillotson said he thought the blowout happened in about 1955. Whether Tillotson Construction did the repairs and completed the project, or whether another contractor was brought in, is not known to me, but I hope to revisit the site later this year and learn more. The image below is a rare one. It is amazing that photographic evidence survived, serving as a cautionary note, lest any builder were to become overconfident.

Blencoe_blowout-1 copy

This company photo shows the blowout. On the right the completed Mayer-Osborn elevator may be seen.

Errors were a constant threat in this business. In the best cases, they manifested themselves in embarrassing delays, in the worst, they incurred expensive lawsuits or physical harm.

Tillotson Construction and Mayer-Osborn both recovered from their respective forays into bad concrete and lived to build again, leaving handsome and serviceable elevators at Blencoe and elsewhere. The lessons they learned were priceless.

A chance encounter with a Tillotson elevator in Jamestown, Kansas

DSC_0057

Sporting a fresh coat of paint, the trademark Tillotson elevator with its curved headhouse still operates. 

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

On our last elevator road trip, which our family embarked upon in October 2012, we visited many of our grandfathers’ elevator projects from the 1940s and 50s. But we also amassed a photo collection of elevators we could not place. Either the grain cooperatives were closed for business on a Sunday, or the elevators were retired, or we didn’t have time to stop for an interview. So the photos languished for most of a year, until Ronald Ahrens and I could identify them, even though we strongly suspected that the structures were the works of one of our grandfathers.

One of the mystery elevators was a pure white example, located in the north-central Kansas town of Jamestown. Ronald’s uncle, Tim Tillotson, recently handed us the Omaha builder’s construction specifications, which finally identified this handsome elevator as a project built in 1953 by the Tillotson Construction Company.

A smaller elevator stands on a branch of the rail line. It's builder is unknown.

A smaller elevator stands on a branch of the rail line. It’s builder is unknown.

The Jamestown elevator stands not far from a companion elevator, rising alone on a fork of the railroad track. The smaller elevator was built in a straight-up style that predates the more common Tillotson style, and it’s provenance is unknown. It is reminiscent of the style of the elevator built by Tillotson Construction in Greenwood, Neb., but without the curved headhouse. But it also recalls several Chalmers and Borton examples.

It is our good fortune to have the detailed specifications for the Jamestown elevator. Thanks to the Tillotson Company’s meticulous record keeping and the decades-long survival of the records, we can share the construction details of this remarkable structure. The specifications, for the engineering-minded among our readers, are presented below.

Capacity per Plans (with Pack) 155,320 bushels

Capacity per foot of height 1581 bushels

Reinforced concrete/plans (Total) 1530 cubic yards

Plain concrete (hoppers & liner) 17 cubic yards

Reinforced steel/Plans (includes jack rods) 69.38 tons

Average steel per cubic yard of reinforced concrete 90.6 pounds


Steel & reinforced concrete itemized per plans

Below main slab 4260 lb/52 cu yd

Main slab 19,427 lb/160 cu yd

Drawform walls 89,400 lb/1107 cu yd

Work & driveway floor (including columns) 1997 lb/18.5 cu yd

Deep bin bottoms 5236 lb/28.5 cu yd

Overhead bin bottoms 3175 lb/24 cu yd

Bin roof & extended roofs (or corner) 5139 lb/37.4 cu yd

Scale floor (complete) 292 lb/4.8 cu yd

Cupola walls 4897 lb/52.5 cu yd

Distributor floor 1530 lb/11 cu yd

Cupola roof 2207 lb/14 cu yd

Miscellaneous (boot, leg, head, track sink, steps, etc.) 1205 lb/20.3 cu yd (excluding track scale)

(At the head of the column on the next page, the Jamestown elevator was described thus: “Clifton Imo plan; Like Meno but split dust bin for Bin #17”)


Construction details

Main slab dimensions (Drive length first dimen.) 54 x 51 feet

Main slab area (actual outside on ground) 2625 square feet

Weight of reinforced (total) concrete (4000#/cu yd + steel) 3130 tons

Weight of plain concrete (4000#/cu yd) 34 tons

Weight hopper fill sand (3000#/cu yd) 684 tons

Weight of grain (at 60# per bushel) 4660 tons

Weight of structural steel & machinery 18 tons

Gross weight loaded 8526 tons

Bearing pressure 3.25 tons per sq ft

Main slab thickness 21 inches

Main slab steel (bent) 1 in diameter at 7 inch o.c.

Tank steel at bottom (round tanks) 0.5 inch diameter at 12 inch o.c.

Lineal feet of drawform walls 514 feet including exterior

Height of drawform walls 120 feet

Pit depth below main slab 15 feet 9 inches

Cupola dimensions (outside W x L x Ht.) 22.25 x 42.5 x 26 feet

Pulley centers 152.66 feet

Number of legs 1

Distributor floor Yes

Track sink Yes

Full basement Yes

Electrical room Yes

Driveway width–clear 13 feet

Dump grate size 2 @ 9 feet wide

Columns under tanks size 16 inches square

Boot — leg & head Concrete

(The remaining specs were noted “same as Meno.” The Meno specifications are given below.)

Machinery Details

Head pulley 72 x 14 x 4 7/16 inches

Boot pulley 72 x 14 x 2 3/16 inches

R.P.M. head pulley 42 rpm

Belt 14 inch 6 ply Calumet

Cups 12 x 6 inch at 9 inch o.c. Howell

Head drive 40 horsepower

Theoretical leg capacity (cup manufacturer rating) 7500 bushels per hour

Actual leg capacity (80 percent of theoretical) 6000 bushels per hour

Horsepower required for leg (based on above actual capacity plus 15 percent for motor) 27.75 hp

Man lift 1.5 horsepower Ehr

Load out scale 10 bushel Rich

Load out spout 10 inch W.C.

Truck lift 7.5 horsepower Ehr.

Cupola spouting 8.25 inch W.C.

Truck lift 7.5 horsepower Ehr

Dust collector system Fan → Bin

Cupola Spouting 10 inch W.C.

Driveway doors Two overhead rolling

Conveyor Not required

(Items below were listed for Meno; it is not clear whether these were also built at Jamestown)


Also Built

60 foot 50 ton scale: 40 cu yd

2 sk’ing spts (scaffolding supports?)