Conversation with Sherman Johnson, scion of Johnson Construction, of Salina, Kansas

We were happy to be able to give Sherman Johnson a call the other day. Sherman, a flooring contractor in Shawnee, Kansas, is one of Virgil Johnson’s six sons. Johnson Construction, Virgil’s contracting firm, operated out of Salina, Kansas, and built a whole lot of elevators. We have speculated about the existence of a strong link, perhaps a common architectural designer, between Johnson Construction and Mayer-Osborn Construction. Johnson Construction sometimes acted in partnership with Rex Bratcher, and we know something about Johnson & Sampson. The design themes spread through those channels.


Brad Perry took this photo in Atlanta, Kansas. “I think it’s a Johnson house,” he said. The rounded and stepped headhouse suggests Mayer-Osborn and Tillotson design influences.

Sherman was born in 1945 and went to elevator construction sites as a kid. “I remember going to Texas and Oklahoma. We lived in Salina, but most of the jobs were in Oklahoma and Texas, in the Panhandle of Nebraska, and in Iowa.” 

We had many other questions for Sherman, and he tried to help as much as possible. One thing he seemed pretty certain of was that Virgil talked about Tillotson Construction Company, of Omaha. “I heard my dad talking about them!” he said. “My father, he worked for Tillotson, I think. I don’t know for sure. I heard the name Tillotson, Chalmers and Borton, people like that.” 

Kristen Cart: Do you remember being on any job sites when you were a kid?

Sherman Johnson: Oh, yeah.

KC: Are there any memories you’d like to share?

SJ: Oh, like I said, I was just a kid. I remember going to Texas and Oklahoma–Newkirk (Okla.) and Blackwell and Conlon, Texas.

Ronald Ahrens: How long was Johnson Construction active?

SJ: As near as I can tell, at first it was my father and my uncles. And then Rex Bratcher was his partner for a while.

KC: The Sampsons were your uncles?

SJ: My dad’s wife’s brothers, Darwin and Sherman. I’m named after one.

RA: Do you remember the name Darrell Greenlee?

SJ: Darrell and Rosina. They were very, very nice people, great people. They had six girls.

RA: He was a foreman for your dad’s construction company, right? 

SJ: Superintendent.

RA: Can you characterize him?

SJ: In the summertime I had to work for him, and he worked me pretty hard. He was a good guy: a hard worker, a smart guy. We’d go out in the summertime, I don’t remember what the jobs were, they had me doing all the grunt work. I guess that’s why I’m not a contractor. 

KC: My dad described installing rebar.

SJ: Laying it and tying it. And it seemed like you always had a shovel in your hand doing something. 

KC: We had comments from Emily Frank, whose grandparents were Darrell and Rosina.

SJ: He built an elevator in Rushville, Illinois, and he retired there. If she’s still alive, she’s there. I don’t know if she’s still alive or not. 

Editors’ note: Here is the link to Rosina’s obituary.

KC: A couple of jobs, I’m going to ask if they’re familiar. Grand Island?

SJ: I don’t know.

KC: Atlanta, Kansas?

SJ: That rings a bell but I wouldn’t tell you that we did.

KC: One of the things we do is visit the elevators, and right on the manhole covers is the name of the company.

SJ: Oh, yeah. They used to make those at Wyatt Manufacturing in Salina. There was a foundry for a long time.

The Atlanta, Kan., elevator suggests our grandfathers’ signature designs



Photo by Brad Perry

Editor’s note: Contributor Brad Perry sent this photo of Valley Coop’s elevator in Atlanta, Kan. The rounded, stepped headhouse suggests Tillotson and Mayer-Osborn design influences. A call to the elevator put us in touch with Katherine Grow, who runs it with her husband Darren.

“I think it’s a Johnson house. I remember when they built it. All the men in the community helped when they started pouring. Markle was the head of the crew that did it. I think it was ’58 or ’59 when it was constructed. In fact, it’s better designed than a lot of places. We added an outside leg. We used to load out on the rail but don’t any more. We’ve done maintenance and made safety updates. We’ve had it painted once. We were told it is the kind of concrete that has to be kept painted. It’s easy to work with, the way it’s put together with the inside leg. We’ve been pleased with it. I was a teenager or preteen when they built it. Once started, they kept pouring. With the lights at night, it reminded you of when you see a riverboat all lit up going down the river. It was cool. When we built this other bin and they could do it in sections, it was kind of different. They just pour so much and go round and round with a little cart, and come night, why, they’d quit and go home.”

A look at the Johnson-Sampson elevator in Grand Island, Nebraska


Kristen Cart

Sometimes it is instructive to visit an elevator built by one of the competitors of the Tillotson Construction Company of Omaha, Neb., and its offshoots, J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, of Denver, Colo., and Mayer-Osborn Construction, also based in Denver. The elevator built by Johnson-Sampson in Grand Island, Neb. is a good example, for comparison, of a project built by the competition while our grandfathers were active in the business.

One of our readers, Teresa Toland, mentioned the elevator and hoped that we knew something about it, since her father, Darrell Greenlee, had supervised its construction. A couple of years passed before I could follow up on her query. While traveling this fall, I took a detour to see the elevator and take photos. The old grain elevator stands now as a prominent Grand Island landmark, still serving its original purpose. It’s location, just off I-80 in central Neb., made it easy to visit.

The elevator hummed with activity at the height of harvest. On this trip, my dad, Jerry Osborn, was along, so I did not take time to interview the employees–we were all tired after our hunting trip, and were ready to get home. But the elevator was a lovely sight and I was glad for the chance to see it.

dsc_1526The original elevator, flanked by two annexes, was obscured behind a large modern concrete bin, so I got closer for a better look. The headhouse was unlike any I had ever seen. The elevator’s design formed a harmonious whole, much like the attractive Tillotson elevators its builder emulated, but it had taken a different direction and had its own look. It must have been a handsome sight when it stood alone, brand new, and gleaming white–the tallest thing around.

The bin arrangement for the old elevator seemed conventional for storage in the 250,000-bushel class. Adjacent to the main house stood a large capacity metal grain dryer. Including the annexes, the elevator complex was the size of a moderate terminal–the type of storage that would serve as a transit point for a rail or trucking hub.

When Virgil Johnson, an early employee of Tillotson Construction, went out on his own, he built elevators in partnership with his Sampson in-laws for a few years. Darrell Greenlee, who supervised the construction at Grand Island, was one of his superintendents.