The demise of Mayer-Osborn Construction remains an enduring puzzle

Audrey, Gerald, William and Alice Osborn, ca. 1950

Audrey, Gerald, William and Alice Osborn, circa 1950.

Story by Kristen Cart

Some mysteries are not meant to be solved. Perhaps it is a natural outgrowth of my grandmother’s tight-lipped discretion where evil tidings were concerned. I can remember the disapproving purse of her lips if I broached the wrong topic–it was wise to move on.

Albert Skoog as a boy

Albert Skoog as a boy

Alice Christoffersen married William Osborn in the 1920s. All anyone in our family could know about those times was conveyed in the pleasant images of a young couple goofing around by the lake and fishing. In later pictures you could see the pained expression of a long-suffering middle-aged woman, but her concerns were private, at least when they brought bad memories to mind.

My dad, Jerry Osborn, was quite amazed to find he had a deceased great-uncle, whose name had never been spoken in front of him. Alice Christoffersen’s maternal uncle, Albert Skoog, died young from injuries sustained in a horrific automobile crash when she was a young woman. The story was relegated to the darkest recesses, never to be mentioned again.

“Albert Skoog Dies from Effects of an Auto Accident

Had Lived Nearly Ten Months with a Broken Back

After living nearly ten months with a broken back, during which time he suffered untold agony, Albert Skoog, 42, formerly and employee of the Fremont Stock Yards, died at the home of his sister, Mrs. James L. Christoffersen, south of Fremont. Death was due to injuries sustained in a automobile accident on the Lincoln Highway about a mile east of Fremont last October….”

The article went on to describe the accident and his medical treatment. He died in the family home of Alice’s parents.

This image was found among Grandma's pictures. It was the car her uncle wrecked in an ultimately fatal accident.

The wreck fatally injured Albert Skoog, who died months later from a broken back. Grandma had this photo of the car in an album that once belonged to her mother.

No stone marks his grave. It took many years to locate pictures of him, preserved by a different branch of the Christoffersen clan. Images of the wrecked car also survived, tucked away in Grandma’s photo album. But such things were not discussed in my grandmother’s world.

Another side of Grandma’s personality was not so discrete–she would tell stories that put others in a bad light when she thought she could gain favor for herself. This habit got worse as she aged, and by the time she passed on at age 98, family members believed awful stories about each other because of things she said.

We have tried, without success, to verify Grandma’s story of why my grandpa, William Osborn, got out of the elevator business. Perhaps she invented it. We have no way to tell.

Mayer-Osborn elevator at McCook, Neb. during a family visit, ca 1950. This elevator was the first of its type, a model for the later Blencoe elevator.

Mayer-Osborn elevator at McCook, Neb. during a family visit, circa 1950. This elevator was a prototype for the Blencoe elevator.

Dad never had an inkling about why his dad quit (except that he heard in whispers not intended for him) until Mom started poking around. Grandma told her the story, apparently in a fit of pique. Details were fuzzy, and by now, not well remembered. There’s hardly more to it than speculation. But that one glimpse was the only information we ever got. Otherwise, it “wasn’t discussed,” as Dad put it.

Mom says an elevator was built, and very shortly thereafter, failed. She variously used the terms “collapse,” “explosion,” and “fire.” But the two things she was pretty consistent about were the facts that the concrete mix was wrong because the crew had shorted the materials (possibly for financial gain), and that the collapse occurred as soon as the elevator was filled with grain for the first time. That is all she remembers from what Grandma told her.

Dad says his father was out of the business by 1955. Dad remembers that his dad had come home to Fremont, Neb., from Denver, Colo., the home base of his business, that summer when he should have been on the job. He thinks that his dad was blamed for the failure–Bill’s partner, Gene Mayer, apparently went on without him. But that is all we have.

We don’t know where it happened and haven’t found a newspaper story. We know a large terminal elevator collapsed that year in Fargo, N.D., but we discovered the identity of that builder and it wasn’t Mayer-Osborn. There were whispers about an elevator that had a bad headhouse around Linn, Kan., or Bradshaw, Neb., which might have been his, but that story hasn’t been verified or dated.

The Blencoe, Iowa elevator built by Mayer-Osborn

The Blencoe, Iowa elevator built by Mayer-Osborn

The only story I can verify is the tear-down and restart of the Mayer-Osborn elevator in Blencoe, Iowa. The concrete mix was wrong there, and it cost a few days and quite a lot of money to correct. Could that relatively mundane event in 1954 have created a rift between the partners, Bill Osborn and Gene Mayer? Was the tale of a more dramatic accident simply angry gossip from my grandmother?

Until we know more, it is a skeleton yet to be found, buried in a very deep closet.

 

 

Old clipping leads to discovery of Mayer-Osborn’s elevator in Hoover, Texas

Hoover Populated Place Profile / Gray County, Texas DataStory by Kristen Cart

The Mayer-Osborn Construction Company’s history has been a little difficult to put together because many of the people involved are long gone. My father Jerry Osborn remembers many of the elevators his dad William Osborn built, so I have relied upon these memories quite heavily, filling in the details with newspaper accounts, old photographs, and site visits.

But as Dad’s interests turned to high school girlfriends and football, he paid little attention to his father’s business, and some Mayer-Osborn projects slipped through without his notice. Dad knew nothing about a Mayer-Osborn elevator in the central Texas location of Hoover, eight miles east of Pampa.

Pampa_Daily_News_Sun__Jan_10__1954_Fortunately, the Jan. 10, 1954, Pampa Daily News article announcing its construction survives.

A satellite view shows the stepped headhouse, a Mayer-Osborn trademark, atop the Hoover elevator. The structure appears to be built much like the Mayer-Osborn elevator in McCook, Neb.

The Hoover edifice still stands, and is used for grain storage along a rail line that passes through Pampa to the west.

A history of the town of Hoover may be found here.

 

The 1945 vintage elevator at Lodgepole, Nebraska, and the death of Bill Morris

DSC_0446Story and photo by Kristen Cart

A newspaper article recently came to light that upended our elevator construction timeline, causing us to reconsider the story of the Lodgepole, Neb., elevator and the careers of Joseph H. Tillotson and my grandfather William Arthur Osborn.

My dad, Jerry Osborn, said that the death of Bill Morris, the superintendent on the Lodgepole job, and that of Joe Tillotson, the owner of J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, came within a month or so of each other. Now it appears likely that the season was the same, but both fatal car accidents occurred in different years–1945 and 1947–a fact easily misunderstood by the young boy my father was at the time, as he listened to the adults talk about business.

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We believe this photo by William Osborn is from Lodgepole, Neb.

The article appeared in the Nebraska State Journal on Oct. 8, 1945:

Omahan dies after car accident

SIDNEY, Neb. (AP). W. B. Morris, 36, an employee of the Tillotson Construction company, of Omaha, was fatally injured Saturday night when struck by a car driven by Howard B. Kirk, 48, of Lodgepole, Neb., Deputy Sheriff Arnold Braasch said Sunday.

The deputy sheriff reported Morris was changing a tire on his car about ten miles east of here when the accident occurred. He died in a hospital about five hours later.

Braasch said Morris’ home was in Texas, but that he was living in Lodgepole while working on the construction of a new grain elevator.

County Attorney R. P. Kepler said he will decide on Monday whether an inquest is to be held.

We attributed the Lodgepole elevator’s construction to J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, the independent company Joe Tillotson started after his parting of the ways with Tillotson Construction of Omaha. We wrongly believed that both Bill Morris and Joe Tillotson had died in 1947 while working on the Lodgepole job. Now we know that Bill Morris died in 1945 while working for Joe Tillotson. The new fact pins down the date of Joe’s departure from the Omaha company–a move my grandfather made at the same time.

When interviewed in 1949 about his first, independent, Mayer-Osborn Construction venture in McCook, Neb., William Osborn named a number of elevators he had built before. We still believe all of the elevators Bill Osborn listed were J.H. Tillotson elevators.

According to the McCook article, Bill Osborn said the elevators in Maywood, Traer, Wauneta, and Lodgepole were built in 1945. If the reporter was right about Bill Morris’ employment, all of the 1945 elevators would be too early to be J. H. Tillotson elevators. However, none of them were recorded in the Tillotson Construction specifications and none built in the Omaha company’s style.

The reporter writing about Bill Morris’ death in 1945 was unaware of the freshly minted company Joe Tillotson had started, and wrongly identified Bill Morris as a Tillotson Construction of Omaha employee.

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An early photo of the Lodgepole elevator was kept at the location.

The fact that in 1945, Bill Morris went from a superintendent job at a verified Tillotson Construction project in Giddings, Tex to a superintendent position at the Lodgepole elevator job, a project demonstrably not built by the Omaha company, precisely dates the time Joe Tillotson chose to go out on his own.

The 1945 construction date of the Lodgepole elevator gives us a much more accurate understanding of the birth of J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, a venture that lasted about four years, until my grandfather built the McCook elevator for Mayer-Osborn Construction in 1949.

A tragedy took Morris in his prime, but my grandfather stepped into his place, gaining valuable experience as a builder. To this day, the graceful Lodgepole elevator serves as a fitting monument to Morris’ productive career.

An airplane crash ends Gandy Construction, an early elevator player

WAO3

The Mayer Osborn company brochure mentions Gaddy (sic) Construction of Omaha

Story by Kristen Cart

My father remembers the grain elevator construction business from earliest childhood. But his childish memories did not distinguish one job from another, so until recently we did not know about the company where my grandfather William Osborn began his career as a carpenter.

Dad said they still lived on the farm when his father went to Kansas City in pursuit of a better opportunity, which dated the event to before 1944. That job was likely with the Tillotson Construction Company of Omaha. Before then, Grandpa’s Mayer Osborn Construction brochure said he worked for Gaddy (sic) Construction of Omaha. It was difficult to come up with any information about them, until we located a clipping that marked a tragedy.

The newspaper account related:

Plane Crashes at Lexington, Omahan Killed

Lexington, Neb., (AP). Ralph Arden Gandy, 41, head of an Omaha construction firm, died Saturday night after the light plane he was piloting crashed near here.

Tommy Johnson, a Gandy construction company foreman, was injured in the crash.

W. H. Pfiefer, Lexington funeral director, said Gandy’s plane took off from a field on the farm of Dennis O’Connor, a cattle feeder who lives six miles northeast of here.

After the takeoff, the funeral director said, the plane stalled and crashed on a road. Both men were thrown free of the wreckage.

Gandy died a short time after the crash in the Community hospital of Lexington.

Johnson received a broken jaw and chest injuries. He was removed to the Methodist Hospital in Omaha by ambulance Sunday night.

The Gandy firm had built a grain elevator on the O’Connor farm, Pfiefer said, and Gandy and Johnson had been at the farm inspecting it. The plane was taking off to return to Omaha when it crashed.

Gandy is survived by his widow, Clara, and four children.

The Nebraska State Journal, Lincoln, Neb.,  Aug. 1, 1949.

William Osborn worked with Loren Saunders, his brother-in-law, at a job in Omaha before he took the opportunity in Kansas City, according to my dad. It seems likely that the Gandy company was that job.

Mayer-Osborn’s proposals were rejected at Wauneta, Nebraska

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Mayer-Osborn Construction lost their bid to build this annex.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

Our blog contributor Gary Rich was the first to visit Wauneta, Neb. in the hunt for elevators built by Mayer-Osborn Company and J. H. Tillotson, Contractor. He discovered that the Frenchman Valley Co-op had retained original documentation including blueprints for the original elevator, and the two annexes, which all still operate today. The various documents painted a confusing picture. Gary told me enough that I knew I needed to get down there and see for myself, which I finally did in October of 2012.

The builder of the original elevator was unclear, but presumably J. H. Tillotson had built it, based its appearance.  Mayer-Osborn soon returned with a proposal for the first annex, and a close reading of those documents seemed to indicate that the first elevator was completed by the same people, which at that time worked for the J. H. Tillotson, Contractor operation. But nothing definitive was found to that effect–even the manhole covers of the main house were blank after a renovation.

FVC BP6aThe most interesting discovery was a set of blueprints and drawings completed by Mayer-Osborn for their annex that was never built. Their proposal was submitted twice, once in 1950 and once a few years later, but the town finally decided on a different contractor after some delay. For some reason, the co-op retained all of the paperwork at the site. This blueprint, dated Feb. 17, 1950, was the first of these designs.

The co-op has retained the original written contract proposals, which will be detailed in a later post. It would be very interesting to discover what held up the original building plan. Because the annex finally went up in about 1957, it’s possible that the co-op just waited too long and built the annex after the demise of the Mayer-Osborn Company. The existing annex looks much like the original proposal. Did they show another company the plans, and ask, “How close can you come to this design?”

The Mayer-Osborn elevator in Tempe, Arizona is a jewel in an upscale setting

DSC_0047Story and photos by Kristen Cart

Phoenix is well out of the way for a pilot based in Louisville, Ky., and living in the Chicago area. It takes a bit of intentional finagling to get into Phoenix with enough time to visit an elevator. Fortunately, the Mayer-Osborn grain elevator in Tempe sits at the foot of a hill, just a few miles off the end of an active runway at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. A steady stream of airplanes flies directly over the elevator, either coming from, or going into the airport, depending on the wind conditions. After seeing it many times from the air, I arranged for a four hour layover in Phoenix, which was just enough of an opportunity to grab a rental car and go see it.

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Manhole covers are embossed with the company name. Each annex bin has a manhole cover.

The straight-up styled elevator with its annex was built in 1951 for the Hayden Flour Mill, a Tempe landmark which had already been in operation for decades.  It once proudly displayed the “Hayden Flour Mill” name, painted along the annex side, in lettering that has been painted over at least twice. The white paint has now faded enough for both lettering jobs to show through.

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Hayden Flour Mill

 

My dad,  Jerry Osborn, remembers when his father worked the Mayer-Osborn job in Arizona. Dad would have been about seven years old. The job was one of many that took Bill Osborn away from his home in Fremont, Neb.

The Mayer-Osborn elevator and annex nestle at the base of a hill, gracing the neighborhood like a white gemstone in a gleaming setting. The Hayden Flour Mill, which has a strong historical significance to the area, is a rather unremarkable looking building, located at the base of the elevator. The neighborhood has grown up around it with shining highrises, shops and hiking trails, erasing the former industrial setting, and replacing it with an upscale ambiance.

It is fortunate that the mill and elevator add character and personality to the place, and that city planners have recognized their value. Now a park and lawn surround the mill. The mill’s windows have been screened so that tourists can look inside, and historical plaques detail its history. The elaborate plans for the mill have been put off after the market crash in 2008, but fortunately the goal of preservation has not been abandoned. It is good to see one of my grandfather’s elevators safely ensconced in a community that values its presence.DSC_0030

Mayer-Osborn elevator contract proposals are preserved at Wauneta, Nebraska

Much of the time on the road was spent marketing. William Osborn at the wheel

William Osborn at the wheel. Much of his time was spent selling elevators to prospective buyers.

Story by Kristen Cart

The Mayer-Osborn Construction Company built their elevators from 1949 until about 1955. To do this, they had to beat out a number of formidable competitors, both large and small, vying for the same jobs. But they did not win the contract every time they tried. One example of their perseverance survives at the Frenchman Valley Co-op at Wauneta, a town in southwestern Nebraska. Mayer-Osborn did not win their bid, but their contract proposals, made over a period of several years, are still kept in the co-op vault among blueprints and records spanning almost 70 years.

The cover letter for the Mayer-Osborn contract proposal at Wauneta, Neb.

The cover letter for the Mayer-Osborn contract proposal at Wauneta, Neb.

When I was first trying to get a handle on the scope of Mayer-Osborn’s business, I asked my dad, Jerry Osborn, which partner did most of the marketing. I was under the mistaken impression that Eugene Mayer was in charge of all that, and I thought that all my grandfather William Osborn had to do was show up and start pouring concrete.

“No,” Dad said, “Gene Mayer took care of the office and accounting, but your grandpa did a lot of the sales.”

This ad for Mayer-Osborn Company ran in Farmers' Elevator Guide over a period of several years in the early 1950s.

This ad for Mayer-Osborn Company ran in Farmers’ Elevator Guide over a period of several years in the early 1950s.

Grandpa put many miles on his cars, visiting prospective clients, when he was not supervising an active construction site. He spent almost all of his time on the road. Dad recalls that he and his mother were home alone during those years, while his brother Dick was in Korea and his sister Audrey was married. We have a few pictures of Dad with both of his parents, but they were taken at a job site. The sales part of Grandpa’s job took much more effort than I had ever imagined.

For a closer look at the Mayer-Osborn plans for Wauneta, Neb., and the final outcome of their efforts, stay tuned.