Abraham Tillotson, who fought in the Revolution, was too wealthy for a pension


The Tillotson family was adept at seizing opportunities such as the demand for grain storage in the 1940s.

The Tillotsons were adept at seizing opportunities, such as the demand for grain storage in the 1940s.

Story by Kristen Cart

Abraham Tillotson, the direct ancestor of Charles H. Tillotson, the builder of wooden grain elevators, joined the Continental Army in 1775 and served for more than a year, earning the grateful thanks of our new nation. After the war he became a farmer, but in old age he asked for a pension based upon his service.

In 1818, Congress authorized pension payments for veterans who had fallen on hard times. It was not until the 1830s that the pensions were offered to widows and orphans. Veterans had to prove their service (inconveniently, the British burned all of the Revolutionary War service records held in Washington during the War of 1812). To that end, they had to produce witnesses to their service. They also had to prove that they were poor and unable to care for themselves.

Sometimes, veterans navigated the rules adroitly and obtained their pensions without much trouble, and retired in relative comfort. Sometimes it took years for them to prove their service. And sometimes, many letters flew back and forth before a grudging pittance was approved–enough to usher the elderly veteran quietly to his grave.

Abraham’s pension file, digitally preserved at Fold3.com, provides an amusing counterpoint to the usual, sorrowful packet of letters.

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On Oct. 9, 1819, Abraham Tillotson, a resident of Casenovia, aged 63, appeared before the Court of Common Pleas in Madison County, New York to make his statement of service. He said he enlisted on Dec. 18, 1775, serving in Capt. Levi Wells’ company, Col. Samuel Wylie’s Regiment, in the 22nd Connecticut Line of Continental Establishment. He was discharged at Fishkill, New York, on Jan. 1, 1777. He had fought in the Battles of Flatbush and Long Island, and at the taking of General Burgoyne. He produced a witness to his service in the person of Henry Champion.

According to the court, Abraham’s statement averred that “he is in reduced circumstances and stands in need of assistance from his country for support.” Apparently, Abraham had no trouble getting onto the pension rolls. His trouble came later.

Abraham’s consternation was evident in the letter he wrote on July 11, 1822:

“… I am informed of the suspension of my pension until I produce satisfactory evidence doing away [with] information received at the War Department of my being ‘worth more than five to six thousand dollars.’ From whatever source this information may have been received, it is totally false, without a shadow of foundation, and must have been engendered in the brain of some malicious and corrupt villain. The information indirectly charges me with false swearing and if I knew the malicious informant, I would (as I did the enemies of my country) chastise him for his audacity, old and infirm as I am.”

He went on, protesting his honesty: “In obtaining the bounty of my country, for which I fought and bled (when, probably, your informant was in his cradle), I pursued an honest correct course and such as prescribed by the love of my country…”

He was up against a formidable stack of evidence to the contrary.

The Honorable E. Litchfield was the first to alert authorities to Abraham’s wealth, after he learned that Abraham Tillotson was worth between five and six thousand dollars. Abraham’s pension was suspended from that date, Dec. 6, 1821.

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Further investigation yielded more.

“State of New York,

We, the subscribers, freeholders and inhabitants of the town of Cazenovia in the County of Madison and of the town of Pompey in the County of Onondaga and state aforesaid, do certify–that we have been acquainted with Abraham Tillotson of said Cazenovia for a number of years–that we have lived and do still live [as] neighbors to him–that we have considered him one of our most independent farmers, one who has money to loan, whenever he can obtain extravagant interest, or dispose of some property at a high price and obtain good security–that his property year before last was valued by the assessors at about eighteen hundred dollars–and further we consider him the said Tillotson abundantly able to support himself and family–and under the existing law authorizing the payment of pensions do not think him entitled to a pension–given under our hands this 21st day of August 1822.

Rufus Lyon, Joseph Atwell, Daniel Allen, James McCluen, Joseph Atwell Jr., Elijah Hill.”


Other affidavits contain the same sort of accusations. Needless to say, Abraham never recovered his pension. He died two years later in 1824. His widow tried to reinstate his pension in the 1830s, also to no avail.

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Abraham offered to pay Rufus Lyon, one of his accusers, to testify in his favor

So began a Tillotson tradition of success and wealth, of sharp business dealings, and of a willingness to partner with the U.S. Government when advantageous–a perfect template for the private/public partnership that became the grain elevator boom of the 1940s and 50s. I would be quite proud of such a clever ancestor, notwithstanding a bit of shading of the truth. His neighbors (debtors?) might not quite agree.


Elevator operators once implicated labor activists in mysterious explosions

Evevator test003

A 1920 Department of Agriculture experiment showing that accumulations of grain dust would ignite under the right conditions

Story by Kristen Cart

Elevator fires have been a great concern since the days when Charles H. Tillotson first built wooden elevators with his army of carpenters at the beginning of what would become the family business.

When elevators started to randomly ignite and explode in the early twentieth century, suspicions ran rampant.

Shortly after 1900, labor violence was on the rise, and businesses had reason to be worried.

In the Midwest, elevator owners suspected the labor unionist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or Wobblies, had committed acts of sabotage, torching the structures to make their anarchistic point.

Evevator test004

Then, cooler heads prevailed as engineers found a scientific explanation.

Using a scale model in the manner of a college lab experiment, the United States Department of Agriculture demonstrated that grain dust would ignite and explode under the right conditions, leaving destruction and injury in its wake.

The Wobblies were off the hook.

Government price supports, loan guarantees led to proliferating grain elevators

By Ronald Ahrens

I see why grain elevators proliferated like mad–like mice, actually–starting in 1949.

This happened before Ezra Taft Benson, the crusader against Socialism, became Secretary of Agriculture in 1953, so the trend can’t be attributed to Mormon food-hoarding instincts in the face of Doomsday.

Here’s the story: Section 417 of the Agricultural Act of 1949 made an extra $8 million in cheap loans available to farmers’ cooperatives through the Commodity Credit Corporation.


Ezra Taft Benson, Ag Chief

The United States Department of Agriculture figured the private sector wasn’t keeping pace in grain storage as farmers realized increasingly bountiful crop yields. The USDA stepped in to provide the incentive to build storage capacity. The government price supports had resulted in hundreds of millions of bushels going nowhere.

Washington’s policy of building “warehouse” capacity was of enormous benefit to established outfits like Tillotson Construction Company and J.H. Tillotson, Contractor. For the principals, like my grandfather, Reginald O. Tillotson, it became a matter of  dashing between farflung towns in order to make his sales pitch. And the CCC also breathed life into new organizations like Mayer-Osborn Company.

Given certain conditions, the loans–which were extended through the government’s Banks for Cooperatives–were  intended to cover up to eighty percent of construction costs, with the rest funded by local sources. The eighty percent would cover $100,000 of what looks like an  average cost of $125,000 around then, so we’re talking about eighty new elevators in a year’s time.

And that’s in addition to what supposedly would’ve been ordered in normal periods, although who would turn down a government subsidy and pay retail?

Indeed, I’ve already heard one story of a group forming, with maybe five businessmen kicking in $5000 each, to take up the government’s kind offer, not caring about the disposition of the grain after the three-year guarantee (on new storage) ended.

The CCC pledged it would use seventy-five percentof the additional capacity. And farmers were lining up to sell to the CCC. Indeed, build it and they will come. The more of the subsidized canisters that the government provided, the more that was needed.

United States Department of Agriculture buildi...

United States Department of Agriculture

“The possibility that 1950 will present another storage crisis is evidenced by the latest report of the Department of Agriculture, which shows that as of Nov. 1, farmers had put approximately 353,746,480 bushels of 1949-crop[s] … under CCC price support,” reported the Farmers’ Elevator Guide in December of 1949. “This was nearly 100,000,000 bushels more than with 1948-crop produce.”

Meanwhile, the government had frozen construction of commercial buildings other than hospitals, churches, and schools. So while the traditional construction companies were fighting over those slim pickins, the Tillotsons and Mayer-Osborn, with their specialized knowledge in shaping, reinforcing, and pouring concrete, dashed back and forth like bees, covering the land from Alberta to South Carolina.

They knocked together slip-forms and jacked their way up beyond 100 feet, grinning the whole way.