Sunset at Rockwell City, Iowa

The Tillotson elevator in Rockwell City, Iowa, as it appeared in 2014

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

Recently, one of our readers sent us some disheartening news. The skyline in Rockwell City, Iowa, has permanently changed, as announced by Paul Grage:

“…I would like to let you know that the Tillotson elevator in Rockwell City, Iowa, is currently being torn down. They blasted the head house because it was too tall for the crane that ran the wrecking ball. They are currently wrecking balling the rest. The rail that used to serve it was abandon[ed] long ago and an airport runway was built on the old bed. The elevator is shot and it’s presence makes about 1200 feet of the runway useless after course corrections. Its demolition was funded by the Iowa DOT and Landus Cooperative.”

Back in 2014 I paid a visit to Rockwell City, Iowa, located a few miles south of U.S. Route 20 in the western third of the state. I stopped to take pictures of the old Tillotson project, which was one of the larger elevators on my route from Nebraska to my home in Illinois.

The Tillotson landmark was permanently closed for business and deserted.

I spoke to an elderly gentleman standing outside of his small bungalow, which was tucked in close to its neighbors on a street radiating from the elevator property. He had recently moved to town, so he didn’t know any local history, but he shared his observations of the old site.  He said that an owl family had moved into the headhouse. Sometimes he would see the birds flying in or out at dusk, or he would hear their hooting at night.

Other than accommodating the new residents, the elevator stood silently, by far the biggest structure in town. Its doom was sealed when the rail line closed. I didn’t know it would be my last visit–the dull light of the day invited another visit for photos, so I set my images aside for a later post. I never got back there. But here are views of the old elevator, as I found it that day.

The tallest landmark in town is now the water tower.

Some initials on a bronze plaque in Limon, Colo., help to solve a mystery

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

My father, Jerry Osborn, and I had a rare opportunity this October to take a road trip. Our goals were to see family, check out our hunting camp, and see some of the sights in the west. Dad is in his eighties now, so we don’t put off any chances to do neat stuff. This trip exceeded our expectations. Happily, we also were able to take in some elevators.

Jerry Osborn at Zion National Park, Utah

Our stop at the elevator in Limon, Colo., proved to be a wonderful surprise. There was a truck at the co-op when we arrived, but the office door was locked, so I approached the elevator itself and called out to see if it was deserted. When I turned around, a man was approaching from the office. I went to meet him.

Ed Owens was finishing up paperwork before going home for the night. I asked him about the history of the elevator, and he brought me into the office. Ed said his grandfather, S. L. Sitton, helped build the Limon elevator as well as the earlier, neighboring one in Genoa, Colo. He said his grandfather came into the area in 1939. He went away during the war, then came back and looked for whatever work he could find. Elevator construction provided a part-time laborer job that kept food on the table.

The builder put up the elevator like a layer cake, letting each concrete layer cure for a period before adding another, rather than by the continuous-pour method pioneered by early elevator construction companies. The Limon elevator was built in stages by farmers who built by day and farmed by night. I was impressed by Mr. Sitton’s fortitude, and I would have asked the old gentleman about it, but Ed said he was 97 years old and living in a nursing home in Flagler. He likely wouldn’t remember, and even if he did, he might not appreciate a visit.

The Genoa, Colo., elevator is in a neighboring town.

The best discovery was yet to come. When Ed ushered me into the office, he showed me the bronze plaque which originally adorned the driveway of the Limon elevator. Ed said all of the directors listed on the plaque were dead by now. The elevator was built in 1958, so all the community leaders of the time were long gone. But the key bit of information on the plaque was the name of the builder and designer, M. and A. Enterprises, Inc., of Denver.

I was very excited to see this name. The company was based in Denver, and the designer claimed to be the builder. Based on the design of the elevator, I had a strong suspicion of who that designer might have been. We now had a key piece of information.

Followers of this blog know that we have puzzled over a few mysteries while tracking our grandfathers’ elevators. The most difficult story to reconstruct, thus far, was how the Mayer-Osborn Construction Company met its demise.

The Denver-based enterprise lasted from 1949 until at least 1954, when my grandfather, William Osborn, apparently left the business. In the summer of 1954 he built the Blencoe, Iowa, elevator with the help of my dad, Jerry Osborn; by the summer of 1955, William was home from his Denver office and never worked elevator construction again. Meanwhile, his partner, Eugene Mayer, probably revived the company under various guises, but we know little of what became of him.

With our visit to Limon, Colo., we may have cracked the case.

Usually, the simplest explanation is the true one. The quickest way to explain why a thriving company would go away is to look for a disaster. Family lore says there was one. But I suspect the rumor of a collapsed elevator, lost to a crew that “shorted materials” and made bad concrete, might have been a tall tale that sprung from a much more pedestrian event. No such disasters can be found in 1954 or 1955 newspaper accounts.

The only related problem I could find occurred at the the Mayer-Osborn elevator in Blencoe, Iowa. During construction, when the elevator had reached about twelve feet high, the forms were slipped for the first time. As soon as concrete appeared below the slipped form, it began to slump and crumble. Bad concrete was indeed the culprit, and it necessitated a tear-down. To get back to a twelve foot height, the company had to add a day or two of expensive labor, which directly cut into profit. Could this event explain why William Osborn left the company? It’s the simplest explanation, so perhaps.

Several subsequent elevators bore the Mayer-Osborn manhole covers, but Dad didn’t know about these elevators, and he was certain that by 1955, his dad, William, was home for good.

The Mayer-Osborn elevator at McCook, Nebr. built in 1949

With its signature stepped headhouse, the elevator in Limon bears an uncanny resemblance to the first elevator Mayer-Osborn built in McCook, Neb. In fact, it is the same design, updated somewhat, and dated 1958. So it certainly went up after Grandpa left the business. But what about Eugene Mayer? Dad said that he was the designer, whereas Bill Osborn started as a carpenter and learned his construction skills on the job. Mayer still retained ownership of his elevator designs, which could explain why McCook clones continued to pop up all over the plains in the mid-1950s.

That brings us back to the builder of the Limon elevator, as inscribed on the plaque, “M. and A. Enterprises, Inc.” It seems inescapable that the “M.” was Mr. Eugene Mayer.

The Limon elevator had newer innovations but was built haltingly. Plainly, all was not the same as it had been when Bill Osborn was on the job. Perhaps fewer workers were available. Fewer contracts were awarded as subsidies waned. So the big, ambitious, day-and-night event of an elevator project was toned down somewhat. I expect we will find that Eugene Mayer’s design was eventually sold and others built it, then it passed into history, along with the great concrete elevator boom.

Happily, Limon’s elevator still thrives, and it gives us a peek at the amazing history of elevators on the American plains.

The layout of the elevator is used to record the content of each bin. Flat storage is adjacent to the concrete elevator.

 

 

Uniqeness in an early Cargill elevator in northeastern South Dakota

Early Cargill 02

Brad Perry shares another photo of an early Cargill elevator, this one at Athol, S.D.

Athol and yesterday’s Ashton are twin towns in Spink County, a ways south of Aberdeen. Together they must have about 180 people.

We hope those people appreciate the uniqueness of their elevators.

One of Cargill’s early concrete elevators found in southern Minnestota

Elmore

Our friend, Brad Perry, saw the recent posts about Cargill history and was prompted to send some of his photos.

Here he shows us one of Cargill’s early concrete elevators. It’s located in Elmore, Minn., a tiny town in Faribault County, in the south-central part of the state right on the Iowa line.

As railroads pushed west in the 1870s, Will Cargill expanded his grain storage along the lines through northern Iowa and southern Minnesota.

And as the era of reinforced-concrete elevators unfolded, Cargill’s successors continued building.

We don’t know a thing about this elevator’s dimensions or who might have built it, but how impressive is the wooden elevator on the right? It stands almost shoulder to shoulder with the more modern concrete one. 

The story behind the WSJ’s story of a cast-off elevator in Burlington, Colo.

Burlington 01

By Ronald Ahrens

From reading Wayne G. Broehl, Jr.’s huge history of Cargill, I’ve become alert to other news about the grain-trading behemoth. So a Wall Street Journal article, titled “Growers’ New Clout Tilts Farm Economy,” caught my eye on Aug. 16 

“Powerful farmers push Cargill, ADM for better prices, and may soon compete,” the sub-headline reads.

According to Jacob Bunge’s story, several factors have risen in importance to give large farmers more leverage.

One is that farmers have more storage capacity for their grain. They don’t have to sell soon after harvest, going to the local elevator and accepting the current price.

A second factor is more options for direct sale of crops to stock feeders or ethanol plants.

And like everything else, there’s a digital aspect. “Venture capital-backed startups are developing services that scan a wider range of grain buyers or connect farmers directly with food makers,” Bunge reports.

Burlington 02

Bunge’s story in the Journal tells of a Cargill grain buyer who “said his job got harder still after Cargill in 2016 sold the Burlington, Colo., grain elevator–and later, nearby cattle feedlots that were reliable destinations for the grain grown by many of [the buyer’s] contacts.”

Here we skidded to a stop. Burlington, Colo., is in the records of Tillotson Construction Co. My uncle, Charles J. Tillotson, worked on Burlington and recalls a 1950 incident there involving a train and cement mixer. The locomotive derailed, but no one was injured.

The 300,000-bushel Burlington elevator had eight tanks of 20 feet in diameter and 115 feet in height. It was a twin-leg elevator with a pit 19 feet deep. The cupola measured 23 feet wide, 63.75 feet long, and 44 feet high. Pulley centers were 168 feet apart.

Could this be the same elevator Cargill sold two years ago? The big company has “divested itself of some far-flung grain elevators that aren’t near a railroad or river.”

And Bunge recounts another marvel: the anecdote concerns an Illinois farmer–one who tills 9,000 acres and rents out 5,000 more–who partnered with another farmer to buy a 750,000-bushel Cargill elevator. 

If they don’t find it too expensive to operate and insure, dispatching large quantities of grain when and where they want will be a challenge for Cargill and ADM to face.

 

Book report, Part Two: In the 1800s, Cargill already had huge elevators

Cargill 03

By Ronald Ahrens

Although it’s understandable why, we fail to appreciate how big and well-developed the grain business already was by the the years after 1895, when electric motors were adopted to power internal mechanisms and reinforced-concrete was first used for elevator construction.

This much we take away from Section One of Cargill: Trading the World’s Grain. Will Cargill, the “Frontier Entrepreneur” of the section’s title, boldly expanded his operation as the railroads pushed northwest and Minneapolis became a center of trade.

In an 1889 statement of holdings, Cargill said he had “54 Elevators & Warehouses in Minn & Dakota)” worth $147,597.16 and “16 Elevators and Warehouses in Wisc, G Bay RR” worth another $18,479.29.

Cargill 02We tend to think of wooden elevators as modest structures, but in the 1870s the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad had two massive terminals in New York City holding 3.5 million bushels of grain for export. Cargill shipped over the Great Lakes to Buffalo and then by rail to the terminals.

Buffalo also had millions of bushels of capacity in its multitude of elevators.

As early as 1873, a year of economic panic and the start of a profound international depression (not to mention a Midwestern grasshopper plague), Will Cargill was building elevators and warehouses along the railroad tracks. He shelled out more than $12,000 for “a large elevator” in Cresco, Iowa.

Panic 01Three years later Cargill had settled in La Crosse, Wisc. When he and his wife, Ella, went on a pleasure trip to Chicago, a La Crosse newspaper said, “They have been making so much money on wheat they they’ll buy Chicago if they feel like it.”

And in 1879, Cargill’s office became part of a telephone network in La Crosse. Author Wayne G. Broehl, Jr. points out it was only three years after Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone.

At the same time Cargill expanded along the Green Bay and Minnesota line with nine warehouses. As a lake port, Green Bay became an important focal point, and here Cargill and his partner bought a 30,000-bushel warehouse and leased a 250,000-bushel terminal. The latter, which stood 100 feet high, had been built in 1862 for $80,000.

Decades later, Tillotson Construction Co., of Omaha, showed the value inherent in a fire-proof elevator built of reinforced concrete. In 1946, for example, Tillotson put up a 250,000-bushel concrete elevator at Dike, Iowa, for $87,250.

In the early 1880s, a new type of wooden elevator, the cribbed elevator, became common. As Milo S. Ketchum wrote in The Design of Walls, Bins, and Grain Elevators, published in 1907, “In this construction, 2″ x 4″, 2″ x 6″, or 2″ by 8″ are laid flatwise, so as to break joints and bind the structure together and are spiked firmly.”

Some called the method a “log cabin” approach. It resisted the insistent, fluid-like pressure on the sides and made for stout construction.”

In the 1880s, with another partner, George Bagley, Cargill pushed into the Dakota Territory with a small elevator at Aberdeen and several warehouses. By 1886, Bagley & Cargill also had a 250,000-bushel terminal in Minneapolis.

Combining all Cargill-controlled storage facilities, there was 1.6 million bushels of capacity–ready for the bounty of wheat that poured in as farming began in the Red River Valley.

 

Tillotson built a 181,000-bushel annex at Weatherford, Okla., in 1954

Reader Terry Christensen found himself wondering about something, so he wrote this comment, which is lightly edited for style:

Hello and thanks millions for these awesome stories!

My dad, George T. Christensen, worked for Tillotson Construction in the early ’50s, and he died in an unrelated accident while building the elevator in Boxholm, Iowa, in 1955. My mom told us that he worked on several elevators in Oklahoma, and I would love to see the construction notes for all the elevators they built in Oklahoma. I think they built the one in Weatherford, Okla., in 1952 or 1953 and maybe the one at Hydro Okla.?

Thanks again,

Terry Christensen

Well, in fact,  we don’t know anything about Hydro, but Tillotson Construction Co. sure did build at Weatherford–a 181,000-bushel storage annex in 1954.

We find specifications in the construction record. At the top of the entry, the coded notes tell us there were eight tanks of 17 feet in diameter by 115 feet in height. Two 24-inch conveyor belts moved grain through the run atop the tanks. There was a tunnel, probably from the main house to the annex. And a tripper would sweep grain off the belt into a storage tank.

“The key feature of the steam-powered conveyor belt that ran alongside the tops of the grain bins was the ‘trimmer’ or ‘tripper,’ a device that deflected the flow of grain off the belt, and down and into a particular grain bin,” writes William J. Brown in American Colossus: The Grain Elevator 1843 to 1943.

Here are the notes for Weatherford (as well as Dacoma and Orienta, Okla.); Newell, Iowa; and Bellwood, Neb.:

Weatherford 01

Weatherford 02