A slip-formed lesson in character-building at Blencoe, Iowa

Mayer-Osborn pay stubs from August, 1954

Mayer-Osborn pay stubs from August, 1954.

Story by Kristen Cart

Just when you think you know all there is to know about your parent, you find a document that tells you something more. In this case, I found the pay stubs for when my dad, Jerry Osborn, worked for Mayer-Osborn Construction Company in 1954. He wedged a few weeks of hard labor between school in the spring and football in the fall.

The project was a large elevator similar to the first elevator Bill Osborn built with his partner, Gene Mayer, in McCook, Nebraska, in 1949. This example of the type went up in Blencoe, Iowa–and not without incident, as we have related in this blog.

It struck me that his pay rate was just that of a laborer. No cushy job for the son of the boss was offered–he laid steel rebar down during the uninterrupted concrete pour, working his way around the bin top as workers jacked the forms and scaffolding ever higher. Dad mentioned that when he worked for his father, he was paid the same as everyone else–a dollar an hour for back-breaking labor. Not a few times, laborers walked off the job after the first paycheck. It wasn’t easy.

Dad managed to find something to do on the job that was worth even less–he put in a fair amount of time at fifty cents an hour. I can only imagine what that job entailed.

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Jerry Osborn had interests other than building elevators for his dad. He was a champion golfer at Midland College. It seems odd that a good golfer, while cultivating the skill and concentration such sport required, would take time out to heave rebar for a summer job.

I’m not sure which year they won the championship, but I like the juxtaposition between the brutality of the labor and the finesse of golf.

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The summer job added up to a tidy sum for the time. Perseverance paid off.

These days, many of our college-educated young people seem too delicate for such work, especially in exchange for such a meager reward. It would make no sense to them.

But my grandfather, William Osborn, might say that this kind of work built character. Especially if you showed up for that second and third week.

Our Grandfathers’ Grain Elevators mourns the passing of contributor Neil A. Lieb

Neil A. Lieb, left, and Blaine Bell .

Neil A. Lieb, left, and Blaine Bell .

We have learned with regret of the recent passing of our contributor Neil A. Lieb. His son Neil, Jr. sent an email on Sunday, Oct. 25, and it includes these details.

At about 10 a.m., Saturday morning, my father Neil Lieb passed away.

He recently battled a case of pneumonia and although it appeared he was able to recover, it probably weakened his body beyond repair. While we won’t know exactly what caused his death, the doctors we spoke with said he may have been suffering over the last few days from a leaking heart valve which manifested itself as severe back pain. 

unnamed-1As you may know, he battled many illnesses later in life including COPD, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes to name a few. He was a such strong fighter it seemed like he would live to 100 and beyond…but alas it was not in the cards.

After losing his wife and the love of his life just over three years ago, he was never quite the same. I’m sure he is happy now that he is reunited with his bride of 59 years. 

The story of how Neil met his wife Jolene while on the job for Tillotson Construction Company is documented in this blog.
Neil first contacted us in July 2014:

My name is Neil A. (Anderson) Lieb. I graduated from Pocahontas High School in May of 1949. I worked on the original concrete elevator from June until its completion. I also worked on the one built in Clare the same summer. I continued to work for Tillotson Construction Company until August of 1951.

Neil Lieb later in life While employed by Tillotson I helped build similar structures in Bushland and Cannon, Texas; Alto and West Bend, Iowa: and Marshall, Missouri. I am currently working on my autobiography and would like to have some data on these structures (capacity, specifications, etc.). 

The message led to several enjoyable hours of phone conversations with Neil and his supplying dozens of photos from Tillotson jobs. He said that he didn’t take the photos and didn’t know who did, but as far as we were concerned, it was no matter because we had a new wealth of documentary details.

We salute Neil Lieb for his great contribution to our blog and extend our condolences to his family.

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

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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

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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.

Tillotson Construction employees share playful moments outside the company’s Omaha office

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Story by Tim Tillotson, photos from the Virginia Slusher archive

Editor’s note: The story is from a May 14 phone interview.

On the top pic, second from left, Ted Morris? It don’t look like him at all to me. Wayne Skinner, I believe that’s his Olds they’re leaning against.

In the background is Fairmont Ice Cream. They brought refrigerated rail cars in there. One of them, Dad rammed the ass-end of his ’56 imperial into, backing out of the front of the office and I don’t know where he was going in such a hurry. Second day he had it. A four-door Southhampton, pink and white, Mother drove it most of the time. The air conditioning system—they were coming into the picture then—the condenser unit was in the front of the trunk in a big metal box.

When he slammed into the tongue of that rail car, you know how high those tongues stick out, it got into the trunk and the back window. He had them working 24 hours a day to fix that thing, the trunk, back window, and roof.

After he had it fixed, you could always hear some broken glass shifting around in the box of that unit.

Wayne was the so-called engineer, he set over there in that drafting room in the other side of the office, did all the structural calculations.

It was a ’49 or ’50 Olds. Wayne is in the middle pic with Bob Rodgers. He was like the bookkeeper.

Top and bottom picture? There’s Virginia (second from right) and I don’t know who that woman is.

Johnny (Hassman) had to be office help. He didn’t really have anything to do with the drawings or plans. I don’t even remember that he even worked on a job. And I don’t remember why he was there. He got his college work done, I think, in Missoula.

Uncle Ralph, Johnny’s dad, helped later in sales. I remember Ralph talking about him almost living in the car, and he ate a lot of pork and beans out of the can to pay for his way through college. I can’t remember his academic agenda.

Ted was the pilot. He worked int 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 after Dad passed.

Virginia Slusher remembers her years as Tillotson Contruction’s office girl

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Story by Virginia Slusher, photos from her collection

Editor’s note: Virginia Slusher, who lives near Kansas City, contacted us to share these recollections and photos. We have previously written about The Office, part of the old Anheuser-Bush brewery on Jones Street, which served as Tillotson Construction’s headquarters in the 1950s. 

Beginning in the fall of 1951, I worked for Mike (Reginald) and Mary Tillotson for seven years. I was the “office girl”–some bookkeeping, receptionist, et cetera.

I went to Commercial Extension School of Commerce, and Johnny Hassman was my date for our graduation party. He was in the office quite often. I think Johnny helped with sales. IMG_1390

One morning I arrived first, and the safe was hanging open. Because of the burglary, I immediately ran down to the gas station on the corner. The thief took the petty cash they kept in the safe. I don’t think he bothered anything else. The police came to investigate.

I loved working there; they were so good to me.

The three guys and I would sit up on the balcony and play cards sometimes when Mary was gone. It was a raised area where Wayne and Ted, the two engineers, sat. Bob the bookkeeper sat just below.

I loved the guys. They took me out for my first legal drink when I turned 21 years old. They teased me unmercifully but were so good to me.

I remember typing about 2000 W-4s at the end of the year. Men would work for one or two days and quit. I also sent all the “give us your business” cards to the small towns in multiple states. Virginia Slusher 01

The other woman–I can’t remember her name–was working there when I started.

They had a huge NCR bookkeeping machine that she taught me how to operate. Shortly after I started there, the company sold it to, I think, China.

Mary was different to say the least. She had an ugly Boxer that came to work with her sometimes. He would slobber on me; therefore, I did not like him!

She used to tape a St. Christopher medal on her desk. We joked that we wondered if the desk would take her somewhere.

Johnny Hassman and Virginia Slusher celebrate her business school graduation. Photo from the Virginia Slusher archive.

Johnny Hassman and Virginia Slusher celebrate her business school graduation.

She was very good to me, gave me nice bonuses at the end of the year, not quite as big as the three guys. But very good for the ’50s. I received $1000 to $15oo. The men usually around $10,000. Very large amount for the times.

Mike (Reginald) was funny, not in the office much. I had to write the checks to pay the family bills.

I was still Virginia Engel but married William Slusher while working there, 60 years now, and they were very nice to us.

When the company closed, Mary found a new job for me at Power District credit union.