Who We Are

IMG_6897Ronald Ahrens, born in 1955, was the first grandchild of Reginald and Margaret Tillotson. During his boyhood, Ronald spent many happy times in the home that Reginald built of slip-formed concrete atop a knoll in the Ponca Hills, north of Omaha. Although he knew generally of Tillotson Construction’s accomplishments, it was only in 2011, after linking up with Kristen Cart, that he began to learn more details. Ronald, who now lives near Palm Springs, California, is a freelance writer and photographer specializing in automotive and business history topics. He has contributed to Automobile Magazine over a period of more than twenty-five years, and his byline has appeared in USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. He also writes regularly for DBusiness (“Detroit’s Premier Business Journal”). He feels that portraying the accomplishments of the men and women of Tillotson Construction Company, and those who went forth with the know-how that originated with the Tillotsons of Omaha, is a great honor.

Kristen Osborn Cart is the granddaughter of William Arthur Osborn. Kristen has a degree in aerospace engineering from Colorado University at Boulder. She became a pilot and served on active duty in the United States Navy from 1982 to 1990, retiring from the Naval Reserve in 2006. She currently flies for UPS and is married with three children. Her grandfather was superintendent and builder for J.H. Tillotson Contractor, Inc., in the mid-1940s and was a partner in the Mayer-Osborn Construction Company, of Denver, from 1948 to 1955. Every summer while growing up, Kristen visited her grandparents in Fremont, Nebraska, going fishing with her grandpa and hunting night crawlers in his back yard. He died in 1977, when Kristen was a teenager. She became interested in family history when her mother began writing to older family members in the 1970s to discover the family’s origins. In the last ten years, Kristen has used Internet sources and traveled extensively to complete the family story, with help and inspiration from her mom and dad. She first visited and photographed the Mayer-Osborn elevator in McCook, Nebraska, in 2008.  It was then that she began to wonder about the history of her grandfather’s business. She enjoys hunting, photography, and travel, and can’t resist a mystery.

 

46 comments on “Who We Are

  1. Hi, Kristen – Thank you for visiting my blog. I am amazed by the work you’re doing here. The topic is unique, and it really is American history. The photos are gorgeous.

    • kocart says:

      Thank you so much for visiting us here. It started while I was trying to trace my grandfather’s footsteps, and with good happenstance, the group of of us got together pursuing the same historical mission with this blog. Gary Rich is a wonderful photographer, and he has taught me a lot, as has Ronald Ahrens, both with his writing and his eye for a good photo. I feel blessed. I was particularly inspired with your positive outlook on your blog. So happy you are here. Welcome.

  2. Nancy Russell Poppen says:

    I have just recently found this blog and love it! Have been wanting for years to put together a picture book of the “Elevators of the Midwest” in honor of my grandfather, father and uncles who worked for years in the grain elevator industry. My father, Bob Russell, will be turning 80 this week and when I see him in a few days I am going to introduce him to this site! He has a wealth of information of his years in the elevator business. We moved many times throughout my childhood, following him to all the towns where he built the elevators.

    • kocart says:

      Thank you for your kind words. Bill Osborn was the grandpa who took me fishing and treated me kindly as I grew up, and I always loved him. Over the past year I have taken my camera along and visited his projects, learning more about him and his elevators. Not until I stood beside the McCook,Neb. elevator for the first time did I see how truly significant his working years had been. Your father can also look back on his working life with a huge sense of accomplishment. I am so happy that you found this blog–I would love to hear what your father has to say! Welcome.

  3. Ryan says:

    I’m sure this will seem like an odd request, but…I’ve been tasked with determining how one could identify a grain elevator or annex built by Sampson Construction Company by just looking at the exterior. For example, are there design features of the Sampson Elevators so unique that one could identify it as a Sampson structure simply by looking at it from the roadside? I welcome anyones thoughts on this. Thank you!

    • Darlene Royalty says:

      My name is Darlene Royalty, my dad, Darrell Greenlee worked for a Johnson & Sampson Const. Co. back in the 50’s. If this is the same Sampson (brothers Darwin & Sherman), I go by the head house on top. I am researching all the people who might know about all the people who my dad might have worked with.

      • kocart says:

        You should check for a copy of the Farmers’ Elevator Guide on worldcat, the online world library catalog (google “worldcat” on the internet). Search their virtual catalog to see if it is available in a library near you. Elevator construction companies regularly advertised in this publication, and sometimes a company was featured. If a project made it into the pages of the Farmers’ Elevator Guide, often employees would be interviewed or even pictured. Plan an afternoon to look through the magazines since there is no overall index.

        I can do a newspaper search for the company, but that can be very hit or miss. Agricultural colleges might have more information, also. Good luck, and I will keep an eye out for any information that will help you.

        The best way to find out more may be to visit the elevators themselves.

        I would be interested in what features allow you to identify the head house on your dad’s elevators?

  4. kocart says:

    Your question is not so strange as it seems. In fact, whether each company had a signature style has become a topic of intense discussion and research here on our blog, and we don’t have all of the answers yet. Johnson Sampson built elevators that were very similar to the elevators of J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, of Denver and Mayer Osborn Construction of Denver, prompting a great deal of debate about how that came to be.

    If you get a chance, look at the pages for McCook, Neb. and Blencoe, Iowa on our blog. The style of elevator you see had a stepped, rounded head house and about a quarter million bushel capacity. It was a standard elevator style for Mayer Osborn, even appearing in their ads, until 1954 when they closed their doors, but after that date Johnson Sampson was building a nearly identical elevator. We don’t know whether the architect moved on to later work for Johnson Sampson, or whether the design was sold. The elevator at Limon, Colo. was built in the same style, but there is no indication of who built it–no paperwork, and no name on the manhole covers on the interior of the elevator. So the question becomes: was the style proprietary to one company, or to one designer who sold his design to all comers?

    Another example is the elevator at Page City, Kan. It was built by Johnson Sampson, as shown by the manhole covers. The operator says it was built in the late 1950s. It looks very similar to the elevators in Wauneta Neb. and Traer Kan., built by J. H. Tillotson before his death in 1948. A few details and dimensions differ, and in this case the changes appear to be distinctive for Johnson Sampson elevators. I feel fairly confident that the Page City elevator is an example of an identifiable Johnson Sampson design.

    My best guess is that the larger, successful companies had a few standard designs they offered to their customers. If a customer wanted to request a proposal, they would give the company specifications, and the company would customize the elevator to the customer’s needs and present the plans in their contract bid. If is was accepted, the elevator would be built, with enough differences from the basic design to make each elevator unique. A few telltale details suggest a builder, but you can’t be sure until you see a document or a manhole cover to confirm your suspicion.

    Best Regards,

    Kristen Cart

  5. Andy says:

    Cool Blog.

    I’ve been working in elevators since I was 7. My old man was a grain buyer and when he was loading cars I’d often be opening and closing the spout while he was braking, jacking, or pulling a car on spot. My mom worked there too and she’d sell seed, fertilizer, and crop insurance – along with making out the cash tickets. Times have changed, probably not for the better. I always thought it was normal to have an elevator dog hanging around. Now it’s all crisp, corporate style.

    The elevators I grew up in are all Western Canadian wooden crib style, it was only the last few years I’ve been working in a concrete. You hardly ever see anything only anymore about agriculture that doesn’t revolve around farming or the financial achievements of the CEO.

    If you could get some shots of the load out side that would be cool. I’d like to see how many cars they can spot, and if they loaded trucks from the inside or the outside. Or the boot – I always pity the poor guys who had to bucket up all the dust and rotten grain from down there.

  6. Wow, what a topic for a blog!
    Thanks for stopping by and liking my photos. I do not have any photos of grain elevators (yet) but I’ll be posting photos of the Prague tv tower soonish🙂 And now that I think about it grain elevators would be quite a cool photo opportunity…

  7. Celia says:

    Interesting project. Do you have people taking pictures here in Chicago and nearby MI/Indiana?

    • Hi Celia. Thanks for your comment. As far as we know, our grandfathers’ companies didn’t build too much in Illinois and Indiana. But if you come up with anything good, let us know! — Ronald

  8. Celia says:

    P. S. I appreciated your visit to my blog–hope you found the link in it to the New City article on the remaining grain elevators within the Chicago city limits. Worth reading.

    Celia
    Celia: Her City

    • kocart says:

      I checked out your link. Chicago’s history as a terminal city for grain is an interesting topic–so was the fire that consumed a huge elevator there years ago. Those elevators are a bit beyond our scope on this blog, but I still wonder about them. I live over an hour away from Chicago, but I have looked at those old elevators on the way to somewhere else, wishing I had time to stop. I don’t think they are in the posh parts of town, though. I might have to bring a BIG buddy along to venture into some of those places.

      • Celia says:

        Yes, I saw only after I commented that your blog was about an interesting subset of grain elevators. There is an interesting blog called “A Chicago Sojourn” that is currently featuring old railroad bridges–perhaps eventually he will cover grain elevators, or has in the past. There is a link to this blog in my sidebar.

        Also, as I’m sure you know, there is a large group of photographers who photograph Chicago and areas like Gary and share photos on Flickr. You could probably find more pictures and info about the elevators by searching there. Save yourself a trip (though there is nothing like being there, eh?)

  9. zappnu says:

    Going through some of Dad’s things,
    I came across his SS card from 1948.
    He lived in the Kismet, KS area.
    On the card it said Johnson-Sampson Const. Co.
    I had no clue (and still don’t) if he ever worked for them or not…
    a little before my time… hehehe
    I thought that was kinda cool, tho…

    • kocart says:

      It sounds like your dad worked for one of the more important builders of the day. It is my mission to find out more about the company since it traveled the same ground as my grandfather’s company. There is so much more to learn.

  10. Paul Grage says:

    I can get a lot of photos for you. I live in Rockwell City, IA the home top a Tilotson next to our grocery store. I am the son of Rolland Grage a 30 some year employee of Rolland Grage of Cargill Incorporated in Emmetsburg, IA. His elevators were number 1, 2, and 3. 1 was built by Todd and Sargent, 2 was built by TE Iberson, 3 (now demolished) was built by an undetermined builder. I am certain Rockwell was built by Tilotson due to it’s rounded head house. My dad has died of CMML lukemia. Likely this was caused by farm chemicals which he used and sold. I would love to talk to you. I was a tailgater born in the 70’s when my brothers and sisters were born in the 50’s and 60’s. But, my fondest memories were of my days at the elevator with Dad and his men. My first jungle gym was a 190 foot elevator.

  11. Paul Grage says:

    I would like to share some memories of Cargill in Emmetsburg. Old number 2 built by Iberson is my fondest. My dad was the Manager and I would often call after school at harvest to see if I could come hang around. If they were accepting grain at number 2 that is where I would be. The alley way was huge! It had one huge main grate and two side grates for overflow that all emptied into one huge pit. It had a large horn that sounded when the leg was up to speed or when a bin ran full. The side entrance inside was flanked by two large aerator fans that roared. As a kid it was kind of terrifying to exit between these two. the outside and a fan above the exit to the dump alley and there were two other large ones ground mounted in the front. I remember the feel of the grates as semis crossed them. I still remember the old porta power pump that raised the old barage box wagons pulled by pickup. I remember the old gate at the bottom of the pit that accessed the leg. It was moved by a large lever next to the pit.right next to the leg button. You had to hear the buzzer before you opened that gate unless you wanted to plug the leg. The distributor crank was right next to the leg and man lift. It as was and a lever brake and crank style that had belt pulley webbing on it to indicate which bin you hand selected. I remember the first trip to the head house with my brother. He was an employee with Cargill before they had nepotism rules. It was a sight to behold.The big open head house with all of it’s huge spouts, the huge gearbox and chain drive leg and the big distributor along with screener. In this head house was a huge plywood shack. I asked later what this was. It was explained to me that it was a tripper scale used for loading rail road cars. It was long out of use as this elevator had no rails and the new elevator did. This tripper scale did have long rods that extended down the man-lift shaft to the alley below. I remember the ride up the man-lift with my brother. The dust was so thick on the walls the people had stopped long the way and scratched rather colorful sayings in the dust. (this was long before the days of dust control) When I say man-lift shaft I mean man lift only as the leg shafting was bulit into the concrete. the metal trunking only existed between the dump shed floor and ceiling and then from bin deck to the head drive pulley. The shaft the rest of the bucket was built into has hopper bottomed just like all the overhead bins. If i Remember right this elevator had eighteen overhead bins one of which was used for rail car/ tripper scale.

  12. Carol says:

    Im trying to find information on my boyfriends grandfather who ran grain elevator for I believe Union Pacific. Grain elevators ran along Mississipi river located in Missouri. Close to down town St. Louis. Years are 1970’s thru early 80’s. He passed away due tocar accident in 1982 I believe.

  13. Virginia Engel Slusher says:

    I receive emails from your blog. But today’s KC Star Magazine had an article on Omaha. Really took me back, I was receptionist/helped bookkeeping etc. in 1950 until 1957. I enjoyed seeing the picture of the building, cant believe it is still there. I live in Kansas now, since 1968. I have been receiving emails from Mary Catherine. Memories,Memories. Virginia Engel Slusher

  14. I love this blog because it’s probably the only opportunity I’ll have to see the nuts and bolts of a grain elevator! I also appreciate the history you share.

    Speaking of which, I’m wondering if you can tell me roughly when the first farm grain silos and bigger grain elevators made their way to Kansas? Thanks.

    • kocart says:

      The first wooden elevators were built before the turn of the century, but the concrete elevators came later. The first concrete elevators may have gone up as early as the 1920s, and by the 1940s, the slip-form technique was perfected. At the same time, the U.S. government subsidized a great deal of elevator construction, so the elevator boom was on by the late 1940s. I don’t have a date for the first elevator in Kansas, but Linda Laird, the author of “The American Grain Elevator: Form and Function” (available on Amazon) has studied Kansas elevators extensively, and she may have discovered the earliest–you should consult her book.

  15. Todd Taylor says:

    Hello, I am doing research on local elevators for a project. The main elevator at Minburn Iowa was built by Sampson out of salina in 1960 there are four more silos but the builder is unknown at this time.My question is this would there be still plans for the elevator eaither with Sampson or the elevator? How would one know who built the other four silos? Thank you for your time.

    • kocart says:

      No two sites are the same. I have not found very many plans for the older elevators, but when they have turned up, they were either with the family of the original builder, or they were with the cooperative office. You can also check with the county offices and see if they have old records or know where to find them. Usually you can discover the builder of an elevator on site–manhole covers or plaques identify the builder, and if not, often the elevator office will have documentation. Nothing beats a visit–local people can tell you much more than you expect.

      • Todd Taylor says:

        Thanks for the info.I guess I’m on a mission now! I understand from the blog that Sampson is now Johnson Sampson? I have enjoyed reading though the blog some of the elevators I do know from living in central Iowa.

      • kocart says:

        Johnson Sampson was a partnership that later broke up. I don’t have dates for all the iterations the company went through, since this company was not directly involved with the Tillotson Construction Company or its offshoots. But it is a good bet that a number of employees of Tillotson eventually ended up with Johnson Sampson and its successors. Good luck on your mission, and let us know what you find!

      • Todd Taylor says:

        Thanks I will, I think one of the elevators at Dallas Center Iowa is a Tillotson build.The head house looks like one anyway, maybe you have visited there to check it out on your travels here.

      • Paul Grage says:

        I see the photos of the Pocahontas Elevator you took. On your run up there you missed a couple right along the way. Rockwell City and Manson, Iowa. Rockwell City is quite clearly a Tillotson by the markings on the tank manholes. I am not sure if the second site at Rockwell City is a Tillotson but you would be impressed by the preservation they just did to it. They patched all the rotten spots in the concrete inside and out. It looks like a giant shotgun blasted it. It was one of the elevators that succumbed to the rot brought on by painting them. A practice which has ceased. There is a recent tank built at Roelyn, Iowa right next to a Tillotson that was formed by still forms. No slip forming.

      • Thanks for the update!

  16. kocart says:

    Yes, we posted about Dallas Center a couple of years ago. I was told that the Tillotson elevator, which stands alone next to a larger complex, was used to hold soybeans. It’s a very well maintained site. I stopped for photos, but aside from learning about the soybeans, I didn’t talk to anyone at the co-op or see any plans. It might be worth another visit.

    • Todd Taylor says:

      Thanks, That would be in my plan is to ask if they have plans when I am ready to do that project as far as the Minburn site goes they could still be plans in the safe but highly unlikely. I’m hoping for plans as it would greatly help with building the model of it.

  17. Brad Perry says:

    I enjoy your blog— and have been to virtually all the locations and more. I was a loan officer for the Bank for Cooperatives and now consult with coops all over the US. I may even have more pics than you all do!
    Anyway, did you see the pixs of what was the Cargill elevator off of 73rd & Dodge under construction? It’s on Cargill’s 100th anniversary site.

  18. I work at a facility that was built(poured) by Tillotson in 1956. Still operating and used daily!

    • Larry, we would love to hear more. What elevator is it? Can you take some pictures?

      • Hardy, IA I can take some pictures, have to clear it with the boss and upper mgmt. should be no issue though. I am a history buff and in 1986 after I graduated HS was waiting to leave for the Army, I worked for Lambert and Hamlin on a project building some new silos near my hometown. damn good pay for 1986.

  19. kocart says:

    Our Tillotson company records stop sometime in 1956, but the company continued to build after that date. We know there had to be some newer elevators, but we don’t know where all of them are. This is an exciting find! Without your comment, we might never have known about the Hardy elevator. Thank you so much for your contribution to the blog.

  20. carol marlow says:

    I’m looking for any information I can find on Thomas Goeller. He was a grain elevator operator for Southern Pacific R.R. in the 1970’s.

  21. cowboylawyer says:

    Ask Ron Ahrens if he went to Omaha North High. I know about Ponca Hills. My Uncle Jack lived on Calhoun Road.

  22. My grandpa Simanek owned and operated grain elevator in Prague neb, many years anyone remember Thomas Simanek?

  23. Michael Pelelo says:

    Hi folks. Just stumbled on this site and it is way cool. Thanks for all these stories.

    I was born in 1954, the same year the Tillotson headhouse was slipped in Hinton, Iowa. I can see it from my late parents farm south of Merrill, Iowa where I grew up. I knew several local farmers who worked that slip in ’54. Within the last month or so, there was an explosion in that workhouse and it looks like the tank walls were breached, so it will probably have to come down. I have spent many days in the 70’s and 80’s working in that complex and remember the old layout quite well.

    In the 70’s, as a young man, I became a millwright and worked for an outfit out of Oyens, Iowa that built jump form silos. Later I worked for D&B Construction out of Sioux City and helped slip workhouses in Oyens and Maurice, IA, and the set of tanks to the south of the Tillotson workhouse in Hinton. I have probably been in every elevator in northwest IA at one point or another, and I worked as a millwright out of the sheet metal local too. A lot of the guys who worked for Dad Sherrill and D&B Construction got their start at Youngblood Construction out of Sioux City which is still slipping elevators today after over a hundred years.

    I am now retired and just this afternoon went to look at a pair of very large tanks that are being jump formed right now in Sloan, Iowa, by Hoffman Construction. That outfit goes back a long way slipping and jump forming elevators.

    Way back when I was doing that type of work, everyday old guys would come around and gawk at what was going on, and now I am one of the old guys gawking!

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