Elevator investigations move farther afield with a side trip to Alta, Iowa

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The trademark rounded headhouse identifies the Tillotson elevator, shown here behind the office and truck scale.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

It is getting harder to visit our grandfathers’ elevators. All of the elevators within a half hour either side of the I-80 corridor have already been exhausted, so a stop for photography requires real planning and extra gas, time, and effort, even when piggybacked on our normal family visit to Nebraska.

The trip to Alta, Iowa, required just such an extra investment in driving time. The town and its Tillotson elevator is just north-west of Storm Lake in the northwestern corner of the state, and is not, quite frankly, on the way to anywhere.

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The Tillotson elevator in Alta, Iowa, where the old structure is mostly obscured by later bins.

I wonder how our kids put up with it. This trip in particular required over an hour’s northward jaunt before angling generally east-northeast, with a 30-minute divot or two along the Nebraska-to-Illinois route. Each detour took in wayward sites, including Alta.

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A look up the rail line opposite the Tillotson elevator revealed the historical trappings of town, with a backdrop of new grain bins.

It is normally a 10-hour drive to get home from visiting their grandparents, but this elevator excursion would tax my children’s patience for several more hours. To be fair, we got an extra early start. But that meant the serious backseat fidgeting would start sooner.

You would think that I would study Tillotson records first, and inject some discipline and efficiency into planning our route.

But no, that task was left for after the trip, so I could see how closely we approached several sites without seeing them.

I don’t think the kids minded the near misses–but they’ll get to see the countryside again when we go through to mop up the strays.

 

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.

From their ever-rising perch, elevator men saw the workaday world of Alta, Iowa

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Story by Ronald Ahrens, photo from the Neil A. Lieb archive

Reader Frank Nine recently expressed fond memories of his job with Tillotson Construction Company, writing, “I can’t believe it has been 61 years ago that I started working for Tillotson. It seems like yesterday and was some of the best times of my life.”

This view of downtown Alta, Iowa, from Tillotson’s new grain elevator for the Alta Cooperative makes his statement easy to understand. Aside from the challenge of the work itself, part of the appeal of building a reinforced-concrete elevator was the high-profile nature of the job, in every aspect.

In a town like Alta, with 1350 inhabitants in 1950, the construction crew had to feel the eyes of everybody in town. Wherever they went, whether the cafe or saloon, they were known and perhaps treated differently.

And from their lofty perspective, the workers could be forgiven for harboring a sense of superiority over the townsmen, some of whom may not have been inside a building taller than three stories. Building an elevator made you part of an elite team, rather like a visiting circus troupe.

In the photo we look to the south-southeast and see a lumber company, the downtown businesses, and an important church. Assistance would be welcome in identifying buildings around the smokestack, as well as other establishments.

From the neighborhood, the Alta grain elevator loomed ever larger

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Story by Ronald Ahrens, photo from the Neil A. Lieb archive

As the Alta Cooperative’s new elevator rose in the early summer of 1950, life went on at its not too vigorous pace in the namesake town.

Here, we see the elevator as the headhouse nears completion. The view, as far as I can determine from satellite imagery on Google Maps, is looking north on Cherokee Street–which, as we see, was unpaved.

Pressed for a guess, I’d say the truck is an International and the light-colored car is a Pontiac.

Note the cross-bracing in the headhouse window.

On the extreme right, through the opening under the tree, you see the outline of the old wooden elevator building.

The crew had only a few more feet, or maybe it was inches, to go before topping out the new reinforced-concrete elevator. After dismantling the formwork, they would install the equipment inside the main house and headhouse.

Then the painters would sway on a flying scaffold and apply whitewash, making the elevator gleam.

Welcome to Alta. Please slow-down and see our new grain elevator!

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Story by Ronald Ahrens, photo from the Neil A. Lieb archive

Why would we not be blamed for thinking the sign in the photo was actually about the new elevator that Tillotson Construction Company had just completed in Alta, Iowa? Or do we read too much into it?

Just think what was required to build the elevator in 1950. Men started in the mud and gloom of early spring. All they had were piles of sand and lumber and steel bars, relatively few, simple tools, and an ingenious way of keeping the formwork level. They were about to perform an amazing feat.

By midsummer, the job was done, the lettering affixed to the headhouse, and farmers could more efficiently store and ship their corn.

The men who built the elevator moved on to another job, maybe in Iowa, maybe in Texas.

What they left behind towered over the countryside of Buena Vista County. Some folks had probably never seen a monument this grand.

Shucks, by scrooching up your eyes, you might even have been able to see it all the way from Storm Lake, three miles down Route 7.

Details, details! Here’s more about the finished grain elevator at Alta, Iowa

The finished elevator. Photo from the Neil A. Lieb Archive.

The finished elevator. Photo from the Neil A. Lieb Archive.

Commentary by Neil A. Lieb, with photo from his archive

That’s the west side of the elevator. If you were bringing grain in, you would go in that door and out the other door. See that railroad track? All elevators I’ve ever been near, seems you go in the back side and out the front side. You see the second row of windows? You see where the last “A” is? That’s where the motor sets. The belt would be on the right-hand side of the driveway. The driveways are always offset to one side, and the belt to the other side. The drive motor sits about where that “A” is, maybe about the top. It sits on top of two I-beams. They go into the wall of the headhouse and the wall of the shaft that drives the belt. The lettering was done after we left. Tillotson didn’t have anything to do with it. Some sign company came in and did it. They used lead anchors. It had a steel in the middle and lead sleeve on the outside. You can go to a hardware store and still buy them. They had a drill—they called a star drill—and you hit it with a hammer. You hit it, you turned it. You hit it, you turned it. You use a five or seven pound shop hammer to hit it with. Now they have drill bits that cut through concrete. There’s probably an anchor, on the T, at each corner, the middle at the top, and the bottom. The big letters have three or four. The small letters have two. I have no idea, I didn’t do it. See the dark part at the bottom of the pipe, that’s flex pipe so you could put it in the grain car.

 

 

 

 

 

How a grain elevator works: A motor will power the ‘leg,’ lifting the grain from ground level

In this 1950 photo from Neil Lieb's archive, he explains what we see inside a crate that's being hoisted to the top of the Alta, Iowa, grain elevator. "That’s the motor for the belt and probably the gearbox," he says. "We didn’t take it out of the crate till we got it on top because the crate was designed so we could lift it. That little crane could hold a lot of weight.

In this 1950 photo from our contributor Neil Lieb’s archive, he explains what we see inside a crate that’s being hoisted to the top of the Alta, Iowa, grain elevator. “That’s the motor for the belt and probably the gearbox,” he says. “We didn’t take it out of the crate till we got it on top because the crate was designed so we could lift it. That little crane could hold a lot of weight.”