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.

 

 

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.

The demise of Mayer-Osborn Construction remains an enduring puzzle

Audrey, Gerald, William and Alice Osborn, ca. 1950

Audrey, Gerald, William and Alice Osborn, circa 1950.

Story by Kristen Cart

Some mysteries are not meant to be solved. Perhaps it is a natural outgrowth of my grandmother’s tight-lipped discretion where evil tidings were concerned. I can remember the disapproving purse of her lips if I broached the wrong topic–it was wise to move on.

Albert Skoog as a boy

Albert Skoog as a boy

Alice Christoffersen married William Osborn in the 1920s. All anyone in our family could know about those times was conveyed in the pleasant images of a young couple goofing around by the lake and fishing. In later pictures you could see the pained expression of a long-suffering middle-aged woman, but her concerns were private, at least when they brought bad memories to mind.

My dad, Jerry Osborn, was quite amazed to find he had a deceased great-uncle, whose name had never been spoken in front of him. Alice Christoffersen’s maternal uncle, Albert Skoog, died young from injuries sustained in a horrific automobile crash when she was a young woman. The story was relegated to the darkest recesses, never to be mentioned again.

“Albert Skoog Dies from Effects of an Auto Accident

Had Lived Nearly Ten Months with a Broken Back

After living nearly ten months with a broken back, during which time he suffered untold agony, Albert Skoog, 42, formerly and employee of the Fremont Stock Yards, died at the home of his sister, Mrs. James L. Christoffersen, south of Fremont. Death was due to injuries sustained in a automobile accident on the Lincoln Highway about a mile east of Fremont last October….”

The article went on to describe the accident and his medical treatment. He died in the family home of Alice’s parents.

This image was found among Grandma's pictures. It was the car her uncle wrecked in an ultimately fatal accident.

The wreck fatally injured Albert Skoog, who died months later from a broken back. Grandma had this photo of the car in an album that once belonged to her mother.

No stone marks his grave. It took many years to locate pictures of him, preserved by a different branch of the Christoffersen clan. Images of the wrecked car also survived, tucked away in Grandma’s photo album. But such things were not discussed in my grandmother’s world.

Another side of Grandma’s personality was not so discrete–she would tell stories that put others in a bad light when she thought she could gain favor for herself. This habit got worse as she aged, and by the time she passed on at age 98, family members believed awful stories about each other because of things she said.

We have tried, without success, to verify Grandma’s story of why my grandpa, William Osborn, got out of the elevator business. Perhaps she invented it. We have no way to tell.

Mayer-Osborn elevator at McCook, Neb. during a family visit, ca 1950. This elevator was the first of its type, a model for the later Blencoe elevator.

Mayer-Osborn elevator at McCook, Neb. during a family visit, circa 1950. This elevator was a prototype for the Blencoe elevator.

Dad never had an inkling about why his dad quit (except that he heard in whispers not intended for him) until Mom started poking around. Grandma told her the story, apparently in a fit of pique. Details were fuzzy, and by now, not well remembered. There’s hardly more to it than speculation. But that one glimpse was the only information we ever got. Otherwise, it “wasn’t discussed,” as Dad put it.

Mom says an elevator was built, and very shortly thereafter, failed. She variously used the terms “collapse,” “explosion,” and “fire.” But the two things she was pretty consistent about were the facts that the concrete mix was wrong because the crew had shorted the materials (possibly for financial gain), and that the collapse occurred as soon as the elevator was filled with grain for the first time. That is all she remembers from what Grandma told her.

Dad says his father was out of the business by 1955. Dad remembers that his dad had come home to Fremont, Neb., from Denver, Colo., the home base of his business, that summer when he should have been on the job. He thinks that his dad was blamed for the failure–Bill’s partner, Gene Mayer, apparently went on without him. But that is all we have.

We don’t know where it happened and haven’t found a newspaper story. We know a large terminal elevator collapsed that year in Fargo, N.D., but we discovered the identity of that builder and it wasn’t Mayer-Osborn. There were whispers about an elevator that had a bad headhouse around Linn, Kan., or Bradshaw, Neb., which might have been his, but that story hasn’t been verified or dated.

The Blencoe, Iowa elevator built by Mayer-Osborn

The Blencoe, Iowa elevator built by Mayer-Osborn

The only story I can verify is the tear-down and restart of the Mayer-Osborn elevator in Blencoe, Iowa. The concrete mix was wrong there, and it cost a few days and quite a lot of money to correct. Could that relatively mundane event in 1954 have created a rift between the partners, Bill Osborn and Gene Mayer? Was the tale of a more dramatic accident simply angry gossip from my grandmother?

Until we know more, it is a skeleton yet to be found, buried in a very deep closet.

 

 

A mystery unfolds at the Tillotson elevator of Blencoe, Iowa

This elevator is attributed to the Tillotson Construction Company of Omaha, but evidence points elsewhere

This elevator is attributed to the Tillotson Construction Company, but evidence points elsewhere.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

In an earlier post, we showed that the elevator built by the Tillostson Construction Company in the northwest Iowa town of Blencoe had a structural failure prior to completion. A photo provided by Tim Tillotson showed that the concrete slumped over the driveway after the slip-form pour had progressed considerably past the point of failure. Construction would have halted there. The question of how the elevator was completed was never answered.

In the company records we have, the specifications log ended by 1956, while the company continued to build elevators beyond that date. So later records are lost to us. Tim Tillotson estimated that this mishap occurred in about 1955. I discovered, on review, that Blencoe was not in the specifications at all. Why?

A photo of the manhole cover on the rail side of the elevator could provide the answer. It is not typical for Tillotson elevators to have exterior manhole covers on elevators of this type, so the existence of these was a little surprising. More shocking was the identity of the company that placed them.

"Grain Storage Const. Co, 1959, Council Bluffs, Iowa" is embossed on the manhole cover

“Grain Storage Const. Co, 1959, Council Bluffs, Iowa” is embossed on the manhole cover.

The Grain Storage Construction Company of Council Bluffs, Iowa, is not familiar to us. It may be the company called in to repair the damage when the failure occurred.

We don’t know if Tillotson Construction was fired on the spot. But it is also possible that Tillotson was given a second chance–the design of the elevator clearly follows the trademark Tillotson design, whether copied by some one or built by the original contractor.

I wonder if the original repair destroyed the structural integrity of the elevator, and Grain Storage Construction was brought in to replace two of the bins. We know it was a later job because of the 1959 date on the manhole covers. Unfortunately, I made my visit on a Saturday, and the co-op was closed, so there was no one there to ask.

It is a beautiful, functional elevator today. It stands beside the older Mayer-Osborn elevator, which is also clearly in use sixty years after it was built. Both elevators had problems during construction, but the capacity was urgently needed, so both projects were finished. How the Tillotson elevator ultimately became a Grain Construction Company branded elevator is a mystery we will try to solve in a future post.

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Concrete problems plagued consecutive elevator projects at Blencoe, Iowa

DSC_0578Story and photos by Kristen Cart

In the summer of 1954, Mayer-Osborn Construction built an elevator with a stepped headhouse in the northwestern Iowa town of Blencoe. As my dad, Jerry Osborn, explained, after the crew poured the first ten feet of concrete in the slip-form process, the concrete sides below the forms showed signs of crumbling. An investigation revealed that the concrete mixture had not been set correctly. It took as many hours to remove the concrete and start over as it did to pour it. Dad worked on the project and saw the fallout first hand.

The larger Tillotson elevator stands to the left. The Mayer-Osborn elevator obstructs the view of its large annex which extends behind it.

The larger Tillotson elevator stands to the left. The Mayer-Osborn elevator on the right serves a large annex which extends behind it. Photo by Kristen Cart

Builders were required to do a destructive test on the concrete mix at various stages of curing, to ensure the proper strength for each part of the elevator structure. Engineers tested various mix ratios to decide upon the best one. Naturally, this process was used at Blencoe, but when the mix was finally set and the pour began, it was done incorrectly. I can imagine the blue language wafting from the site as the concrete was taken down. Someone on the site had his ears pinned back pretty fiercely. But the construction continued, and a handsome elevator still stands there today, nearly 60 years later.

Not until this year, when Tim Tillotson located the Tillotson company records and photographs, did we discover that Tillotson Construction of Omaha faced a similar problem as they built their elevator nearby about a year later. This time, the error was not caught as early, and the consequences became immediately apparent.

Tim Tillotson said he thought the blowout happened in about 1955. Whether Tillotson Construction did the repairs and completed the project, or whether another contractor was brought in, is not known to me, but I hope to revisit the site later this year and learn more. The image below is a rare one. It is amazing that photographic evidence survived, serving as a cautionary note, lest any builder were to become overconfident.

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This company photo shows the blowout. On the right the completed Mayer-Osborn elevator may be seen.

Errors were a constant threat in this business. In the best cases, they manifested themselves in embarrassing delays, in the worst, they incurred expensive lawsuits or physical harm.

Tillotson Construction and Mayer-Osborn both recovered from their respective forays into bad concrete and lived to build again, leaving handsome and serviceable elevators at Blencoe and elsewhere. The lessons they learned were priceless.

How to build an elevator: Jerry Osborn’s firsthand account from Blencoe, Iowa

Story by Jerry Osborn and photos by Kristen Cart

The summer of 1954, before my senior year, I started working at the Hormel plant again, but after a few weeks my dad asked me to work on the elevator his company, Mayer-Osborn Company, was building at Blencoe, Iowa. This would be a different experience. Since I had no transportation of my own he took me to Blencoe and set me up in a motel near the site. He also took me to a shoe store to buy work shoes so I would be set to go to work. The wages weren’t great. They were $1 an hour just like all the other grunts on the job. No nepotism on this job. My job was to select the correct steel and see that it was laid properly as the slip forms were filled and jacked. Fortunately, I had enough engineering drawing work that I could read the blueprints. The slip operation had just begun when I arrived, so it was learn-on-the-run for me.

Things seemed to be progressing nicely until we were about twenty feet in the air. At that point it was noticed that some of the exposed concrete was crumbling and falling to the ground. This can’t be good. The operation was shut down immediately to determine what the problem was. It became obvious that the mix ratio of cement to sand and gravel was too low. The work to that point had to be torn down. The demolition was done over the weekend, and we were setting up to slip again on Monday. The concrete was mixed on the job and the appropriate mix weights were to be locked into the scales. Somehow the proper amount of cement was not designated. My brother, who had been on a lot of these jobs, was a supervisor on this job and should have checked the setting for the proper mix.

When operating properly, the concrete was mixed next to the elevator; each mix was dumped into a bucket hoist, which was lifted to the deck level. The mud was fed into two-wheel mud buggies. The buggies were then wheeled to and dumped at the place needing concrete. As this process took place another mix was in process, so when the hoist bucket was returned, it was once again filled and the whole process was repeated over and over until a height of more than 100 feet was reached. As the forms were filled, steel was laid and other features such as portholes were laid in place as the forms were jacked upward, exposing freshly set concrete at the bottom of the forms and providing more space at the top for more mud. A scaffold was built below but connected to the forms so men with trowels could smooth the fresh concrete as it was exposed below.

I had hoped to work until the slip was finished, but the restart didn’t leave enough time prior to football practice.

A contemporary view of Mayer-Osborn’s Blencoe elevator

Last holiday season, when she visited the Mayer-Osborn elevator at Blencoe, Iowa, Kristen Osborn Cart snapped this photo of a framed photo hanging in the office. It shows an early view of the elevator, which was finished in 1954. Her own father helped with the construction. The gleaming coat of white paint gave the structure an ultramodern look.