Home-built travel trailers and the demise of a tricked-out ’53 Ford in Iowa

HomemadeThe topic of staying in a travel trailer while working at grain elevator construction sites has prompted Charles J. Tillotson (“Uncle Chuck”) to do some reminiscing and dig through his archive of photos.

He writes:

The first one is a photo of the last trailer Dad built in 1937, which was an upgrade to the one that your mom and I are standing in the doorway of. He had covered the exterior of this trailer with some kind of protective fabric, which doesn’t seem to be attached very well.

The previous trailer had an exposed plywood exterior that was either stained or painted and it evidently didn’t hold up. The focus should be on the small size of the trailers which were probably about 15 feet long, much like the size of the early camper trailers of the 1950s and 1960s. If you allow room for the stove, toilet, closet and even a fold-down tabletop with a little settee, where did we all sleep?

The photo [below] was taken in late summer in Albert City, Iowa, and shows my Dad and me standing along side of my 1953 Ford with another older gentleman who I assume was the Albert City superintendent packing something into the trunk. We had finished up our work on Albert City, and Dad had assigned the three of us to travel across the state to a job he was starting in Clinton, Iowa.


Soon after the photo was taken we three boys [Chuck, Tim, and Mike] left Albert City and took along with us a couple of men who wanted to continue working for Tillotson Co. We took off in my beautiful ’53 Ford, which I had modified with a two-tone paint job, a Continental fake-spare-tire kit (remember those?) and lowering blocks among other things. I was driving very fast and in a pattern learned from my Dad, taking short cuts via the old one-mile graveled country roads through the tall cornfields. Zooming along and approaching an intersection ahead I spotted a dust trail from a vehicle approaching the same intersection on my right. With the road being gravel I decided that rather than stop for the oncoming vehicle (that had the right of way) to instead outrun it.

I had almost made it through the intersection when the oncoming vehicle clipped my rear bumper and put me into a sideways spin. I countered the spin by yanking the wheel in the opposite direction which brought me out of the spin, but the action was so fast it put me into another spin in the opposite direction. We zigzagged back and forth for a bit and eventually headed into a huge irrigation ditch, which we entered, rolled over, and flipped upside down. I remember my bro Mike standing up in the back seat hollering at me to ‘straighten out the car’ but to no avail. I think there were five of us in the car including my bros, none of which had seat belts fastened but by some miraculous ending, we were all able to crawl out of the car without a scratch.

The farmer who hit me was a local fellow, and he rounded up a tractor with an operator and the car was pulled back upright and out of the ditch, whereby it was towed off to a local mechanic’s shop.

I don’t remember who came to rescue us, but somehow we continued on to the Clinton job where we put in some closing days of the summer, laboring there. 


When it came time to go home, my bro Tim and I went and picked up the Ford which still was operable (a testimonial to Ford), but the vehicle had multiple dents and bruises including missing a windshield which had been knocked out in the crash.

Tim and I bought a pair of goggles and proceeded to hit the trail (in a light drizzle) to Omaha with the wind and rain in our hair and elsewhere. My Dad knew of the accident but he had never seen the car until we got home whereby he came out of the house and I’m sure almost had a heart attack when he viewed the pile of junk that once was my beautiful ’53 Ford. As I recall, he had the car towed away to the junk yard.

It’s funny how viewing old photos can bring back memories of both the exciting and dull days gone by. It’s too bad the photographs taken today are no longer hard-copied by most people and their memories no longer documented to tell the stories of days gone by for both their own revisitation as well as their offspring.

In SoCal, an elevator’s tall headhouse reminds us of Vinton Street in Omaha


I’ve meant for a long time to stop at the grain elevator along Interstate 10 in Colton, California, and finally I did.

The elevator, which appears to date from the 1960s, has an elongated headhouse and reminds me in a way of our Vinton Street elevator in Omaha.

The Colton operation is one of 40 sites run by Ardent Mills, which is based in Denver. The elevator stands along the Union Pacific tracks between Riverside and Ontario. No one was to be seen late on a Sunday afternoon, but there was probably milling activity going on in another building: machinery hummed away. 

The elevator’s silos are multi-sided, which is different from anything Tillotson Construction Co. built. Could it be that the walls have greater bearing pressure with such a configuration?


The headhouse is stepped and thrusts toward the sky above the Inland Empire. It would be good to know how long the leg is and why such a rise was necessary.

I tried to look from every angle and even climbed up to the top of a rail car for a picture without hurting myself.

More information about this handsome elevator will be shared as it’s revealed.


A postcard reveals Tillotson elevator activity before the big changes of 1938

Post Card 01

We have found what may be a rare record of the Tillotson construction enterprise as it existed before 1938. Back then, Charles H. Tillotson led the company, which specialized in wooden elevators. After he died in ’38, his sons Reginald and Joe partnered in Tillotson Construction Co., and started to experiment, and then build, with reinforced concrete.

This card from July 2, 1936 is penned by Sister Mary Concepta, the older sister of Margaret Irene McDunn Tillotson (my grandmother) and sister-in-law to Reginald.

Sr. M. Concepta, born on Sep. 27, 1901, in Emerson, Nebraska, and christened Catherine McDunn, was the second of nine children. (Margaret, born Feb. 9, 1903, was third.) Sr. M. Concepta belonged to the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, with a motherhouse at Mount Loretto in Dubuque, Iowa.

The parents were William McDunn (b. Feb. 4, 1871, Des Moines, Iowa) and Bridget Loretta Dorcey McDunn (b. March 27, 1872, Luken or Lucan, Ontario). Records show William as a laborer in Omaha in 1891. He became a conductor on the Nebraska Division of the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis & Omaha Railway, and the family became established in Emerson, the town named for Ralph Waldo Emerson, which had come into being in 1881 at a junction on the CSPM&O (known as the Omaha Road). 

The family history comes from These U.S. McDunns: Family Tree of Patrick McDunn and Mary O’Donnell, compiled by John McDunn, of Lodi Wisc., in April 1989. The McDunns homesteaded in Pennsylvania in 1835. 

My Uncle, Charles J. Tillotson, whose name appears in many of this blog’s posts, had kept his grandfather William’s railroad watch–a Hamilton, of course–until a burglar struck in the late-1980s.

Post Card 02Uncle Charles notes that in the mid-1930s Reginald and Margaret lived with the elder Tillotsons at 624 N. 41st Street. They towed a travel trailer to job sites. In early July of 1936 they would also have towed along Uncle Charles, then 18 months old, and my mother Mary Catherine, who was nearly five months old.

On this postcard Sr. M. Concepta addresses her sister Margaret (Mrs. Reginald Oscar Tillotson) at Carlyle, Neb.

Carlisle–note the difference in spelling–is an unincorporated town in Fillmore County.

“I know the name because Mom used to talk about it,” Uncle Charles says.

We presume there was a wooden elevator. Carlisle is an unincorporated community in Fillmore County, about 135 miles southwest of Omaha. It doesn’t appear on our Rand McNally page nor does Google Maps seem to know anything about it. 

MapThe USGS gives coordinates for Carlisle on its Davenport Quadrangle map (named for a town in neighboring Thayer County), and we see a speck on Road X, west of Little Sandy Creek, that could be Carlisle. We called the Fillmore County sheriff’s office, in Geneva, and asked. “Nope,” a very nice woman said. “We don’t have a Carlisle.” 


“Dear Margaret + Reginald + babes,” Sr. M. Concepta begins.

Post Card 03“This card tells you where we are. Saw your Mother and Mary, Reginald. Mary is truly a nice girl and your mother surely is not strong. Won’t be leaving here now until Sat. morning. Just thought you might be coming in for the 4th. Don’t try it just for me though. Love, Sr. M. Concepta.”

Mary Tillotson was Reginald’s sister who became important to the family business and also is named in many posts here.

It’s hard enough to find a trace of Carlisle, but we would love to know if any remnant of a wooden elevator exists there.





Three elevators near Bozeman, Montana, provide a little variety


Flying into the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport the other day delivered a pleasant surprise in the form of three handsome elevators soon after we drove away from the passenger terminal.

One elevator was right there in Belgrade, Montana, where the airport is. It was an old house adapted to operate with metal silos.

Another had concrete silos, and a third looked like a simple wooden house.

These photos are all we can offer. The elevators weren’t Tillotson or Mayer-Osborn jobs, but we were excited to see them and now share with eagerness. Perhaps at a future time we can learn more details.


Part of the latest craze, grain elevators get mysterious visitors at all hours

A van drives up, hesitates, and pulls into the lot in front of the town’s towering elevator complex. The vehicle has been seen in town before, roving the streets aimlessly, only stopping in odd spots long enough to be noticed. At the elevator, it pauses in the parking lot for thirty seconds, then it drives off.

Pokemon Elevator 01Not long afterward, a pair of local high school students walk up, dawdle for a moment, then walk on. Then a couple of twenty-somethings perch on a park bench across the street. They stay for about half an hour, studying their smart phones intently, while a few more cars come by and park. No one gets out of their cars, but they stay for awhile. A few more pedestrians gather.

Pretty soon you can count fifteen or twenty people on the sidewalk in front of the elevator, under the trees across the street, or parked here and there. Then, as if an invisible timer went off, the people leave in twos and threes. A similar gathering starts up a few blocks away, at the post office. What in the world is going on?

You guessed it, Pokemon-go has arrived in your town. For those of you who have not encountered it before, it’s a virtual-reality pocket-monster hunt, sort of like a treasure hunt, where people go to designated points to get the needed items to catch the little critters that appear on the screens of their smart phones. If a “lure” is set up at one of those points, the little Pokemon appear on the phones in that geographic vicinity, and people start to congregate to catch them for the half-hour that the lure lasts.

That is the short version. It’s easy to play and gets kids out of the house–which makes it a good thing, in my book.

If you sit back and watch the action in any little town you will see players roving the streets or driving in circles. It can be quite fun to watch (or play, if not taken to extremes).

What does this game have to do with a grain elevator? Not very much, except that a grain elevator makes a mighty big landmark, and a tempting spot for the game makers to place a Poke-point. So, players: take this as a warning–watch out for grain trucks, and don’t wander around the property with your face planted in your cellphone.

I confess that catching the little critters is somewhat like driving around the country hunting for interesting elevators. But you don’t have to burn as much gas.

Another look around Wahoo, Neb., yields treasure beyond reinforced concrete

Story by Ronald Ahrens and photos by La Rose Tillotson

The bend on Route 92 as it entered Wahoo, Nebraska, from the east was always welcome. Here, the road dipped down and crossed Sand Creek at the edge of town, then turned into leafy neighborhoods. It was the first shade for us after more than 30 miles under the sun on the flat prairie.

Wahoo was a frequent waypoint when our family visited relatives in David City farther west.

A site of interest in Wahoo was the Saunders County Courthouse, where a torpedo was displayed near the curb. Even when I was eight and nine years old, the torpedo seemed incongruous, being so far from the sea. But we Nebraskans were starved for variety, and leftover munitions from a distant war were deemed tasty morsels.

Tillotson Wahoo 01

Never did it occur to me that the Wahoo grain elevator had been built by my grandfather’s company. We knew he built elevators but assumed they were in far off places like Iowa.

Kristen Cart has already visited Wahoo and written one post.

But there’s new reason to think about the town after Aunt La Rose Tillotson drove there on a recent tour of the countryside. She forwards the pictures you see here.

As a young woman, Aunt La Rose lived in Wahoo for a short time. While going about her daily business, she never gave much thought to the elevator that stands along North Chestnut Street between Fifth and Sixth.

This isn’t a surprise, as a form of amnesia touched many family members after the family business faded out. Grandfather Reginald died in 1960.

Tillotson Wahoo 02

Here are some particulars of the Wahoo elevator:

Tillotson Construction Company used the same plan as from Imo, Okla., which had also been built in 1950. That meant a 150,000-bushel elevator rose from a 54- by 51-foot slab over a pit nearly 16 feet deep. The drawform walls were 120 feet high, and the cupola topped out after another 26.5 feet.

From atop of the Wahoo elevator, you could probably see all the way to Swedeburg, looking south, and Malmo, looking northwest. (Prague–home of Czech Heritage Days–was just a bit northwest of there.) It’s doubtful, though, you could see as far as Valparaiso, in southwestern Saunders County. Ulysses, way to hell and gone in Butler County, was out of the question.

Some other noteworthy aspects of the Wahoo’s single-leg elevator were its use of 3,056 tons of reinforced concrete and its gross weight, when loaded with as much as 4,500 tons of grain, of 8,216 tons.

I don’t see anything else in the specifications that distinguish the Wahoo elevator all that much from Imo, or for that matter, David City, which was built the next year because whatever Wahoo did had to be done in David City, too.

But no other place was like Wahoo. Wikipedia says the name comes from an Indian word for the shrub Euonymus atropurpureus, which yields arrow wood. But who believes it? I think they’re covering up for the day in 1870 when two large casks of beer fell off the delivery wagon.

Remember these four things about Wahoo:

  1. Wahoo Sam Crawford came from Wahoo, played outfield from 1899 to 1917 for the Reds and Tigers, and still holds the Major League record for most triples (309). He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1957.
  2. A wahoo (Acanthocybium solandri)  is a sport fish in the tropical oceans, but as far as I can tell it isn’t the official fish of Wahoo. Lake Wanahoo is barren of wahoos.
  3. Wahoo was a long-running gag on Letterman.
  4. Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Howard Hanson (b. 1896), three-time Academy Award-winner Darryl F. Zanuck (b. 1902), and Nobel Prize-winning geneticist George Beadle (b. 1903) came from Wahoo.

How many towns of Wahoo’s size–about 4,500 souls today–have produced a Hall of Famer as well as Pulitizer Prize, Academy Award, and Nobel Prize winners?

Beyond all that, Wahoo has a Tillotson elevator.

Vandals strike Tillotson’s Vinton Street elevator, leaving the owners with an expensive cleanup

644369_10152681898735294_1745767005_nSometime overnight on Wednesday, May 4, vandals struck the Vinton Street elevator, painting “Dump Trump” graffiti on the south annex’s upper run. The message caused a sensation Thursday morning.

Tillotson Construction Company completed the original 382,880-bushel elevator in 1950. Extensive annexes were later added. We don’t know when operations ceased, but for the last eight years the elevator on five acres of land has been co-owned by Ron Safarik and Richard Brock, who attempted to make a climbing facility comparable to those established at old elevators in Bloomington, Ill., and Oklahoma City.

In 2012, the Vinton Street elevator received national attention after the annexes served as the canvas for a public art project; a nonprofit organization commissioned artists to create themed banners that were draped over the silos.

Reached by phone, Safarik said he and Brock have tried to secure the property, but intruders found a way to pry through and gain access to the top. “I would presume they used the internal ladders that still exist,” he said.


Photos courtesy of SILO Extreme Outdoor Adventures. 

Safarik and Brock will now be stuck with the cleanup bill. Since SILO Extreme Outdoor Adventures, the partners’ venture, closed in 2013, the elevator has been a burden, he said.

It has been listed for sale since 2014. A post on SILO’s Facebook page says, “The Silos and the 5 acres of industrial land are for sale through Ben Pearson at World Group Commercial Real Estate. Any climbing related buyer will receive the holds, bolts, and supporting gear for starting up a climbing club or business.”

Safarik said the asking price remains $150,000.

Although he said he hadn’t known much of the elevator’s history, he did pass along a story heard from an elderly man named Otto, who lived on Vinton Street and “had intricate knowledge” of events.

According to Otto, the only death that occurred at the elevator happened on a freezing night in an unspecified year. The victim, an elevator employee, locked himself out of the scale house. As he tried to pry back into it, he jammed his arm and couldn’t pull free. Found dead in the morning, he was surrounded by cigarette butts. With his free hand, he had managed to smoke his remaining cigarettes before he froze.