The Big Springs, Nebraska, elevator proved to be a Mayer-Osborn Construction job

The Cheppell, Nebraska elevator built by Chalmers & Borton

The Chappell, Nebraska elevator built by Chalmers & Borton. 

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

My grandfather William Osborn built an elevator in the western Nebraska town of Chappell, according to my dad Jerry Osborn. Dad’s recollections have guided our search thus far, for Mayer-Osborn elevators. Surely over the kitchen table he heard the names of towns where his absent father had construction jobs. Or perhaps he saw the postmarks of letters sent home.

Chappell was probably stamped on one of those postmarked letters, or it was the nearest town with a motel, because when I went to visit in 2011, there was nary a Mayer-Osborn elevator in evidence. Impressive elevators there were, but I found out later that they all had the ubiquitous Chalmers & Borton nameplate, the trademark of Grandpa’s biggest competitor.

The Mayer-Osborn elevator lacked the annex when it was first built. It is the same plan as used in McCook, Neb. and Blencoe, Iowa.

The Mayer-Osborn elevator at Big Springs, Neb. lacked the annex when it was first built. It is the same style as used in McCook, Neb., and Blencoe, Iowa.

One stop east on the rail line, however, was a large, handsome elevator that looked like one of Mayer-Osborn’s jobs. It was the spitting image of the first elevator Grandpa built on his own at McCook, Neb. The first time I saw it, I was curious enough to snap a photo, but identification was going to wait for another year. My dad knew nothing about Big Springs.

When Gary Rich, a contributor to this blog, looked into the builders of the elevators he photographed, he solved the mystery. He identified the Big Springs elevator by its manhole covers inside the driveway, each embossed with “Mayer-Osborn Construction, Denver, Colo.” above the Hutchinson Foundry stamp.

The Big Springs, Neb. elevator in October, 2012

The Big Springs, Neb., elevator in October, 2012. 

I paid another visit to Big Springs last fall after our Wyoming elk hunt. We didn’t get any elk, but I did get some nice photographs of the elevator. It was a sleepy Sunday with no one around. Next time, perhaps I can see inside.

It is an honor to pay respects to my grandfather’s enduring work. It is living history of a kind that is rarely noticed or mentioned. Once gone, it is scarcely remembered except in dusty repositories of pictures, and in mostly forgotten stories.

At Big Springs, Neb., that day of fading away is still far off in the future.

Newspaper clippings of the Lincoln, Nebraska, elevator show standard construction methods

Story by Kristen Cart


Omaha World-Herald

Among Edwin Christoffersen’s papers were clippings from the Lincoln, Neb., elevator construction site. While this was a Chalmers & Borton project, the clippings showed an impressively large elevator in the last stages of construction.

The story of a competitor’s biggest local project would have been of great interest to Ed, a superintendent for the Mayer-Osborn Construction Company. There is little doubt that Mayer-Osborn would have tried to get this contract. However, Chalmers & Borton frequently built the largest elevators.

It appears that the continuous pour was nearly complete for the huge structure, and that the planks were installed either for decking for the crews, or for the final pour which would cover each bin with a concrete cap. Once the concrete cured, final “wrecking out” would remove the forms.


Omaha World-Herald

The headhouse was already in place, so the elevator was very close to completion. What cannot be seen is whether equipment that would come from subcontractors for installation in the headhouse and pit had yet arrived, and of course the run that would top the elevator and provide for grain distribution was yet to be finished.

The images provide a rare glimpse of the process, one that Edwin Christoffersen saw fit to preserve, much to our delight. This is a breathtaking view of a moment in time when America built with intrepidity and confidence, and left us with a towering legacy in the Plains.

Discovering the J. H. Tillotson elevator at St. Francis, Kansas, as a centennial looms


The J. H. Tillotson elevator in St. Francis, Kan. is nestled between two annexes.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

St. Francis, Kan., stayed on my mind for months after I failed to find any sign of the work of my grandfather, William Osborn, on our first visit.

Out on the western end of Kansas, the town was well clear of any route our family would take on the way to somewhere else. It was a very intentional stop on our itinerary. On our first visit, we took a wide loop, arriving just after sundown, and we lost the opportunity to investigate further than one cursory look at the wrong elevator. The visit to St. Francis was shelved for several months, and I almost didn’t go, but when I did, I made sure to be there before nightfall.

The weather caught up, however.


St. Francis Mercantile Equity Exchange grain merchandiser, Shirley Zweygardt.

This time, I headed toward the highest structure in town. By the time I pulled up to the elevator office, fat flakes of snow wafted down and splotched the truck’s windshield, melting on contact with the ground. It was October, and the trees, which still held their leaves, were a golden brown backdrop for the early snow. I shook off the cold and entered the co-op.

A surprise awaited. A long-time employee of St. Francis Mercantile Equity Exchange, Shirley Zweygardt, greeted me at the door. Raised on a farm just down the road, she was intimately familiar with the elevator’s history and purpose, so in 1979, when a job opportunity arose, she was glad to fill in where needed.

It has been a happy arrangement. Shirley started as a bookkeeper, then worked in grain accounting and is presently in charge of grain merchandising. She has seen the St. Francis Mercantile Equity Exchange through many changes over the years.

She asked me to sit down and have some coffee, and she shared her experiences of working around the old St. Francis elevator.

The manhole cover on the interior of the driveway identifies the builder

The manhole covers on the interior of the driveway identify the builder.

St. Francis Mercantile Equity Exchange was incorporated in 1913. As slip-formed concrete construction methods advanced, the equity exchange looked for a company to build their first concrete elevator. Once it was completed in 1946, their quarter-million-bushel elevator was the biggest and most modern in western Kansas. It more than doubled the storage capacity of its lesser neighbors. And lo and behold, it was built by J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, of Denver, with the construction supervised by my grandfather, William Osborn.

It was not the only grain storage on the site for long. Soon, the capacity proved to be too little for the 1940s and 1950s boom years, so Chalmers and Borton came along and built the first annex.

Later, the site incorporated a flat storage facility which only holds wheat, since its air system does not ventilate adequately for moist corn. A second three-bin annex was built in 2000, using the same old technique of lifting concrete up to a dump cart that ran on a track around the perimeter of the rising elevator. It was completed just before the onset of a seven-year drought, and it took a few good harvest years to recoup the investment, since the annual wheat yield was too low at first to fill the bins.

Wall Street would not be the only beneficiary of perfect prognostication. The present snowfall was gladly welcomed in St. Francis.

The St. Francis Mercantile Equity Exchange will be celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. It has been and is the cornerstone of the town, and the center of business and economic life. Stay tuned for a little more of the history, and wonderful images, of this fine elevator, which Shirley kindly shared.

The Chalmers and Borton annex is in the foreground, and the new annexes are behind the main house.

The Chalmers and Borton annex is in the foreground, and the new annex bins are behind the main house. The flat storage shed is on the left.

Mid Kansas and Farmers Co-op employees enjoy their jobs

The Mid Kansas Cooperative elevator at Walton, Kan., produced a new acquaintance and the offer to return.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

An elevator trip sometimes begs for a detour. While driving along the secondary roads that follow the rail lines connecting our grandfathers’ elevators, sometimes I see an intriguing elevator that doesn’t quite look like a Tillotson or Mayer-Osborn structure, but needs to be investigated anyway. Curiosity always wins the day.

Quad-States Construction’s elevator at Waverly, Neb.

Both Waverly, Neb., and Walton, Kan., have elevators unlike those our grandfathers built. I met with employees at both elevators and came away impressed. The people working at these co-ops come from the countryside, where generations of my family farmed, so their stories resonate with a deep familiarity.

Waverly, Neb., has two elevator complexes. The first includes an elevator built by Tillotson Construction of Omaha, Neb., in their trademark style with a curved headhouse. A little further north is an elevator with a partially rounded headhouse which caught my eye. It seemed an oddity, so my mother and I stopped to visit.

Mike Aufenkamp of Farmers Cooperative Company

Mike Aufenkamp greeted us at the fence as I peered over the gate with my camera. He said the Farmers Cooperative elevator manager was not there, but he was eager to tell us what he knew about the construction of the elevator.

No manhole covers on the outside of the elevator identified the builder, but a single steel plate covering the entry into the pit was embossed “Quad States Const. 1971, Des Moines, IA.” When Farmers Cooperative Company bought the elevator, Mike said they found a pile of discarded rebar in the field behind the elevator. Uh-oh. That could not be good. He said the cooperative had since reinforced the driveway with steel I-beams to prevent problems.

Mike wondered what sparked our interest in elevators, and I told him about my grandfather, William Osborn, and our interest in genealogy that got the whole elevator project going. He laughed and said he’d researched the Aufenkamp family once and found an old cousin in Alaska. Their kinship hadn’t been firmly established yet when the old man died and was flown back to Nebraska for burial, just down the road from Mike’s folks.

“I guess he was my cousin,” Mike said. “There aren’t many Aufenkamps around here.”

An elevator enthusiast and history buff, he directed us to a working wooden elevator in Cook, Neb. He said the Cook elevator was one of the few wooden elevators that kept up its certification. He also mentioned an intriguing set of elevator ledgers, dating from the 1940s, located at Pleasant Prairie, Neb.

Mike exemplifies the kind of sharp, hard working people who work for the co-op. He also likes his job.

Loading a farm truck with grain at Walton, Kan.

An initial visit and the offer to return 

On another trip I had the pleasure of meeting Jeff Snyder, the location manager at Walton, Kan., for Mid Kansas Cooperative (MKC). The elevator was such a beauty I could not drive by it, so when I stopped to investigate which company built it, Jeff came out to meet me. He had a similar infectious enthusiasm for his job.

Jeff came from a military family. His grandfather fought in World War Two, in the 82nd Airborne Division, and was captured by the Germans, spending time in a Nazi prisoner of war camp. Jeff’s father served in the Air Force as a fighter pilot, flying F-105s, F-4s, and F-16s. Naturally, when it came his turn, Jeff also served his country. He joined the Navy and became a Navy swimmer. He mentioned that on September 11, 2001, he was aboard the USS Pearl Harbor, LSD-52, an amphibious warship.

Chalmers and Borton’s elevator at Walton, Kan.

When he left the service, he came home and worked for local law enforcement, a job he did not enjoy. So he changed careers, and has worked for Mid Kansas Cooperative ever since. It is a happy arrangement.

The Walton elevator was built in 1958 by Chalmers and Borton Construction Company, and Mel Jarvis Construction finished the first annex in 1961. Another annex was built later on. Jeff told me about MKC’s wooden elevator in Benton, Kan., and said I should visit. While on a layover in Wichita a few weeks later, I did just that. Jeff also said I should come back on a weekend and tour the Walton elevator.

That is an offer too good to refuse.

Faked out in American Falls, Idaho

Chalmers and Borton elevator at American Falls, Idaho.

During one of my recent road trips, I came upon a beautiful concrete construction elevator in American Falls, Idaho.  It looked much like the stand-alone elevators built by Tillotson Construction of Omaha, with an added annex.  It is in full operation.  I explored the elevator complex from about 7:30 am, and stayed on site as workers reported for their 8:00 am shift.  It was a very handsome elevator in the early morning light.  In its details it looked like a Tillotson elevator, except for the rectilinear head house, which is not unknown for a Tillotson or Mayer Osborn built elevator, but would be unusual.

As the shift started, I stopped at the elevator office to ask about the builder.  The worker smiled and pointed out the brass plaque by the door.  It was built by our grandfathers’ arch rival company, the ubiquitous Chalmers and Borton based in Hutchinson, Kansas.  Gary Rich pointed out one time that it seemed that wherever he found a J.H. Tillotson or Mayer Osborn elevator out in Kansas or Colorado, hard beside it would stand a Chalmers and Borton annex.  The companies played hard ball and competed for every contract.  Dad said, when I asked if Grandpa’s Mayer Osborn Construction of Denver, Colorado ever worked with Chalmers and Borton,  that “oh, no, they were his biggest competitor.”

Greenwood Nebraska’s straight-up elevator by Tillotson Construction of Omaha.

The elevator at Greenwood, Nebraska, built by Tillotson Construction of Omaha, is very reminiscent in its style to the elevator in American Falls.  I guess form followed function, and each company offered a product similar in its details–often the deciding factor was the bid price.  This Chalmers and Borton elevator certainly faked me out.  But it stands as a beautiful example and deserves notice.