Insights from a Ralston, Iowa, elevator maintenance worker


At the far left edge of the photo, the annex can be seen behind the similarly sized elevator.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

Each time we travel to Nebraska to see our family, I try to investigate elevators, and the kids groan and roll their eyes, pulling electronic entertainment out of their backpacks.

In March, our trip home warranted a stop at Ralston, Iowa, where we hoped to see an annex built by Tillotson Construction Company of Omaha as we trekked eastbound along U.S. Highway 30. Ralston is about midway across the state and lies south of the highway, and is the site of one of the projects documented in Tillotson company records.

The West Central Cooperative elevator complex, silent and lofty, rimmed the edge of town as we approached on a bright Sunday afternoon. Not a soul was in sight as we entered the parking lot near the cooperative headquarters. But a car in front of the office building was open with a shopvac beside it. Someone had to be around.


A much larger group of elevators was behind me, away from the town, as I took the photo.

The elevator group in Ralston is dominated by a large squarish elevator, a multi-bin elevator, and a large, multi-bin, rectangular annex snugged in beside the latter. Between the first elevator and the second is an old wood elevator which immediately attracted my attention. It made a fine photographic subject. While shooting the scene, I looked for signs of a Tillotson project. Nowhere was there any manhole cover with the name of a builder. And no one was present who could give me a look inside.

The annex, slightly narrow than the elevator, is on the left

The annex, slightly narrower than the elevator, is on the left.

In fact, the deserted elevator group so dominated the town, along with its companion group of elevators a mile or so down the tracks, that it seemed intimidating to go near it. So I stood off and took photos from across the street.

DSC_6001Heavy rail traffic attended the tracks alongside the elevators in spite of the sleepy Sunday. I counted several trains, blaring their arrival as they passed through town.

At last, a fellow emerged from the cooperative building and commenced vacuuming the company car. I approached him to ask him about the elevators. Ron Hickey, of Farnhamville, Iowa, waved a friendly greeting. He said he was a bit of a newcomer to the Ralston site, but had worked at Boxholm, Iowa, the site of another Tillotson elevator, for two years before coming here. He said that Boxholm’s elevator had 96 florescent light bulbs, and until recently, he was responsible for cleaning every one of them.

Presently, he was cleaning one of several company vehicles parked in front of the nicely appointed offices. The place had every sign of prosperity. Ron said West Central was one of the largest cooperatives in Iowa, and was very successful.

Once we arrived home, I had to resort to the company records to positively identify Tillotson Construction’s contribution to the site. The specifications for Ralston fit the size of the annex I had seen–a massive structure about twice the size of the average elevator project. Since this structure was an annex, many items normally included in a complete elevator build were not required. The Tillotson construction details are reproduced below.

The Ralston storage was built in 1953 using the “Ralston Plan,” which had eight 28′ diameter, 115′ tall bins with a 2′ spread, flat bottoms, and a screw conveyor.

Capacity per plans: 537,000 bushels

Capacity per foot of height: 4,838 bushels

Reinforced concrete per plans (total): 2,779 cubic yards

Plain concrete (4″ hoppers and liner): 9 cubic yards

Reinforcing steel per plans (includes jack rods): 168.18 tons

Average steel per cubic yard of reinforced concrete: 121.00 lbs.

Steel and reinforced concrete itemized per plans

Below main slab: steel 3,128 lbs.; concrete 29 cubic yards

Main slab: steel 102,340 lbs.; concrete 606 cubic yards

Draw form walls: steel 203,034 lbs.; concrete 1,920 cubic yards

Driveway and work floor: not installed

Deep bin bottoms: not installed

Overhead bin bottoms: steel 4,666 lbs.; concrete 24 cubic yards

Bin roofs and extension roofs: steel 14,284 lbs.; concrete 112 cubic yards

Cupola walls: steel 8,907 lbs.; concrete 20 cubic yards

Distributor floor: concrete 2 cubic yards (steel included in above total)

Cupola roof: concrete 3 cubic yards (steel included in above total)

Miscellaneous (boot, leg, head, track sink, steps, etc.): not installed

Attached driveway (in this plan, a gallery, with cross tunnel not included): concrete 63 cubic yards (steel included in above total)

DSC_6010Construction details

Main slab dimensions: 66 2/3′ x 121 2/3′

Main slab area (actual outside on ground): 7,738 square feet

Weight reinforced concrete (4,000 lbs. per cubic yard plus steel): 5,726 tons

Weight plain concrete (4,000 lbs. per cubic yard): 18 tons

Weight hopper fill sand (3,000 lbs. per cubic yard): 154 tons

Weight of grain (60 lbs. per bushel): 16,125 tons

Weight structural steel and machinery: 20 tons

Gross weight loaded: 22,043 tons

Bearing pressure: 2.86 tons per square foot

Main slab thickness: 24 inches

Main slab steel (size and spacing): straight; 1 1/4 square inches and 8 inches o. c.

Tank steel and bottom (round tanks): 5/8 inch diameter and 6 inches

Lineal feet of draw form walls and extension: 717 feet 7 inches; 39 feet 6 inches

Height of draw form walls: 115 feet

Pit depth below main slab: 9 feet 6 inches

Cupola dimensions (outside width and length and height): 12′ x 14′ x 20′

Pulley centers: 137 1/2 feet

Number of legs: 1 main (see pulley center above) and 1 jack

Distributor flow: yes

Track sink: no

Full basement: no

Electrical room: no.

Driveway width-clear: not installed

Dump grate-size: not installed

Columns under tanks: not installed

Boot–leg and head: steel

Machinery details

Head pulley (main leg): 48″ x 16″ x 4 15/16″

Boot pulley: 48″ x 13″ x 2 3/16″

RPM head pulley: 48 rpm

Belt: 15″-6 ply calumet

Cups: 14″ x 7″ at 10″

Head drive: Howell 40 horsepower: 3

Theoretical leg capacity (cup manufacturer’s rating): 7,950 bushels per hour

Actual leg capacity (80% of theoretical): 6,350 bushels per hour

Horsepower required for leg (based on above actual capacity): 26.4 horsepower

Man lift: not installed

Load out scale: not installed

Load out spout: not installed

Truck lift: not installed

Dust collector system: fan into bin

Cupola spouting: not installed

Driveway doors: not installed

Conveyor: 24 inch screws

Also built

Track scale: 50 foot, 50 ton: concrete 35 cubic yards





How a 1950 elevator matches advanced farming practices in Cordell, Oklahoma

DSC_2318Story and Photos by Kristen Cart

Once we discovered that the Cordell, Oklahoma elevator was built by Mayer-Osborn, it became a priority to pay a visit.  Luckily an opportunity presented itself when I went shopping for an Australian Shepherd puppy for my son Jesse. Deadra Buffing breeds lovely pups at Horse Creek Aussies right there in Cordell, and we found the right dog, so off I went on a puppy mission, first flying to Oklahoma City then driving two hours west to Cordell. (I’m sure there were breeders closer to home, but this coincidence was too good to pass up.)

DSC_2335But the first stop was the Mayer-Osborn elevator. After a quick tour around the outside with my camera, I stepped inside the Wheeler Brothers Grain Company office. There, Jim Balzer greeted me. He was more than happy to share his insights and long experience with the Cordell elevator. His stint at the elevator spanned a number of owners, beginning in 1979 with General Mills.

General Mills sold their Oklahoma operations in about 1984, including elevators at Cordell, Bessie, Carrier, Reading, and the terminal at Enid. Logan Farms bought the Cordell elevator from General Mills, then Johnson’s Grain bought it. Goodpasture, out of Texas, owned it for awhile. Wheeler Brothers finally bought it in 1996 or 1997.

After 1984, a truck spout was added on the west side of the elevator, and the train spout on the east side was remodeled using salvaged parts. The old wooden doors were also replaced with metal ones. Jim said the elevator is holding corn for the first time, an atypical crop for the area, but a sign of the times due to ethanol subsidies.


Jim Balzer has worked at the Cordell elevator since 1979. The small elevator has stood as long as he can remember.

The structure is completely unique, having two driveways. It’s special features are its two legs, each rated at 5,000 bushels per hour, to achieve an unload rate of 10,000 bushels per hour. Most elevators of this size and age have long since retired because of limitations in their loading rates, if not for their lack of capacity. Jim said their newer, larger elevator at Cordell, when running “full out” with its single leg, only surpassed the old elevator by a little bit at 11,500 bushels per hour.

In the past, all manner of vehicles would line up to unload their grain at Cordell. The earliest were horse-drawn wagons, used in the old wooden elevator days (before Jim’s time, he noted), where the farmers would scoop the grain manually into the pit. Jim showed me a bit of concrete foundation by the tracks where the wood elevator used to be. A slow leg was no problem then, because the choke point of the process was the farmer’s shovel.

Years later, after the concrete elevator was built, farmers drove their trucks in and unloaded them much more quickly. They would queue up in the hot sun and wait their turn, while Jim’s young daughter brought them cold pop from a wagon.

Now, nothing much smaller than a semi-tractor trailer will bring grain, and the leg speed is much more crucial. Rail cars are also serviced at the small elevator. The Cordell elevator was far ahead of its time, able to keep up with advances in farming practices. It is a testament to the forethought of the original designers that the Mayer-Osborn elevator still meets the need.

The Mayer -Osborn Construction Company is identified on the manhole cover

The Mayer-Osborn Construction Company is identified on the manhole cover.

Maywood, Nebraska: another Mayer-Osborn landmark meets its end

Photo by Kristen Cart

By Kristen Cart

The old Maywood, Nebraska, elevator with its annex built by Mayer-Osborn Contruction Company of Denver, Colorado, was demolished in March of this year. I had planned the trip to see the elevator before its scheduled demolition in 2013. When we arrived in town, I expected to see the familiar straight-up J. H. Tillotson, Contractor-designed elevator with its annex beside it, but it was nowhere to be found. But I saw bulldozers and a football field-sized area framed with rubble piles, with corn impacted into the flat scraped ground. Not good.

Inside the Ag Valley Co-op office, business was in full swing. A truck pulled up, and a corn sample was vacuumed up and tested inside the building as I watched. Newer elevators were handling all of the grain. Turena Ehlers and Charla Werkmeister, employees of the co-op, told me how it went.

Photo by Julie Cox Hazen

The old Mayer-Osborn annex had a pretty good lean and some leaking problems, so it had been slated for destruction first, with the status of the main elevator left in question. But the main elevator was losing chunks of concrete and was deemed a hazard, so it came down soon after the annex. Forest River Colonies, of Fordville, North Dakota, a Hutterite-owned company, tore down the elevator and its annex, with the scrap going to Columbus Metals in Kearney, Nebraska. My hopes were dashed for recovering an intact manhole cover with my grandfather’s Mayer-Osborn company name on it.

Photo by Julie Cox Hazen

The demolition was quite an event for the town. Carol Wood put together a photo montage and hung it at the Maywood town offices. Bill Schnase picked up pieces of the rubble for his daughter to paint, to preserve the image of the elevator on concrete. Everyone had photos of the demolition. Julie Cox Hazen, Bill Schnase’s niece, shared hers with me.

Luckily, Gary Rich visited the elevator last year, taking photos of it in its last year of useful service. It’s type had been surpassed for a long time by newer, faster grain storage facilities of all kinds.

Most of Grandpa’s smaller projects are reaching the end of their service lives. So we are capturing their last moments, mostly, but not always, in the nick of time.

Jerry McBride worked at Wauneta’s elevator in the ’60s before repairing cars

Jerry McBride at Bob’s Repair Service in Wauneta, Nebraska

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

On the way out of town after visiting the Wauneta, Nebr., elevator complex, we noticed a rather striking old building, which was an auto repair garage, currently owned by Robert Jones, and called Bob’s Auto Repair and Service, at 512 S. Tecumseh.

I stopped to take pictures. A man came out, introducing himself as Jerry McBride, and asked if I liked old buildings. I said I did, and that I had a particular interest in old elevators, having visited Wauneta’s that day. He invited me in to see the shop. It had been built in the 1920s, Jerry said, and mostly knocked down by a tornado sometime before the 1950s, when it was rebuilt and an extension added.

All of this happened before Jerry was employed there.

Wauneta’s original elevator

He said that he had been hired by Ivo Valentine Pennington in about 1962. Before that he was employed as a “broom man” at the Wauneta elevator for six months or so, making fifty cents an hour. Cleanliness was of utmost importance at the elevator. Wauneta gained the reputation for having the cleanest elevator in the state, Jerry said. Unclean elevators would catch fire, or worse, blow up. He kept the elevator clean, as dust free as possible, but it was nevertheless hard and dirty work and did not pay well, so he quit and looked into the possibility of going to school. Then I.V. Pennington offered him a job and all the training he would need to become a mechanic.

The shop today is an old-fashioned one that doesn’t take new cars. Parts could be machined there, and many of the tools had been manufactured by hand, to accommodate old cars.

Even the cash register was old–as Jerry pointed out, he did not have to close for a power outage, because the register still worked.

It struck me that Jerry McBride had first worked in this shop when the Wauneta elevator was less than ten or fifteen years old and the first annex was new. The repair shop was already old by then. Except for some modern tooling, the shop does not appear to be very different than in the 1960s.

Osborn letterhead reveals new dimensions to the elevator story

Story and drawings by Kristen Osborn Cart

Note: Kristen recently visited Nebraska and located a batch of family papers. 

William Osborn retired from building elevators in 1955, but he continued maintaining them.

It was not until sometime in the Sixties that he switched careers and started a tropical fish business, breeding fancy beta fighting fish and guppies in tanks he welded himself. The fish shop was in his basement. It made a fascinating place for a young granddaughter to explore.

Apparently, he still had some elevator repair company letterhead paper lying around, because I found it and used it for some of my drawings. How they survived all of these years is a mystery to me.

All I ever drew were girls and horses. 

Leland Ulrich explains some facts about Mayer-Osborn’s elevator in Burley, Idaho

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

Burley, Idaho, January 18—I spoke to Leland Ulrich, manager here for the past seventeen years, and learned some particulars about this town’s Mayer-Osborn elevator. Mr. Ulrich replaced the old manager, Ivan, long since passed, who apparently had the building’s plans and pictures and history. That investigation is for another visit, since their whereabouts is unknown.

Mr. Ulrich took me for a short tour. I had to put on a hardhat to go inside. The vertical, rectilinear part of the building houses the headhouse way on top, with a “run” protected by a tin roof that went out from it to all of the round bins. The tin roof was a bit of an oddity, he said, but it was original. Most are concrete. The elevator was designed for seed, both barley and wheat, for farm planting.

Formerly a wood and metal elevator was beside it, but it burned in the late-1950s. Some of the big metal parts in the new building might have been that old, salvaged, but there was no way to be sure.

But the elevator built by Mayer-Osborn was all original. The number one bin, closest to the part that houses the head house and the man lift, was empty and I could look inside, but it was too dark to see anything. The bins have sloped floors at a pretty good angle so the last of the seed could be emptied down below, in the “pit.” Whether it was carried out of there by conveyor or some other means is something I missed. The “leg,” he said, in the bin adjacent to the number one bin, went all the way to within eight inches of the top, to facilitate proper distribution between the bins.

(Maybe Gary Rich can add a comment explaining what on earth that means.)

I did ask Mr. Ulrich what the ports are used for, and it is for access—so someone could get into the bins. So “manhole covers” it is. The port cover that was removed on the number one bin, which I’d peeked into, was only identified as Hutchinson foundry steel.

But there were Mayer-Osborn ports inside and out, painted and unpainted.  It’s a big elevator—much bigger than anything I’ve seen of theirs before, perhaps even as big or bigger than Tempe, Arizona.

Mr. Ulrich remembered another visitor who took pictures about ten years ago and sent him some prints. He thought Gary’s name sounded familiar, especially when I mentioned he worked for the railroad.

There is an old citizen in town named Lou Dilley, whose father, known as Pop, built the older flour-mill elevator. Mr. Dilley is said to be in his eighties and loves to tell about the history of the town. He apparently worked on his dad’s construction jobs. So if I can get back, he would be the one to see.

Gary Rich analyzes the leaning Maywood, Nebraska, elevator and storage annex

Ever since Kristen got me interested in the history of elevators, I am always looking for new avenues. One thing that I have noticed that Tillotson Construction Company, J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, and Mayer-Osborn Construction built grain elevators in eastern Colorado and western Kansas. However, I never knew them to build the storage annexes. There are cases in which one of these companies built the grain elevator; then another company called Chalmers & Borton would be in the same town within three to five years building a storage annex.

I was very excited when I walked up to the annex at Maywood, Nebraska. I saw the manhole covers had Mayer-Osborn on them. I knew that I found my first annex that was built by one of the three companies.

There is a major problem with this annex at Maywood. You can see the cracks in the annex and where they have tried patching them. I drove back to Maywood several days later. Part of the annex still has grain in it. I talked with a person at the office. They are planning on tearing down the annex sometime this year or 2013. They have not made up their mind if they will save the elevator or not. When you are standing looking at both the elevator and annex, it is hard to say which is leaning the most. It looks like the elevator is leaning towards the annex. But on the other hand, the annex is leaning towards the elevator. The image that shows the grain dryer, the bin nearest the elevator, has been emptied, as well as the center bin. The north side still has grain in the all the bins, as well as the bin on the southwest corner (the image that has the sunlight on it).

I finally found a grain annex that these companies built, but it will be history soon.

Tillotson Construction’s elevator at Dalton, Nebraska, shows unique features

Gary Rich contributed these photos from Dalton, Nebraska, along with the following analysis:

Tillotson Construction’s elevators were unique, with some features that I have not seen from other elevator builders. One major feature was the curved head house. I have only seen one other company that produced an elevator with the curved headhouse. Another feature was that Tillotson put windows for light into the basement. Of course they had electric lights in the basement. I have not seen another builder put windows in the bottom part of the elevator. This must be a Tillotson trademark. This elevator has the year of construction added to the manhole covers. It shows 1958. Tillotson did a great thing by adding this. All the elevators that I have been inside, I have not seen another company put the year on the manhole covers. The date was on each manhole cover inside the elevator.

Painting a concrete grain elevator in Lincoln, Nebraska

Merle Ahrens, uncle of Ronald Ahrens, has written an account of his summer of 1955, which was spent on a scaffold with another of Ronald’s uncles, Michael Tillotson, youngest son of Reginald and Margaret Tillotson:

After graduating from Omaha North High School in 1955, I went to work for Tillitoson Construction on a grain elevator in Lincoln, Nebraska, with Michael Tillotson. I was paid $1.25 an hour.

Merle at home

Merle Ahrens in 2011, at home in Titusville, Fla.

I remember the first day on the job we had to go to the top of the grain storage tank—at least 100 feet—on a bucket that was used to haul up concrete. The bucket was connected to the swinging boom at the top by a wire cable. The cable went to a stationary, manually operated, rotating spool, which wound up the cable to lift the bucket. The operator let it free-fall down, seeing how close to the ground the bucket and riders could get before hitting the brake. It was a scary ride with four or five other workers standing on the rim of the bucket, especially the free fall down. Thankfully, it didn’t take long to get used to.

At the top, there were no rails around the edges nor any safety provisions like you see today, just one jack rod sticking out of the surface to hold on to as you got on and off of the bucket. The first day, I spent a lot of time holding onto that rod looking over the side.

When Michael and I started work, all the concrete pouring was complete and we were given the task of painting the outside of the whole elevator. We painted it using a lime-base whitewash. We had to crawl over the edge of the top of the tank onto a flying scaffold. The scaffold was held up by a pair of rope block-and-tackles connected to a pair of wood beams that were extended about two feet over the edge of the tank. The wood beams extended about ten feet inboard and were weighed down with sandbags to keep the scaffold from falling. The scaffold was made up of a pair of two-by-twelve boards with a metal frame at each end and two-by-four railings around it. The rope block and tackles were attached to the scaffold on the ground. We had to pull the scaffold up to the top every time for each ten-foot width we painted. There was an old man on the ground who mixed the paint and pulled it up to us in a five gallon bucket. He had a harder job than we had. All we had to do was brush on the paint and pull the rope to release the half hitch that held up the scaffold and let gravity work to lower it. The “flying” part of flying scaffold was when the wind was blowing. You would fly halfway around the tank.

Every night we would take off our Levi’s and stand them in a corner. There was so much paint on them! Yet one pair lasted all summer.

After a couple of months we finished painting the elevator in Lincoln and went to David City to paint another grain elevator. This time we used a new latex paint. It was very slow-drying and the wind kicked up a lot of dust. The elevator ended up white with grey stripes.

We kept hearing of accidents at other sites. One man was said to have fallen from a plank used to walk between the top of two tanks. He was wearing new boots and slipped. Another was killed when roofers removed the sandbags holding the beam for the flying scaffold so they could hot-tar the roof. A couple more were hurt while riding on a bucket and the clamps holding the cable slipped. The clamps were installed wrong. I do know for a fact that one worker at Lincoln was hit in the face when a five-gallon bucket with concrete in it fell while he was using a rope and pulley to lift it overhead.

At the end of the summer, Michael went back to North High, and I went to work for the Union Pacific Railroad.

Merle Ahrens

January 9, 2012