Mechanization and the Russian wheat deal caused elevator construction booms

AuroraBrad Perry

Story and photos by Brad Perry

These photos are from my travels across Highway 34: Aurora Cooperative and their branch at Murphy. The workhouses would indicate Tillotson. The new two-tank annex at Aurora was done by Todd & Sargent. I believe the four-tank annex at Murphy was T&S as well.

You’ve gotten me thinking about all the construction I was involved in.  Here comes some more history.

Prior to the past eight to 10 years, there were two boom periods of elevator construction in the Midwest. The first is well documented by your blog— early ’50s thru mid 60’s. That was the mechanization age of United States agriculture.

By the ’60s, however, we were building flat storage buildings for the Commodity Credit Corporation. This and the United States Department were our market–and our only market. I still remember being in St. Edward, Neb., in 1975, and being told that the co-op had just gotten shipping orders on 250,000 bushels of wheat that had been in storage there for 12 years.

That’s what paid for the monster terminals in Hutchinson, Salina, Wichita, and Enid.


The second boom period followed the Russian wheat deal of 1972 and 1973. After that purchase, the USDA eliminated diverted acres and we went to wall-to-wall production. It created the need for new, and faster capacity.

This boom lasted into the early 1980s. It was assisted in Nebraska by center-pivot irrigation.

Most of the elevators were built by co-ops. Cargill, Continental, and a few local privates built in Nebraska, but not many. Peavey was a purchaser rather than a builder.

Farmland Industries served as the general contractor on virtually all of these elevators and annexes. At the Bank for Cooperatives, we waived the need for a performance bond if Farmland was the general contractor.

An aerial view of Utica, Neb. With the round headhouse, Brad Perry thinks it looks like it could be a Tillotson elevator.

An aerial view of Utica, Neb. With the round headhouse, Brad Perry thinks it could be a Tillotson elevator. Existing records don’t indicate company activity there. 

That saved a ton of money for the client, and also Farmland paid patronage dividends on the project. Farmland then subbed out the contracts to the major builders that they used.

These were Mid-States, Jarvis, and Borton as the main players. Farmland also brought Wilson, Venturi, and Jordan into Nebraska when demand heated up.

Todd & Sargent did several projects in Nebraska, but mainly stayed in Iowa—lots more grain (and new elevators built) over there.

Quad States built a few facilities (Rising City, Shelby, Benedict, Hooper, and Milford) in Nebraska as well.

The old house at Tamora, which is just off Route 34 between Utica and Seward. Note the stepped, or partial,  headhouse. The feed mill beside it was kind of a standard blueprint as well and would have been 1950s or 1960s construction. Sisters to it are found in Leigh, Minden, Holdrege, and Beatrice, Neb., and Red Oak and Shenandoah, Iowa.

The old house at Tamora, which is just off Route 34 between Utica and Seward. Note the stepped, or partial, headhouse. The feed mill beside it was kind of a standard blueprint as well and would have been 1950s or 1960s construction. Sisters are found in Leigh, Minden, Holdrege, and Beatrice, Neb., and Red Oak and Shenandoah, Iowa.

There are a couple of odd ones that occurred when the general manager had had experience with a contractor from a different state.

For example, the big elevator at Tamora was built by Conger, a Minnesota company, and the newer workhouse at Plymouth by Weigel, also of Minnesota.

During this period, most facilities–elevators and annexes–were built with 24- to 28-foot diameter tubes.

Toward the end of this boom time, we started seeing en masse conveyors used on annexes, replacing Texas headhouses and open belts with trippers.

We also saw the movement away from small tube elevators to 40 ft and larger diameter tubes.

This was due to two factors: the producers’ yields and harvest speed and the movement to outbound unit trains.

It looks like a Tillotson elevator in Bird City, Kansas, but it’s a surprise instead

Wheeler, KS 044 copy

Story and photos by Gary Rich

I wanted some information about the Bird City Equity Co-op elevator that is now operated by Frontier Ag, Inc. Bird City is located on U.S.-36 in Cheyenne County, Kan., which is in the very northwestern corner of the state.

The Bird City elevator features a rounded headhouse.

The Bird City elevator features a rounded headhouse.

I was positive this elevator was built by Tillotson Construction Company, of Omaha, Neb. I called the elevator manager prior to my trip and drove to Bird City on Dec. 7. Upon arriving I went into the office. It was noon, so the whole crew was having lunch. I introduced myself to the manager. One employee told me there was a plaque on the outside of the elevator. I have never seen a plaque on a Tillotson elevator. I guess I should have had some qualms at this point that it wasn’t a Tillotson elevator.

We walked out to the elevator. The plaque, dated 1950, showed the elevator was built by Vickroy-Mong Construction Company, of Salina, Kan. Another interesting thing: the manhole covers in most elevators were produced by the Hutchinson Foundry, of Hutchinson, Kan, but these were made in Salina by Wyatt Manufacturing.

There have been other stories in our blog about elevators that Mayer-Osborn built and another construction company that was building identical elevators. This company was Johnson-Sampson Construction Company, of Salina, Kansas. Now, we have Vickroy-Mong building a Tillotson-lookalike elevator.

It has been demonstrated that the curved headhouse was a Tillotson signature. Did someone leave the Tillotson operation and branch out on his own, or were the plans sold to Vickroy-Mong?

In the future, I plan on photographing the Bird City elevator in more detail and will compare it closely to a Tillotson elevator.

Stay tuned for more information.

Editor’s note on Dec. 14: The reference desk at the Salina Public Library has come through with information that Carl Vickroy and Raymond Mong were partners in a company located on South 9th Street, according to the Salina city directory of 1950. Additionally, it’s possible that the Hutchinson Foundry produced the manhole covers for Wyatt Manufacturing. 

Wheeler, KS 049 copy

Unsolved mysteries abound at Tillotson Construction’s Elkhart, Kansas, elevator

Story and photos by Gary Rich

Elkhart is located in extreme southwestern Kansas. This is Morton County. The 2000 census showed Morton County had 3,196 people, of which 2,036 live in Elkhart. The town sits just north of the Oklahoma border and is about 8 miles east of the Colorado border. The area has been known for wheat production. However, this has changed in the past few decades. Corn and milo are now grown as spring crops.

Tillotson Construction Company received the contract from the Elkhart Equity Co-op for the first concrete elevator built in Elkhart. Construction started in late 1945 and finished in late spring 1946. The elevator had a 225,000-bushel capacity.

I was totally shocked when I first viewed this elevator. The Elkart Co-op had three different elevators built over the years. Plus they added five different annexes. Tillotson built what is now known as Elevator Number One.

Elevators Number Two and Three were built by Chalmers & Borton, as well as all annexes.

Was the Elkhart elevator Tillotson’s first? Elkhart was started 1945.

Once I realized which elevator in Elkhart was the Number One, I noticed that it had a rectilinear headhouse. This is quite different from Tillotson’s other elevators. It has been thought that one Tillotson signature was the curved headhouse. Is the Elkhart elevator a one-of-a-kind?

Tillotson did one other thing different on their headhouses from other construction companies.

The long side of the headhouse had two different rows of windows. (You can view the window arrangements of other elevators on this blog, such as those in Rolla and Satanta, Kansas, as well as Ensign, Kansas.)

Could the Elkhart elevator actually have been the first line-elevator that they built. Why did they change to the curved headhouse in their future construction? Was it more cost effective, more efficient, or was it designed to distinguish their elevators from those of their competitors?

I wish to thank Morgan Walls, operations manager-Elkart Equity Co-op for much of their history.

How Tillotson Construction made a good first impression with the Ensign Co-op

Story and photos by Gary Rich

During the late 1940s and early 1950s many Kansas co-ops were planning new elevators. Grain production was increasing; thus, the old wooden elevators were not large enough. Ensign Co-op, located in Gray County thirteen miles southwest of Dodge City on US-56, needed a new one.

Looking for a concrete elevator with a lot of capacity, the Co-op contacted Tillotson Construction Co., of Omaha, Nebr. I am guessing the elevator was built around 1950 or 1951. Ensign Co-op has since changed hands several times. There are no records or blueprints available.

The first annex, seen right, was of single bins and allowed a path for trucks.

The elevator Tillotson Construction built was of a very unique design. First of all, it did not have a curved headhouse like so many other elevators they were building.

Secondly, this elevator had a double driveway. Many elevators built at that time had a single driveway. The use of semis hauling grain to the elevator was many years away. The only vehicles bringing grain to the elevator were farm trucks and pickups.

When the Ensign Co-op needed further expansion, they contacted Tillotson, which built the first annex east of the elevator. This probably occurred in 1952 or 1953.

The double driveway created some engineering problems. The annex had to be built at an angle from the elevator. This would allow trucks using both driveways a path around the new annex. The first annex was set a distance from the elevator.  Tilloston solved the problem, making the annex with eleven bins. The first bin was a single bin, while the others were double bins.

About 1957, Ensign Co-op was looking at additional expansion. Tillotson was contacted again. They built the second annex, connected to the first, in 1958. Nine double bins increased the total capacity to twenty-nine bins.

Typical of the company’s later projects, the second annex’s manhole covers included the year of construction. All manhole covers inside the elevator and first annex have “Tillotson Construction, Omaha, Nebr.”–but no dates.

Tillotson built the elevator as well as the first and second annexes. The company produced a quality product as the Ensign Co-op kept contacting the company for additional capacity. The Ensign Co-op had to be very impressed with their work. 

This is a rare case where Tillotson built an elevator and then returned to the same town and built several annexes. Generally other construction companies built the expansions.