All specs, and the Bouncing Czech’s photos, delineate elevators in David City

The Tillotson Construction of Omaha elevator also serves as a satellite antenna tower.  Photo by Tom McLaughlin

The Farmers Cooperative elevator, built by Tillotson Construction Company, of Omaha, Neb., also serves today as a satellite antenna tower. Photo by Tom McLaughlin

Story by Kristen Cart

My blogging partner Ronald Ahrens said he hoped we would find the motherlode of history about the elevators his grandfather Reginald Tillotson had built. With luck and the help of his family, we finally did it.

Reginald Tillotson’s sons, Charles, Tim, and Mike have all recently shared their memories from the job sites. Tim Tillotson also found and restored a treasure trove of company documents and photos. Best of all was a set of blueprint specifications for over 100 Tillotson Construction Company slip-formed concrete elevators and annexes. Eureka!

A historical image taken in David City, dated October 28, 1964. This is not the Tillotson Construction elevator, but it's neighbor a short distance down the rail line.

A historical image taken in David City, dated October 28, 1964. This is not the Tillotson Construction elevator, but its neighbor a short distance down the rail line.

David City, Neb., is a town due west of Fremont in the eastern half of the state. One of the two elevators in town was listed in the Tillotson blueprints. Armed with our new information, I looked for pictures of the newly found elevator.

I discovered some history, instead.

The grain piled next to the elevator in the 1964 press photo is milo, a feed grain, and the pile-up was attributed to a shortage of rail cars. Scenes like this were observed all over Nebraska that year.

The elevator in the photo didn’t quite have the Tillotson look, so a quick peek at David City on a Google map showed a washed-out image with just the suggestion of a curved headhouse on a second elevator in town. Further search brought me to “The Bouncing Czech” Flickr page and beautiful photos of the Farmers Cooperative elevator I was looking for. With Tom McLaughlin’s kind permission, they are posted here.

Tom McLaughlin likes to stop and check out elevators.

In an exchange of e-mails, he wrote, “A friend of our family owned the Magowan Elevator, in Gordon, Neb., so I’ve been in that one several times. I still remember my first manlift ride–that was the scariest ride I’ve ever taken.

David City's "other" elevator. Photo by Tom McLaughlin

David City’s “other” elevator. Photo by Tom McLaughlin

“Back in the 1950s, my dad used to ‘walk the pipeline’–he literally walked the natural gas pipeline in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska, looking for signs of leaks, before they went to aerial photography and control valves.

“So he always liked to wander around the back roads and small towns, and I think that’s where I got the bug. When we would go on a trip, we never knew what route he’d take. I don’t think he did either!”

Tom’s enthusiasm is contagious.

The small towns are peaceful, yet inviting, and the elevators are fascinating. It won’t be too much longer before this blogger takes another grain elevator trip.

Specifications 

Tillotson Construction Company records show the David City elevator was built in 1951 according to the “David City Plan.” This includes five tanks, each one 18 feet in diameter and 120 feet high.

Total capacity: 180,000 bushels

Driveway: 13×17 feet with eight bins over the drive

Bins: 15 in all and overflow, with a dust bin at the exterior

Reinforced concrete: 1716 cubic yards

Plain concrete (hoppers): 20 cubic yards

Reinforcing steel (including jack rods): 81.16 tons

Steel and concrete:

Below main slab: 6632 pounds and 45 cubic yards

In main slab: 22,233 pounds and 180 cubic yards

Drawform walls: 106,320 pounds and 1253 cubic yards

Driveway and work floor: 2543 pounds and 15 cubic yards

Deep bin bottoms: 8081 pounds and 38 cubic yards

O.H. bin bottoms: 2917 pounds and 22 cubic yards

Bin root: 6122 pounds and 44 cubic yards

Scale floor: 285 pounds and 10 cubic yards

Cupola (headhouse) walls: 2830 pounds and 70 cubic yards

Distributor floor: 1494 pounds and 8 cubic yards

Cupola roof: 1586 pounds and 14 cubic yards

Miscellaneous (Boot, leg, headhouse, Tr., sink, steps, etc.): 1273 pounds and 15 cubic yards

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