Tillotson Construction kicks off the 1950s with ubiquitous designs

Albert City, Iowa, ca. 1954

Albert City, Iowa, circa 1954.

Story by Kristen Cart

In the last post we studied the oddball Tillotson elevators that sprouted during the 1940s, the most creative period of elevator design. It was a time of multiple plans and innovations, and as the 1950s dawned, unworkable plans were dropped and popular designs emerged.

A surprising number of elevator ideas survived however, some with new names, as the Tillotson brand retained its distinctive features. Advances in engineering dominated the 1950s as elevator styles settled into lines that typified their makers.


Dallas Center, Iowa. Photo by Kristen Cart.

You can generally spot a Tillotson elevator by its rounded headhouse. Other subtle details are also telling trademarks. These style points became so common because a large portion of Tillotson’s building in the 1950s followed established designs, tweaked here and there for individual customers, without deviating greatly from the most popular plans.

We will examine the first of these enduring plans, which crossed over from the late 1940s, in this post.

Flagler by Gary Rich

Photo by Gary Rich.

Dike Plan:

This design was rolled out in 1947 with the elevator at Satanta, Kan., which had a 250,000-bushel capacity. No corresponding Dike, Iowa elevator is mentioned in our records, but presumably it was built (although I speculate whether the original Dike proposal sat on a desk without ever being approved, while Satanta’s updated elevator proceeded, thus the naming convention).


Photo by Kristen Cart.

The basic Dike elevator, with 252,000-bushel capacity, was built at Randall, Iowa (1949); West Bend, Iowa (1949); Pocahontas, Iowa (1949); Bushland, Tex. (1950); Pond Creek, Okla. (1950); Seibert, Colo. (1950); and Flagler, Colo. (1950). They all look like the typical Tillotson elevator, but with a larger-than-usual rounded headhouse.

The Satanta, Kan. (1947), and Gruver, Tex. (1947) elevators were built with a revised Dike plan, which was renamed the Satanta plan. They could be filled to a capacity of 250,000 or 265,000 bushels, respectively–the two elevators differed by five feet of draw-form height. Springfield, Colo. (1948); and Kildare, Okla. (1950); were also built with 250,000-bushel capacity using the Satanta (variously named Dike) plan.

The Pocahontas, Iowa, elevator, built using the Dike plan, got its own plan designation also. Into the mid-’50s, several elevators were built using the Pocahontas plan specifications: Albert City, Iowa (1954); Goldfield, Iowa (1954); Rockwell City, Iowa (1954); Thornton, Iowa (1955); and Dallas Center, Iowa (1955). Each could hold 252,000 bushels of grain.

Pocahontas, Iowa

Pocahontas, Iowa. Photo by Kristen Cart.

Because we are missing a page of the specifications for elevators built in 1954-1955, we do not know whether other elevators followed this plan, though I suspect some did.

The Tillotson Construction Company of Omaha continued to build for at least four years after our records ended. But reconstructing those records is a project for another time. In the next post, we will look at the Churdan and Jackson plans that originated in the late 1940s.


Mike Tillotson remembers Flagler (1953), Albert City (1954), and Lincoln (1955)

By Mike Tillotson

I don’t have access to a computer nor know how to use one. I barely get a radio signal, and my tin-can barb-wire phone is not always clear here in the hills either.

As for the elevators I was thirteen on my first summer with my brothers. I just graduated from Grade School. Our Father helped his Father build Wood Elevators, and often was told to put out that cigarette.

Mike stands at the center of the frame while Tim captures Charles just after he has taken a rest break on the way to Flagler.

Mike stands center-frame while Tim Tillotson captures Charles after a rest break en route to Flagler with the ’53 Ford and mystery trailer.

We headed for Flagler, Colorado; seventy five miles East of Denver. Charles was driving a 53 Ford 4-door our Father bought for him. Two-tone tan that Charles had nosed, and added fender skirts, and a continental kit. We were pulling a sixteen foot trailer that we lived in for the summer.

We were paid $1.00/Hr.–60 Hrs./Week with time and one half over 40 hours. I was the time keeper, and drove a tractor with a front-end loader. I filled up the three-bag concrete mixer with sand. Someone else put the cement and limestone in the hopper. We mixed our own concrete because we were in the middle of no-where.

I remember the Super catching me putting pennies on the rail track, and helping me with the time-sheet so I could go to Denver with my brothers for the week-end.

Tillotson Home

The Tillotson home in the Ponca Hills north of Omaha. Mike still lives there. 

I remember Charles had a girl-friend, and when we came back to Omaha in September; she came in to visit him. When Charles went to meet her at the place she was staying; Sharon went with him. When Charles and Sharon met her she said she forgot something in her room, and went back to get it. After waiting about one half hour Charles sent the door man to the room. He returned and said the room was empty, and the window was open.

You have to remember this was 1953 when we were at the age of innocence, and life was pure and simple.

The following summer (1954) we went to Albert City, Iowa, 75 miles North of Council Bluffs. We rented rooms in a private home. We worked with a 20 something guy that ran the winch pulley bucket to the top of the elevator as it progressed, and brought building materials down. We also rode the bucket up and down to get on deck. The elevator bens were 125 feet to the top with a Head-House of 75 on top of that.

The winch guy went to work on another elevator the Company had going in a town about 30 miles away. This was an addition to an existing elevator–an add-on.

At noon one day he went to the top with new boots on. There were four or five planks at the top from old to new grain bens.

No hand rails or anything. They were not required at the time. I doubt OSHA even existed. He either fell or jumped going from old to new.

Some said he might have tripped with the new boots.

Charles and I bought a nice 40 Ford sedan for $75.00 off a used car lot. He didn’t want to use the 53 any more than necessary. Coming back to Omaha one week end we were zipping down a country road with corn as high-as-a-sky and started through an intersection with no stop signs.

It could be Mike waving at the photographer in this photo from atop the Flagler annex. The Ford and 16-foot trailer are also evident.

It could be Mike waving at the photographer, who is perched atop the Flagler elevator, built in 1950. The foundation for the new annex is seen at lower left.

We got broad-sided by some farmer who put us in a ditch; up side down. Later in the day when we crossed the Mormon Bridge in North Omaha; one of us reached through the front of the car to pay the Toll. The windshield was gone.

The next summer (1955) I worked in Lincoln, Nebr. by myself. My sister Mary’s future brother-in-law Merle worked on the job also.

The Elevators at that time required about 12-15 men per shift. Two shifts per day–twenty four hour continuous pour. Usually about 18-20 days to get to the top of the tanks. The jacks that raised the forms were all manually operated. Today with the advanced electrical operated jacks the number of men required is probably half.

That is the story of my teenage years in MAYBERRY.

Building a mighty elevator required specialized carpentry and subtle touches



Editor’s note: Here, Charles J. Tillotson offers additional explanation about the formwork at the start of the Flagler, Colo., annex, seen in this 1953 photo from Tillotson Construction Company archives. 

All new lumber was used, the amount of which I couldn’t give any idea but it was a few truckloads at minimum.

The curved lumber was done by hand, either with a table saw or a Skilsaw or both. The notches, of course–for example at the jack yoke locations–were again cut in the field.

Mucho carpentry work, the length of which depended on the number of carpenters that could be scrounged up.

Also, the superintendent of the job was usually out of the carpentry world and could pitch in as needed during form construction.

And there remains one more point to make about the photo from a previous post, “Taking it from the top at Tillotson Construction’s annex in Flagler, Colo.” (use the link that’s included below or click on the photo to see an enlarged version). 

ScanThe dark shadow around the circular bin forms is the residue from “washing down the side.” (This is the side where the cement will be poured.)

The formwork was coated with used motor oil or some other type of lubrication.

Doing so made the formboards moisture resistant and let them more easily slip upward with less friction.


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Taking it from the top at Tillotson Construction’s annex in Flagler, Colorado


This photo from the Tillotson Construction Company archives shows the staging deck, on which all formwork was built to ensure it was dead level. The square section was probably the form for a conveyor or bucket shaft, or for a man lift. The triangular section, called a groin form, was made for the void where two rows of bin forms were placed together. The excavation hole for the new annex is seen, lower left, at the foot of the 252,000-bushel elevator the company built in 1950, modeling it after their one in Pond Creek, Okla. 

By Ronald Ahrens

In 1953, my grandfather Reginald Tillotson decided to send his three sons, Charles, 18, Tim, 16, and Mike, 13, to work on an annex to the Flagler, Colo., elevator Tillotson Construction Company had built three years earlier.

My grandmother Margaret didn’t like the idea.”You can’t send those kids out there,” she protested.

“It’s about time they grew up,” Reginald said.

Indeed, my uncles were sent, leaving Omaha in a new Ford and pulling the travel trailer that would be their home for the next few weeks.

“I don’t remember that he even came out,” Uncle Tim said recently of Reginald.

From left, Tim and Chuck Tillotson and La Rose Tillotson Hunt in 2012.

From left, Tim and Chuck Tillotson and La Rose Tillotson Hunt in 2012.

While Charles and Tim labored on the formwork that rose toward the sky, Mike stayed in the trailer, which doubled as their bunkhouse and the job office. His task was that of timekeeper.

“I don’t recall him bein’ out there when we was jackin’ and pourin’,  jackin’ and pourin,'” Tim said, although he did recall him reading hot rod magazines.

Once the pouring started, it couldn’t stop. A cold joint between concrete that had already set and a new pour wasn’t at all desirable, for it would leak.

“You had to treat that damn good when you started over,” Tim said.

Work went on in twelve-hour shifts. As the concrete was dumped out of a Georgia buggy–a V-shaped tub riding on large wheels behind a U-shaped handle–someone with a spud hoe would follow the pour and work the concrete, releasing the air from around the rebar. “The only way you shut down was an emergency,” Tim said. Lightning, for example, was an emergency because it was attracted to the rebar being used to bolster the concrete.

_DSC0033_9425The crew was made up of some trusted old hands and an assortment of locals. “You never knew who you were workin’ next to,” Tim said.

He remembers the local sheriff asking himself why he should put up anyone in the jail when they could work and earn their keep. One of the convicts toiling alongside Tim had a funny thought. “You think you can hang onto that hoist handle hard enough if I push you off?” he said.

Any number of mishaps could occur. “You ought to see one of them Georgia buggies go off the top,” Tim said. “Or the cotter pin come off the wheel and the wheel go off.”

At ground level the pour was made in six-inch increments, but the speed increased as the elevator rose.

To keep the screw jacks on the same plane and maintain plumb, the crew used a water-level system on the deck. A clear hose was fed by water from a 55-gallon drum. Tim said the hose had a level “that you marked before you ever pulled off the ground. And believe it or not, you’d get one hundred and some feet up, and you’d be plumb!”