Christmas ideas for an elevator enthusiast

DSC_0075Story and photo by Kristen Cart

Our good friend Linda Laird shares our interest in American grain elevators and has devoted much of her time to documenting these historic landmarks of the plains. I purchased her book some time ago and found it very enlightening. She did a terrific job. This book is on my short list of recommendations for Christmas, if you have an elevator lover on your list.

The American Grain Elevator

Another good friend and fine photographer Bruce Selyem, and his wife and excellent writer Barbara Selyem, have published several books on the subject of grain elevators, and they also publish an annual grain elevator calendar. Last time I checked they still had a few for sale. They also have fine prints for sale if you find an image of an elevator you can’t live without. I spend time on their site while planning elevator trips because of their extensive coverage of elevators all over the country and in Canada.

Grain Elevator Photos

Lastly, it is always a good idea to visit Gary Rich’s elevator photo pages to see his latest elevator photography. He recently finished a trip to Oklahoma, so I expect to see new images from there soon. He says he loves taking pictures in the winter sunshine, which is the perfect illumination for his subjects.

Gary Rich Grain Elevators

Enjoy the season!

A photo tour at Kanorado, Kansas, reveals subtle J. H. Tillotson design details

DSC_0642Story and photos by Kristen Cart

One of the best stops on my elevator tour last October was Kanorado, Kan. It was a fortuitous visit, made in the golden hour of photographic light. We have profiled the elevator before, based upon a visit by Gary Rich while the elevator was operating and open for an impromptu tour. But I wanted to see for myself the elevator my grandfather William Osborn built.

No one was there when we arrived, but I was able to get a good look at all sides of the structure. The straight up, classic lines were unique to  J. H. Tillotson elevators.


A view of the integral headhouse with windows to admit light

Other companies built similarly styled elevators, such as the Greenwood, Neb. elevator built by Tillotson of Omaha in 1951. But those differed in shape and concrete detailing. The elevator at Kanorado was an earlier effort, and should be compared with those at Traer, Kan., Goodland, Kan., and Wauneta, Neb., among others.


Late afternoon shadows are cast across the drive-through scale


Another design element that seems to be unique to Joseph H. Tillotson’s Denver-based company is the squat concrete scale house, a deceptively simple building with lovely proportions, as can also be seen with the J. H. Tillotson elevator at Daykin, Neb.

DSC_0687It is good to see another 1940s vintage elevator still doing its job nearly 70 years later. It is a testament to a work ethic that seems quaint in our present day, and a personal investment in quality beyond the next payday. My grandfather would be proud.

Part 2 of a photography outing unfolds the visual possibilities at Roggen, Colorado

Mayer-Osborn's Roggen, Colo. elevator has the typical stepped up headhouse.

The Roggen, Colo., elevator has the typical Mayer-Osborn stepped-up headhouse.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

The stepped-style headhouse on the 1950-vintage elevator at Roggen, Colo., raised our suspicion that Mayer-Osborn Construction built the elevator, and that my grandfather William Osborn had a hand in it. Our hunch proved to be right. A 1950 newspaper account detailed its construction, as well as that of the concurrent project at Byers, Colo. Roggen’s elevator was built on the heels of its twin, the Mayer-Osborn elevator at McCook, Neb., which was completed the year before.

Gary Rich explores creative possibilities at the Roggen elevator.

Gary Rich explores creative possibilities at the Roggen elevator.

Last year Gary Rich, contributor to this blog, paid a visit to Roggen. He documented the manhole covers inside the driveway, which bore the company name in raised letters across the top of the steel plates manufactured by Hutchinson Foundry. After seeing his photographs, I was very eager to see the elevator for myself.

Last fall on a visit to Colorado I met with Gary, and we took in Roggen and Byers among other elevators on a photography tour. Roggen is fairly accessible and located just east of Denver. The purpose of our tour was to document the elevators, but also to inject some creativity into the process. The results were very pleasing, especially at Roggen. This is part two of our photo tour.

When I started looking for my grandfather’s elevators, I never suspected it would open the door to the elevator photography and historical research you find in this blog. Best of all, our contributors Ronald Ahrens and Gary Rich have made this project great fun for all of us. I hope you, our readers, get a kick out of it as well, and are inspired to follow your own quests wherever they may lead.

Empty containers frame Roggen's 1950 elevator

Empty containers frame Roggen’s 1950 elevator. 

A photography outing reveals beauty at the Mayer-Osborn elevator in Byers, Colorado


A documentary photograph of the Byers, Colo. elevator.

In the fall of 2012, Gary Rich, contributor to this blog, treated me to a photo tour of western Colorado elevators. I made a special stop to meet Gary and his wife Sandy. The last few years Gary has specialized in elevator photography, capturing the beauty and spare elegance of grain elevators, identifying their builders as he went. The Byers, Colo., elevator is one of the loveliest.


Gary Rich, camera in hand, looks for a better shot.

Sandy Rich is a very good photographer in her own right, and she has challenged Gary to greater creativity in his compositions.  He explained how her inspiration led him away from “documentary” shots and toward more artistic photography. When we stopped at Byers, Colo., we took some of her ideas to heart, and we were very pleased with the results.

Mayer-Osborn construction built the Byers elevator in 1950, as noted in a contemporary newspaper account. My father Jerry Osborn remembers his dad William Osborn working on it.


Using the foreground to frame the subject adds interest to the photograph. Gary shot this composition first as can be seen on his photo site.

Retaining some of the characteristics of the earlier J. H. Tillotson elevators, the Byers elevator recalls those at Traer and Hanover, Kan. The Byers elevator is bigger than the Hanover elevator, and you can see where design adjustments accommodate the greater volume. The windows are very similar to those at Traer. The manhole covers on the exterior at Byers represent an innovation to fulfill local needs.

Since elevator designs continued to improve over time, an elevator design genealogy becomes apparent. The innovations cross company boundaries and are seen by looking at elevators chronologically, especially where the same builders and architects continued working in the business, bringing their ideas to one company after another. This is a chronology we are still trying to understand.

As we strive to understand elevator history, we take pictures. Elevators are worthy of our understanding and preservation for their beauty, not just their utility. Beautiful photos convey that message in a way that words can never express.


The manhole covers on the exterior of the Byers elevator identify Mayer-Osborn as the builder.


Gordon, Nebraska’s elevator was built in a classic Mayer-Osborn style

The Mayer-Osborn elevator, identified by manhole covers inside the driveway, stands in front of Chalmers and Borton additions

The Mayer-Osborn elevator, identified by manhole covers inside the driveway, stands in front of Chalmers and Borton additions.

Story and photos by Gary Rich

Farmers Co-op operates these elevators. The co-op is based in Gordon, Hay Springs, and Hemingford, Neb.

The elevator in the foreground was built by Mayer-Osborn Construction Company, based in Denver. The completion date is not known.

The elevator in the background was built by Chalmers and Borton Construction, based in Hutchinson, Kan., in 1958. The company built a second elevator, west of these elevators, as well as a couple of annexes.

A side view of the Mayer Osborn elevator

A side view of the Mayer Osborn elevator.

By Kristen Cart

This stepped up headhouse design was first rolled out with the elevator in McCook, Neb., built in 1949 by Mayer-Osborn Construction Company. The style was featured in the Mayer-Osborn ad that ran in the early 1950s in the Farmers Elevator Guide.

The Gordon elevator showcased the rounded headhouse construction method adopted by Tillotson Construction for their later projects, but it is not known which company pioneered the cost saving technique.

From his home in Colorado, Gary Rich investigated this elevator on a trip east to photograph a number of Midwestern elevators. Gary has been instrumental in identifying a large number of Mayer-Osborn, Tillotson Construction, and J. H. Tillotson projects, pursuing the history of the elevators with as much passion as he puts into his excellent photography.

We are indebted to him for his relentless pursuit of good information, now contained in this blog.

Photo tour reveals the Goodland, Kan., elevator’s symmetries and history

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

My dad, Jerry Osborn, always knew Grandpa built this elevator, and I remember pictures of it from long ago. It still rises gracefully above the Kansas plain, tucked in among its neighboring elevators, listing slightly in its old age. It has always held a place of pride since its construction in the town of Goodland, Kan.

Contributor Gary Rich discovered, when he visited the site, that this elevator, built by J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, is now used for sunflower seed. When I saw it, it was all buttoned up, presumably awaiting its summer crop. The slight tilt is obvious from some angles, but the elevator appears sound.

William Osborn photo of the Goodland, Kan. elevator, found among his papers.

The words “Goodland Equity” can be faintly discerned under the white paint.

You can still see, faintly outlined in white letters, the name Goodland Equity, long since painted over. At one time  the elevator sported a neon sign proclaiming “Goodland Equity” to the night sky. That sign has disappeared and now vultures adorn the top of the leg in a lofty roost.

This beautiful elevator will continue to attract photographers as long as it stands. Aside from building useful, well-engineered, long-lasting structures, my grandpa, Bill Osborn, built beauty into the flat Kansas landscape.

For that, I am grateful.

A convenient roost for vultures.

Wauneta, Nebraska’s elevator tells a compelling business story

Wauneta’s original elevator–built by J. H. Tillotson, Contractors, of Denver–is the centerpiece of the complex.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

In a sense, writing about the elevator at Wauneta, Neb., is saving the best for last. I visited Wauneta in June and held off writing about it, hoping for documentary confirmation that my grandfather, William Osborn, built it. But my dad, Gerald Osborn, said that he did, and when I visited, the clean lines and design details of the straight up elevator confirmed it.  It was without question one of J. H. Tillotson, Contractor’s efforts. My grandfather led the company’s construction effort in the late forties.

Cindy Fischer of the Frenchman Valley Cooperative

What I found there surpassed expectations. Cindy Fischer warmly welcomed me into the Frenchman Valley Co-op office, and kindly opened up the co-op records room, giving access to the history of the Wauneta elevator. We carefully unrolled blueprint after blueprint on the counter. The records showed that very soon after the original elevator was built, the cooperative found itself short of storage space as the grain boom (helped by federal subsidies) grew. So the co-op went shopping for an annex.

The Treow-Jensen built annex

The familiar name Mayer-Osborn Construction popped out immediately, on an old, yellowed set of blueprints, but the plans did not match what was eventually built. It left me scratching my head until I saw the plans submitted by Treow-Jensen. Ah, hah!  We were looking at competing proposals for the annex, and Mayer-Osborn had submitted two alternatives but was beat out by a lower-cost bidder. Treow-Jensen built Wauneta’s first annex in 1955. Jarvis Construction came in later to complete another annex in 1977.

Gary Rich, who contributes to Our Grandfathers’ Grain Elevators, had visited Wauneta before, and he and I had a protracted debate about what all the blueprints meant, since we found “Holmen and Mayer” on the plans for a building. What we could never settle was the identity of the builder of original elevator, whose plans were nowhere to be found. Eventually, we agreed to leave our diverging interpretations up in the air, all in good humor.

Cindy gave me access to the inside of the straight up elevator. She said that it had been completely redone, so the familiar Hutchinson Foundry manhole covers were absent. The replacement covers gave no indication of the elevator’s builder. Happily, the elevator appears to be ready to take on another sixty or more years of active service.

I wish to thank Cindy Fischer for her kindness and all of her time. We spent a whole morning going through plans, and I borrowed a number of them to be reprinted for my own records. She showed me, for the first time, the sales and engineering aspects of the Mayer-Osborn business. Many of these kinds of records have disappeared over the years, so she afforded a unique opportunity to peer into the past and see Grandpa’s business in a new light.

For that, I am grateful.

Elevator operations