A tour of Odebolt, Iowa, reveals much about its historic Mayer-Osborn elevator

The Mayer-Osborn elevator in Odebolt, Iowa was one of the few they built that was never painted white.

The Mayer-Osborn elevator in Odebolt, Iowa was one of the few they built that was never painted white.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

Recently, I took a detour quite out of the way of the Interstate system to visit the town of Odebolt, where my grandfather, William Osborn, built an elevator. I introduced the western Iowa site in a previous post.

Tim pointed out the bin diagram for the elevator.

Tim pointed out the bin diagram for the elevator.

Tim Gunderson made a great tour guide for the site and the town. The part-time elevator worker and full-time farmer wanted to know the age of the Mayer-Osborn elevator as much as I did. It was an old stepped-headhouse, slip-formed, concrete elevator in the style of earlier Mayer-Osborn efforts in McCook, Neb., and Roggen, Colo., and it stood at the center of a sprawling grain operation.

During our inspection of the elevator, we saw tantalizing details that indicated mid-1950s architecture. The mechanical workings (never altered during renovation) recalled intact examples of my grandfather’s previous work. The reliance on mechanical controls was a clue to the early design.

The big wheel controls grain distribution to the bins. It is a simple, elegant solution to a mechanical problem.

The big wheel was a simple, elegant (mechanically speaking), way to distribute grain to the bins.

Most of the standard clues to an elevator’s age were absent or misleading. The manhole-covers inside the elevator bore no date (usually they do), but perhaps Mayer-Osborn ordered a quantity of manhole-covers, embossed with only their name, toward the end of their operations in the mid-1950s.

The "blue leg" is an original, painted in Mayer-Osborn's standard color

The “blue leg” is original, painted in Mayer-Osborn’s standard trim color

The elevator showed no signs of exterior paint. This was a deviation from the norm, and a sign of more modern construction. I began to suspect the elevator was built after Mayer-Osborn ceased operations, using left-over parts. But answers would come from elsewhere, in town, where we looked for a witness to the elevator’s beginnings.

Our next stop was the library, where we perused daily papers from 1955. As I thumbed through a number of pages, I realized I didn’t know which year to search, much less what day. It would not be an effective use of time–I could only stay a couple of hours before heading to the next elevator on my route.

Tim was looking up friends who might know more. We crossed the street to the bank, where Renae Babcock referred us to an insurance office nearby. There we met Dick Duffy, and he told us a story.

Dick Duffy was in high school when the elevator went up–he thought it was in 1954 or 1955. On dark evenings while spending time with a friend (who graduated in 1955), he watched construction activity at the brightly lit elevator site. Flood lights illuminated every corner of the scene. He recalled that the concrete pour went day and night, and as he shared some personal reminiscences, he said, “You won’t write that, will you?”

Dick Duffy shares memories of 1954

Dick Duffy shared memories of 1954.

One detail he did mention, which tightened the time range further, was a tragedy that happened during the fall of the year the elevator was built. It was 1954 when a young boy was run over by a car and killed in town. Dick thought the child’s name was Kevin Bower. The event was traumatic–it fixed the time of the year’s events forever in the minds of residents.

“Was that the year that boy Kevin died?”

“Yes, I believe it was.”

We have pegged the construction date for the Odebolt elevator to the spring and summer of 1954. At the same time, the Mayer-Osborn elevator at Blencoe, Iowa, was built under supervision of my dad’s brother, Dick. The concrete there was improperly mixed and two days of work were wasted. Shortly afterward, Mayer-Osborn ceased operations, and Grandpa Bill Osborn left Denver behind and returned to Nebraska to his family.

Heartfelt thanks go to the residents of Odebolt–those mentioned and unmentioned here–for their kindness and helpfulness. I don’t think I have ever experienced a friendlier reception while pursuing historical elevators.

The town deserves a good historical expose that goes beyond the scope of the blog. It is a town with a fascinating history, great civic pride, and a strong sense of identity from its days as a ranch property to today. I hope to learn all about it and to come back again.IMG_2256

 

Vandals strike Tillotson’s Vinton Street elevator, leaving the owners with an expensive cleanup

644369_10152681898735294_1745767005_nSometime overnight on Wednesday, May 4, vandals struck the Vinton Street elevator, painting “Dump Trump” graffiti on the south annex’s upper run. The message caused a sensation Thursday morning.

Tillotson Construction Company completed the original 382,880-bushel elevator in 1950. Extensive annexes were later added. We don’t know when operations ceased, but for the last eight years the elevator on five acres of land has been co-owned by Ron Safarik and Richard Brock, who attempted to make a climbing facility comparable to those established at old elevators in Bloomington, Ill., and Oklahoma City.

In 2012, the Vinton Street elevator received national attention after the annexes served as the canvas for a public art project; a nonprofit organization commissioned artists to create themed banners that were draped over the silos.

Reached by phone, Safarik said he and Brock have tried to secure the property, but intruders found a way to pry through and gain access to the top. “I would presume they used the internal ladders that still exist,” he said.

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Photos courtesy of SILO Extreme Outdoor Adventures. 

Safarik and Brock will now be stuck with the cleanup bill. Since SILO Extreme Outdoor Adventures, the partners’ venture, closed in 2013, the elevator has been a burden, he said.

It has been listed for sale since 2014. A post on SILO’s Facebook page says, “The Silos and the 5 acres of industrial land are for sale through Ben Pearson at World Group Commercial Real Estate. Any climbing related buyer will receive the holds, bolts, and supporting gear for starting up a climbing club or business.”

Safarik said the asking price remains $150,000.

Although he said he hadn’t known much of the elevator’s history, he did pass along a story heard from an elderly man named Otto, who lived on Vinton Street and “had intricate knowledge” of events.

According to Otto, the only death that occurred at the elevator happened on a freezing night in an unspecified year. The victim, an elevator employee, locked himself out of the scale house. As he tried to pry back into it, he jammed his arm and couldn’t pull free. Found dead in the morning, he was surrounded by cigarette butts. With his free hand, he had managed to smoke his remaining cigarettes before he froze.

 

 

 

The elevator in Odebolt, Iowa exemplifies the integrity of Mayer-Osborn’s style

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Story and photos by Kristen Cart

In March I had the chance to stop in Odebolt, Iowa, to investigate one of the last elevators built by Mayer-Osborn Construction, the company based in Denver and headed by my grandfather William Osborn and his partner Eugene Mayer.

Odebolt is a middling town in western Iowa. The grain facility looked deserted when I drove up, except for a man with a skid loader doing something I couldn’t quite make out. He disappeared through the elevator driveway, and was nowhere to be seen when I drove around to the other side.

A busy fertilizer operation sat adjacent to the elevator, and when I stepped into a nearby office, I had the pleasure of meeting the mayor of Odebolt, Mike Hoefling. He said I missed my mark and should drive past the bank (a neoclassical, tidy marble edifice in the center of town) to find the co-op in a green building. It was easy to find.

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The neoclassical-styled bank makes a stately neighbor to the sprawling grain facility in Odebolt, Iowa.

As a result of the April 1st merger of two Iowa stalwarts–the Farmers Cooperative Company and the West Central Cooperative, the Odebolt elevator complex will lose its “FC” signage and gain the name Landus. Landus is a brand new, giant cooperative based in Ames, Iowa (painters will soon be dangling off the sides of elevators all over Iowa implementing the name change). During my visit, the co-op in Odebolt was adjusting to its first day under new management.

A lady greeted me outside the co-op (I regret that I did not get her name). I asked her who built the old elevator, and when. She said she didn’t know, but at that moment a truck drove up, and she and two companions pointed out the driver and said he would know. As soon as the man stepped from the truck, she said “Do you remember when the old elevator was built?” The man, probably in his fifties, looked a little stunned and said “No!” Everyone howled with laughter. The 1950s vintage elevator was already on the scene before he was born.

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A vintage photo found in a 1974 history of the town, showing the Mayer-Osborn elevator.

The gentleman driving the truck introduced himself as Tim Gunderson. He said he worked at the elevator part-time to “help out,” but his full time work was farming. He offered to take me to the elevator to check it out. I hopped in the truck, and off we went.

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Tim Gunderson, standing in a basement doorway. Each concrete archway is beveled at the edge–for what purpose? We don’t know.

The elevator, sporting a stepped headhouse much like the McCook, Neb., elevator my grandfather built, was set among a cluster of newer additions. It sat silent, Tim said, because a leg had become clogged and awaited repairs. Tim led the way and I followed, donning a safety vest per regulations, and we entered the driveway and from there proceeded into the heart of the elevator.

Tim pointed out the “blue leg” which was the original, he said. Mayer-Osborn Construction painted the trim on all of its elevators blue–including the metal exterior of the leg.

We were on a level of the elevator beneath the bins (but not all the way into the pit) where a grain conveyor ran beneath the attached annex. Tim pointed out the workmanship and detailing of the concrete. “They didn’t have to do this,” he said, pointing to a neat beveled edge. “No one would ever see it here.”

According to Tim, the elevator was built with a pride of workmanship that you never see today. I noticed the same thing as we toured the elevator–utilitarian, routine equipment was thoughtfully designed to create a harmonious whole, imparting an impression of completeness and integrity.

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Neatness and graceful style, down to the switches and pulleys, exemplify a Mayer-Osborn elevator.

The elevator was impressive. It was remarkably clean and dust-free, a sign of a safety-conscious operation.

Tim also took the time to help me discover the vintage of the old house, and to this end we made several stops and visited more folks in the town. In the next post we will share more photos of this iconic elevator and delve into its history.

 

A reader recalls elevator construction and the recent explosion in Hinton, Iowa

By Michael Pelelo

I was born in 1954, the same year the Tillotson headhouse was slipped in Hinton, Iowa. I can see it from my late parents’ farm south of Merrill, Iowa, where I grew up. I knew several local farmers who worked that slip in ’54.

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The Hinton elevator in July 2015. Photos by Kristen Cart.

Within the last month or so, there was an explosion in that workhouse and it looks like the tank walls were breached, so it will probably have to come down. I spent many days in the 70s and 80s working in that complex and remember the old layout quite well.

In the 70s, as a young man, I became a millwright and worked for an outfit out of Oyens, Iowa, that built jump-form silos. Later I worked for D&B Construction out of Sioux City and helped slip workhouses in Oyens and Maurice, Iowa, and the set of tanks to the south of the Tillotson workhouse in Hinton.

I have probably been in every elevator in northwest Iowa at one point or another, and I worked as a millwright out of the sheet metal local, too. A lot of the guys who worked for Dad Sherrill and D&B Construction got their start at Younglove Construction out of Sioux City, which is still slipping elevators today after over a hundred years.

I am now retired and just this afternoon went to look at a pair of very large tanks that are being jump-formed in Sloan, Iowa, by Hoffman Construction. That outfit goes back a long way slipping and jump-forming elevators.

Way back when I was doing that type of work, old guys would come around every day and gawk at what was going on. Now, I am one of the old guys gawking!

* * *

DSC_0455My days in construction are ones I remember fondly, even though the work was hard and dangerous and the hours were long.

One of the companies I worked for was involved in a three-fatality accident at the Ritter, Iowa, Co-op in 1976. We were building 24-foot and 30-foot jump-form silos all up and down the Floyd Valley. I was working on the 24-foot forms in Sheldon, Iowa, south of Ritter at the time.

The March 17 explosion at Hinton was in the main workhouse, which is the Tillotson structure built in 1954.

Back in the ’70s and ’80s, I was very involved with work on several structures in that complex with two different construction companies. Much has been added since I last worked around there. From pictures in the media, it appears that at least one or more of the tanks in the Tillotson structure have ruptured, as I can see grain spilling out in some photos.

A model Tillotson grain elevator is part of Lauritzen’s Model Railroad Garden

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Photo courtesy of Lauritzen Gardens

We were happily surprised to hear from Rosemary Lebeda, director of development at Omaha’s Lauritzen Gardens, which is located along the Missouri River at 100 Bancroft St. She found her way to Our Grandfathers’ Grain Elevators when searching for information about Tillotson Construction Company’s Vinton Street elevator. She wrote:

“I thought you might like to know that a model of the grain elevators is a part of our Model Railroad Garden. This particular garden includes miniature sculptures of historical buildings in Omaha built from natural materials. They are on display throughout the summer and then they are brought inside and displayed as part of our Poinsettia show.

“Families really enjoy seeing the buildings, and the grain elevators are easy to spot. I drive by them almost every day! It was neat to discover your historical page on the web and learn more about the company that built them.

“The Garden is fairly new in comparison to other community attractions such as the zoo or museums. The visitors center opened in 2001 and before that it was pretty much open space.

“Lauritzen Gardens is uniquely positioned as the region’s premier botanical center and garden resource. Situated on 100 acres of lush grounds, the garden exemplifies visionary efforts to provide a quiet, tranquil and serene setting for the study, preservation, and pure enjoyment of some of the region’s most precious resources and flora. Beginning with a grassroots effort to build a garden for the Omaha community, the garden has quickly become a regional destination and has substantiated its position as a major Omaha-area attraction.

“Today, more than twenty themed gardens invite guests to immerse themselves in the beauty of the Nebraska landscape. At Lauritzen Gardens, a diverse palette of plant life combines with fine art, architectural components and water features to create an incredible sensory experience. The grounds change with the seasons and are open year-round for exploration and enjoyment.

“In addition to horticultural displays that inspire, events that entertain and educational programs that cultivate minds of all ages, the garden works to conserve the endangered plants of the Great Plains and to advance the understanding and stewardship of the region’s biological diversity.”

 

 

 

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.

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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).

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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.

 

Tillotson’s orphan designs of the 1940s gave way to popular elevator plans

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This Mayer-Osborn oddity in Cordell, Okla. was only built once for a customer with specialized needs

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

In the last post, we checked out two of Tillotson Construction Company’s earliest designs and their derivatives. In the 1940s, many elevator plans departed substantially from Tillotson’s first efforts, and they had plan names of their own. Some of those elevators were one-of-a-kind.

I will examine the orphan designs and a few that were used more than once, but failed to catch on, in the next two posts.

Orphan designs were unique storage plans, made to meet unusual customer needs. Non-standard-sized elevators were built to mimic Tillotson’s more basic offerings. Annexes were custom built. If an elevator and annex were built together, certain features were unique.

Here are the orphans of the 1940s.

Peterson Plan:

Peterson 01Peterson, Iowa (1944) was “storage, mainly,” with no driveway, a “x spout to leg,” and 12 1/2-foot-diameter tanks. It had a conveyor belt and a wooden, hand-operated man-lift. Its capacity was only 37,550 bushels. This was one of the smallest elevators Tillotson ever built, though a few were even smaller.

Farnsworth Plan:

Farnsworth, Tex. (1945) was the largest elevator Tillotson built to date, with a 350,000 bushel capacity. It had 19 bins with six 20-foot-diameter tanks, and a tunnel with a conveyor belt. A semi-truck driveway was built with a machine room directly overhead. Projects of this size were uncommon.

Peterson 02Farnsworth, Tex. will require a site visit, because we don’t know if a Tillotson elevator still stands. Three large elevators exist in Farnsworth, but none is typical of Tillotson’s style–two have hexagonal bins (the design made a big media splash in 1949), and the other could be a Tillotson, but looks more like a Chalmers and Borton elevator.

Dalhart Plan:

Dalhart, Tex. (1947) was a bit of an oddball, having an attached driveway rather than a center driveway. It had no basement and no distributor floor, but sported the “standard cupola.” It had four 20-foot-diameter tanks and could hold 150,000 bushels of grain. A 98,000-bushel annex was built alongside it at nearly the same time, which could explain the oddities: direct cross-spouts from the elevator provided gravity flow to the annex pit.

A second elevator was built in Dalhart, Tex., in 1949, which also gave is name to a plan: this “Dalhart Plan” described a large elevator with 310,000-bushel capacity.

Eva Plan:

Eva, Okla. (1947) was a very small elevator with only a 13,500 bushel capacity. The description says “cupola in D.F. [draw-form] wall.” The driveway was attached. It had two 14-foot bins, a “rope drive” and motor room.

Moscow Plan:

Moscow, Kan. (1948) is featured in an earlier post on this blog. It was a smallish elevator of 100,000 bushel capacity, four 14 feet-diameter tanks, and a 13 x 17 foot driveway with six bins directly overhead. It incorporated a dust bin.

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Minneapolis, Kan., mill building, elevator, and annex

Mill Building:

Minneapolis, Kan. (1948) is a site that fooled me on first examination. No manhole covers were evident on any structures except for the mill building. I didn’t expect an elevator with a rectilinear headhouse to be a Tillotson creation, so when we featured the mill building in our post (follow link), I added specifications which describe the elevator beside it! We will publish the mill building specifications in a later post.

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Greenwood, Neb. ca. 1951 with attached Tillotson annex

Hordville Plan:

Hordville, Neb. (1949) was a 70,000 bushel capacity elevator with four twelve-foot-diameter tanks, a driveway, and eight bins directly above the driveway. Its rounded headhouse, by 1949, was already standard on Tillotson elevators.

Hordville’s outward appearance is a miniature version of Tillotson elevators of the same vintage–a style that continued into the early 1950s. Greenwood, Neb. (1951), which was built using the Churdan plan, circa 1949, is a larger-scaled example of the type.

Pierson Plan:

Pierson, Iowa (1949, storage) had a 80,200 bushel capacity, four 15 1/4 foot-diameter tanks, a dump pit, one way scale, a spout floor below the bin roof, and cross spouts. It was designated “storage,” a structure more like an annex than a self-contained elevator.

Clare Plan:

Clare, Iowa (1949) was built to hold 88,800 bushels of grain with four 15 1/4 foot-diameter tanks. It had a spout floor below the bin roof and an attached drive.

The artists of the Tillotson Construction Company–architects and engineers, those creative, ingenious men–were prolific producers during the 1940s when elevator technology bloomed. The flower of their achievements can be seen scattered across the prairies, either finding useful work, or passing into idleness, while curious onlookers snap their pictures and move on.

After the 1940s, almost all of the first Tillotson designs were dropped or modified as technology advanced. Only two designs (Churdan and Jackson) of the late 1940s carried into the 50s, and they were rapidly replaced after that, as will be seen in the next post.