An old letter reveals some details about the Tillotsons’ early days in wooden elevators

Charles H. Tillotson

By Ronald Ahrens

A letter from my grandmother Margaret Irene McDunn Tillotson reveals some details about the early nomadic life of my grandfather Reginald Oscar Tillotson. As we have documented in this blog, Charles H. Tillotson (seen in the photo above), who was Reginald’s father, built wooden elevators.

When Charles H. died in 1938, Reginald and his brother Joe took the helm of the family’s construction company and learned how to build elevators by slip-forming concrete. That positioned Tillotson Construction Company to advance as the new method served to meet demand for greater storage capacity at rural cooperatives.

My grandmother’s missive of Oct. 6, 1978 gives a few details of those early days.

Charles_Tillotson_Obit__The_Nebraska_State_Journal__Lincoln__Nebr___19_June_1938“When they moved from place to place with the construction company they had many funny places for a home. Your grandfather moved ten times one school term. They built cribbed elevators during those days. This was made by placing a two by four on a two by four to build the walls for the outside and to make the bins. The fields of corn and grain were used by the farmers so they had no great need for storage or grain elevators. So many jobs were to add on to bins or repair them. This made small jobs and many changes in places to live.

“One time they lived in a school house. Many times when it was a small job they lived in the elevator office. During the cold weather they got to live in parts of others’ homes and tried not to have to move. Construction those days was almost nil during the cold weather. They wished many times they were farmers when they had big snow storms.

“After his grade school days they settled in Omaha. Reginald worked in stores. His recreation was sports which I mention (tennis, baseball, football).”

Some initials on a bronze plaque in Limon, Colo., help to solve a mystery

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

My father, Jerry Osborn, and I had a rare opportunity this October to take a road trip. Our goals were to see family, check out our hunting camp, and see some of the sights in the west. Dad is in his eighties now, so we don’t put off any chances to do neat stuff. This trip exceeded our expectations. Happily, we also were able to take in some elevators.

Jerry Osborn at Zion National Park, Utah

Our stop at the elevator in Limon, Colo., proved to be a wonderful surprise. There was a truck at the co-op when we arrived, but the office door was locked, so I approached the elevator itself and called out to see if it was deserted. When I turned around, a man was approaching from the office. I went to meet him.

Ed Owens was finishing up paperwork before going home for the night. I asked him about the history of the elevator, and he brought me into the office. Ed said his grandfather, S. L. Sitton, helped build the Limon elevator as well as the earlier, neighboring one in Genoa, Colo. He said his grandfather came into the area in 1939. He went away during the war, then came back and looked for whatever work he could find. Elevator construction provided a part-time laborer job that kept food on the table.

The builder put up the elevator like a layer cake, letting each concrete layer cure for a period before adding another, rather than by the continuous-pour method pioneered by early elevator construction companies. The Limon elevator was built in stages by farmers who built by day and farmed by night. I was impressed by Mr. Sitton’s fortitude, and I would have asked the old gentleman about it, but Ed said he was 97 years old and living in a nursing home in Flagler. He likely wouldn’t remember, and even if he did, he might not appreciate a visit.

The Genoa, Colo., elevator is in a neighboring town.

The best discovery was yet to come. When Ed ushered me into the office, he showed me the bronze plaque which originally adorned the driveway of the Limon elevator. Ed said all of the directors listed on the plaque were dead by now. The elevator was built in 1958, so all the community leaders of the time were long gone. But the key bit of information on the plaque was the name of the builder and designer, M. and A. Enterprises, Inc., of Denver.

I was very excited to see this name. The company was based in Denver, and the designer claimed to be the builder. Based on the design of the elevator, I had a strong suspicion of who that designer might have been. We now had a key piece of information.

Followers of this blog know that we have puzzled over a few mysteries while tracking our grandfathers’ elevators. The most difficult story to reconstruct, thus far, was how the Mayer-Osborn Construction Company met its demise.

The Denver-based enterprise lasted from 1949 until at least 1954, when my grandfather, William Osborn, apparently left the business. In the summer of 1954 he built the Blencoe, Iowa, elevator with the help of my dad, Jerry Osborn; by the summer of 1955, William was home from his Denver office and never worked elevator construction again. Meanwhile, his partner, Eugene Mayer, probably revived the company under various guises, but we know little of what became of him.

With our visit to Limon, Colo., we may have cracked the case.

Usually, the simplest explanation is the true one. The quickest way to explain why a thriving company would go away is to look for a disaster. Family lore says there was one. But I suspect the rumor of a collapsed elevator, lost to a crew that “shorted materials” and made bad concrete, might have been a tall tale that sprung from a much more pedestrian event. No such disasters can be found in 1954 or 1955 newspaper accounts.

The only related problem I could find occurred at the the Mayer-Osborn elevator in Blencoe, Iowa. During construction, when the elevator had reached about twelve feet high, the forms were slipped for the first time. As soon as concrete appeared below the slipped form, it began to slump and crumble. Bad concrete was indeed the culprit, and it necessitated a tear-down. To get back to a twelve foot height, the company had to add a day or two of expensive labor, which directly cut into profit. Could this event explain why William Osborn left the company? It’s the simplest explanation, so perhaps.

Several subsequent elevators bore the Mayer-Osborn manhole covers, but Dad didn’t know about these elevators, and he was certain that by 1955, his dad, William, was home for good.

The Mayer-Osborn elevator at McCook, Nebr. built in 1949

With its signature stepped headhouse, the elevator in Limon bears an uncanny resemblance to the first elevator Mayer-Osborn built in McCook, Neb. In fact, it is the same design, updated somewhat, and dated 1958. So it certainly went up after Grandpa left the business. But what about Eugene Mayer? Dad said that he was the designer, whereas Bill Osborn started as a carpenter and learned his construction skills on the job. Mayer still retained ownership of his elevator designs, which could explain why McCook clones continued to pop up all over the plains in the mid-1950s.

That brings us back to the builder of the Limon elevator, as inscribed on the plaque, “M. and A. Enterprises, Inc.” It seems inescapable that the “M.” was Mr. Eugene Mayer.

The Limon elevator had newer innovations but was built haltingly. Plainly, all was not the same as it had been when Bill Osborn was on the job. Perhaps fewer workers were available. Fewer contracts were awarded as subsidies waned. So the big, ambitious, day-and-night event of an elevator project was toned down somewhat. I expect we will find that Eugene Mayer’s design was eventually sold and others built it, then it passed into history, along with the great concrete elevator boom.

Happily, Limon’s elevator still thrives, and it gives us a peek at the amazing history of elevators on the American plains.

The layout of the elevator is used to record the content of each bin. Flat storage is adjacent to the concrete elevator.

 

 

Uniqeness in an early Cargill elevator in northeastern South Dakota

Early Cargill 02

Brad Perry shares another photo of an early Cargill elevator, this one at Athol, S.D.

Athol and yesterday’s Ashton are twin towns in Spink County, a ways south of Aberdeen. Together they must have about 180 people.

We hope those people appreciate the uniqueness of their elevators.

An early Cargill country elevator complex at Ashton, S.D.

Early Cargill 01

Brad Perry shares another photo of an early Cargill elevator, this one at Ashton, S.D. As the Dakota Territory surrendered its prairie to agriculture in the 1880s, grain traders like Cargill expanded north and west. The initial heavy harvests from the rich earth raised demand for storage.

 

 

The trading partnership of Bagley & Cargill in South Dakota

Bagley

Our friend, Brad Perry, saw the recent posts about Cargill history and was prompted to send some of his photos.

“The Bagley name still shows up in South Dakota along U.S. 12,” Perry notes. This elevator turns up in an online source that says the location is Andover, just east of Aberdeen.

“George C[olt]. Bagley was a member of a grain-trading family in eastern Wisconsin,” Wayne G. Broehl, Jr. writes in his massive history of Cargill. 

In the early 1880s, Wisconsin farmers were moving out of wheat and into livestock, so Bagley betook himself to South Dakota and partnered with Sylvester Cargill, one of the five Cargill brothers.

Broehl continues:

Most of the Bagley & Cargill operations were in that part of the Dakota territory that later became the northeastern section of South Dakota. Similar to Jim Cargill’s larger-capacity operations in the Red River Valley, the Bagley & Cargill’s 13 structures at the firms 10 locations were more substantial (although only one was classified as an elevator.) This elevator, at Aberdeen, had a capacity of 25,000 bushels; the Andover warehouse had the same; the Groton operation had an 18,000-bushel capacity and the Bath warehouse, 15,000.

An extensive biography of Bagley says the company concentrated on towns along the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad.

The partnership lasted “only a short time.” Bagley’s wife, Cornelia, would later recall, “Ves Cargill [Sylvester] was a partner but George could not put up with his suspicion of all deals and bought him out.”

 

One of Cargill’s early concrete elevators found in southern Minnestota

Elmore

Our friend, Brad Perry, saw the recent posts about Cargill history and was prompted to send some of his photos.

Here he shows us one of Cargill’s early concrete elevators. It’s located in Elmore, Minn., a tiny town in Faribault County, in the south-central part of the state right on the Iowa line.

As railroads pushed west in the 1870s, Will Cargill expanded his grain storage along the lines through northern Iowa and southern Minnesota.

And as the era of reinforced-concrete elevators unfolded, Cargill’s successors continued building.

We don’t know a thing about this elevator’s dimensions or who might have built it, but how impressive is the wooden elevator on the right? It stands almost shoulder to shoulder with the more modern concrete one. 

The story behind the WSJ’s story of a cast-off elevator in Burlington, Colo.

Burlington 01

By Ronald Ahrens

From reading Wayne G. Broehl, Jr.’s huge history of Cargill, I’ve become alert to other news about the grain-trading behemoth. So a Wall Street Journal article, titled “Growers’ New Clout Tilts Farm Economy,” caught my eye on Aug. 16 

“Powerful farmers push Cargill, ADM for better prices, and may soon compete,” the sub-headline reads.

According to Jacob Bunge’s story, several factors have risen in importance to give large farmers more leverage.

One is that farmers have more storage capacity for their grain. They don’t have to sell soon after harvest, going to the local elevator and accepting the current price.

A second factor is more options for direct sale of crops to stock feeders or ethanol plants.

And like everything else, there’s a digital aspect. “Venture capital-backed startups are developing services that scan a wider range of grain buyers or connect farmers directly with food makers,” Bunge reports.

Burlington 02

Bunge’s story in the Journal tells of a Cargill grain buyer who “said his job got harder still after Cargill in 2016 sold the Burlington, Colo., grain elevator–and later, nearby cattle feedlots that were reliable destinations for the grain grown by many of [the buyer’s] contacts.”

Here we skidded to a stop. Burlington, Colo., is in the records of Tillotson Construction Co. My uncle, Charles J. Tillotson, worked on Burlington and recalls a 1950 incident there involving a train and cement mixer. The locomotive derailed, but no one was injured.

The 300,000-bushel Burlington elevator had eight tanks of 20 feet in diameter and 115 feet in height. It was a twin-leg elevator with a pit 19 feet deep. The cupola measured 23 feet wide, 63.75 feet long, and 44 feet high. Pulley centers were 168 feet apart.

Could this be the same elevator Cargill sold two years ago? The big company has “divested itself of some far-flung grain elevators that aren’t near a railroad or river.”

And Bunge recounts another marvel: the anecdote concerns an Illinois farmer–one who tills 9,000 acres and rents out 5,000 more–who partnered with another farmer to buy a 750,000-bushel Cargill elevator. 

If they don’t find it too expensive to operate and insure, dispatching large quantities of grain when and where they want will be a challenge for Cargill and ADM to face.