Peering into ancient grain storage practices from Tell Edfu to Ribchester

By Kristen Cart

As long as agriculture has existed, food storage has been essential to human survival. Grains could be stored without substantial spoilage more easily than other foods, so societies engineered grain storage very early, which enabled people to congregate in cities. In the book of Genesis in the Bible, the story of Joseph relates how he helped Egypt store grain against periods of famine. It was a successful strategy.

Genesis 41:48-49:

48 During those seven years, Joseph collected all the excess food in the land of Egypt and stored it in the cities. In every city he laid up the food from the fields around it. 49 So Joseph stored up grain in such abundance, like the sand of the sea, that he stopped keeping track of it; for it was beyond measure.

The practice of grain storage that was credited to Joseph in the Bible was indeed part of the long-standing economic system in Egypt.

Surviving ancient Egyptian city sites, while fairly rare, have drawn renewed interest as archaeologists explore how urban societies developed. A prominent feature of Tell Edfu, an Egyptian city studied by the University of Chicago, is a courtyard containing seven circular mud-brick silos, built together to store surplus grain. Each silo measures 5.5-6.5 meters across. The 3500 year-old site was built beside an administrative center, a feature that points to a period of prosperity measured in grain, which was the currency of the time.

Archaeologists find silos and administration center from early Egyptian city

Another example of early grain storage was discovered in Lancashire, England, in Ribchester. This location was an early Roman outpost where a garrison was stationed. Stored grain was needed to provide for the soldiers and their livestock. When the Roman soldiers abandoned the fort, evidence shows that the remaining stores were burned and the storage site destroyed.

Ribchester Roman Granaries

Every grain operation has to contend with temperature, humidity, and spoilage when storing grain. The Romans found ingenious solutions to the same problems we encounter. Their granaries had thick walls with column-supported floors, leaving void areas underneath, and drainage gutters to keep rain diverted away. These measures kept the grain cool and dry. Building the granaries above ground level also helped keep rats and mice out.

All that remains at the Ribchester site are the thick wall bases, outlining the footprint of two rectangular bins, and the support columns that held the old flagstone floors above the ground. Signs of burned grain and broken flagstones tell the story of the abandonment of the outpost.

I was curious whether ancient Greece used similar storage. Accounts I read pointed out that they used amphorae, or large pottery jars, to transport commodities including grain. They imported their grain supply across the Mediterranean Sea using these vessels, while prohibiting grain exports, to ensure their food security. Amphorae were convenient because they could be stored, but they were also portable. They were an ideal solution for foodstuffs moving through a major trading center. I wonder if consumption kept up with supply to the point that large-scale permanent storage was not needed. It is a good topic for further exploration.

Grain is such an ordinary part of life for us that it goes mostly ignored, though the history of grain is compelling. I am forever curious. Perhaps more of this remarkable history will be uncovered. I will share whatever I find.

1959 news photo shows rounded headhouse of Tillotson's Bellwood, Neb., elevator

Lincoln Journal Star, Saturday, March 28, 1959

BELLWOOD BLAST–A basement explosion in the Bellwood grain elevator knocked out windows and a door at the top of the tubes. One spokesman speculated it might have been a dust blast, sparked by a hot motor. Two men were injured.

Editors’ note: Thank you to Susan Allen for providing the clipping.

The headhouse is long gone, but the Frontier Cooperative elevator at Bellwood, Neb., may be Tillotson’s largest build

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By Ronald Ahrens

We arrived on a quiet Saturday afternoon at the Frontier Cooperative elevator in Bellwood, Neb., knowing a 1981 explosion had taken off the headhouse. By the account of Uncle Tim Tillotson, we were also alerted to the possibility of another explosion there in the late-1950s.

Nebraska 2020Nevertheless, we expected to see an elevator with a replacement structure at its crown.

We found an impressive complex: mighty, smart-looking, and meticulously maintained. Yet it operates with external legs to serve the huge complex–no headhouse whatsoever. The leg over the main house is mantis-like and a little spooky. 

Of course, there was no hint whether the original headhouse was a squared-off rectangle or a curved volume in keeping with the characteristic Tillotson style that was developing after World War Two.

Tillotson Construction Co. built the main house, a 320,000-bushel elevator, in 1950 and followed up with a 340,000-bushel annex in 1954. The main house followed an original plan with eight tanks (silos) of 20 feet in diameter and reaching 120 feet high.

There was the typical central driveway, 13 x 17 feet, for unloading trucks.

Other notes in the company record say “5 bin dist. under scale” and “Prov. for hopper scale.” There were 22 bins and a dust bin.

The 1954 annex, also on an original plan, featured 10 tanks of 20 feet in diameter and reaching 130 feet high. It had a basement, 30-inch belt conveyors, and a tripper.

We also found the Tillotson name embossed on the manhole covers of the second annex, which appears to match the first annex in size and capacity. But company records make no mention of this second annex.

Nevertheless, it appears possible to credit Tillotson with an even 1 million bushels of capacity.

A close look at surfaces on the main house shows patchwork that must represent filled holes from the big blowout.

While preparing this post, I phoned Frontier Cooperative branch manager Justin Riha, who knew of this 1981 explosion.

The elevator works fine with the external legs. “I think it’s better,” Riha said. 

Overall capacity at the location is 2.4-million bushels, a tidy amount at such a small town.

An old-time mill in Billings, Mont. sports a wooden scale

A wooden scale lies beside the old brick scale house.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

This old mill in Billings, Montana was too good to pass up. A trip around all sides revealed its current occupation as a tire company or body shop–old cars and an old wood elevator inhabit the yard beside it, but a large quantity of tires are piled adjacent to the road on the other side. But the area pictured above shows that it once handled grain.

The door to the scale house admits no one.

I have never seen a wooden scale before. The scale house next to it is shut up tight with iron bars–it could have been a jail, perhaps, in a later life. The mill itself shows signs of repeated brick repair. The story of these buildings invites a more thorough investigation.

The mill is in a historic part of Billings and sits across the street from the railroad lined with coal cars. If you could imagine it opening up to a brick-paved street illuminated with gas lights, this structure would fit right in. But it is a bit odd in its present setting.

The modern look undoubtedly bears no resemblance to the original view.

The mill appears to be well maintained and will, with care and good luck, grace this historic street for another hundred years.

Cars in the adjacent yard await restoration.

 

An unused elevator completes the scene.

A 1981 explosion at Bellwood, Neb., blew the headhouse of a Tillotson elevator to pieces

profileIn a previous post, Uncle Tim Tillotson recalled an elevator repair job at Bellwood, Neb., after an explosion in 1959, where Tillotson Construction Co. built a 320,000-bushel elevator on an original plan in 1950. 

Nebraska 2020Company records also note construction of a 340,000-bushel annex in 1954. And we discovered the Tillotson name on the manhole covers of a second, equal-sized annex our visit on January 4, 2020.

Meanwhile, as the following story details, we have found evidence of a subsequent mishap at Bellwood.

United Press International, Wednesday, April 8, 1981

BELLWOOD, Neb.–One man was killed and two others were critically injured in an explosion at a grain elevator that hurled debris over a wide area.

Rescue workers retrieved the body of Gary Roh, 20, from a 10-foot pit about five hours after the explosion at the Bellwood Farmer Co-op Tuesday afternoon.

Hospital authorities said Larry Navrkal, 28, an elevator employee, and Joe Stastny, 58, an area farmer, were in critical condition at St. Elizabeth’s Community Health Center.

Witnesses to the blast said it apparently was triggered somewhere in the south end near the unloading truck. The explosion shook the entire elevator, ripped out one wall and threw the headhouse, a structure on top of the elevator, completely off.

Roh, an elevator employee, was helping unload a farmer’s truck near the site where the explosion was apparently triggered.

The David City Banner-Press reported Stastny was inside the cab of a truck being unloaded inside the south end of the elevator when the explosion occurred. Rescue workers used the “jaws of life” to remove him from the truck which remained buried inside the elevator.

Roh’s body was discovered near Stastny’s truck just as authorities were ready to halt the search. The elevator remained standing but was riddled with holes. Authorities considered calling in a building inspector to determine the stability of the structure.

Bellwood and David City fire officials said there was not much of a fire after the explosion, which also damaged nearby houses and businesses. Rubble was spread for blocks and vehicles in the area were damaged by flying objects.

Workers from the state Fire Marshal’s office and the Nebraska State Patrol supervised the area Tuesday night. They said they didn’t know the cause of the blast, and there was no damage estimate available.

Uncle Chuck affixes a generator to his memory, and Van Ness Construction comes alive

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Great-grandma Margaret’s general store, Shields, Kan., 1910. Margaret A. Tillotson was Grandpa Charles’s mother. I don’t know why Mother (Margaret Irene) thought it was my Great Aunt Mary’s store. Maggie was a nickname for Margaret, and my Dad would call Mom “Maggie” every once in a while to tease her because he knew she didn’t like it.

By Charles J. Tillotson

I forgot to add in my comments [on company origins] what little I know about Grandpa Charles’s experience with Van Ness Construction.
I’m really stretching the memory, and I have to start with Grandpa Charles’s father:
Charles H. Tillotson was the son of John Wheeler and Margaret A. (Jackson) Tillotson.
John and Margaret to my knowledge had at least six children: Raymond, Charles (grandpa), Bertha, Mary Alice (known as Lovie), Walter, and May.
  1. Raymond took over the homestead.
  2. Charles worked as a carpenter.
  3. Bertha married a telegraph operator.
  4. Mary Alice (Lovie) married Ralston Van Ness, elevator builder.
  5. Walter worked as a landscaper.
  6. May married Zomer Dryden and lived on a farm in Ohio.
My mother used to call Mary Alice, Aunt Lovie, so that is how I remember her. Aunt Lovie married Ralston Van Ness (he was 26 years old) in 1902 in Shields, Kan., where he operated his wooden grain elevator construction business. However, within a year’s time, they had relocated to Omaha where their daughter Mary was born. The couple also had twin daughters who died at birth in 1906 and a son, Ralston, who also died at birth in 1908.
By 1930, Ralston and Mary had built up quite a reputation for the construction of wooden grain elevators, and it was about then that Grandpa Charles went to work for them. I know for sure that Dad also went to work for Ralston as a laborer. (I don’t know about Uncle Joe). I have no exact date for when Ralston passed away, but I think it was around 1935 when I was born. Around 1935 Ralston died and left Aunt Lovie with the business.
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Very interesting that, on my birth certificate from 1935, Dad is listed as a laborer employed by Van Ness Construction, and he had been employed in this work for a period of three years. Dad was listed as 26 years of age and Mom at 31. Place of residence for them (and me) is listed as 624 N. 41 St., Omaha, Neb. That is where Grandpa Charles and Grandma Rose lived and where Dad and Mom bunked up when they were not on a construction job using Dad’s trailer as home.
From what I can determine, Aunt Lovie wanted to continue in the building business, but she wanted to build homes for the growing Omaha community. So Grandpa and Dad gradually finished up the Van Ness contracts and in 1938 decided to form their own company.
Aunt Lovie eventually moved out to California where she built homes in Mill Valley and San Rafael. Although Mom and Dad fell out of contact with her, after my discharge from the Army, in 1957, I  managed to track her down and had a nice visit over the phone. She was in her early 70s by then and wanted to retire. Her daughter, Mary, stayed in Omaha, married Guy Stribling, and they had three children, the youngest was born in 1940. I don’t know if the offspring are still living.
Van Ness Construction Co. built wood grain elevators. Their field of influence was centered in Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, and a portion of Texas.

Formation of Tillotson Construction Co. pinned down thanks to news clipping

By Ronald Ahrens

We knew Tillotson Construction Co. was formed in 1938 after the death of my great-grandfather, Charles F. Tillotson. Family records show that he died in June of 1938 in New CorpsConcordia, Kan.

Sons Joseph H. Tillotson and Reginald O. Tillotson decided the future lay in reinforced-concrete elevators.

While they may have continued construction and repair of wooden elevators, the company’s construction record shows the first concrete elevator went up at Goltry, Okla., in 1939.

A notice of “New Corporations” in the Sep. 9, 1938 edition of the Lincoln Journal Star announces:

“Tillotson Construction company (sic), Omaha. The construction, erection, repair, reconstruction and rebuilding of grain elevators, storage warehouses and buildings of similar nature and description, $5,000. Joseph H. Tillotson, Reginald O. Tillotson, Rose A. Tillotson.”

Born in the late 1880s as Rose Brennan, Rose A. Tillotson, was the surviving widow of Charles and mother of Reginald and Joe. She died in the 1950s. 

These details help us to construct a timetable while also showing the Tillotson brothers took bold steps to embrace new techniques and processes, moving the family enterprise forward.

Thank you to blog follower Suzassippi for passing along this clipping.