Ronald Ahrens and Kristen Cart spoke to Marvin Keele, of Blencoe, Iowa, on April 20, 2021. Marvin is 88 years old. In 1954 (above) he spent a few weeks working on construction of the Mayer-Osborn elevator in Blencoe. The interview starts with Ronald’s explanation about use of the voice recorder and typing a rough transcript during the phone call.
Marvin: Well, I hope I can answer your questions. (Hearty laugh.)
Ronald: How did you get the job working on elevator construction in Blencoe? What was the connection? How old were you? What did you do?
Marvin: I’d just turned 21 the fall before. I worked for the school with the buses, but they didn’t hire me during the summertime. I had to have a summer job. Word got out in town that they were hiring, and I and a guy from a nearby town were the first two hired. His name was Dale Vrainburg (sp?). He passed away at 100 here just a year or two ago.
Ronald: So you had been colleagues since 1954. Have you been in Blencoe all this time?
Marvin: Yep. I was born outside town here, and I’ve lived here all my life.
Ronald: You heard through the grapevine that they were hiring. What did they call your job?
Marvin: Well, they hired us as carpenters to build the forms. When we went to work the wage was 75 cents an hour. But for every week you stayed with them you got a dime raise up to $1.25. That was top wage. It was awful good money because they paid time-and-a-half over 40 hours. We worked 10 hours a day, seven days a week. So we had three days that we got time and a half. In ‘54, that was awful good money. I worked there from first part of June to a little bit into August, and I had to go back to work at the school. But we saved enough money that we could buy some furniture and go with my brother-in-law to Oregon on a trip.
Ronald: You and your wife?
Marvin: Yeah, Mary. We’re the M&M kids. We were married in Nov. ‘53. So we got married in November the year before, and I went to work at the elevator in the summertime.
Ronald: Was your young bride concerned about your safety?
Marvin: No, huh-uh. Nothing to be concerned about over there. The first thing they did was build a big deck so they could draw out the shape of the bins. We made a big deck. The engineer chart drew out the shape of all the bins. When they got to building the forms, we just followed the shape on the deck.
Ronald: Was this all an adventure for you?
Marvin: It was something I’d never done, being as young as I was. I just got out of the Air Force the year before, then went to work at the school. After they hired Dale and I, people would come to apply for a job and when they’d take their name down and say, “Well, we’ll let you know,” then they’d call Dale and I into the shack there, the timekeeper’s shack, and they’d say, “You know these guys? Would they be good workers? So Dale and I, we kind of could steer some of our friends into jobs that the other people didn’t have a chance to get.
Kristen: My name’s Kristen Cart–Kristen Osborn by birth. The Mayer-Osborn Company, that was my grandfather. I know my dad was on that job that summer. Jerry Osborn was there just for the summer. He was at pouring stage, putting in rebar.
Marvin: I just mailed copies of some pictures I had. It’s showing all the rebar they put into the base of it, into the footings. I sent four pictures, and it shows all the rebar that went into the base. And in the center of one picture, you can see the dump bit, or the boot pit–we called it the boot pit–that was put in where they dumped the grain.
Kristen: Do you remember the name of the superintendent on that job?
Marvin: Ernie Mendoza was the foreman. That’s who we worked with.
Kristen: Do you remember somebody named Dick Osborn on the job?
Marvin: No, not really. I know there was an Osborn that was in the time shack and was the boss.
Kristen: OK, that would have been him.
Marvin: I’ll tell you something interesting about that. We had three guys that came to work, and they’d been working in another town for a local contractor. They were getting 75 cents and hour, no raises, no time-and-a-half. They came and got a job, and by the third day they was there, they got talking among themselves that Dale and I and a few others were getting more money per hour than they were. So they went over to time shack, and they went in and said, “Those guys, we’re doing the same job those guys are, and they’re getting more money. I imagine Dick Osborn, I think, was running it and I don’t know, whoever the Osborn was that was running the time shack said, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” He pulled their time cards, wrote them out a check and said, “It’s been nice knowing you.” They came back about two weeks and said, “Can we come back to work?” He said, “Yeah, if you start out at 75 cents an hour and work your way up, you can come back to work.” And another thought that came to my mind today, they hired quite a few high school seniors, kids who were going to be seniors in high school in the fall. One was my cousin, Eric Keele. He was going to be a senior in high school that fall. He showed up for work, I think it was the second day, third day. I went by and he was.digging a hole. I said, “What are you doing?” He said, “I’m digging a hole for the outhouse.” That was in the days before Port-a-Potties.
Ronald: We don’t have any photos of those outhouses. That would be a new department for us.
Marvin: There wasn’t a city water system at that time. One of the pictures I sent you, I wrote on the back that there was somebody, I couldn’t tell who it was, you see back, and he was at the water pump evidently cleaning up or cooling off. They just put a point down, and had a water system that we drank out of and things.
Ronald: Did you ever work the night shift? They went 24 hours a day.
Marvin: I quit before they started up. I worked nights when we were pumping water. See, we live out here on the Missouri River bottom, and the water level is most times about 10 to 15 foot. When they got ready to put the boot pit, or dump pit, down I think around 80 two-inch points all around the perimeter, and they had two big Hercules engines–I think they were propane powered–and they pumped water 24 hours a day out into the ditch. They never shut ‘em down. They had somebody watch the pumps all the time–they had a sight gauge on the side with oil in it. That’s how they checked the oil level in the pumps. They never shut down.
Ronald: We wanted to ask you, there were some problems with this job. You wrote a little bit about that when you commented on a post. Could you go into any more detail about what happened? They had to tear part of the elevator back down, right?
Marvin: I quit and went on the trip. What they told in town, whether it was right or not, they had some of the forms were upside down. The forms had to be a little bit wider at bottom than they did the top so they’d slide. That’s what they told in town. They got up about 14 feet or something like that. When we got back from our trip they were tearing it down, but I didn’t go back to work because I had to go to work at the school. As I said, they put down all of those two-inch points to pump water. Then they built a coffer dam that was bigger than the dump pit. They built it out and dug down and stuck it in the ground. It was about eight-, 10-foot tall. Then they built another section on top of that, and they stuck it clear down in the ground and kept pumping the water out around the perimeter. Then we went down in there and built the forms for the dump pit.
Kristen: Dad said that the concrete was slumping underneath the form, so they tore it down and started over.
Marvin: Yeah, they tore it down and started over. They had quite a few high school kids working on that. They had one kid, they got going, they were up about 15, 18 foot. Ernie Mendoza did not know kids, when he wasn’t around, they were jumping off of the deck down into cars of sand, they had the railroad cars, and these kids were jumping down into the cars of sand. One night, he told this one kid to do something, and the kid just pretended to be mad. He said, “Well, I’m tired of you telling me what to do, I’m just going to jump off of here. He went over and jumped off into that car of sand. I guess Mendoza looked down and he said, “Don’t you come back up on this deck tonight.”
Ronald: That’s funny. We were wondering if there were any accidents.
Marvin: Not that I know of. I never heard of any.
Ronald: Is the elevator still standing in Blencoe? Is it in use today?
Marvin: Oh, yeah. It’s there.
Ronald: Does the co-op still use it?
Marvin: A big co-op from Fort Dodge, Iowa, had bought it. They put up, the one that we worked on, a few years later, they put up some bins beside it to expand it. And then they put up another one. A few years later they put up another one. Now this New Co-op–the name is New Coop[erative]–that took over here a couple years ago, they put up a $750,000 bin, they put up a new dryer, and they put up a big fertilizer plant for dry fertilizer. Now this year they have built a barge unloading and loading on the river, and reportedly they spent $7 million building that. We were just out there over the weekend and they got their first load of dry fertilizer on three barges. They emptied them out, and they’re going to ship three barges of soybeans back down the river.
Ronald: Can you remember the buzz when the elevator was built. It was such a tall building that comes out of nowhere–kind of a big event for the town. Do you recall any commentary about that?
Marvin: No, not really. We had some people pass through town the other day, and he hadn’t been here–he was raised here as a kid and left as a kid, and he said, “I never remember seeing that elevator from the schoolhouse.” I said, “Well, the reason you never saw it is because it wasn’t there when you were a kid in school.”
Ronald: That was an older gentleman then, I guess. Anything else you want to tell us about your adventurous summer of ‘54.
Marvin: Well, it was probably the hottest summer we’d had in years. It was really hot. In fact, I sent you a picture that I’m in, and I noted on the back, “Notice how tan I was.” We really got suntanned over there. In those days you never had sunscreen or thought about skin cancer or nothing.
Kristen: That elevator that they put in later also had a problem. They had a blowout under one of the doors during construction. Do you remember that?
Marvin: No, I don’t remember that. But they were building an elevator, the same company was building one at Odebolt that summer. They had problems at Odebolt. When they put the dump pit in, they run into a lot of big rock I guess. That’s the story we heard. They ran into some huge rocks they didn’t know about.
Kristen: That’s when they were building the dump pit?
Marvin: Yeah, they run into rock. Now this elevator over here, it sets on sand. There was no pilings put down. They said that sand was so solid that they just dug down about seven, eight feet, and then they put the base of it on that. There was no piling used in the construction of it. This blow sand–they call it blow sand–it’s wet and packed. When they put that elevator up they said, “That’s the best base there is.” That’s what they told us anyway.
Kristen: That coffer dam that was built–was that left on-site and then filled in?
Marvin: They just built the boot pit inside of it and covered it up. After they got the boot pit made, then they filled the boot pit with water to let it cure. We went out and walked on catwalks out over the water to work on different things. Like I say, it was primitive according to today’s construction because the jacks they used to move it up, they were all screw jacks, they weren’t hydraulic or anything. They had a water line that run around the perimeter to level it. And they had guys, that’s all they did, was go around and make sure the water level, they were level.
Kristen: That’s interesting. I wondered how they did that.
Marvin: There was a plastic pipe that went all the way around to each screw jack.
Kristen: They said they filled the concrete into the forms with regular wheelbarrows.
Marvin: Up on the deck they had wheelbarrows that they moved the concrete around the deck. In these pictures, you can see how much rebar in in the base of that thing. There’s just tons of rebar in it.
Kristen: That’s why it’s still there.
Marvin: There were two levels of rebar, a bottom level and they put up on blocks, I remember maybe eight, or 10, 12 inches off the base, and they laid a mat down, a rebar mat, and then they built another one above that, about three foot above it. So there was two mats of rebar put in there, and it’s all fastened together and welded together. You can see in those pictures, there was an electric welder setting out in the middle there, that they welded a lof that rebar together with.
Ronald: Did they bring in a specialist to do that welding, or was it just the local guys and they got some training?
Marvin: I don’ know, I don’t remember, because I say, Dale and I were hired to be carpenters and that’s all we did was build things, build forms and things. Then after that, then they put you to work doing other things. When the forms got done, I was done, I quit. I went on a trip, and then I had to go back to school to my job there.
Ronald: You did what for the school district?
Marvin: It wasn’t that big a district, and later on our district consolidated with another district. I had a lot more buses. I worked for the school 36 years.
Kristen: What did you do in the Air Force?
Marvin: I was in motor pool. I was in the Air Guard in Sioux City. In fact, today is our 70th anniversary of reporting to Dow Air Force Base in Bangor, Maine, the 20th of April. They called us to active duty. I always laugh that I was one of the few people that served on active duty and never went on active duty and never went to Lackland Air Force Base for basic training. I joined the Guard, and they activated us. And they said when we get to Maine, we’ll send to Lackland for basic training. We got up there, and they said, “We’d be short-handed if we sent you down there. We’re going to give you a week of basic training here. They marched us around the block, took us out to the rifle range, and said, “You’re in!”
DALLAS CENTER, IA–Charles Hauber, 21, timekeeper on a grain elevator construction project here, is living proof that “a weak chin” is not visual evidence of a lack of determination.
Seven years ago Hauber’s lower jaw suffered a major injury in an auto accident. A nerve was severed and, as a result, the natural growth and development of his chin was retarded.
Two years ago, Hauger spent a month at University Hospitals in Iowa City, where physicians and surgeons estimated his possibilities fro reconstruction of his lower jaw and chin.
By using bone from his hip, surgeons are hopeful that they can build a normal mandible for Hauber. Through use of cartilage, the youth’s chin would be rebuilt to normal appearance.
Long self-conscious about his receding chin, Hauber developed a plan for accomplishment of normal features. He left Loras College in Dubuque, where he had been enrolled two years studying for Catholic priesthood, to build a bank account for the surgery.
Surgeons have assured Hauber that a series of operations would be necessary. The surgery will be expensive. When Charles has saved $1,000, he’ll submit himslef for the initial work. The accumulation of savings is slow–but Hauber already has more than $400 in the bank.
Hauber is a most unusual construction timekeeper. He has had three years of Greek and four years of Latin. He has had three years of German and a year of French. He even has had six months of Spanish.
Besides his interest in languages, Hauber is an enthusiastic amateur short story writer. He has written several stories–without ever submitting any to editors for professional judgment. And, as a student of people and human nature, he’s constantly alert for character studies and incidents he can incorporate in fiction writing.
Worked on Elevators
Eldest of six children of Mr. and Mrs. Carl Hauber of Emmetsburg, Charles–known to co-workers as “Chuck”–for two years attended a Catholic seminary at East Troy, Wis., a school conducted by the Society of Divine Word. He also had a year at Epworth College, near Dubuque.
When Hauber first was employed by the Tillotson Construction Co. of Omaha, he worked on an elevator project at Bancroft. Then the crew shifted to the Farmer’s Elevator Co. at Ralston. After a “repair job” at Aurora, Neb., he was assigned to the elevator construction project at Boxholm.
Here the Tillotson company is building the $151,000 addition on the Farmer’s Co-Operative Co. elevator.
Hauber likes his work–but his dreams go beyond a career in construction business. Whether he’ll return to studies for the priesthood, he hasn’t determined. His interest in languages–which he continues to study after working hours–has kindled thoughts of becoming an interpreter. Possibilities as a writer are not overlooked.
Whatever he heads for, be assured Hauber will give it the old college try–and he hopes to have “a determined chin” to show with it.
From the Des Moines Tribune, Friday, Dec. 16, 1955:
Worked On Elevators
Eldest of six children of Mr. and Mrs. Carl Hauber of Emmetsburg, Charles–known to co-workers as “Chuck”–for two years attended a Catholic seminary at East Troy, Wes., a school conducted by the Society of the Divine Word.
He also had a year at Epworth College, near Dubuque.
When Hauber first was employed by the Tillotson Construction Co. of Omaha, he worked on an elevator project at Bancroft. Then the crew shifted to the Farmer’s Elevator Co. at …
Although it’s understandable why, we fail to appreciate how big and well-developed the grain business already was by the the years after 1895, when electric motors were adopted to power internal mechanisms and reinforced-concrete was first used for elevator construction.
This much we take away from Section One of Cargill: Trading the World’s Grain. Will Cargill, the “Frontier Entrepreneur” of the section’s title, boldly expanded his operation as the railroads pushed northwest and Minneapolis became a center of trade.
In an 1889 statement of holdings, Cargill said he had “54 Elevators & Warehouses in Minn & Dakota)” worth $147,597.16 and “16 Elevators and Warehouses in Wisc, G Bay RR” worth another $18,479.29.
We tend to think of wooden elevators as modest structures, but in the 1870s the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad had two massive terminals in New York City holding 3.5 million bushels of grain for export. Cargill shipped over the Great Lakes to Buffalo and then by rail to the terminals.
Buffalo also had millions of bushels of capacity in its multitude of elevators.
As early as 1873, a year of economic panic and the start of a profound international depression (not to mention a Midwestern grasshopper plague), Will Cargill was building elevators and warehouses along the railroad tracks. He shelled out more than $12,000 for “a large elevator” in Cresco, Iowa.
Three years later Cargill had settled in La Crosse, Wisc. When he and his wife, Ella, went on a pleasure trip to Chicago, a La Crosse newspaper said, “They have been making so much money on wheat they they’ll buy Chicago if they feel like it.”
And in 1879, Cargill’s office became part of a telephone network in La Crosse. Author Wayne G. Broehl, Jr. points out it was only three years after Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone.
At the same time Cargill expanded along the Green Bay and Minnesota line with nine warehouses. As a lake port, Green Bay became an important focal point, and here Cargill and his partner bought a 30,000-bushel warehouse and leased a 250,000-bushel terminal. The latter, which stood 100 feet high, had been built in 1862 for $80,000.
Decades later, Tillotson Construction Co., of Omaha, showed the value inherent in a fire-proof elevator built of reinforced concrete. In 1946, for example, Tillotson put up a 250,000-bushel concrete elevator at Dike, Iowa, for $87,250.
In the early 1880s, a new type of wooden elevator, the cribbed elevator, became common. As Milo S. Ketchum wrote in The Design of Walls, Bins, and Grain Elevators, published in 1907, “In this construction, 2″ x 4″, 2″ x 6″, or 2″ by 8″ are laid flatwise, so as to break joints and bind the structure together and are spiked firmly.”
Some called the method a “log cabin” approach. It resisted the insistent, fluid-like pressure on the sides and made for stout construction.”
In the 1880s, with another partner, George Bagley, Cargill pushed into the Dakota Territory with a small elevator at Aberdeen and several warehouses. By 1886, Bagley & Cargill also had a 250,000-bushel terminal in Minneapolis.
Combining all Cargill-controlled storage facilities, there was 1.6 million bushels of capacity–ready for the bounty of wheat that poured in as farming began in the Red River Valley.
So windy it was in Thornton, Iowa, Rose Ann Fennessy was sidestruck by the blast.
“I could barely hold the phone still,” she reported.
Rose Ann had asked about any Tillotson elevators on the route from Omaha to Minneapolis, where the Twins opening day awaited. Maybe Ames, Iowa, for example?
A quick check of records found Thornton (it’s by Swaledale) along I-35. Rose Ann decided to stop there on the way back.
The Thornton elevator offered capacity of 252,000 bushels. The main slab is 62 ft x 74.5 ft, making it 4,360 sq ft in area and 21 inches thick. Altogether, 2,111 cubic yards of concrete were used.
Gross weight loaded was rated at 12,956 tons. This was a big elevator for the period.
Today the elevator, located at 105 S. 1st St., is operated by North Iowa Cooperative.
Tall, too. The draw-form walls of the silos are 120 feet high. The house is capped by a cupola, as the Tillotsons always said, while others say headhouse. This feature is 23 x 58 x 40.5 ft. It makes the whole structure 178 ft tall.
The manhole cover is embossed with Tillotson Construction Co.’s name.
“Very bitter cold winds and lowering gray clouds,” Rose Ann said when heading back from Minneapolis. Nevertheless, from the stop at Thornton, as promised, she delivered a fine portfolio of views.
The Tillotson elevator appears to have withstood a nasty case of measles. Otherwise, what a fine bright-faced elevator.
“I’m sorry they are not better,” Rose Ann said, sounding like she’s trapped in a Jane Austen novel. “It was so so windy that I quite truly was almost blown off my feet.”
A little spring gale between Omaha and Minneapolis.
“Home,” she next said. “Snow! 2 inches on the ground here! My poor crocuses are buried!”
The trademark rounded headhouse identifies the Tillotson elevator, shown here behind the office and truck scale.
Story and photos by Kristen Cart
It is getting harder to visit our grandfathers’ elevators. All of the elevators within a half hour either side of the I-80 corridor have already been exhausted, so a stop for photography requires real planning and extra gas, time, and effort, even when piggybacked on our normal family visit to Nebraska.
The trip to Alta, Iowa, required just such an extra investment in driving time. The town and its Tillotson elevator is just north-west of Storm Lake in the northwestern corner of the state, and is not, quite frankly, on the way to anywhere.
The Tillotson elevator in Alta, Iowa, where the old structure is mostly obscured by later bins.
I wonder how our kids put up with it. This trip in particular required over an hour’s northward jaunt before angling generally east-northeast, with a 30-minute divot or two along the Nebraska-to-Illinois route. Each detour took in wayward sites, including Alta.
A look up the rail line opposite the Tillotson elevator revealed the historical trappings of town, with a backdrop of new grain bins.
It is normally a 10-hour drive to get home from visiting their grandparents, but this elevator excursion would tax my children’s patience for several more hours. To be fair, we got an extra early start. But that meant the serious backseat fidgeting would start sooner.
You would think that I would study Tillotson records first, and inject some discipline and efficiency into planning our route.
But no, that task was left for after the trip, so I could see how closely we approached several sites without seeing them.
I don’t think the kids minded the near misses–but they’ll get to see the countryside again when we go through to mop up the strays.
After our recent post on Tillotson Construction Company’s elevator at Hinton, Iowa, reader Brad Perry sent in one of his own photos of the location, which you see above. We believe the concrete elevator was built in 1954.
Brad also alerted us to some news.
On July 1, the Farmers Cooperative Company, of Hinton, merged its operation that includes the Tillotson elevator with Central Valley Ag, which he calls “a very large” co-op from York, Neb.
Indeed, chief executive Carl Dickinson welcomed FCC in a statement on CVA’s website.
Photo by Kristen Cart
“As we get to know FCC better, my excitement builds around what we can accomplish together,” Dickinson said. “I would like to thank all of the FCC member-owners for their votes (sic) we are thrilled that you have chosen Central Valley Ag for your future.”
Adding Hinton gives CVA some unique advantages. As Brad Perry explains: “Hinton can load 110-car shuttles on three different railroads—UP, CN, and BNSF. It may be the most strategic grain location in the Midwest.”
In response to a recent post about Odebolt, Iowa, we heard from Larry Larsen, who works for Gold Eagle Cooperative’s facility in Hardy, Iowa. Larry says Tillotson Construction Company’s elevator, built there in 1956, is “still operating and used daily!”
Larry graduated from high school in Gilmore City, Iowa. His father managed an elevator from 1958 to 2008, and Larry remembers high school summers spent cleaning out and painting silos.
After getting in touch with us, Larry took an excursion and delivered some photos of the Gilmore City elevator. It was built in 1949, a year when Tillotson also built elevators in Dalhart, Tex., Hooker, Okla., Hordville, Neb., West Bend, Iowa, and Montevideo, Minn., among other places.
Larry, who served 25 years in the United States Army, shared these additional reminiscences:
“I know a lot of the facilities in my old stomping grounds are [built by] Todd & Sargent. The facilities built in the 1980s and 1990s were done by Lambert & Hamlin.
“Interesting thing–I found out through my dad in early 2000s that Lambert & Hamlin built or started to build two concrete tanks in the town of Rutland, Iowa, and about halfway into that project they went bankrupt, causing Pro Cooperative to find a contractor mid-pour to finish the project.
“Pro Cooperative then became receiver of Lambert & Hamlin’s property in Sioux City.
“A lot of interesting history in many of the small towns all around the Midwest with the construction of elevators. Some communities had their population double when crews came to town.
“Reading the blogs, there was also a lot of tragedy involved, with people falling off the partially completed structures. I remember, in the early ’80s, Lambert & Hamlin was doing a slip in the tiny town of Pioneer, Iowa.
“They had a laborer who was smoking pot as he was tying rebar on the night shift. Said individual stopped tying rebar to light a joint, lost his balance, and fell 80 or so feet to his death.
Records of the Tillotson Construction Company show no information on the grain elevator at Blencoe, Iowa. A previous post presents recent photos from Blencoe as well as delving into mysteries surrounding the Tillotson elevator and the one by Mayer-Osborn Company.
Now Brad Perry volunteers his own photos from Blencoe, which is just off Interstate 29 less than an hour’s drive north of Council Bluffs. Here we see the Tillotson, with the curved headhouse, and the Mayer-Osborn, with the stepped headhouse.
Supplying more photos, Brad raises an interesting question: could the elevator at Odebolt, Iowa, which is 63 miles to the northeast, be part of the Mayer-Osborn lineage? It also has a stepped headhouse. He notes that they had to have been built at the same time. It stood near the elevator of the Cracker Jack Company, which had operations in Odebolt.