Book report, Part Two: In the 1800s, Cargill already had huge elevators

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By Ronald Ahrens

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.

Cargill 02We 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.

Panic 01Three 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.

 

Our correspondent visits the 1955 Tillotson elevator at Thornton, Iowa

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Photos by Rose Ann Fennessy.

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.

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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!” 

 

Elevator investigations move farther afield with a side trip to Alta, Iowa

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

As we sensed during our visit, the Tillotson elevator in Hinton, Iowa, was part of big doings

Hinton by Brad

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

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.”

See CVA’s website for a superb aerial view of Hinton.

As Kristen wrote in her post, “The entire complex has become a far greater enterprise than our grandfathers, builders of the original structures, ever envisioned.”

A long-time elevator man sends greetings from Hardy, Iowa, and shares some lore

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Story and photos by Larry Larsen

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!”

GilmoreCity08Larry 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.

GilmoreCity06“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.

“Slipping never paused for that.”

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With its stepped headhouse, could the elevator in Odebolt, Iowa, be from Mayer-Osborn’s lineage?

Story by Ronald Ahrens with photos by Brad Perry

Blen NorthRecords 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.

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Brad supplies the link to a black-and-white image in the University of Iowa’s digital library.

Lacking Mayer-Osborn records, we can’t say without further probing or perhaps a site visit.

But we’re happy to pursue yet another thread in the story of our grandfathers’ grain elevators.

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Bill Russell delivered the first load of grain in Alta’s new concrete elevator

First load of grain being dumped in the elevator. Man on left is probably an elevator employee, Bill Russell, right.

An Alta Cooperative employee, left, and Tillotson’s superintendent Bill Russell dump the first load of grain in 1950. Photo from the Neil A. Lieb archive.

By Ronald Ahrens

We’ve laid out the story of Tillotson Construction Company’s concrete elevator at Alta, Iowa.

Now for the completion.

The photo shows the ceremonial first load of grain being dumped after the elevator was wrapped up in 1950. The job had started in early spring.

Bill Russell superintended from start to finish. As his son Dennis has told us, Bill was born in 1900 and built ammunition depots during World War Two before coming to work for Tillotson.

He was father of eight sons. One of them, Jim, a promising law school student, died in a fall on Tillotson’s elevator at Murphy, Neb.

After a long run with Tillotson, Bill started Mid-States Construction, which became known as Mid-States Equipment, with Gordon Erickson.

During the key postwar period of elevator expansion, few men contributed more than Bill Russell, and we are proud to remember and honor him.

Tillotson’s employee ‘Tiny’ could sucker the locals in any barroom

 

Photo from the Neil A. Lieb Archive.

Story by Ronald Ahrens, photo from the Neil A. Lieb Archive

He was called Tiny, and he could always put one over on the locals.

Neil Lieb couldn’t recall Tiny’s full name during our telephone conversation on April 29, when we sought to identify people shown in photos from Tillotson Construction Company’s job at Alta, Iowa.

As a young man just out of high school, Neil was part of the crew, and even sixty-five years later he still marvels at the older, wiser Tiny.

Members of the crew would go into the beer parlor after hours. scan0017

“Tiny would bet you he could drink a bottle of beer in 10 seconds,” Neil said. “It takes eight seconds for the bottle to run dry by itself. He would bet five or ten dollars, and he would find some sucker.”

Tiny was 6 feet 2 inches tall, Neil recalled.

Neil couldn’t identify the man at the rear of the photo, nor could he express details of the job they were undertaking because he had moved on after the Alta Cooperative’s new concrete elevator was finished.

Photos document the construction of a chimney that rose from a small building next to the old wooden elevator. We don’t know this stack’s purpose, but Neil (and my Uncle Tim Tillotson) don’t suspect it had to do with grain drying.

 

Iowan Frank Nine recalls working for Tillotson Construction in the mid-1950s

This photo showing the aftermath of a grain dryer explosion at the Boxholm elevator was uploaded to KCCI by u local contributor hmuench.

This 2009 photo showing the aftermath of a grain dryer explosion at Tillotson’s Boxholm elevator was uploaded to KCCI by u local contributor hmuench.

The following two-part memoir was recently written by Frank Nine, who worked for Tillotson Construction Company in 1954 and 1955 and now lives near Sedalia, Missouri:

I first worked for Tillotson in Dayton, Iowa. Jay Wiser was superviser. We finished there and moved to Bancroft, Iowa, and finished late-fall 1954.

Frank Nine is seen in this recent photo.

Frank Nine, in a recent photo.

Early 1955 we started the Boxholm elevator, where I was from. G.T. Christensen, Jay Wiser, and I became friends and often hung out together when not working. I attended George’s funeral. I was 19 at the time. We went to Dallas Center, Iowa. George’s wife and family [lived] for some time in Boxholm. I later helped her with some minor repair, etc, on their trailerhouse. The children were very young then.

I am now 77 years old.

♦ ♦ ♦

I started out on the tractor-loader filling the hopper for the cement mixer. Some as carpenter helper, on-deck pouring cement, and most of time wherever needed. This was in Dayton, Iowa.

Jay Wiser’s brother–Bud is what they called him, I think Harold was his name–was foreman or boss.

Then we moved to Bancroft, Iowa, where Jay was supervisor, his brother Jesse was a foreman, and George T. Christensen was also.

I worked with Bobby Wheeler and his brother Billy. (I think that was his name.) Also with Jerry Gustafson and his dad and a man they called Cowboy. I think Carlson was his last name.

Bobby and I were friends and hung out often. Jerry and I did the same.

We finished job October-November 1954. Early 1955 we started the job in Boxholm, Iowa, where I met Jim Sheets, and we became friends. I worked the master jacks and run jack crew. Later on, finished cement with Jim–among other jobs as needed. This is where George, Jay, and an old welder, Jesse, became friends.

Bobby, Jerry, Jim, George, Jay, Jesse, and others hung out often. We lost George this year.

At Tillotson’s Albert City, Iowa, job, a deckhand’s pendulous moments

This photo, provided by Kristen Cart from Osborn family archives, shows a deckhand standing nonchalantly on elevator formwork. Kristen believes the picture may have been taken in Giddings, Texas, in 1945.

This photo, provided by Kristen Cart from Osborn family archives, shows a deckhand standing nonchalantly on elevator formwork. Kristen believes the picture may have been taken in Giddings, Texas, when Tillotson Construction Co. built there in 1945.

Story by Charles J. Tillotson

Reinforced-concrete grain elevators used the slip-form method of construction, whereby a wooden form system was built on the ground, having the footprint required to configure the grain-storage tanks.

Once the forms were in place and the vertical lifting and jacking system assembled, laborers began installing rebar and pouring cement into these forms.

When the forms were filled to the top–about four feet–the lifting and slipping commenced by turning screw jacks placed strategically throughout the formwork. After this procedure of vertical form lifting and rebar setting and cement pouring began, it never stopped until the structure reached its intended height, usually between 100 and 120 feet.

thThis process was the intended norm but was oftentimes interrupted by a myriad of problems, which caused the form-slipping to come to a halt. One of these instances occurred one night when I was eighteen or nineteen, working as a deckhand in Albert City, Iowa, for the family’s construction company.

The structure had reached about eighty feet in height when the electrical power supplying the lighting system and other machinery was cut off by a huge summer storm distributing lots of rain and wind throughout the area.

All personnel, including myself, were stranded on the stationary deck with little else to do but wait out the storm and the return of power.

A few hours of waiting produced a carload of my friends that had arrived on the surface. They were yelling for me to come down and join them. The only possible way to get off the tower was the vertical “ship’s ladder” that was installed in sections on the side of the rising structure.

Access to this emergency ladder was gained by going over the side of the formwork to the finishing scaffold below. Here, a rope was suspended down to the uppermost section of the ship’s ladder. The length of the rope was normally long enough so that a person could slide down it and gain hold of the ladder’s top rung.

I say normally the rope was long enough, based on the fact that the ladder sections were routinely placed sufficient to keep pace with the ever-vertical movement of the concrete structure.

However, as I soon discovered on this particular stormy night, the norm didn’t prevail. I hopped over the side of the formwork and reached for the rope hanging from the finishing scaffold’s frames. It was pitch black, and the wind was blowing to go along with heavy rain, but I was able to find the rope and swing off the side.

The first thing I discovered was that the wind was so strong, it blew me sideways and shoved me around the bin tank.

When the gusting stopped, I was able to line up vertically above the supposed location of the ship’s ladder.

So, undeterred, I slid down the rope—but not very far before another gust of wind blew. I had to stop sliding down and let it subside.

This process went on for a number of iterations, and as I slowly went down the rope, I began to wonder where the top of the ladder was exactly.

I was running out of rope.

With about three feet left, I really started sweating–I still couldn’t see the top of the ladder.

Because I had become somewhat exhausted while sliding down, swinging back and forth like a teabag, I knew I couldn’t crawl back up to the scaffold.

Now I reached the very end of the rope, and a big blast of wind blew me away and around the tank. When that gust stopped, I flew back around and by sheer luck found purchase with my foot on the top rung of the ladder. Another blast hit me, but with my foot hooked under the top rung, I stabilized myself.

With my strength ebbing, if I was going to survive, I had to make an attempt to release the rope, drop down along the ladder, and catch a rung. (Any rung would do.) So, with trepid emotions, I let go of the rope and dropped.

The testimony of my luck (and strength and skill of course) is that I am able today to relate this harrowing story.

As I released the rope I yelled up to the top of the tower to alert other personnel that they shouldn’t attempt to do what I had done. I’m sure I saved someone else’s life besides my own that night.

But the message of this story is that constructing grain elevators in the early days was filled with these types of unsafe conditions where protection of life was not as important and took a back seat to getting the job done.

There was grain being harvested in the fields, and it needed a place to be stored. The nation was on the upswing, growing by leaps and bounds, and in need of being fed.