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.