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.

Good corn is good news at Altoona, Iowa


“Nice corn” goes straight into storage without a stop in the dryer.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

One of the elevators on my list to see was the facility built in Altoona, Iowa by Tillotson Construction Company. It was reported to be the near-twin of the elevator in Mitchellville, Iowa. It is located about a half-mile south of I-80 in Altoona, just east of Des Moines, off an exit prominently marked by a Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World. Its business partner, the Bondurant elevator, stands about a mile away, on the north side of the Interstate. Farmers Cooperative operates both elevators.

Farmers Co-op, instantly recognizable by its trademark “FC”, is the largest Co-op in Iowa with more than sixty locations. It employs four full-time truckers in the local area serving Altoona in addition to the farm trucks that serve the location.


The manhole cover on bin number 4 indicates the builder and year of construction.

The Altoona elevator was built in 1954. The manhole covers, furnished by the Hutchinson Foundry, of Hutchinson, Kan., indicate the builder and the year of construction. Most of the covers are inside the elevator, but there is one also on the outside near the ground, which is typical of Tillotson elevators. A large grain dryer flanks the elevator on the east side.


Jacob Holloway, driver for Gibson Farms, paused for a photo after delivering grain.

When I stopped to visit in October, Pat Printy, a thirty-year employee of the Farmers Co-op, shared some of the history of the elevator. He also explained the elevator’s operations during harvest and the significance of good corn.

Sam Wise, former mayor of Altoona, owned the elevator before the cooperative purchased it in 1963 for $175,000. Farmers Co-op began operating the elevator in 1964. About ten years ago, the elevator headhouse had to be rebuilt because of cracking concrete, but it still retains its Tillotson-style rounded contours. The elevator is currently used for beans and corn.

A truck came up to deliver corn while I visited. Pat Printy vacuumed a sample into the building and tested it for moisture content. He placed a scoop of it on the counter for me to see.

“Nice corn,” Pat commented. I asked why. He said it was dry enough to store, at about 14 percent moisture content. Corn with a moisture content of 14 percent or less was dry enough to go into storage without drying, and depended on the right weather conditions to arrive already dry from the field. If the moisture content was over 15.5 percent, the corn would be in danger of spoilage if it was not dried right away.

Exceptionally wet corn could become a problem because the dryer could only treat 2,500 bushels per hour. Each truck holds about 950 bushels, so during a wet harvest the dryer would become a bottleneck. Pat said the dryer at Altoona was an old one, but the dryer at Bondurant was newer and much faster.

The elevator was busy the day I stopped by, both accepting corn and moving beans out for transfer into the larger Bondurant elevator about a mile away. Ninety-five percent of the bean harvest was already in, and the Altoona elevator needed to make room for some nice, dry corn.

The Altoona, Iowa elevator built by Tillotson Construction of Omaha

A grain truck driver pointed out that Tillotson Construction Company’s Altoona, Iowa, elevator, seen here, is very similar to another of the company’s creations, which is found in Mitchellville, Iowa.

Kristen’s visit to her grandfather’s elevator in Blencoe, Iowa

Story and photos by Kristen Osborn Cart

When I was out to Nebraska with the kids to see my Mom and Dad in 2011, we took the long way home to Illinois and stopped at Blencoe, Iowa, to see the grain elevator.

Dad helped to build it with Grandpa and Mayer-Osborn Company in the summer of 1954, just as he was starting his last year of college.

Blencoe is a tiny Monona County town of  about 200 people. It’s just off Interstate 29, halfway between Council Bluffs and Sioux City.

In March of 1954 Mayer-Osborn won the contract from Blencoe Co-operative Company, worth $153,000, to build the 259,000-bushel facility. It featured a stepped, rounded headhouse.

Dad and his brother Dick laid the rebar during the concrete pour as the elevator went up. Dad had to go back to school before construction was finished because football practice was getting under way.

On my visit, I stopped at the office, where they had a notebook with the fifty-year history of the cooperative. They were proud of their elevators at Blencoe, and the folks there showed me around.  

This elevator is very similar to the elevator Grandpa built in McCook, Nebraska.

Men wanted in Paullina, Iowa, by Tillotson Construction in 1949

Back Alley, Paullina, Iowa, by Jim Hamann

MEN WANTED for construction work on Concrete Grain Elevator, 90¢ per hour, 10 hours a day, 6 and 7 days a week. Time and ½ over 40 hours.

Tillotson Const Co. at Paullina, Ia.

The Alton, Iowa Democrat, Thursday, May 5, 1949

Editor’s note: In 2008, an explosion and fire injured a customer at the new elevator in Alton.

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