A look at the Johnson-Sampson elevator in Grand Island, Nebraska

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Kristen Cart

Sometimes it is instructive to visit an elevator built by one of the competitors of the Tillotson Construction Company of Omaha, Neb., and its offshoots, J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, of Denver, Colo., and Mayer-Osborn Construction, also based in Denver. The elevator built by Johnson-Sampson in Grand Island, Neb. is a good example, for comparison, of a project built by the competition while our grandfathers were active in the business.

One of our readers, Teresa Toland, mentioned the elevator and hoped that we knew something about it, since her father, Darrell Greenlee, had supervised its construction. A couple of years passed before I could follow up on her query. While traveling this fall, I took a detour to see the elevator and take photos. The old grain elevator stands now as a prominent Grand Island landmark, still serving its original purpose. It’s location, just off I-80 in central Neb., made it easy to visit.

The elevator hummed with activity at the height of harvest. On this trip, my dad, Jerry Osborn, was along, so I did not take time to interview the employees–we were all tired after our hunting trip, and were ready to get home. But the elevator was a lovely sight and I was glad for the chance to see it.

dsc_1526The original elevator, flanked by two annexes, was obscured behind a large modern concrete bin, so I got closer for a better look. The headhouse was unlike any I had ever seen. The elevator’s design formed a harmonious whole, much like the attractive Tillotson elevators its builder emulated, but it had taken a different direction and had its own look. It must have been a handsome sight when it stood alone, brand new, and gleaming white–the tallest thing around.

The bin arrangement for the old elevator seemed conventional for storage in the 250,000-bushel class. Adjacent to the main house stood a large capacity metal grain dryer. Including the annexes, the elevator complex was the size of a moderate terminal–the type of storage that would serve as a transit point for a rail or trucking hub.

When Virgil Johnson, an early employee of Tillotson Construction, went out on his own, he built elevators in partnership with his Sampson in-laws for a few years. Darrell Greenlee, who supervised the construction at Grand Island, was one of his superintendents.

 

 

A photographic review of concrete elevator parts and components

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

Some time ago, one of our readers requested the picture of an elevator pit. It is one of the more unglamorous parts of a grain elevator, but as I was going through old photos, I found one. I also found many interior elevator pictures that have not made it to the blog because of their, well, unattractiveness. But a review of the parts and pieces, terms and descriptions, and interior appearance of an elevator is in order.

 The Pit

Pit access by ladder. The leg is visible.

Pit access by ladder. The leg is visible. Hanover, Kan.

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Sloped bottom funnels grain to the base of the leg.

The Dump Grate

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A smaller grate.

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Center driveway truck grates.

The Driveway

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McCook, Neb.

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St. Francis, Kan.

The Man Lift

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The bottom of the lift showing the shaft.

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Current safety regulations require a retrofitted cage.

Overhead bin spouts

Bins are numbered to correspond with the bin diagram

Bin Diagram

St. Francis, Kan.

St. Francis, Kan.

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This elevator holds beans in two overhead bins.

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The bins hold milo, and “F” means the bin is full.

The Leg

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Cup dimensions and spacing are given in elevator specifications.

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The leg conveys grain from the pit to the top of the bins.

Manhole Cover

Traer, Kan.

Traer, Kan.

 

The 1945 vintage elevator at Lodgepole, Nebraska, and the death of Bill Morris

DSC_0446Story and photo by Kristen Cart

A newspaper article recently came to light that upended our elevator construction timeline, causing us to reconsider the story of the Lodgepole, Neb., elevator and the careers of Joseph H. Tillotson and my grandfather William Arthur Osborn.

My dad, Jerry Osborn, said that the death of Bill Morris, the superintendent on the Lodgepole job, and that of Joe Tillotson, the owner of J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, came within a month or so of each other. Now it appears likely that the season was the same, but both fatal car accidents occurred in different years–1945 and 1947–a fact easily misunderstood by the young boy my father was at the time, as he listened to the adults talk about business.

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We believe this photo by William Osborn is from Lodgepole, Neb.

The article appeared in the Nebraska State Journal on Oct. 8, 1945:

Omahan dies after car accident

SIDNEY, Neb. (AP). W. B. Morris, 36, an employee of the Tillotson Construction company, of Omaha, was fatally injured Saturday night when struck by a car driven by Howard B. Kirk, 48, of Lodgepole, Neb., Deputy Sheriff Arnold Braasch said Sunday.

The deputy sheriff reported Morris was changing a tire on his car about ten miles east of here when the accident occurred. He died in a hospital about five hours later.

Braasch said Morris’ home was in Texas, but that he was living in Lodgepole while working on the construction of a new grain elevator.

County Attorney R. P. Kepler said he will decide on Monday whether an inquest is to be held.

We attributed the Lodgepole elevator’s construction to J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, the independent company Joe Tillotson started after his parting of the ways with Tillotson Construction of Omaha. We wrongly believed that both Bill Morris and Joe Tillotson had died in 1947 while working on the Lodgepole job. Now we know that Bill Morris died in 1945 while working for Joe Tillotson. The new fact pins down the date of Joe’s departure from the Omaha company–a move my grandfather made at the same time.

When interviewed in 1949 about his first, independent, Mayer-Osborn Construction venture in McCook, Neb., William Osborn named a number of elevators he had built before. We still believe all of the elevators Bill Osborn listed were J.H. Tillotson elevators.

According to the McCook article, Bill Osborn said the elevators in Maywood, Traer, Wauneta, and Lodgepole were built in 1945. If the reporter was right about Bill Morris’ employment, all of the 1945 elevators would be too early to be J. H. Tillotson elevators. However, none of them were recorded in the Tillotson Construction specifications and none built in the Omaha company’s style.

The reporter writing about Bill Morris’ death in 1945 was unaware of the freshly minted company Joe Tillotson had started, and wrongly identified Bill Morris as a Tillotson Construction of Omaha employee.

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An early photo of the Lodgepole elevator was kept at the location.

The fact that in 1945, Bill Morris went from a superintendent job at a verified Tillotson Construction project in Giddings, Tex to a superintendent position at the Lodgepole elevator job, a project demonstrably not built by the Omaha company, precisely dates the time Joe Tillotson chose to go out on his own.

The 1945 construction date of the Lodgepole elevator gives us a much more accurate understanding of the birth of J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, a venture that lasted about four years, until my grandfather built the McCook elevator for Mayer-Osborn Construction in 1949.

A tragedy took Morris in his prime, but my grandfather stepped into his place, gaining valuable experience as a builder. To this day, the graceful Lodgepole elevator serves as a fitting monument to Morris’ productive career.

J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, built their elevator scale houses with distinctive flair

The scale house at Monument, Kan., above, is almost identical to the one at Lodgepole, Neb.

The details of the scale house at Monument, Kan., above, are almost identical to those at Lodgepole, Neb. Photo by Kristen Cart

Story by Kristen Cart

Elevator construction was driven by stringent engineering requirements, lending a degree of commonality to the buildings. A few distinguishing details could be noticed, but from a distance you would be hard pressed to determine the builder. When contractors built the accompanying buildings, however, they had free reign to build in a style they could call their own. Often the scale houses would be instantly recognizable.

Lodgepole, Neb.

Lodgepole, Neb. Photo by Kristen Cart

J. H. Tillotson’s designs lent themselves well to the addition of a stylish scale house built alongside the main elevator. In some cases, when visiting an elevator, our access was limited. Then the lines of the scale house would be the only clue that we were looking at a J. H. Tillotson elevator.

Below are a few examples, each adapted to its individual setting, but each showing some distinguishing details that were common to all. Each J. H. Tillotson scale house was built of concrete, with a rectilinear floor plan. Usually they incorporated a protruding bay window, on the side facing the scale, for added visibility. Stairs, usually with steel railings, led to a door to accommodate truckers’ entry into the building. Carefully executed details in the concrete expressed the architect’s personal sense of style.

The scale house at the now demolished elevator at McAllister, Kan., is the only clue we have to its builder. Photo by Gary Rich

The scale house at the now demolished elevator at McAllaster, Kan., is a clue to its builder. Photo by Gary Rich

The scale house at Bradshaw, Neb. sports new siding over its concrete walls. Photo by Kristen Cart

The scale house at Bradshaw, Neb., sports new siding over its concrete walls. Photo by Kristen Cart

The scale-house at the Farmers Co-op, Daykin, Neb. shows characteristic corner details. Photo by Kristen Cart

The scale house at the Farmers Co-op, Daykin, Neb., shows characteristic corner details. Photo by Kristen Cart

While the builder of the elevators at McAllaster and Bradshaw has not been established with certainty, a fair case can be made that they were J. H. Tillotson designs based on details of the elevators themselves, the driveways, and the scale houses, when compared with known elevators. The scale house at Daykin, Neb., is included here for comparison.

J. H. Tillotson’s designs were visually appealing, with scale houses that contributed to a harmonious whole. When considering a builder, buyers would judge the quality of the elevator by its beauty, among other things. In this regard, J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, was more successful than most.

Scale houses express graceful utility, epitomize contemporary style

Daykin, Neb. scale house built by J. H. Tillotson, Contractor

Daykin, Neb., scale house built by J. H. Tillotson, Contractor.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

An often unnoticed feature of every grain elevator is the scale house. The scale house is home to the cooperative site office, and is the place where the elevator conducts its primary business. It is usually an unassuming building where empty grain trucks pull up to be weighed before filling up. The trucks make a second visit when laden with grain, and the difference in weight is tallied in the office. Conversely, when a full grain truck pulls up to deposit its grain, it must return after unloading to determine how much has been loaded into the elevator. Inside the scale house, a small sample of the grain is tested for quality and moisture content.

The scale house in Benton, Kan.

The scale house in Benton, Kan.

Many scale houses are metal or brick buildings, often unattached to the elevator and some distance away. Most are  unremarkable. But some of the old concrete scale houses have unique charm. The scale houses that accompanied J. H. Tillotson elevators were particularly attractive, and are one of the first things to look for when identifying their elevators.

Scale house in Willows, Calif.

Scale house in Willows, Calif.

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Other builders also produced some remarkable scale houses. Elevator building was driven by engineering and economical constraints, but in some cases the scale houses received special attention. In Willows, Calif., I photographed an example that had to take first prize. This dandy building recalls a 1960s drive-in burger joint, complete with car-side speakers and root beer floats. While it is not an example of our grandfathers’ work, it deserves notice.

The simple lines of the back of the scale house at Kanorado, Kan.

The simple lines of the back of the scale house at Kanorado, Kan.

Joseph H. Tillotson developed a characteristic style for the scale houses his company built. Those I have visited appeared to be concrete, and many had attractive details. For more typical examples of his work, stay tuned.

A photo tour at Kanorado, Kansas, reveals subtle J. H. Tillotson design details

DSC_0642Story and photos by Kristen Cart

One of the best stops on my elevator tour last October was Kanorado, Kan. It was a fortuitous visit, made in the golden hour of photographic light. We have profiled the elevator before, based upon a visit by Gary Rich while the elevator was operating and open for an impromptu tour. But I wanted to see for myself the elevator my grandfather William Osborn built.

No one was there when we arrived, but I was able to get a good look at all sides of the structure. The straight up, classic lines were unique to  J. H. Tillotson elevators.

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A view of the integral headhouse with windows to admit light

Other companies built similarly styled elevators, such as the Greenwood, Neb. elevator built by Tillotson of Omaha in 1951. But those differed in shape and concrete detailing. The elevator at Kanorado was an earlier effort, and should be compared with those at Traer, Kan., Goodland, Kan., and Wauneta, Neb., among others.

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Late afternoon shadows are cast across the drive-through scale

 

Another design element that seems to be unique to Joseph H. Tillotson’s Denver-based company is the squat concrete scale house, a deceptively simple building with lovely proportions, as can also be seen with the J. H. Tillotson elevator at Daykin, Neb.

DSC_0687It is good to see another 1940s vintage elevator still doing its job nearly 70 years later. It is a testament to a work ethic that seems quaint in our present day, and a personal investment in quality beyond the next payday. My grandfather would be proud.

Elevator builders turned to wartime projects during World War II

Unknown, Gerald Osborn, William Osborn, Iver Salroth

Jerry Osborn (standing) with his father Bill Osborn (center) and Iver Salroth (right) in Galveston, Texas in 1945 during construction of Tillotson’s Fairmont building in Giddings.

By Kristen Cart

We have very limited information about the activities of Tillotson Construction of Omaha during World War Two. The other two elevator builders we profile, J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, and Mayer-Osborn, of Denver, Colo., began their operations after the war, but individuals working for both companies gained their experience during wartime, either at Tillotson Construction, or elsewhere.

Eugene Mayer, a partner in Mayer-Osborn Construction, previously worked in a partnership, Holmen and Mayer, based in Denver. Orrie Holmen was a University of Chicago-trained architect. Eugene’s sister Sheila was the wife of Joe Tlllotson. At some point after 1938, Joe left his brother Reginald in charge of the parent company, Tillotson Construction, of Omaha, and moved to Denver to start his own elevator business, accompanied by old Tillotson hands William Osborn and Bill Morris.

It would be fascinating to trace the wartime activities of each of these principal builders, if they can be learned.

Elevator photos026In the Tillotson company records, we found concrete elevator specifications beginning a few years before the War and resuming immediately afterward, but conspicuously absent were records of elevator construction during the War.

However, we know Tillotson Construction was active between 1942 and 1945. We found one snippet in an old newspaper, which we transcribed on the blog: https://ourgrandfathersgrainelevators.com/2012/05/08/nebraska-firms-get-government-contracts/.

When we learn more about the activities of the company during that time, we will certainly write about it here. It is an open line of inquiry, and we are eagerly seeking more information.

A photography outing reveals beauty at the Mayer-Osborn elevator in Byers, Colorado

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A documentary photograph of the Byers, Colo. elevator.

In the fall of 2012, Gary Rich, contributor to this blog, treated me to a photo tour of western Colorado elevators. I made a special stop to meet Gary and his wife Sandy. The last few years Gary has specialized in elevator photography, capturing the beauty and spare elegance of grain elevators, identifying their builders as he went. The Byers, Colo., elevator is one of the loveliest.

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Gary Rich, camera in hand, looks for a better shot.

Sandy Rich is a very good photographer in her own right, and she has challenged Gary to greater creativity in his compositions.  He explained how her inspiration led him away from “documentary” shots and toward more artistic photography. When we stopped at Byers, Colo., we took some of her ideas to heart, and we were very pleased with the results.

Mayer-Osborn construction built the Byers elevator in 1950, as noted in a contemporary newspaper account. My father Jerry Osborn remembers his dad William Osborn working on it.

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Using the foreground to frame the subject adds interest to the photograph. Gary shot this composition first as can be seen on his photo site.

Retaining some of the characteristics of the earlier J. H. Tillotson elevators, the Byers elevator recalls those at Traer and Hanover, Kan. The Byers elevator is bigger than the Hanover elevator, and you can see where design adjustments accommodate the greater volume. The windows are very similar to those at Traer. The manhole covers on the exterior at Byers represent an innovation to fulfill local needs.

Since elevator designs continued to improve over time, an elevator design genealogy becomes apparent. The innovations cross company boundaries and are seen by looking at elevators chronologically, especially where the same builders and architects continued working in the business, bringing their ideas to one company after another. This is a chronology we are still trying to understand.

As we strive to understand elevator history, we take pictures. Elevators are worthy of our understanding and preservation for their beauty, not just their utility. Beautiful photos convey that message in a way that words can never express.

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The manhole covers on the exterior of the Byers elevator identify Mayer-Osborn as the builder.

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The elevator at Bradshaw, Nebraska, still hides the identity of its builder

DSC_0107Story and photos by Kristen Cart

A couple of years ago, before we started this blog, I tried to find pictures of the projects we knew my grandfather William Osborn built. Sometimes I would find photos of look-alike structures at locations that my dad couldn’t remember. Most of these mysteries were eventually resolved with the help of Gary Rich, a retired Union Pacific man with an indefatigable curiosity. He visited the locations, identified a number of the builders, took beautiful photographs, and contributed his findings to this blog.

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The J.H. Tillotson look-alike at Bradshaw, Neb.

The Bradshaw, Neb., elevator remains an unsolved mystery. I visited the elevator early last year and photographed it from all sides. The style was a dead ringer for the elevators at Fairbury and Daykin, Neb., and Linn, Kan., all J. H. Tillotson, Contractor jobs. But since I had no access to the inside of the elevator, my tentative identification remained unverified.

Mr. Gordan, who lived across the street from the elevator, commented about the structure and its history, but his details were sparse. He said the elevator had a twin that no longer stood.

“It had problems with the headhouse,” he said.

And in another town he did not name, a similar elevator had been struck by lightning and burned.

Since the look-alike elevator in McAllaster, Kan. was demolished before we could resolve its provenance, and others also seem to have perished, it is clear that an unknown number of this type of elevator once existed. We hope to find the business records of Mayer-Osborn Construction and its predecessor, J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, to learn more about them.

The Bradshaw elevator bears an old FCA logo, but United Farmers Cooperative is apparently the current owner.

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New elevators

Mr. Gordan’s mother came out to greet me, but the meeting is a little vague in my memory, because I only made notes about it later. Both mother and son said the Bradshaw elevator was retired, but that the nearby gas station still operated, and the newer elevators a little down the rail line handled the grain.

I hope to visit again when the co-op is open, to learn more.

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Bradshaw, Nebraska

The town of Bradshaw is neat and clean, and displays a good amount of civic pride. Most notable is the broad main street–the expansive use of space has the look of a western town, rather than the neatly packed economy you see in the East. It inhabits a flat Nebraska landscape, nearly midway between Grand Island and Lincoln, with distant horizons and plenty of elbow room.

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Gas station

Bradshaw is well worth a return visit, preferably during harvest. Perhaps a local farmer can sit down for a cup of coffee and color in the details of this lovely Nebraska town.

Blue skies at Lodgepole, Nebraska, and a perfect photo opportunity

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The J. H. Tillotson concrete elevator, built in 1948, and operated by Frenchman Valley Coop

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

On the way home from our Wyoming hunt last fall, we drove through Lodgepole, Neb. one more time. Gorgeous weather quelled the protests from the truck’s back seat, and with windows open, everyone settled down with books and gadgets while Mom (that would be me) got out with her camera.

I hope you enjoy some of the results as much as I did. This elevator, built by J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, in 1948, still stands proudly along old Lincoln Hwy. 30, in a town that is still a tourist destination. No one seemed curious about a lady with a camera–seems like it’s not so unusual around here.

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A track-side view of both elevators in Lodgepole, Neb.

The wooden elevator in the town is still in use, less than half a mile down the rail line. It appears to be in spiffy condition and ready for business. The town obviously takes pride in its agriculture and its heritage.

Happily, the history of the town intersects with the history of my grandfather, builder William Osborn, and our family. It has become a destination for us and a beautiful stop alongside the road.

Even the kids grudgingly admit it isn’t too bad, for an elevator.

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The wooden elevator with metal siding, flanked by metal bins