Gordon, Nebraska’s elevator was built in a classic Mayer-Osborn style

The Mayer-Osborn elevator, identified by manhole covers inside the driveway, stands in front of Chalmers and Borton additions

The Mayer-Osborn elevator, identified by manhole covers inside the driveway, stands in front of Chalmers and Borton additions.

Story and photos by Gary Rich

Farmers Co-op operates these elevators. The co-op is based in Gordon, Hay Springs, and Hemingford, Neb.

The elevator in the foreground was built by Mayer-Osborn Construction Company, based in Denver. The completion date is not known.

The elevator in the background was built by Chalmers and Borton Construction, based in Hutchinson, Kan., in 1958. The company built a second elevator, west of these elevators, as well as a couple of annexes.

A side view of the Mayer Osborn elevator

A side view of the Mayer Osborn elevator.

By Kristen Cart

This stepped up headhouse design was first rolled out with the elevator in McCook, Neb., built in 1949 by Mayer-Osborn Construction Company. The style was featured in the Mayer-Osborn ad that ran in the early 1950s in the Farmers Elevator Guide.

The Gordon elevator showcased the rounded headhouse construction method adopted by Tillotson Construction for their later projects, but it is not known which company pioneered the cost saving technique.

From his home in Colorado, Gary Rich investigated this elevator on a trip east to photograph a number of Midwestern elevators. Gary has been instrumental in identifying a large number of Mayer-Osborn, Tillotson Construction, and J. H. Tillotson projects, pursuing the history of the elevators with as much passion as he puts into his excellent photography.

We are indebted to him for his relentless pursuit of good information, now contained in this blog.

Discovering the J. H. Tillotson elevator at St. Francis, Kansas, as a centennial looms

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The J. H. Tillotson elevator in St. Francis, Kan. is nestled between two annexes.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

St. Francis, Kan., stayed on my mind for months after I failed to find any sign of the work of my grandfather, William Osborn, on our first visit.

Out on the western end of Kansas, the town was well clear of any route our family would take on the way to somewhere else. It was a very intentional stop on our itinerary. On our first visit, we took a wide loop, arriving just after sundown, and we lost the opportunity to investigate further than one cursory look at the wrong elevator. The visit to St. Francis was shelved for several months, and I almost didn’t go, but when I did, I made sure to be there before nightfall.

The weather caught up, however.

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St. Francis Mercantile Equity Exchange grain merchandiser, Shirley Zweygardt.

This time, I headed toward the highest structure in town. By the time I pulled up to the elevator office, fat flakes of snow wafted down and splotched the truck’s windshield, melting on contact with the ground. It was October, and the trees, which still held their leaves, were a golden brown backdrop for the early snow. I shook off the cold and entered the co-op.

A surprise awaited. A long-time employee of St. Francis Mercantile Equity Exchange, Shirley Zweygardt, greeted me at the door. Raised on a farm just down the road, she was intimately familiar with the elevator’s history and purpose, so in 1979, when a job opportunity arose, she was glad to fill in where needed.

It has been a happy arrangement. Shirley started as a bookkeeper, then worked in grain accounting and is presently in charge of grain merchandising. She has seen the St. Francis Mercantile Equity Exchange through many changes over the years.

She asked me to sit down and have some coffee, and she shared her experiences of working around the old St. Francis elevator.

The manhole cover on the interior of the driveway identifies the builder

The manhole covers on the interior of the driveway identify the builder.

St. Francis Mercantile Equity Exchange was incorporated in 1913. As slip-formed concrete construction methods advanced, the equity exchange looked for a company to build their first concrete elevator. Once it was completed in 1946, their quarter-million-bushel elevator was the biggest and most modern in western Kansas. It more than doubled the storage capacity of its lesser neighbors. And lo and behold, it was built by J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, of Denver, with the construction supervised by my grandfather, William Osborn.

It was not the only grain storage on the site for long. Soon, the capacity proved to be too little for the 1940s and 1950s boom years, so Chalmers and Borton came along and built the first annex.

Later, the site incorporated a flat storage facility which only holds wheat, since its air system does not ventilate adequately for moist corn. A second three-bin annex was built in 2000, using the same old technique of lifting concrete up to a dump cart that ran on a track around the perimeter of the rising elevator. It was completed just before the onset of a seven-year drought, and it took a few good harvest years to recoup the investment, since the annual wheat yield was too low at first to fill the bins.

Wall Street would not be the only beneficiary of perfect prognostication. The present snowfall was gladly welcomed in St. Francis.

The St. Francis Mercantile Equity Exchange will be celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. It has been and is the cornerstone of the town, and the center of business and economic life. Stay tuned for a little more of the history, and wonderful images, of this fine elevator, which Shirley kindly shared.

The Chalmers and Borton annex is in the foreground, and the new annexes are behind the main house.

The Chalmers and Borton annex is in the foreground, and the new annex bins are behind the main house. The flat storage shed is on the left.

Hunting for a J. H. Tillotson elevator in St. Francis, Kansas

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Postcard of early concrete elevator in St. Francis, Kan.

Story by Kristen Cart

Grandpa was pretty good at naming his elevators when he talked to the press. While building the McCook, Neb., elevator, William Osborn spoke about a number of his previous projects that were built while he worked for J.H. Tillotson, Contractor.

He named six elevators he built in Maywood, Wauneta, Daykin, Fairbury, and Lodgepole, Neb., and Traer, Kan.

McCook’s elevator, then under construction, was much larger than the rest, but he named one other elevator in the area that was of similar size, that one in St. Francis, Kan. He said he built that one, too.

The newspaper clipping and my dad’s recollections were all we had to go on when our family made the first trip to western Nebraska and Kansas to see grandpa’s elevators.

All of the elevators–save one–were easy to find (even Maywood, whose present incarnation is a rubble pile not far from the surviving elevators).

When we visited St. Francis, we stopped at one likely elevator complex, where my hopes were dashed when I saw the “Jarvis” name on the manhole covers. The other complex in town seemed far too big and looked very much like every other Chalmers and Borton project I had ever seen. Besides, it was getting dark and we had to put more miles behind us, since this elevator nonsense was just one of “Mom’s diversions” from the primary mission of going kayaking on the Niobrara River. So our first opportunity passed without finding grandpa’s elevator.

Dated 1947, the postcard highlights a major local landmark

Dated 1947, the postcard highlights a major local landmark

I scoured eBay for a while looking for images of Grandpa’s elevators, and I even bought an early postcard from St. Francis, and regarded it doubtfully when it arrived. What was it doing with a rectangular headhouse, if it was grandpa’s elevator? It was set aside on a growing pile of assorted elevator images.

The answer would have to wait for another visit and a close-up look at the elevator I had tossed off as a probable Chalmers and Borton edifice.

The second visit would reveal some surprises and challenge what I thought I knew about Grandpa’s elevators.

Stay tuned.

J. H. Tillotson’s project at Lodgepole, Neb., was the end of the line for Supt. Bill Morris

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The Lodgepole, Neb. elevator viewed through a rainy windshield on a blustery day.

Story and photo by Kristen Cart

It was the heyday of elevator construction, and J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, of Denver, was riding the crest of the building wave, when a new elevator was begun along Highway 30 (the Lincoln Highway), in the sand hill country of western Nebraska. Lodgepole was a sleepy town along the rail line that connected Sidney to the west, with Chappell and Big Springs to the east.

My grandfather, William Osborn, had been building for several years, and he accompanied Joe Tillotson to Denver when Joe made his break with the family business, Tillotson Construction of Omaha, and set out on his own. The new company had several projects under its belt, and several others ongoing in 1947, when Lodgepole’s elevator was started.

Bill Morris, an employee poached from the parent company, was superintendent for the job.

The dangers of the business were well known. But for the J. H. Tillotson company, fate was especially cruel, though the disasters that befell the builders were of a more mundane sort. In about March of 1947, Bill Morris was changing a tire on the side of Highway 30 near Lodgepole when a car struck him, and he was killed.

Of course the construction project went forth, and my grandfather played a role, since he had the experience to step in where Bill Morris left off.

It was not long afterward that Joe Tillotson met his maker in a car accident–only a matter of a few weeks. In those days safety in vehicles was an afterthought, and the Grim Reaper was guaranteed a regular harvest.

Joe’s death opened doors for my grandfather, since there were elevators to build and contracts to fulfill. By September of 1948, Bill Osborn had joined with Eugene Mayer, Joe’s brother-in-law, and together they formed the partnership of Mayer-Osborn Construction Company. My dad said Grandpa had to put up some money to opt into the business, and then he continued as before, building elevators as fast as they would go up.

The McCook, Neb., elevator marked their first joint effort.

Timeline for Tillotson Const., J.H. Tillotson, and Mayer-Osborn companies and jobs

Ronald Ahrens and Kristen Cart cofounded this blog. Gary Rich is a primary contributor. We have visited elevators around the United States and Canada.

Ronald’s maternal grandfather was Reginald Oscar “Mike” Tillotson.

Kristen’s paternal grandfather was William Arthur Osborn.

Reginald O. Tillotson

R. O. Tillotson

Reginald’s company was Tillotson Construction Co., of Omaha. The company had been building and repairing wooden elevators since the 1920s, when it was led by Reginald’s father Charles H. Tillotson. Before his death, experiments were made with slip-form concrete construction techniques.

1938: Charles dies, and the company passes to his sons Reginald and Joseph H. Tillotson and daughter Mary V. Tillotson. They begin to perfect slip-forming and refine their design strategy, which includes a rounded headhouse.

1945: Tillotson Construction builds a concrete elevator in Giddings, Tex. William Osborn works on this project. He is probably employed by the company by late in ’44. Tillotson Construction wins the contract to build in Elkhart, Kan., and starts construction.

1946: The 225,000-bushel elevator in Elkhart is completed. “Shortly after the war, my Dad and Joe decided they couldn’t see eye to eye, so they split,” writes Charles J. Tillotson in “The Tillotson Construction Story” on this blog. Joe forms J.H. Tillotson, Contractor in Denver. William Osborn works for Joe Tillotson.

William A. Osborn in 1965

William A. Osborn in 1965

1947: Tillotson Construction builds  the Vinton Street elevator in Omaha. Joe Tillotson dies in a car accident in March. J.H. Tillotson, Contractor builds at Daykin and Fairbury, Neb., and Hanover and Linn, Kan., with William Osborn supervising the projects. Maxine Carter leaves Tillotson Construction on Oct. 7 to wed Russell L. Bentley.

1948: Formed in September from the residue of J.H. Tillotson, Contractor, the Mayer-Osborn Company builds its first elevator at McCook, Neb. Joe Tillotson’s wife Sylvia was a Mayer, and her brother Eugene Mayer is one of the partners. William Osborn is the other. Meanwhile, Reginald begins to use a light airplane for business travel in the postwar years. Reginald’s nephew John Hassman joins Tillotson Construction in September; among many other duties, he pilots the company plane to jobs in Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Tillotson’s projects that year are in Paullina, Iowa, and Montevideo, Minn.

1949: John Hassman’s father Ralph, Reginald’s cousin, joins Tillotson Construction in sales and stays through 1952.

1950: Construction begins in November on the Tillotson house, which is built of concrete. It still stands north of Omaha. Tillotson employee Jess Weiser weds Lavonne Wiemers on Dec. 22.

1951: Drafted into the Air Force, John Hassman leaves Tillotson Construction in January.

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An inside look at the J. H. Tillotson elevator at Hanover, Kansas

The J. H. Tillotson straight-up elevator in Hanover, Kan. just after a rain

The J. H. Tillotson straight-up elevator in Hanover, Kan. just after a rain. 

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

One of the loveliest elevators J. H. Tillotson, Contractor ever built is still in use at Hanover, Kansas. Last October, during a visit to this small Washington County town just seven miles south of the Nebraska border, I photographed the elevator under moody skies and marveled at its clean, graceful lines. Then it was time to get to the business of finding out about it.

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Ryan Riekenberg takes a moment to show me around the elevator.

Fortunately, Ryan Rieckenberg, a twenty-year employee of the Farmers Cooperative Association, was on hand to show me inside. He had previously worked for the grain department and currently worked as a crop sprayer. He said before the Hanover location joined the Worchester-based Farmers Cooperative, it operated its own association called the Farmers Union of Hanover. He said the elevator was currently used for milo.

The manhole cover identified the builder

Manhole cover

He pulled up in his truck, fished out his keys, and took me into the elevator to look at its interior, including the manhole covers that positively identified the elevator as a J. H. Tillotson project.

As he unlocked the door, Ryan supplied some historical details. The elevator had been built beside an old wooden elevator, which was used as a feed mill until it was demolished about eight years ago. We entered the doorway a couple of steps up from the gravel drive where the old wooden edifice used to stand.

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The elevator leg

Once inside, we could see the leg in the center of the elevator. A grate covered the pit, and Ryan opened the grate to display the sloped bottom where the grain would funnel toward the base of the leg, to be scooped up and carried to the top of the elevator for distribution to the bins. The leg extended all the way to the bottom of the pit. A ladder went into the pit from another opening, providing access for cleaning and maintenance.

Nearby, a cage-enclosed man-lift gave access to the integral head-house at the top of the elevator. The cage was almost certainly a later modification, since the old man lifts didn’t have them.

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The distribution diagram

Prominently displayed on one of the bins was a diagram of the elevator and its annex. Here the storage assignments for each of the bins were noted, including the neighboring steel bin, which was served by the same integral head-house with a chute from the top of the elevator. Presumably, “M” stood for milo, and a note indicated that the steel bin held corn. Perhaps “F’ indicated feed, but that is just a guess.

I’m not sure why someone wrote “I love #1 house,” but if they meant this lovely elevator that my grandfather, William Osborn, built for Joe Tillotson’s company in 1947, I must share the sentiment. It was a dandy, and it appeared to have a long, useful life ahead of it.

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A view from the west side where the feed mill used to stand. 

The J. H. Tillotson elevator at Linn, Kansas, stands unused, idled by regulatory changes

The elevator built by J. H. Tillotson is flanked by later additions.

This handsome elevator built by J. H. Tillotson is flanked by later additions.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

While the concrete elevator at Fairbury, Neb., was being built, rising by nine feet every twenty-hour workday, the elevators no more than thirty miles away at Hanover and Linn, Kan., were also nearing completion, according to a newspaper clipping found in my grandfather’s papers. J.H. Tillotson, Contractor, based in Denver, had all three projects going for the 1947 harvest.

Though we knew my grandfather, William Osborn, worked as superintendent at Fairbury, my dad didn’t remember his father working on the two Kansas elevators, so in October  2012, I took a swing through Kansas to investigate them.

The Chalmers and Borton elevator at Linn is still in use.

The Chalmers & Borton elevator at Linn is still in use.

The first elevator that came into view in Linn was a 1950s-vintage Chalmers & Borton structure of about 250,000-bushel capacity, judging from its appearance. Across the town square, a couple blocks away along an extinct railroad bed, was another elevator that did not fit my notion of any J. H. Tillotson design, since it sported a rectangular head house. I peered at it from all angles, straining to see any lettering on the manhole cover about halfway up, without much success. I thought perhaps the old J. H. Tillotson elevator hadn’t survived and that I was too late, as had happened at Maywood, Neb.

Finally, I drove over to the co-op office to learn more. Jeff Wiese, the location manager for the York-based United Farmers Cooperative, kindly agreed to answer questions about the old elevator. Jeff said he had worked for the local elevator cooperative since 1994, first in petroleum, then as an implement dealer, and finally as manager in 2000. In 2005, UFC took over from the Farmers Cooperative Equity Association, which, in turn, was formed when the Linn Cooperative Exchange joined with Greenleaf.

Jeff said that when the old elevator was first built, farmers thought they would never fill it, but new capacity was needed almost immediately. To my surprise, he said the manhole covers on the interior of the elevator were embossed with “J. H. Tillotson, Denver, Colo.,” though I was not able to go inside and see them. The old elevator was still there, graceful and sturdy, but locked up and no longer used.

The unusual square head house incorporates stylish details.

The unusual square headhouse incorporates stylish details.

The Tillotson elevator fell victim to economic realities after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) ordered safety upgrades under new federal rules. The agency had taken a keen interest in elevator operations since the 1998 DeBruce elevator explosion in Wichita, Kan., and many safety regulations stemmed from the analysis of that accident. Dust management and cleanliness became paramount. The Linn elevator’s older, lower-capacity design meant it could no longer earn its keep after the cost of improvements, so it retired after the 2011 growing season, now finally empty of its last harvest of wheat.

This type of elevator also commonly required a safety upgrade for its man lift. Everywhere the old elevators are still operating, new OSHA-mandated safety cages enclose the man lifts, ostensibly to prevent certain types of injuries or death.

It is fair to say that the old Linn elevator is endangered, and will be torn down as soon as it is convenient.

A nearby house with painted mural.

It seems a shame that another Kansas landmark, nestled and quite at home amid tidy houses and bustling businesses, should soon disappear. Beside it is a home painted with a mural depicting gaily flapping laundry on a clothesline, and across the street stands a grocery. A neatly mowed park occupies the old railroad right-of-way.

The elevator has been there as long as most people can remember. Luckily, I was able to pay my respects, and tip my hat to my grandfather’s stately work of long ago, before it passes into memory.

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An old aerial view of the Linn, Kan., elevator after the annexes were added. Note the old vehicles in the photo.

By making tricky distinctions, it’s possible to discern the builder of an elevator

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

The question whether each elevator construction company had a signature style has become a topic of intense discussion and research here, and we don’t have all of the answers yet.

Johnson-Sampson Construction Company, of Salina, Kan., built elevators that were very similar to those of J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, of Denver and Mayer-Osborn Construction, also of Denver, prompting a great deal of debate about how that came to be.

Our pages for McCook, Neb., and Blencoe, Iowa, show elevators each with a stepped, rounded headhouse and about a quarter-million-bushel capacity. It was a standard elevator style for Mayer-Osborn, even appearing in their ads, until they closed their doors in 1954.

After that date, Johnson-Sampson was building a nearly identical elevator. We don’t know whether the architect moved on to work for Johnson-Sampson or the design was sold. The elevator at Limon, Colo., is in the same style, but there is no indication who built it—no paperwork, and no name on the manhole covers or the interior of the elevator.

Mayer-Osborn’s elevator at Kanorado, Kan., shows the company’s typical grooved vertical style.

So the question becomes: was the style proprietary to one company or to one designer who sold his design to all comers?

The Kanorado, Kan., elevator was built by Mayer-Osborn, in a design adopted from J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, after Joe Tillotson died in 1948. The same company essentially carried on under the new partnership of William Osborn and Eugene Mayer, and some of the earlier designs remained unchanged. The grooved vertical lines are only found on elevators made by those two companies.

Identical detailing can be found on elevators in Lodgepole and Wauneta, Neb., and Monument, Traer, and Goodland, Kan., among others—all of which were built by J. H Tillotson.

Another example, at Page City, Kan., comes from Johnson-Sampson, as proven by the manhole covers. The operator says it was built in the late 1950s. It looks very similar to the elevators in Wauneta, Neb., and Traer, Kan., built by J. H. Tillotson before his death in 1948. A few details and dimensions differ, and in this case the changes appear to be distinctive for Johnson-Sampson elevators. I feel fairly confident that the Page City elevator is an example of an identifiable Johnson-Sampson design.

Johnson-Sampson’s elevators in Brandon, Colo., and Page City, Kan., are clones to each other. They look very much like the Mayer-Osborn design but have slightly different dimensions and lack the vertical grooves.

Arriba, Colo., is another of the same type.

Johnson-Sampson’s Page City elevator lacks the vertical grooves.

My best guess is the larger, successful companies had a few standard designs for their customers. If a customer wanted to request a proposal, they would give specifications, and the company would customize to meet the described needs, presenting the plans in their contract bid. Upon acceptance, the elevator would rise, with enough differences from the basic design to make it unique.

A few telltale details suggest the builder’s identity, but you can’t be absolutely sure until you see a document or a manhole cover to confirm your suspicion.

Photo tour reveals the Goodland, Kan., elevator’s symmetries and history

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

My dad, Jerry Osborn, always knew Grandpa built this elevator, and I remember pictures of it from long ago. It still rises gracefully above the Kansas plain, tucked in among its neighboring elevators, listing slightly in its old age. It has always held a place of pride since its construction in the town of Goodland, Kan.

Contributor Gary Rich discovered, when he visited the site, that this elevator, built by J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, is now used for sunflower seed. When I saw it, it was all buttoned up, presumably awaiting its summer crop. The slight tilt is obvious from some angles, but the elevator appears sound.

William Osborn photo of the Goodland, Kan. elevator, found among his papers.

The words “Goodland Equity” can be faintly discerned under the white paint.

You can still see, faintly outlined in white letters, the name Goodland Equity, long since painted over. At one time  the elevator sported a neon sign proclaiming “Goodland Equity” to the night sky. That sign has disappeared and now vultures adorn the top of the leg in a lofty roost.

This beautiful elevator will continue to attract photographers as long as it stands. Aside from building useful, well-engineered, long-lasting structures, my grandpa, Bill Osborn, built beauty into the flat Kansas landscape.

For that, I am grateful.

A convenient roost for vultures.

The elevator at Daykin, Nebraska shows a characteristic J. H. Tillotson design

The Daykin, Neb. elevator seems to match an unknown William Osborn photo

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

William Osborn photo ca. 1947

My husband and I took a day trip to look at some elevators in June, letting the kids off the hook and sparing ourselves their groans and complaints as we toured the countryside. Daykin was one of our stops. This J. H. Tillotson, Contractor elevator was built in 1947, according to my grandfather, William Osborn. He listed it among his previous projects when he was interviewed during construction of the McCook, Neb. elevator. As I went over the photographs for this post, I noticed, with excitement, that the photo matches one of grandpa’s unidentified photographs in every detail: The concrete driveway has the same inset from the corners, and the windows of the scale house match perfectly.  A mystery has been solved.

No one was about when we stopped to see the elevator, just before sunset. There was something beautiful about the scale house with its big, multi-paned windows, its blue trim, and its corner detail, with the elevator rising precipitously behind it.  I have admired all of Grandpa’s projects for their spare good looks.  I wonder how he saw these buildings.  It must have given him great satisfaction as he looked upon a completed project–or was it mainly relief? I know he loved tropical fish. He must have appreciated beauty for its own sake–at least a little bit. Was he too close to the elevators to see what I see? In certain light and at certain times, a beautifully done elevator takes your breath away.