The elevator at McAllaster, Kansas, proved to be a missed opportunity

McAllaster, Kan., photo by Gary Rich

Story by Kristen Cart

Sometimes our elevator quest ends in a dead end, without definitive answers. In the case of McAllaster, Kan., we had only an old photo belonging to my grandfather, William Osborn, to go on, and Gary Rich and I never got any independent confirmation of the builder. When I went to visit the elevator two months ago, nothing was left and there was no sign it had ever existed.

William Osborn photo

Gary Rich tried hard to get information about the builder, after he had gone to McAllaster to photograph the elevator. Both of us made calls to the cooperative. But all we were able to confirm was that it was slated for destruction sometime this year. It was shut up tight, of course, when Gary went to see it, and, no man-hole covers were visible from the outside. The only clue we could find was an old photo of one of grandpa’s projects, which was probably built for J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, of Denver, Colo., judging by the style. The caveat was that quite a few others similar to this one were also built, and some of them have long since disappeared.

Gary Rich photo

Elevators like those at Daykin, Fairbury, and Bradshaw, all in Nebraska, were built in a similar style, so the only clues to their builder are external to the main house: elements such as windows, driveways, office buildings, and loading chutes can be compared to details in my grandfather’s old photos. Of course, if we have independent verification, such as contemporary newspaper accounts or my dad’s memories, it makes our lives easier, since only one of grandpa’s photos has any caption. Daykin and Fairbury have both been verified in this way.

When the photo above is compared with the photos taken by Gary Rich of the McAllaster elevator, it shows just enough difference to dash our hopes for an identification. The building behind the driveway appears to be attached, and the windows don’t match our photos of McAllaster. So we are at a frustrating impasse. We still don’t know the identity of the elevator in grandpa’s photo, and we still don’t know the builder of the McAllaster elevator, though we suspect it was a J. H. Tillotson project. With no way to verify it, we are at the disappointing end of our quest.

In Monument, Kansas, the elevator is closed to visitors and its story sealed

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

I approach this post with a little bit of trepidation, since the Monument, Kan., elevator does not invite tourists–even those with family connections. It is operated by a large corporation which primarily supplies corn for ethanol. It seems that an overly inviting manager might be risking his job, so I contented myself with photos taken from off of the property. But I was able to cobble together some information about it, from a variety of sources. Suffice it to say, it would not be prudent to reveal all of them.

A view of the Monument, Kan., elevator, taken from off-property. Visitors weren’t permitted at the facility.

I was able to determine the builder for the stand-up elevator with its integral head house. The manhole covers are stamped with the company name of J. H. Tillotson, Denver, Colo. The annex on the left has unmarked ports, but the annex on the right has man-hole covers stamped with the company name Mayer-Osborn. I did not see any of the ports for myself, so I am relying on secondhand information. But my grandfather apparently made a return trip after building the original house.

The original elevator was built for a Mr. Bertrand, whose son is still living. The elevator once had a brass plaque installed, which has since been removed and may still be with the Bertrand family. There were also early photographs of the elevator, and it is believed that they went with the plaque.

I spoke with a gentleman named Fred Wassemiller, who said, “These elevators were the best thing going–they should have kept building them.” He also said it was too bad that the “old-timers around here are gone.”

Apparently, they could have told me a lot.

McCook’s J. H. Tillotson-built elevator is still all original, down to the light fixtures

J. H. Tillotson built this attractive elevator at McCook, Neb. in 1948.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

Kelly Clapp explains how levers and pulleys are used to distribute grain.

The straight-up elevator at McCook, Nebraska, was built for a private owner in 1948. J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, of Denver, Colorado, was tapped for the project, and it was completed just a year before the Mayer-Osborn Construction Company of Denver built the nearby Frenchman Valley Cooperative elevator. My grandfather, William Osborn, was a superintendent for Joe Tillotson at the time, just before going on to form the Mayer-Osborn Company with Gene Mayer, so both projects were his.

Kelly Clapp, a Frenchman Valley Co-op employee, opened up the elevator so I could look inside. A trapped pigeon stood  in the doorway when it opened, blinking in the unaccustomed light. It fluttered off when we went in. What I saw was state of the art for 1948.

The elevator leg, which lifts grain from the pit to the top of the bins.

The elevator stands by itself and is unique since no renovation has ever been done to it. The elevator is original, right down to the light bulbs, Kelly said. It operates as it always has. It only takes corn when the other McCook elevators are full. The elevator is cleaned right before harvest, so the manhole covers, stamped “J. H. Tillotson, Denver,” were off and the bins were open.

The elevator has basic electrical functions such as lighting, and the conveyors and the leg are motor-operated, but all of the controls for it are manual. Levers and pulleys operate in the driveway to direct grain chutes to load corn into a waiting truck, and a similar arrangement at the top of the man-lift directs grain into the proper bin while loading the elevator.

The interior of the driveway, with the leg to the right.

This elevator is a completely intact example of our agricultural past–as fascinating as a water-driven grist mill from the century before. Structures of concrete and steel, built for industrial purposes, don’t merit a historical marker or national designation, but they are just as significant as an ancient town hall or a dignified farm house. I think I prefer the plain functionality of the grain elevator.

The J. H. Tillotson-built farm elevator at Traer, Kan., is still standing, but idle

Grafel Farm elevator, built by J.H.Tillotson, Contractor, at Traer, Kan.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

The road to Traer, Kan., was a bit obscure. The town is south of McCook, Neb., across the border, on unpaved secondary roads. It took some navigating to get close to the elevator, and then to find the right road, once the elevator peeked over the farm fields. We were rewarded with a handsome, squared-up, tall elevator on a lonely rail line in a winding creek valley surrounded by farmland. I hopped out of the van in a grassy parking area and started to take pictures. A truck was parked at the weighing house by the elevator. I knew this was a private farm, and it always had a privately owned elevator, from the time my grandfather built it. So I wanted to make my presence known.

The elevator leg and bins.

When we visited McCook’s elevator earlier in the day, worker Kelly Clapp told me the Traer elevator was still in operation. But his information was about two years out of date. Don Grafel, who greeted me when I entered the elevator office, chuckled when I asked if the elevator was working. “I wish a tornado would take it down,” he said.

Don had started working at the Traer elevator as a kid. His family now leases the farmland from a granddaughter of the Anderson family, who had the elevator built, and as part of the deal, the Grafel family had to buy the elevator. The Grafels operated it for a number of years.

The elevator was retired two seasons ago, Don said. The problem with the elevator was twofold. It had been built in a flood area with a high water table, and the measures taken during construction to account for the water had started to fail. It had leaking problems during wet years. But worse, the elevator was slow. Don said the elevator could take a semi-load at a time in the pit, which was good, but it would take an hour to load the bins. Fifteen years ago, the Grafel farm placed metal bins on high ground above the town. That handled the water risk, but Don said that even those bins were falling behind demand because of slow loading.

“J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, Denver” is stamped on the interior manhole covers.

Shirley Nichols, who also worked at the office, was keenly interested in the history of the elevator. I had a treat to offer her. Russell Anderson, who commissioned the elevator, wrote a letter of recommendation for my grandfather’s new company on May 6, 1949. The Traer elevator was an example of Grandpa’s work before he went out on his own after working for J.H. Tillotson, Contractor. I gave a copy of the letter to her along with a photo my grandfather took during the elevator construction. In return, she gave me another construction photo and some historical pictures of the town.

Finally, my hungry and thirsty children came into the office, and the visit was pretty well over. Don’s brother Greg came in after meeting my husband in the parking lot. He wondered who had dropped by. But it was time to get on the road again, before the complaints got too shrill.

The good people of the Grafel farm made us feel very welcome, and gave us a window into the Traer elevator’s past. I’m glad we were able to see it while it still stands.

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Maywood, Nebraska: another Mayer-Osborn landmark meets its end

Photo by Kristen Cart

By Kristen Cart

The old Maywood, Nebraska, elevator with its annex built by Mayer-Osborn Contruction Company of Denver, Colorado, was demolished in March of this year. I had planned the trip to see the elevator before its scheduled demolition in 2013. When we arrived in town, I expected to see the familiar straight-up J. H. Tillotson, Contractor-designed elevator with its annex beside it, but it was nowhere to be found. But I saw bulldozers and a football field-sized area framed with rubble piles, with corn impacted into the flat scraped ground. Not good.

Inside the Ag Valley Co-op office, business was in full swing. A truck pulled up, and a corn sample was vacuumed up and tested inside the building as I watched. Newer elevators were handling all of the grain. Turena Ehlers and Charla Werkmeister, employees of the co-op, told me how it went.

Photo by Julie Cox Hazen

The old Mayer-Osborn annex had a pretty good lean and some leaking problems, so it had been slated for destruction first, with the status of the main elevator left in question. But the main elevator was losing chunks of concrete and was deemed a hazard, so it came down soon after the annex. Forest River Colonies, of Fordville, North Dakota, a Hutterite-owned company, tore down the elevator and its annex, with the scrap going to Columbus Metals in Kearney, Nebraska. My hopes were dashed for recovering an intact manhole cover with my grandfather’s Mayer-Osborn company name on it.

Photo by Julie Cox Hazen

The demolition was quite an event for the town. Carol Wood put together a photo montage and hung it at the Maywood town offices. Bill Schnase picked up pieces of the rubble for his daughter to paint, to preserve the image of the elevator on concrete. Everyone had photos of the demolition. Julie Cox Hazen, Bill Schnase’s niece, shared hers with me.

Luckily, Gary Rich visited the elevator last year, taking photos of it in its last year of useful service. It’s type had been surpassed for a long time by newer, faster grain storage facilities of all kinds.

Most of Grandpa’s smaller projects are reaching the end of their service lives. So we are capturing their last moments, mostly, but not always, in the nick of time.

Faked out in American Falls, Idaho

Chalmers and Borton elevator at American Falls, Idaho.

During one of my recent road trips, I came upon a beautiful concrete construction elevator in American Falls, Idaho.  It looked much like the stand-alone elevators built by Tillotson Construction of Omaha, with an added annex.  It is in full operation.  I explored the elevator complex from about 7:30 am, and stayed on site as workers reported for their 8:00 am shift.  It was a very handsome elevator in the early morning light.  In its details it looked like a Tillotson elevator, except for the rectilinear head house, which is not unknown for a Tillotson or Mayer Osborn built elevator, but would be unusual.

As the shift started, I stopped at the elevator office to ask about the builder.  The worker smiled and pointed out the brass plaque by the door.  It was built by our grandfathers’ arch rival company, the ubiquitous Chalmers and Borton based in Hutchinson, Kansas.  Gary Rich pointed out one time that it seemed that wherever he found a J.H. Tillotson or Mayer Osborn elevator out in Kansas or Colorado, hard beside it would stand a Chalmers and Borton annex.  The companies played hard ball and competed for every contract.  Dad said, when I asked if Grandpa’s Mayer Osborn Construction of Denver, Colorado ever worked with Chalmers and Borton,  that “oh, no, they were his biggest competitor.”

Greenwood Nebraska’s straight-up elevator by Tillotson Construction of Omaha.

The elevator at Greenwood, Nebraska, built by Tillotson Construction of Omaha, is very reminiscent in its style to the elevator in American Falls.  I guess form followed function, and each company offered a product similar in its details–often the deciding factor was the bid price.  This Chalmers and Borton elevator certainly faked me out.  But it stands as a beautiful example and deserves notice.

1940 Omaha directory shows new home addresses for Tillotsons

The Omaha city directory for 1940 shows new information for the Tillotsons as compared to the year before.A change within the business organization was that Rose Tillotson had relinquished her duties as treasurer to daughter Mary V. Tillotson. But Rose continued to serve as company secretary.

All the home addresses were different for 1940.

Joe and Sylvia Tillotson were living at 2205 Jones, apartment 213.

Rose and Mary Tillotson, mother and daughter, shared a place at 3100 Chicago St.

And Reginald’s address is given as RD 2, Florence. RD could be the abbreviation for rural delivery. His family lived in the hills north of Florence, which was the village at the far north of Omaha.

Wauneta registers as an important architectural landmark and literary archive

Story by Kristen Osborn Cart

Photo by Gary Rich

The elevator operators at Wauneta, Nebr., have done a remarkable job of retaining the blueprints and correspondence accumulated during the time the elevator complex was designed and built.

In virtually every other case we’ve investigated, blueprints were lost or unavailable, and the histories of the elevators were unknown. At Wauneta, we can track the history of their endeavor very easily.

We know from a newspaper item that the first, straight-up elevator at Wauneta was built by William Osborn, during his years with J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, of Denver, in 1945.

My dad knew that Grandpa built an elevator at Wauneta, so the story has been verified. A few years later, Wauneta obtained designs for an annex to be built by a winning bidder.

Map of Nebraska highlighting Chase County

Among these designs were two blueprints, dated 1948 and 1949, which were done by Holmen and Mayer, and Mayer-Osborn, respectively. Apparently the first set of plans was not built and a second set was ordered, this time from the newly formed Mayer-Osborn Company.

Other builders also submitted plans. Instead of an annex, however, Wauneta eventually built a second elevator, likely as a money-saving move.

A third elevator was also built.

The first two elevators had access to a rail line, and when the third elevator was built by Mel Jarvis Construction of Salina, Kan., it had no rail access, so runs were built connecting it to the other elevators.

After his recent visit, Gary Rich confirms that Mayer-Osborn built the Co-Op office building, formerly a John Deere dealership, and also a boiler room just west of the dealership. The blueprints are still kept at the Co-Op.

According to Gary, who interviewed a member of the Co-Op board, “The Co-Op provided everything for the farmers. They had the elevator, the John Deere dealership, a grocery store, and a lumber yard. Plus, they had a fertilizer plant and gasoline dealership.” 


Note: Follow the embedded link for William Osborn’s explanation of construction techniques used by Mayer-Osborn in nearby McCook, Nebr.

In Chase County, we meet Gary State, an elevator construction veteran

By Gary Rich

Editor’s note: Gary is recently returned from a fact-finding foray in Nebraska.

I stopped at the Chase County courthouse in Imperial, Neb., looking for the dates when the elevators were built in Imperial, Enders, and Wauneta. They did not have much information about the build dates. The only info they have in their records is that the old office building for Frenchman Valley Co-op was done in 1946. The FVC built a new office across the street from the old one.

The ladies on the courthouse staff told me to stop in at the FVC office and talk with Gary State, who might have the dates. Mr. State went to work for Mid States building grain elevators and feed plants. I do not know if it was just Mid States or Mid States Construction. He was living in Imperial when he started working for them.

Map of Nebraska highlighting Chase County

I explained about Tillotson Construction Company, of Omaha, J.H. Tillotson, Contractor, of Denver, and Mayer-Osborn Company. He gave me some leads. He told me that Hugh O’Grady is still alive and lives in Omaha. Mid States was started by a man name Erickson. He had seven sons. Six of the sons ended up working for Mid States. One son died at a construction site. He said Jack Russell was a superintendent. He thought that he was living in Seward, Neb.

Mr. State built the second annex, or elevator number two, at Big Springs, and then elevator number three.

He told me that he built the Woolstock, and Goldfield, Iowa, elevators; the feed plant at Fruita, Colo.; and elevators at Garrison and nearby David City, Neb. At the other end of the Cornhusker State, he built the west elevator in Imperial. After the west elevator was finished, he left Mid States and he went to work for the Co-op. This is the reason that he is working for FVC.

♦ ♦ ♦

Okay, here is another thing. I thought that when a construction company built an elevator that they did everything. This is not true. Mr. State told me about a company based at York, Neb. This company did all the belts inside the elevators, all around Nebraska, no matter who the builder was. So we know the belts were installed by a separate company. Now I am wondering if a separate company was onsite to install the leg as they built the elevator up. Or did the general contractor install the leg?

Government price supports, loan guarantees led to proliferating grain elevators

By Ronald Ahrens

I see why grain elevators proliferated like mad–like mice, actually–starting in 1949.

This happened before Ezra Taft Benson, the crusader against Socialism, became Secretary of Agriculture in 1953, so the trend can’t be attributed to Mormon food-hoarding instincts in the face of Doomsday.

Here’s the story: Section 417 of the Agricultural Act of 1949 made an extra $8 million in cheap loans available to farmers’ cooperatives through the Commodity Credit Corporation.


Ezra Taft Benson, Ag Chief

The United States Department of Agriculture figured the private sector wasn’t keeping pace in grain storage as farmers realized increasingly bountiful crop yields. The USDA stepped in to provide the incentive to build storage capacity. The government price supports had resulted in hundreds of millions of bushels going nowhere.

Washington’s policy of building “warehouse” capacity was of enormous benefit to established outfits like Tillotson Construction Company and J.H. Tillotson, Contractor. For the principals, like my grandfather, Reginald O. Tillotson, it became a matter of  dashing between farflung towns in order to make his sales pitch. And the CCC also breathed life into new organizations like Mayer-Osborn Company.

Given certain conditions, the loans–which were extended through the government’s Banks for Cooperatives–were  intended to cover up to eighty percent of construction costs, with the rest funded by local sources. The eighty percent would cover $100,000 of what looks like an  average cost of $125,000 around then, so we’re talking about eighty new elevators in a year’s time.

And that’s in addition to what supposedly would’ve been ordered in normal periods, although who would turn down a government subsidy and pay retail?

Indeed, I’ve already heard one story of a group forming, with maybe five businessmen kicking in $5000 each, to take up the government’s kind offer, not caring about the disposition of the grain after the three-year guarantee (on new storage) ended.

The CCC pledged it would use seventy-five percentof the additional capacity. And farmers were lining up to sell to the CCC. Indeed, build it and they will come. The more of the subsidized canisters that the government provided, the more that was needed.

United States Department of Agriculture buildi...

United States Department of Agriculture

“The possibility that 1950 will present another storage crisis is evidenced by the latest report of the Department of Agriculture, which shows that as of Nov. 1, farmers had put approximately 353,746,480 bushels of 1949-crop[s] … under CCC price support,” reported the Farmers’ Elevator Guide in December of 1949. “This was nearly 100,000,000 bushels more than with 1948-crop produce.”

Meanwhile, the government had frozen construction of commercial buildings other than hospitals, churches, and schools. So while the traditional construction companies were fighting over those slim pickins, the Tillotsons and Mayer-Osborn, with their specialized knowledge in shaping, reinforcing, and pouring concrete, dashed back and forth like bees, covering the land from Alberta to South Carolina.

They knocked together slip-forms and jacked their way up beyond 100 feet, grinning the whole way.