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.

A mystery is solved with the discovery of elevator builder Van Ness Construction

The wooden elevator at Wymore, Nebraska, is representative of the style of Van Ness Construction

The wooden elevator at Wymore, Neb., is representative of the style of Van Ness Construction.

Story and photo by Kristen Cart

When we began investigating the elevators our grandfathers built, we had no idea how far the project would take us or what surprises would unfold. With the discovery of Van Ness Construction Company of Omaha, we have learned about the beginnings of the Tillotson family enterprise, and have entered a new phase of our search.

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The Nebraska State Journal, June 19, 1938

We knew that Charles H. Tillotson, patriarch of the family and great-grandfather of Ronald Ahrens, built elevators before the days of slip-formed concrete. We found only one Tillotson elevator, made of wood, that predated the elegant concrete structures that sprang up all over the Midwest in the ’40s and ’50s–at least we found its obituary in a news video of its fiery demise. That 1940 vintage elevator, in Hawarden, Iowa, was built two years after Charles died. It burned down in 2006. We didn’t find, at the time, a project that we could attribute to Charles.

Then we had a breakthrough, thanks to Ancestry.com.

Ancestry has a wonderful collection of city directories. I had seen listings for the Tillotson family in Omaha before, but I missed a significant data point. While searching for Sylvia (Mayer) Tillotson, the wife of Joe and sister of Eugene Mayer, I discovered an Omaha directory for 1936 in which Charles H. Tillotson was listed as president of Van Ness Construction Company. Further Internet searches revealed some of the sites where Van Ness built its small steel-cased wooden elevators, but as yet we have found none that have survived.

Now we hope to find an existing elevator from the days before Joe and Reginald Tillotson dreamed up their slip-formed concrete designs. So far the closest we have come is an elevator that perished in a fire in Scribner, Neb., in 1971 , a nightmare that repeated itself in June, 2013.

Also, in a Google satellite image of the town of Diller, Neb., another identified site, a square concrete pad with a grain spout lying alongside it is located near new steel bins, right where an old elevator should have been. In Rydal, Kan., you can see a concrete pad with concrete pits near a horizontal storage building, with the remains of a rail siding alongside. I was a little surprised to find evidence of earlier elevators at these sites, but of course digging up tons of concrete for no special reason would be unnecessarily expensive, so there are remains.

Everywhere we looked for these ancient elevators, we found evidence of obsolescence and ultimate destruction, with little left to identify the sites. Newspapers were the only way to find the locations. Fire certainly destroyed some of them. For those that remained, the adoption of concrete and much larger storage facilities turned these old Van Ness elevators into relics and ultimately spelled their doom.

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 look at grain operations at the J. H. Tillotson elevator in Lodgepole, Nebraska

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A Union Pacific train rolls by the elevators in Lodgepole, Neb.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

A beautiful elevator can be truly inspiring. My first visit to Lodgepole, Neb., was on a hazy October day, on the way to Wyoming, where we hunt elk. The misty skies did not show the elevator to its greatest advantage, so the best photography had to wait for a later visit. But this time I had the chance to visit the office and learn more about the elevator and the town.

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Melvin Paulsen inside the elevator driveway during corn transfer.

Melvin Paulsen, a two-year employee of the Frenchman Valley Coop, hailing from Julesburg, Colo., kindly showed me inside the main elevator. The interior lacked the embossed manhole covers that would reveal the builder, J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, but we knew the origins of this elevator from the recollections of my father Jerry Osborn.

The Denver-based builder had lost its owner, Joe Tillotson, and superintendent, Bill Morris, in separate traffic accidents during construction at Lodgepole. The mishaps ended a successful run of elevator projects. My grandfather, William Osborn, soon picked up the pieces and started his own company, Mayer-Osborn Construction Company, also based in Denver.

Melvin explained that the elevator was in the process of shifting grain from a main bin to the annex. The grain dryer attached to the elevator was no longer operational, so only grain that was sufficiently dry (with 18 percent or less original moisture content) could be accepted for storage. Grain that was on the moist end of the acceptable range had to go to the annex, which had ventilation fans, to prevent damage from overheating.

A fair pile of dust could accumulate during the grain transfer, so the elevator driveway was kept open to help blow it out. A shovel leaned nearby to take care of the remainder. Dust had to be cleared out completely to prevent an explosive hazard.

One of the newer bins was home to an emergency response relay for radio communications between dispatch and fire and emergency responders.

Elevator photos006Inside the Frenchman Valley Coop office was an old aerial photo of the elevator and one that was taken during its construction. Melvin kindly furnished me with an extra copy of the aerial shot. The elevator looked very much like its J. H. Tillotson brethren.

Lodgepole celebrates Old Settlers’ Days each year. The park alongside the railroad tracks fills with horses and buggies, tractors, vendors, and all manner of activities. A parade winds along the streets. The scene recalls a time when a farmer would drive his wagon up to the old wooden elevator on the rail line, and dump his grain in the pit, hoping for higher prices.

The town also attracts visitors when the old Union Pacific steam engine, UP844, stops on a regular scheduled visit.

Lodgepole’s elevator was a milestone in my grandfather’s building career. It remains one of the most attractive elevators in Nebraska.

The Cordell, Oklahoma elevator project fused engineering prowess with family ties

Story by Kristen Cart

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Edwin Christoffersen was the superintendent on the Mayer-Osborn Construction project in Cordell, Okla. in 1950. His son and namesake kindly provided a notebook that gave a glimpse of the concrete engineering that went into the elevator. By trial and error, the company learned best practices, creating an enduring structure which would still operate more than sixty years later.

Edwin Louis Christofferson was the son of Jens “James” Lauritz Christoffersen, a first generation American who farmed and operated a farm stand in Fremont, Neb. Edwin was one of nine children. Ed’s sister Alice married William Osborn in 1923.

When the Mayer-Osborn enterprise was in full swing, Bill Osborn tapped relatives to manage projects or to provide manual labor. He followed a common practice.

Sons Dick and Jerry Osborn worked at various times building elevators. Bill Osborn entered partnership with Eugene Mayer, the brother of Joseph H. Tillotson’s wife Sylvia. At the Tillotson Construction Company of Omaha, Bill Osborn worked with Iver Salroth, husband of Emma, a Christoffersen cousin.

Naturally, when the opportunity arose, Ed Christoffersen found employment with his brother-in-law’s company an attractive proposition.

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Edwin Louis Christoffersen with his only child.

Ed’s son has kept a number of Mayer-Osborn keepsakes, in memory of his dad, who died when he was still quite young. One intriguing item was the logbook that Ed kept for the Cordell, Okla. elevator, recording concrete tests.

Various sand, gravel, and concrete mixtures were tested to a failure point to determine the ideal formula for a given project. The date and time of day was recorded for each test. In this journal, we discovered the year of construction for the Cordell elevator.

The elevator business brought families together to accomplish a common goal, and now, many years later, writing about the elevators brings the builders and their sons and daughters together again. The memories are kept in small personal repositories of clippings, photos and documents, and in tales of the job, and are captured fleetingly before the witnesses leave us.

Looking up at these great landmarks, we also look up to the patriarchs who built them, with respect, and awe.

History is preserved in pictures at St. Francis, Kansas

Story by Kristen Cart

Farmers line up their grain trucks at St. Francis, Kan.

Farmers line up their grain trucks at St. Francis, Kan.

One of the most pleasant surprises at the St. Francis Mercantile Equity Exchange was their historical record preserved in pictures. In its hundred-year history, the exchange has maintained a continuous presence on the site of the present elevator, and has seen many changes in technology. Fortunately, photos exist that document the old way of doing things, and  Shirley Zweygardt, the site grain manager, was kind enough to provide copies.

In this photo dated 1951, an old wooden elevator stands immediately behind the concrete house. It was demolished to make room for the second bank of concrete bins, built in 2000.

In this photo dated 1951, an old wooden elevator stands immediately behind the concrete house. It was demolished to make room for the second bank of concrete bins, built in 2000.

It is always a fantastic find when you locate a pictorial history of an elevator.

A picture album, filled with historical treasures, which Shirley Zweygardt was pleased to share

A picture album, filled with historical treasures, which Shirley Zweygardt was pleased to share

I had already acquired a 1947 dated postcard depicting the elevator, so we knew its age. These additional photos, dated on the reverse “1951,” show its stately beauty. They depict two additional wooden elevators, which have long since disappeared. The vintage automobile in the foreground of the first image substantiates the date of the caption. Without the car, this photo would appear timeless, even though it was taken shortly before the addition of the first annex built by Chalmers and Borton.

Another view, dated 1951

Another view, dated 1951

It was quite a lovely thing; by 1951, the largest known elevator built by J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, was celebrating its fifth year, and was still white and stark against the sky. The elevator at McCook, Neb., was only two years old when this photo was taken, and my grandfather, builder William Osborn, had gone on to other projects with the Mayer-Osborn Construction Company.

Shirley Zweygardt told me an elderly resident of the town had preserved these photos in an album, which she brought to the elevator office, where they became part of the records of the equity exchange. The prints, reproduced here, were duplicate copies, now part of my growing library of historical images.

The visit to St. Francis was a happy one, capping an October 2012 elevator tour. This elevator marked the pinnacle of J. H. Tillotson’s construction career. Impressive still, it is a fitting monument to the skill, ambition, and industry of its builders.

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.