Despite ADM’s ‘No Admittance,’ the mystery of Moscow is solved

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Story and photos by Gary Rich

I spent a couple days during October 2012 photographing grain elevators in southwestern Kansas. Arriving in tiny Moscow, Kan., I saw a concrete elevator with a curved headhouse and had a hunch it was built by Tillotson Construction Company.

My problem was that it was operated by Archer Daniels Midland. ADM has a strict policy of not allowing anyone on their property. I went inside and had a conservation with the elevator manager. I didn’t have any hope getting into the elevator. He told me that it was built by Chalmers & Borton. I knew this was not the case, since Chalmers & Borton never built an elevator with a curved headhouse. He told me I could take all the photos I wanted. However, it would be across the street from the elevator.

I have wondered since this trip how I would ever find the true builder for this Moscow elevator.

Elkhart 207 copy copyabThe recently discovered records of Tillotson Construction Company show that Tillotson indeed built this elevator in 1948. Capacity was 100,000 bushels with 14 tanks and a 13-foot-wide center driveway. Six bins were over the driveway.

The Moscow elevator was a very small one for anything made of slip-formed concrete. Tillotson built another relatively small elevator in Rolla, Kan., that had a 140,000-bushel capacity. Most that Tillotson was building in this time frame were of 200,000-bushel capacity or even larger.

The Santa Fe Railroad had a branch line from Dodge City, Kan., to Boise City, Okla. It was about 140 miles in length. Tillotson Construction built elevators in Ensign, Montezuma, Satanta, Moscow, Rolla and Elkhart, Kan.

It’s  quite an accomplishment that Tillotson built six elevators along this line.

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Our grandfathers’ construction companies managed to escape the dreaded ‘blowout’

Written on the back of this photo: "This is the Bird City elevator that busted. This is the one Parrish built."

Written on the back of this photo from the Linda Laird Collection: “This is the Bird City elevator that busted. This is the one Parrish built.”

Story by Gary Rich

Vickroy-Mong built the Bird City, Kan., elevator in 1950. It was ready for that year’s wheat harvest. But sometime afterward, the elevator had a blowout.

A nightmare for any elevator builder, a blowout can happen if too little rebar is used when pouring the concrete. There is a lot of pressure on the bins once you put grain in them. And the weakest point is on the outside.

As you see in the photo, part of the outside section fell to the ground. The grain would have spilled out, too. Note that some grain remains inside the bin.

Chalmers & Borton received the contract for the repair work here. It is unknown if they fixed only the damaged bin or found others were flawed.

The Chalmers & Borton superintendent was W. Grammer. The job number was 50-K-62. Work began later in 1950, probably by fall.

The Bird City elevator wouldn’t have been good advertising for Vickroy-Mong. It’s not known if they built any other elevators.

Concrete’s prevalence in elevator construction was ‘just a matter of time’

Photo from The American Grain Elevator: Function & Form, by Linda Laird, courtesy of Grain Elevator Press.

Photo from The American Grain Elevator: Function & Form, by Linda Laird, courtesy of Grain Elevator Press.

The American Grain Elevator: Form & Function

By Linda Laird
(Grain Elevator Press, 120 pages, $23)

Because men with shovels weren’t quite up to the task of unloading farmer’s wagons and filling rail cars with wheat or corn, grain elevators became prevalent after railroads pushed through the American grain belt in the 1870s. A line elevator, each with a mechanical leg that lifted the grain for distribution, was put up on nearly every rail spur on the prairies and plains.

imagesIn those days, elevators were made of wood in studded or crib-style construction. Although many of those buildings were clad with galvanized steel, they remained vulnerable to the prodigious quantities of sparks thrown off by visiting locomotives.

Seeking reliably fireproof structures, some buildings tried brick but found it “not a satisfactory solution,” reports Linda Laird in The American Grain Elevator: Form & Function. (Order here.) The book published earlier this year supplies useful perspective on trends as well as carefully detailing how a grain elevators works.

Ceramic tiles strengthened by steel bands have been used in building elevators, and iron and steel structures stand here and there in defiance of rust. In the latter case, several good examples from Kansas are shown by Ms. Laird, who has a background in historic preservation and devoted herself to photographing 1200 elevators in the Sunflower State.

But as she notes in her deftly written book, from the time of Peavy’s Folly, an 1899 experimental elevator near Minneapolis, the solution was at hand and “it was just a matter of time before the use of concrete would revolutionize the grain storage business in America.” Concrete was costly, but lower insurance rates helped in the recovery of costs. Much to the dismay of insects and rodents, which were always a problem at wooden elevators, the editors of influential periodicals like Grain Dealers Journal encouraged the new material’s use. Low-cost government financing later became available.

Specialized crews skilled in the slip-form technique began to create towering silos topped by fantastic cupolas, or headhouses, of varying heights. Farmers’ co-op elevators were modest jobs. Others were epic affairs like the half-mile-long, 18.3-million-bushel terminal in Hutchinson, Kan., where Ms. Laird lives.

Frank photos and helpful drawings make the results vivid, but historic images documenting the rise of Chalmers & Borton’s massive annex at Topeka, Kan.–an exercise that took just seven days in 1955–are the coup de grace.

Thanks to Ms. Laird’s splendid work, it’s easier now to understand what our own grandfathers accomplished, and how they did it. From heaps of lumber and steel on flat ground by the tracks, they ascended skyward, leaving behind functional, impermeable buildings that are also enduring monuments to enterprise and bounty.

— Ronald Ahrens

Tillotson Construction’s classic elevator makes a good neighbor in Clifton, Kansas

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

The north-central Kansas town of Clifton is dominated at each end by a massive elevator. At one end of the main drag is a huge metal-sided wood elevator rising prominently above the street, and at the other is a gleaming white concrete elevator with its annex. The two elevators, defining the town skyline, are the center of the town’s agricultural business. Clifton’s concrete elevator was very busy during a visit there in October.

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The Clifton elevator, built by Tillotson Construction Company, of Omaha, Neb., defines the town skyline.

The characteristic rounded headhouse epitomized the classic Tillotson Construction Company style. After sixty-odd years of continuous use, the durable elevator was still going full steam ahead during the harvest. Several trucks pulled through the driveway while I watched, and it looked like more were waiting.

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Its neighboring landmark, the wooden elevator, was deserted and may have been retired, but anyone entering the town would be immediately impressed by its size. The two elevators together represented a continuum of agricultural cooperation and success, beginning in the first half of the twentieth century and still going strong in the twenty-first.

The concrete elevator had a manhole cover on the exterior that identified the builder as Tillotson Construction Company of Omaha, Neb., but you could see that fact from a mile away by looking at the headhouse. The elevator was very representative of its type.

John B. Tillinghast, the location supervisor for United Farmers Co-op, cheerfully stood for a picture in front of his charge. He said the elevator was built in 1953.

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The familiar rounded headhouse atop a straight-up elevator was Tillotson Construction’s signature design.

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John B. Tillinghast, location supervisor for United Farmers Co-op.

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Clifton elevator with annex.

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Manhole cover names builder.

Unsolved mysteries abound at Tillotson Construction’s Elkhart, Kansas, elevator

Story and photos by Gary Rich

Elkhart is located in extreme southwestern Kansas. This is Morton County. The 2000 census showed Morton County had 3,196 people, of which 2,036 live in Elkhart. The town sits just north of the Oklahoma border and is about 8 miles east of the Colorado border. The area has been known for wheat production. However, this has changed in the past few decades. Corn and milo are now grown as spring crops.

Tillotson Construction Company received the contract from the Elkhart Equity Co-op for the first concrete elevator built in Elkhart. Construction started in late 1945 and finished in late spring 1946. The elevator had a 225,000-bushel capacity.

I was totally shocked when I first viewed this elevator. The Elkart Co-op had three different elevators built over the years. Plus they added five different annexes. Tillotson built what is now known as Elevator Number One.

Elevators Number Two and Three were built by Chalmers & Borton, as well as all annexes.

Was the Elkhart elevator Tillotson’s first? Elkhart was started 1945.

Once I realized which elevator in Elkhart was the Number One, I noticed that it had a rectilinear headhouse. This is quite different from Tillotson’s other elevators. It has been thought that one Tillotson signature was the curved headhouse. Is the Elkhart elevator a one-of-a-kind?

Tillotson did one other thing different on their headhouses from other construction companies.

The long side of the headhouse had two different rows of windows. (You can view the window arrangements of other elevators on this blog, such as those in Rolla and Satanta, Kansas, as well as Ensign, Kansas.)

Could the Elkhart elevator actually have been the first line-elevator that they built. Why did they change to the curved headhouse in their future construction? Was it more cost effective, more efficient, or was it designed to distinguish their elevators from those of their competitors?

I wish to thank Morgan Walls, operations manager-Elkart Equity Co-op for much of their history.

Benton, Kansas, offers some direct lessons in elevator operations

The Benton, Kan., elevator complex.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

Sometimes while checking out leads about elevators my grandfather was involved with, I’ve made some fascinating side trips. I stopped at a Chalmers and Borton-built elevator in Walton, Kansas, and met the grain manager there, Jeff Snyder. He tipped me off about an operating wooden elevator at Benton, Kansas, also owned and operated by Mid Kansas Co-op, which would make a rare photo opportunity. I made a point to drive up there the next time I had a layover in Wichita.

Loading corn for transfer to a larger elevator.

My earlier visit to Traer, Kansas, left me with questions about why cooperatives have come to rely so heavily on metal bins, and why relatively few new concrete elevators are built. The speed of loading and unloading is one limiting factor for elevators. But on my visit to Benton, I was able to gain some insight into other design considerations.

Benton, Kansas, still uses a wooden elevator with metal siding for part of their storage. Beside it, several metal bins make up the rest of their capacity.  Harvest was going strong when I stopped by. I saw trucks pull up every few minutes to load corn from a large metal hopper near the grain bins, looping through the scales both before and after filling their trailers. A worker conducting the loading operation noticed me by the railroad tracks with my camera, and during a lull he laconically introduced himself, saying, “Just Christopher will do.” He had a temporary job working for Mid Kansas Co-op during harvest both in Benton and in Wichita at their large concrete elevator, where he became well-versed in elevator operations.

Spencer Reams, site manager for Mid Kansas Co-op at Benton, Kan.

Spencer Reams, the site manager, greeted me inside the scale house. According to Mr. Reams, Benton, Kansas, had a unique problem for a region in the grips of a severe drought. Because of very localized rain at just the right times, the area immediately around Benton had experienced a record harvest, up to five percent over any previous harvest.  So the elevator was completely full of corn while the milo and bean harvest was underway. Grain trucks were called in to move the corn to the cooperative’s larger Wichita elevator to make room, as Christopher explained. While I watched, an old farm truck full of milo pulled in to unload into the pit. Meanwhile the grain trucks, once they were loaded with corn and weighed, made the nine-mile trip into Wichita and then returned for more, waiting for the loading hopper to fill before filling up.

A truck dumps milo into the pit where a conveyor would take it to the leg, out of the photo behind a bin on the right. The loading hopper is to the left.

Christopher told me what he thought of the various types of elevators. He said that he preferred the metal bins–they were easier to work around. He showed me a photo of the man-lift that was used in the Wichita concrete elevator, and I agreed that it looked like a harrowing ride. A simple ladder on the side of a metal bin seemed safer. Also, older concrete elevators were crumbling, he said. For one thing, during freezing temperatures, trapped moisture could cause the concrete to crack and flake. It could be patched, but much like a road bed, eventually the elevator would become unserviceable and unsafe.  Though he did not comment on Benton’s wooden elevator, it was apparent that for various reasons these wooden structures were becoming harder to keep within regulatory bounds. It is very remarkable, in fact, to see one still in operation.

Each storage facility apparently has its advantages and drawbacks. One of the chief advantages of an elevator is its existence–if it is standing and in any way serviceable, it will be used. Its life ends when it can no longer keep up with demand, and when it becomes cheaper to build a new one than to repair or upgrade an old one. So each year more of the old landmarks go missing, to be replaced by the plain and common metal bin.

Details of the Kanorado, Kansas, elevator by J.H. Tillotson, Contractor

Story and Photos by Gary Rich

Kanorado, Kansas–J.H. Tillotson, Contractor, of Denver, built this elevator. Here’s a view of the south side. Note the windows near the top. J.H. Tillotson and Mayer-Osborn built the no-headhouse elevators with different window arrangements.

 

 

 

 

 

This view shows the elevator, the office building and feed mill. I do not have a date for when it was built.

 

 

 

 

 

The office and feed mill were built at the same time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is a manhole cover inside the elevator.