Old clipping leads to discovery of Mayer-Osborn’s elevator in Hoover, Texas

Hoover Populated Place Profile / Gray County, Texas DataStory by Kristen Cart

The Mayer-Osborn Construction Company’s history has been a little difficult to put together because many of the people involved are long gone. My father Jerry Osborn remembers many of the elevators his dad William Osborn built, so I have relied upon these memories quite heavily, filling in the details with newspaper accounts, old photographs, and site visits.

But as Dad’s interests turned to high school girlfriends and football, he paid little attention to his father’s business, and some Mayer-Osborn projects slipped through without his notice. Dad knew nothing about a Mayer-Osborn elevator in the central Texas location of Hoover, eight miles east of Pampa.

Pampa_Daily_News_Sun__Jan_10__1954_Fortunately, the Jan. 10, 1954, Pampa Daily News article announcing its construction survives.

A satellite view shows the stepped headhouse, a Mayer-Osborn trademark, atop the Hoover elevator. The structure appears to be built much like the Mayer-Osborn elevator in McCook, Neb.

The Hoover edifice still stands, and is used for grain storage along a rail line that passes through Pampa to the west.

A history of the town of Hoover may be found here.

 

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.

 

 

Mayer-Osborn’s proposals were rejected at Wauneta, Nebraska

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Mayer-Osborn Construction lost their bid to build this annex.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

Our blog contributor Gary Rich was the first to visit Wauneta, Neb. in the hunt for elevators built by Mayer-Osborn Company and J. H. Tillotson, Contractor. He discovered that the Frenchman Valley Co-op had retained original documentation including blueprints for the original elevator, and the two annexes, which all still operate today. The various documents painted a confusing picture. Gary told me enough that I knew I needed to get down there and see for myself, which I finally did in October of 2012.

The builder of the original elevator was unclear, but presumably J. H. Tillotson had built it, based its appearance.  Mayer-Osborn soon returned with a proposal for the first annex, and a close reading of those documents seemed to indicate that the first elevator was completed by the same people, which at that time worked for the J. H. Tillotson, Contractor operation. But nothing definitive was found to that effect–even the manhole covers of the main house were blank after a renovation.

FVC BP6aThe most interesting discovery was a set of blueprints and drawings completed by Mayer-Osborn for their annex that was never built. Their proposal was submitted twice, once in 1950 and once a few years later, but the town finally decided on a different contractor after some delay. For some reason, the co-op retained all of the paperwork at the site. This blueprint, dated Feb. 17, 1950, was the first of these designs.

The co-op has retained the original written contract proposals, which will be detailed in a later post. It would be very interesting to discover what held up the original building plan. Because the annex finally went up in about 1957, it’s possible that the co-op just waited too long and built the annex after the demise of the Mayer-Osborn Company. The existing annex looks much like the original proposal. Did they show another company the plans, and ask, “How close can you come to this design?”

Concrete problems plagued consecutive elevator projects at Blencoe, Iowa

DSC_0578Story and photos by Kristen Cart

In the summer of 1954, Mayer-Osborn Construction built an elevator with a stepped headhouse in the northwestern Iowa town of Blencoe. As my dad, Jerry Osborn, explained, after the crew poured the first ten feet of concrete in the slip-form process, the concrete sides below the forms showed signs of crumbling. An investigation revealed that the concrete mixture had not been set correctly. It took as many hours to remove the concrete and start over as it did to pour it. Dad worked on the project and saw the fallout first hand.

The larger Tillotson elevator stands to the left. The Mayer-Osborn elevator obstructs the view of its large annex which extends behind it.

The larger Tillotson elevator stands to the left. The Mayer-Osborn elevator on the right serves a large annex which extends behind it. Photo by Kristen Cart

Builders were required to do a destructive test on the concrete mix at various stages of curing, to ensure the proper strength for each part of the elevator structure. Engineers tested various mix ratios to decide upon the best one. Naturally, this process was used at Blencoe, but when the mix was finally set and the pour began, it was done incorrectly. I can imagine the blue language wafting from the site as the concrete was taken down. Someone on the site had his ears pinned back pretty fiercely. But the construction continued, and a handsome elevator still stands there today, nearly 60 years later.

Not until this year, when Tim Tillotson located the Tillotson company records and photographs, did we discover that Tillotson Construction of Omaha faced a similar problem as they built their elevator nearby about a year later. This time, the error was not caught as early, and the consequences became immediately apparent.

Tim Tillotson said he thought the blowout happened in about 1955. Whether Tillotson Construction did the repairs and completed the project, or whether another contractor was brought in, is not known to me, but I hope to revisit the site later this year and learn more. The image below is a rare one. It is amazing that photographic evidence survived, serving as a cautionary note, lest any builder were to become overconfident.

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This company photo shows the blowout. On the right the completed Mayer-Osborn elevator may be seen.

Errors were a constant threat in this business. In the best cases, they manifested themselves in embarrassing delays, in the worst, they incurred expensive lawsuits or physical harm.

Tillotson Construction and Mayer-Osborn both recovered from their respective forays into bad concrete and lived to build again, leaving handsome and serviceable elevators at Blencoe and elsewhere. The lessons they learned were priceless.

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.

Part 2 of a photography outing unfolds the visual possibilities at Roggen, Colorado

Mayer-Osborn's Roggen, Colo. elevator has the typical stepped up headhouse.

The Roggen, Colo., elevator has the typical Mayer-Osborn stepped-up headhouse.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

The stepped-style headhouse on the 1950-vintage elevator at Roggen, Colo., raised our suspicion that Mayer-Osborn Construction built the elevator, and that my grandfather William Osborn had a hand in it. Our hunch proved to be right. A 1950 newspaper account detailed its construction, as well as that of the concurrent project at Byers, Colo. Roggen’s elevator was built on the heels of its twin, the Mayer-Osborn elevator at McCook, Neb., which was completed the year before.

Gary Rich explores creative possibilities at the Roggen elevator.

Gary Rich explores creative possibilities at the Roggen elevator.

Last year Gary Rich, contributor to this blog, paid a visit to Roggen. He documented the manhole covers inside the driveway, which bore the company name in raised letters across the top of the steel plates manufactured by Hutchinson Foundry. After seeing his photographs, I was very eager to see the elevator for myself.

Last fall on a visit to Colorado I met with Gary, and we took in Roggen and Byers among other elevators on a photography tour. Roggen is fairly accessible and located just east of Denver. The purpose of our tour was to document the elevators, but also to inject some creativity into the process. The results were very pleasing, especially at Roggen. This is part two of our photo tour.

When I started looking for my grandfather’s elevators, I never suspected it would open the door to the elevator photography and historical research you find in this blog. Best of all, our contributors Ronald Ahrens and Gary Rich have made this project great fun for all of us. I hope you, our readers, get a kick out of it as well, and are inspired to follow your own quests wherever they may lead.

Empty containers frame Roggen's 1950 elevator

Empty containers frame Roggen’s 1950 elevator. 

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 Big Springs, Nebraska, elevator proved to be a Mayer-Osborn Construction job

The Cheppell, Nebraska elevator built by Chalmers & Borton

The Chappell, Nebraska elevator built by Chalmers & Borton. 

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

My grandfather William Osborn built an elevator in the western Nebraska town of Chappell, according to my dad Jerry Osborn. Dad’s recollections have guided our search thus far, for Mayer-Osborn elevators. Surely over the kitchen table he heard the names of towns where his absent father had construction jobs. Or perhaps he saw the postmarks of letters sent home.

Chappell was probably stamped on one of those postmarked letters, or it was the nearest town with a motel, because when I went to visit in 2011, there was nary a Mayer-Osborn elevator in evidence. Impressive elevators there were, but I found out later that they all had the ubiquitous Chalmers & Borton nameplate, the trademark of Grandpa’s biggest competitor.

The Mayer-Osborn elevator lacked the annex when it was first built. It is the same plan as used in McCook, Neb. and Blencoe, Iowa.

The Mayer-Osborn elevator at Big Springs, Neb. lacked the annex when it was first built. It is the same style as used in McCook, Neb., and Blencoe, Iowa.

One stop east on the rail line, however, was a large, handsome elevator that looked like one of Mayer-Osborn’s jobs. It was the spitting image of the first elevator Grandpa built on his own at McCook, Neb. The first time I saw it, I was curious enough to snap a photo, but identification was going to wait for another year. My dad knew nothing about Big Springs.

When Gary Rich, a contributor to this blog, looked into the builders of the elevators he photographed, he solved the mystery. He identified the Big Springs elevator by its manhole covers inside the driveway, each embossed with “Mayer-Osborn Construction, Denver, Colo.” above the Hutchinson Foundry stamp.

The Big Springs, Neb. elevator in October, 2012

The Big Springs, Neb., elevator in October, 2012. 

I paid another visit to Big Springs last fall after our Wyoming elk hunt. We didn’t get any elk, but I did get some nice photographs of the elevator. It was a sleepy Sunday with no one around. Next time, perhaps I can see inside.

It is an honor to pay respects to my grandfather’s enduring work. It is living history of a kind that is rarely noticed or mentioned. Once gone, it is scarcely remembered except in dusty repositories of pictures, and in mostly forgotten stories.

At Big Springs, Neb., that day of fading away is still far off in the future.

A Mayer-Osborn superintendent’s budget, from the back of a notepad

Ed Christoffersen papers008Story by Kristen Cart

On a slip-formed concrete elevator job, the superintendent was not expected to be deskbound. So it wasn’t a complete surprise to find a pay account jotted down on the back of Edwin Christoffersen’s handy notepad. His letters home probably came out of this paper supply, assuming he had time to write them.

The Cordell, Okla., elevator was built in 1950, when Edwin  Christoffersen took charge of the job for Mayer-Osborn Construction.

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Richard “Dick” Osborn

It is easy to forget that times were so dramatically different then.

We were entering a frightening time, with the Korean War looming. Edwin’s nephew, my dad’s brother Dick Osborn, was putting on a uniform to go fight, taking a break from building elevators for the company.

Our country was pulling out of a period of deep recession and unemployment. Air travel was a luxury, but in no sense was it the comfortable experience we have now. Airplanes were loud and flew through the ugly weather, instead of over it. In the book “Fate is the Hunter,” Ernest K. Gann recounted the very real perils of flight in those days. He made it seem all too real in his excellent book.

Ed’s notepad recalls a bit of aviation history. Deco style was modern then. In small print, it even says “Made in U.S.A.”

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Ed’s accounting.

On the reverse of this nearly empty pad of stationery, which miraculously survived for over sixty years among Edwin’s papers, is what appears to be an account of a monthly budget. It seems pretty clear that Ed would have been paid decently. The “coolies,” as they were called, did the physical labor and made $1 an hour. My dad, Jerry Osborn, got that job for one summer, and he didn’t get any special favors, either. The term was not a racial one in those days–it described the work, mostly done by local farm boys.

Edwin added up a sum exceeding $40 per month–perhaps it was what he had left over, after paying the bills. He came up with $170. Was this tally a payroll for his workers? Or was it a budget for his personal use? Did it record expenses for the Cordell project? It is hard to say.

In 1950, you could drive a good used car off the lot for a few hundred dollars, though a new Cadillac would have been out of reach for most people at over $3000. Maybe Ed had money left over to go get rowdy after work. Or maybe he could buy a good shotgun for his favorite pastime, which was hunting.

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Dick Osborn and Edwin Christoffersen nab a coyote.

I wish to thank Diane Osborn Bell for the pictures of her father, Richard “Dick” Osborn. Ed Christoffersen also kindly shared some of his dad’s personal papers, for which I am grateful.

It’s a truly illuminating way to look at man’s life and his work.

Successful concrete tests yielded an enduring elevator at Cordell, Oklahoma

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Story by Kristen Cart

During a recent visit to Nebraska, Dad and I met with the son of Edwin Louis Christoffersen to go through family pictures. Young Ed produced a treasure from among his father’s personal effects. Edwin Christoffersen was superintendent for the Mayer-Osborn Construction job at Cordell Okla., and among his duties was the engineering of a safe and durable elevator. Testing the concrete from a given supplier was of paramount importance.

This logbook shows the results of the testing for each part of the elevator’s structure. It is a fascinating bit of engineering history, and it speaks for itself.

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Cordell concrete tests006You will notice that the date and time of day was included in the calculations for each test. This is how we were able to determine when the Cordell elevator was built.

While a number of factors were recorded for each test, it is not clear to us what each term meant. Perhaps some of our readers can explain the process to us.

It is a true privilege to see some of the engineering practices in use during the 1950s, at a time when slide rules did the work of computers, yielding sufficient precision to send our astronauts to the moon in the following decade.

These builders, engineers, and innovators were pioneers, working at the pinnacle of their profession. We wish to thank Ed Christoffersen for sharing this priceless piece of history.