Bruce Selyem, an old hand in elevator photography, is still in the game

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Ione, Oregon

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

An eagerly awaited package arrived in the mail the other day. I opened it to find Bruce and Barbara Selyem’s 2016 elevator calendar–a vivid sampling of the photography work that Bruce has done over the years. Barbara Selyem called me to see if I would like one this year–I am an old customer, and I get one every year. So of course I asked her to send it.

Thirteen carefully selected images grace the calendar, and it does not disappoint.

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Indus, Alberta, Canada

Selyem Enterprises also produces framed elevator images for home and business, and if I bought everything I liked, I would run out of wall space very quickly. Bruce has documented many beautiful old wooden elevators in the United States and Canada that have gradually disappeared. Over the 20-plus years Bruce has been shooting elevators, most of the structures have only his photos to remember them by.

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Mossleigh, Alberta, Canada

If my kids had anyone to blame for the numerous side trips, excursions, and stops we have made to take pictures of wooden elevators in the wild, Bruce Selyem would top their list. I have studied his website carefully to plan for elevator photography trips in Idaho and Oregon. Many times the kids have admonished me for the odd elevator stop on the way to Nebraska. I can’t help it. They are beautiful.

Though not many of my wooden elevator photos have been published here, there is quite a collection of them. It is a passion, and I come by it honestly.

My grandfather, William Osborn, took many photos when I was a little girl. I remember the bellows on his camera, the camera body he carefully set up on a tripod, and his advice to sit still. He would pull the Polaroid photo out of the back of the camera while he started his buzzing timer. The hand on the timer would move interminably, and I would stand on tip-toe, eagerly awaiting the magic moment. Then he would peel the negative away and voila, a damp image would emerge, which I would hold gingerly by the edges while it dried.

As a girl, I wondered at the photo of his first elevator in McCook, Nebraska, that he built for Mayer-Osborn. I never knew I would combine his love for photography with his life’s work one day, and share all of it here.

To check out the photography of Bruce Selyem, visit his website at grain elevator photos. Bruce and Barbara Selyem welcome you.

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A concrete beauty. Nyssa, Oregon

The demise of Mayer-Osborn Construction remains an enduring puzzle

Audrey, Gerald, William and Alice Osborn, ca. 1950

Audrey, Gerald, William and Alice Osborn, circa 1950.

Story by Kristen Cart

Some mysteries are not meant to be solved. Perhaps it is a natural outgrowth of my grandmother’s tight-lipped discretion where evil tidings were concerned. I can remember the disapproving purse of her lips if I broached the wrong topic–it was wise to move on.

Albert Skoog as a boy

Albert Skoog as a boy

Alice Christoffersen married William Osborn in the 1920s. All anyone in our family could know about those times was conveyed in the pleasant images of a young couple goofing around by the lake and fishing. In later pictures you could see the pained expression of a long-suffering middle-aged woman, but her concerns were private, at least when they brought bad memories to mind.

My dad, Jerry Osborn, was quite amazed to find he had a deceased great-uncle, whose name had never been spoken in front of him. Alice Christoffersen’s maternal uncle, Albert Skoog, died young from injuries sustained in a horrific automobile crash when she was a young woman. The story was relegated to the darkest recesses, never to be mentioned again.

“Albert Skoog Dies from Effects of an Auto Accident

Had Lived Nearly Ten Months with a Broken Back

After living nearly ten months with a broken back, during which time he suffered untold agony, Albert Skoog, 42, formerly and employee of the Fremont Stock Yards, died at the home of his sister, Mrs. James L. Christoffersen, south of Fremont. Death was due to injuries sustained in a automobile accident on the Lincoln Highway about a mile east of Fremont last October….”

The article went on to describe the accident and his medical treatment. He died in the family home of Alice’s parents.

This image was found among Grandma's pictures. It was the car her uncle wrecked in an ultimately fatal accident.

The wreck fatally injured Albert Skoog, who died months later from a broken back. Grandma had this photo of the car in an album that once belonged to her mother.

No stone marks his grave. It took many years to locate pictures of him, preserved by a different branch of the Christoffersen clan. Images of the wrecked car also survived, tucked away in Grandma’s photo album. But such things were not discussed in my grandmother’s world.

Another side of Grandma’s personality was not so discrete–she would tell stories that put others in a bad light when she thought she could gain favor for herself. This habit got worse as she aged, and by the time she passed on at age 98, family members believed awful stories about each other because of things she said.

We have tried, without success, to verify Grandma’s story of why my grandpa, William Osborn, got out of the elevator business. Perhaps she invented it. We have no way to tell.

Mayer-Osborn elevator at McCook, Neb. during a family visit, ca 1950. This elevator was the first of its type, a model for the later Blencoe elevator.

Mayer-Osborn elevator at McCook, Neb. during a family visit, circa 1950. This elevator was a prototype for the Blencoe elevator.

Dad never had an inkling about why his dad quit (except that he heard in whispers not intended for him) until Mom started poking around. Grandma told her the story, apparently in a fit of pique. Details were fuzzy, and by now, not well remembered. There’s hardly more to it than speculation. But that one glimpse was the only information we ever got. Otherwise, it “wasn’t discussed,” as Dad put it.

Mom says an elevator was built, and very shortly thereafter, failed. She variously used the terms “collapse,” “explosion,” and “fire.” But the two things she was pretty consistent about were the facts that the concrete mix was wrong because the crew had shorted the materials (possibly for financial gain), and that the collapse occurred as soon as the elevator was filled with grain for the first time. That is all she remembers from what Grandma told her.

Dad says his father was out of the business by 1955. Dad remembers that his dad had come home to Fremont, Neb., from Denver, Colo., the home base of his business, that summer when he should have been on the job. He thinks that his dad was blamed for the failure–Bill’s partner, Gene Mayer, apparently went on without him. But that is all we have.

We don’t know where it happened and haven’t found a newspaper story. We know a large terminal elevator collapsed that year in Fargo, N.D., but we discovered the identity of that builder and it wasn’t Mayer-Osborn. There were whispers about an elevator that had a bad headhouse around Linn, Kan., or Bradshaw, Neb., which might have been his, but that story hasn’t been verified or dated.

The Blencoe, Iowa elevator built by Mayer-Osborn

The Blencoe, Iowa elevator built by Mayer-Osborn

The only story I can verify is the tear-down and restart of the Mayer-Osborn elevator in Blencoe, Iowa. The concrete mix was wrong there, and it cost a few days and quite a lot of money to correct. Could that relatively mundane event in 1954 have created a rift between the partners, Bill Osborn and Gene Mayer? Was the tale of a more dramatic accident simply angry gossip from my grandmother?

Until we know more, it is a skeleton yet to be found, buried in a very deep closet.

 

 

A mystery unfolds at the Tillotson elevator of Blencoe, Iowa

This elevator is attributed to the Tillotson Construction Company of Omaha, but evidence points elsewhere

This elevator is attributed to the Tillotson Construction Company, but evidence points elsewhere.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

In an earlier post, we showed that the elevator built by the Tillostson Construction Company in the northwest Iowa town of Blencoe had a structural failure prior to completion. A photo provided by Tim Tillotson showed that the concrete slumped over the driveway after the slip-form pour had progressed considerably past the point of failure. Construction would have halted there. The question of how the elevator was completed was never answered.

In the company records we have, the specifications log ended by 1956, while the company continued to build elevators beyond that date. So later records are lost to us. Tim Tillotson estimated that this mishap occurred in about 1955. I discovered, on review, that Blencoe was not in the specifications at all. Why?

A photo of the manhole cover on the rail side of the elevator could provide the answer. It is not typical for Tillotson elevators to have exterior manhole covers on elevators of this type, so the existence of these was a little surprising. More shocking was the identity of the company that placed them.

"Grain Storage Const. Co, 1959, Council Bluffs, Iowa" is embossed on the manhole cover

“Grain Storage Const. Co, 1959, Council Bluffs, Iowa” is embossed on the manhole cover.

The Grain Storage Construction Company of Council Bluffs, Iowa, is not familiar to us. It may be the company called in to repair the damage when the failure occurred.

We don’t know if Tillotson Construction was fired on the spot. But it is also possible that Tillotson was given a second chance–the design of the elevator clearly follows the trademark Tillotson design, whether copied by some one or built by the original contractor.

I wonder if the original repair destroyed the structural integrity of the elevator, and Grain Storage Construction was brought in to replace two of the bins. We know it was a later job because of the 1959 date on the manhole covers. Unfortunately, I made my visit on a Saturday, and the co-op was closed, so there was no one there to ask.

It is a beautiful, functional elevator today. It stands beside the older Mayer-Osborn elevator, which is also clearly in use sixty years after it was built. Both elevators had problems during construction, but the capacity was urgently needed, so both projects were finished. How the Tillotson elevator ultimately became a Grain Construction Company branded elevator is a mystery we will try to solve in a future post.

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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.