Some initials on a bronze plaque in Limon, Colo., help to solve a mystery

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

My father, Jerry Osborn, and I had a rare opportunity this October to take a road trip. Our goals were to see family, check out our hunting camp, and see some of the sights in the west. Dad is in his eighties now, so we don’t put off any chances to do neat stuff. This trip exceeded our expectations. Happily, we also were able to take in some elevators.

Jerry Osborn at Zion National Park, Utah

Our stop at the elevator in Limon, Colo., proved to be a wonderful surprise. There was a truck at the co-op when we arrived, but the office door was locked, so I approached the elevator itself and called out to see if it was deserted. When I turned around, a man was approaching from the office. I went to meet him.

Ed Owens was finishing up paperwork before going home for the night. I asked him about the history of the elevator, and he brought me into the office. Ed said his grandfather, S. L. Sitton, helped build the Limon elevator as well as the earlier, neighboring one in Genoa, Colo. He said his grandfather came into the area in 1939. He went away during the war, then came back and looked for whatever work he could find. Elevator construction provided a part-time laborer job that kept food on the table.

The builder put up the elevator like a layer cake, letting each concrete layer cure for a period before adding another, rather than by the continuous-pour method pioneered by early elevator construction companies. The Limon elevator was built in stages by farmers who built by day and farmed by night. I was impressed by Mr. Sitton’s fortitude, and I would have asked the old gentleman about it, but Ed said he was 97 years old and living in a nursing home in Flagler. He likely wouldn’t remember, and even if he did, he might not appreciate a visit.

The Genoa, Colo., elevator is in a neighboring town.

The best discovery was yet to come. When Ed ushered me into the office, he showed me the bronze plaque which originally adorned the driveway of the Limon elevator. Ed said all of the directors listed on the plaque were dead by now. The elevator was built in 1958, so all the community leaders of the time were long gone. But the key bit of information on the plaque was the name of the builder and designer, M. and A. Enterprises, Inc., of Denver.

I was very excited to see this name. The company was based in Denver, and the designer claimed to be the builder. Based on the design of the elevator, I had a strong suspicion of who that designer might have been. We now had a key piece of information.

Followers of this blog know that we have puzzled over a few mysteries while tracking our grandfathers’ elevators. The most difficult story to reconstruct, thus far, was how the Mayer-Osborn Construction Company met its demise.

The Denver-based enterprise lasted from 1949 until at least 1954, when my grandfather, William Osborn, apparently left the business. In the summer of 1954 he built the Blencoe, Iowa, elevator with the help of my dad, Jerry Osborn; by the summer of 1955, William was home from his Denver office and never worked elevator construction again. Meanwhile, his partner, Eugene Mayer, probably revived the company under various guises, but we know little of what became of him.

With our visit to Limon, Colo., we may have cracked the case.

Usually, the simplest explanation is the true one. The quickest way to explain why a thriving company would go away is to look for a disaster. Family lore says there was one. But I suspect the rumor of a collapsed elevator, lost to a crew that “shorted materials” and made bad concrete, might have been a tall tale that sprung from a much more pedestrian event. No such disasters can be found in 1954 or 1955 newspaper accounts.

The only related problem I could find occurred at the the Mayer-Osborn elevator in Blencoe, Iowa. During construction, when the elevator had reached about twelve feet high, the forms were slipped for the first time. As soon as concrete appeared below the slipped form, it began to slump and crumble. Bad concrete was indeed the culprit, and it necessitated a tear-down. To get back to a twelve foot height, the company had to add a day or two of expensive labor, which directly cut into profit. Could this event explain why William Osborn left the company? It’s the simplest explanation, so perhaps.

Several subsequent elevators bore the Mayer-Osborn manhole covers, but Dad didn’t know about these elevators, and he was certain that by 1955, his dad, William, was home for good.

The Mayer-Osborn elevator at McCook, Nebr. built in 1949

With its signature stepped headhouse, the elevator in Limon bears an uncanny resemblance to the first elevator Mayer-Osborn built in McCook, Neb. In fact, it is the same design, updated somewhat, and dated 1958. So it certainly went up after Grandpa left the business. But what about Eugene Mayer? Dad said that he was the designer, whereas Bill Osborn started as a carpenter and learned his construction skills on the job. Mayer still retained ownership of his elevator designs, which could explain why McCook clones continued to pop up all over the plains in the mid-1950s.

That brings us back to the builder of the Limon elevator, as inscribed on the plaque, “M. and A. Enterprises, Inc.” It seems inescapable that the “M.” was Mr. Eugene Mayer.

The Limon elevator had newer innovations but was built haltingly. Plainly, all was not the same as it had been when Bill Osborn was on the job. Perhaps fewer workers were available. Fewer contracts were awarded as subsidies waned. So the big, ambitious, day-and-night event of an elevator project was toned down somewhat. I expect we will find that Eugene Mayer’s design was eventually sold and others built it, then it passed into history, along with the great concrete elevator boom.

Happily, Limon’s elevator still thrives, and it gives us a peek at the amazing history of elevators on the American plains.

The layout of the elevator is used to record the content of each bin. Flat storage is adjacent to the concrete elevator.

 

 

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.

 

 

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 photographic review of concrete elevator parts and components

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

Some time ago, one of our readers requested the picture of an elevator pit. It is one of the more unglamorous parts of a grain elevator, but as I was going through old photos, I found one. I also found many interior elevator pictures that have not made it to the blog because of their, well, unattractiveness. But a review of the parts and pieces, terms and descriptions, and interior appearance of an elevator is in order.

 The Pit

Pit access by ladder. The leg is visible.

Pit access by ladder. The leg is visible. Hanover, Kan.

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Sloped bottom funnels grain to the base of the leg.

The Dump Grate

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A smaller grate.

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Center driveway truck grates.

The Driveway

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McCook, Neb.

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St. Francis, Kan.

The Man Lift

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The bottom of the lift showing the shaft.

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Current safety regulations require a retrofitted cage.

Overhead bin spouts

Bins are numbered to correspond with the bin diagram

Bin Diagram

St. Francis, Kan.

St. Francis, Kan.

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This elevator holds beans in two overhead bins.

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The bins hold milo, and “F” means the bin is full.

The Leg

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Cup dimensions and spacing are given in elevator specifications.

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The leg conveys grain from the pit to the top of the bins.

Manhole Cover

Traer, Kan.

Traer, Kan.

 

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. 

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.

Hunting for a J. H. Tillotson elevator in St. Francis, Kansas

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Postcard of early concrete elevator in St. Francis, Kan.

Story by Kristen Cart

Grandpa was pretty good at naming his elevators when he talked to the press. While building the McCook, Neb., elevator, William Osborn spoke about a number of his previous projects that were built while he worked for J.H. Tillotson, Contractor.

He named six elevators he built in Maywood, Wauneta, Daykin, Fairbury, and Lodgepole, Neb., and Traer, Kan.

McCook’s elevator, then under construction, was much larger than the rest, but he named one other elevator in the area that was of similar size, that one in St. Francis, Kan. He said he built that one, too.

The newspaper clipping and my dad’s recollections were all we had to go on when our family made the first trip to western Nebraska and Kansas to see grandpa’s elevators.

All of the elevators–save one–were easy to find (even Maywood, whose present incarnation is a rubble pile not far from the surviving elevators).

When we visited St. Francis, we stopped at one likely elevator complex, where my hopes were dashed when I saw the “Jarvis” name on the manhole covers. The other complex in town seemed far too big and looked very much like every other Chalmers and Borton project I had ever seen. Besides, it was getting dark and we had to put more miles behind us, since this elevator nonsense was just one of “Mom’s diversions” from the primary mission of going kayaking on the Niobrara River. So our first opportunity passed without finding grandpa’s elevator.

Dated 1947, the postcard highlights a major local landmark

Dated 1947, the postcard highlights a major local landmark

I scoured eBay for a while looking for images of Grandpa’s elevators, and I even bought an early postcard from St. Francis, and regarded it doubtfully when it arrived. What was it doing with a rectangular headhouse, if it was grandpa’s elevator? It was set aside on a growing pile of assorted elevator images.

The answer would have to wait for another visit and a close-up look at the elevator I had tossed off as a probable Chalmers and Borton edifice.

The second visit would reveal some surprises and challenge what I thought I knew about Grandpa’s elevators.

Stay tuned.