Employees were on the move in 1959 for work on one of Tillotson’s last elevators

The Helena (Oklahoma) Star, Thursday, Jan. 22, 1959

Mr. and Mrs. Francis Dawson have moved into the former Thompson house, recently vacated by the Carl Jantz family, and Mr. and Mrs. Austin Brown live in a trailer house on the back of the lot, there.

The men are employed by the Tillotson Construction Co., that is building the new elevator at McWillie.

They came here from Texas.

We thank our friend Susan Allen for unearthing this and other clippings.

In 1940, Bernard Blubaugh prepared the Clyde Co-op’s Medford, Okla., location for a concrete elevator

The Clyde (Okla.) Co-operative Association filed its 21st-annual report in 1940 and listed Bernard Blubaugh (seen above) as general manager of its Medford operation.

The report named the nine directors:

L.E. Melka, President

B.F. Cline, Vice president

Otto Zeman, Secretary

C.E. Clark, Mike Hein, E.J. Best, J.R. Skalnik, C.S. Shellhammer, and Louis Droselmeyer, directors

Stogie in hand, Bernard Blubaugh walks an elevator site. Photos courtesy of the Blubaugh Archive.

Employees were O.L. Sturtz, local manager, Clyde; Phil Kenny, local manager, Renfrow; Lewis Dahlen, local manager, Deer Creek; E.L. Hampton, local manager, Nardin; Gary Cassingham, local manager, Salt Fork; Evelyn Dillon, bookkeeper, Medford; Elmer Huffman, elevator, Medford; Robert Wharry, gasoline and oil, Medford; Carl Dahlen, gasoline and oil, Clyde; Irvin Dester, gasoline and oil, Deer Creek.

Another co-op record shows that Tillotson Construction Co., of Omaha, was already familiar with the co-op. On March 11, 1936, the company was awarded the contract to build an elevator at Clyde. This would have been a wooden elevator: their first concrete elevator was in 1939 at Goltry.

The bid was $10,950. Two weeks later the company came back to the co-op board with a request.

“Tillotson ask if we would reconsider as he had left out $3,335 labor bill,” the record says. “Board did reconsider.”

And Tillotson went on to do additional, significant work for the Clyde Co-op, building the 212,000-bushel elevator of reinforced concrete at Medford in 1941. Presumably, the bid included labor costs on that one.

 

Former Kingfisher, Okla., GM Bob Case recalls elevator fixes after his start at the co-op in 1967

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Bob Case retired as general manager of the Kingfisher Cooperative on Jan. 1, 1991 and hasn’t been back. But a telephone conversation proved he still has a good sense of the business.

We know Bob through his late-wife Velma’s fine history of the Kingfisher operation. They came to Kingfisher in 1967. By that time, the cooperative had a long history and Bob already had significant experience running things.

“I started out with management in Red Rock when I was 25 years old,” he says. “I was the youngest co-op manager in Oklahoma. They didn’t have people 25 years old managing cooperatives.”

Co-op Way 08The Cases went from Red Rock to Rogers, Ark., to run a poultry cooperative that was in ruinous competition with Tyson. A year later they moved to McPherson, Kan. The large co-op there had three different locations with a grocery market, grain elevator and mill, and large petroleum operation–the largest in Kansas, he recalls.

With Bob’s parents in their 80s, he wanted to get back to Oklahoma. The Kingfisher job came up, and the co-op board was ready to hire him on the spot. The co-op was “about to go under” after three years of losses. He took a little pause during the interview to let things cool off.

“I went outside for about 20 minutes. When I came back, they asked,  ‘Would it be all right to have a used pickup to drive instead of a new one?'” This reduction of the offer didn’t stop him from accepting the job.

“The first full year, we made money. I built a spirit within the community to make them realize they had to work together to get things done.” Bob instilled the same spirit into the employees. They wore uniforms. The facilities received new paint.

There were two grain elevators. The south elevator, which we take to be the 250,000-bushel Tillotson house erected in 1946, was seamed in three locations where the continuous pour had evidently stopped, and of course there were leaks. To fund construction of this elevator, the co-op had reincorporated for $130,000. Then the existing 34,000-bushel elevator was knocked down.

“The old elevator was wearing out,” Velma writes in her 50-year history of the Kingfisher Cooperative Elevator Association published in 1984. “It had started leaning badly, making it necessary to fill the bins carefully and to distribute the weight evenly. Otherwise the cups would bind, and the cantankerous old machinery would refuse to budge.”

One of Bob’s first matters was to fix the big concrete elevator. “We had a company come in and go around and seal those places. I don’t recall what it was. It probably would be Gunite. The biggest problem was, they had that leakage of course, but also a manager who allowed wet grain to come into that elevator.” Instead of moisture content below 13 percent, Bob guesses it was more like 15 percent. “That’s going to spoil every time. It was very damaging and expensive to get rid of all that.” Greater care was used from then on.

“We tried to keep them running in good shape all the time. As we expanded we took in the flour mill that was just north of us.” The larger elevator not only provided the most storage but also handled grain faster. The first elevator, which wasn’t used as much afterward, was reserved for grains other than wheat.

While Bob was immersed in business, Velma wrote for the newspaper in Kingfisher. Her popular, regular features included a cook’s page and a long series of interviews with people 90 years old and up. She also taught music at a Catholic school.  

The Kingfisher Co-op grew and expanded, becoming the largest fertilizer dealer and leading supplier of agricultural chemicals in Oklahoma, Bob recalls. All this volume of business led to its becoming one of the largest cooperatives in the state.

“I had made a prediction,” Bob says. “We’ve got to become larger to become competitive. We would have five to six major cooperatives in state of Oklahoma.”

And in fact, he sees fewer and fewer cooperatives all the time–and they’re regionalized. The collapse of Farmland Industries in 2002 “destroyed a lot of smaller and even larger ones that were invested them.”

Bob lost Velma to a heart attack on June 29. He is 90 years old and, as he says, “still active.” On Thanksgiving he hosted 23 people, providing a “huge ham and turkey.” Family support has sustained him, he says. “They’ve been very comforting to me.”

Tillotson built a 181,000-bushel annex at Weatherford, Okla., in 1954

Reader Terry Christensen found himself wondering about something, so he wrote this comment, which is lightly edited for style:

Hello and thanks millions for these awesome stories!

My dad, George T. Christensen, worked for Tillotson Construction in the early ’50s, and he died in an unrelated accident while building the elevator in Boxholm, Iowa, in 1955. My mom told us that he worked on several elevators in Oklahoma, and I would love to see the construction notes for all the elevators they built in Oklahoma. I think they built the one in Weatherford, Okla., in 1952 or 1953 and maybe the one at Hydro Okla.?

Thanks again,

Terry Christensen

Well, in fact,  we don’t know anything about Hydro, but Tillotson Construction Co. sure did build at Weatherford–a 181,000-bushel storage annex in 1954.

We find specifications in the construction record. At the top of the entry, the coded notes tell us there were eight tanks of 17 feet in diameter by 115 feet in height. Two 24-inch conveyor belts moved grain through the run atop the tanks. There was a tunnel, probably from the main house to the annex. And a tripper would sweep grain off the belt into a storage tank.

“The key feature of the steam-powered conveyor belt that ran alongside the tops of the grain bins was the ‘trimmer’ or ‘tripper,’ a device that deflected the flow of grain off the belt, and down and into a particular grain bin,” writes William J. Brown in American Colossus: The Grain Elevator 1843 to 1943.

Here are the notes for Weatherford (as well as Dacoma and Orienta, Okla.); Newell, Iowa; and Bellwood, Neb.:

Weatherford 01

Weatherford 02

 

 

Kingfisher Co-op history, Part 3: Further expansion and maturity

Here are the final pages of the 11-page history published in 1984 by Kingfisher Cooperative Elevator Association.

In 1955, after notifying contractors to send in bids, the co-op added a 320,000-bushel elevator. This supplemented the 240,000-bushel elevator built by Tillotson Construction Co., of Omaha, in 1946.

“A new skyscraper had been added to the landscape, and the farmers took pride in the contribution they had made to their community’s appearance and prosperity,” the history says.

You will find the Tillotson elevator on the left in the aerial view of the 1955 skyline (p. 8).

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Kingfisher Co-op history, Part 2: Incorporation and steady growth

This is second of our three postings to give you the 11 pages of history published by the Kingfisher Cooperative Elevator Association on its 50th anniversary.

In these pages you’ll learn that one surviving founder of the co-op recalled “with pleasure how the grain cooperative changed farmers’ lives” in the area. On March 10, 1934, a group of 10 men met and arranged for articles of incorporation. Later, they hired a manager for $125 per month.

On the third page here, you will see the 240,000-bushel elevator built by Tillotson Construction Co., of Omaha, in 1946.

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Kingfisher Coop

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Kingfisher Co-op history, Part 1: The ‘disheartening’ year of 1929

Over the next three days, we will post all 11 pages of “The Co-op Way,” published in 1984 in observance of the Kingfisher Cooperative Elevator Association’s 50th anniversary. Our stake in this is the 240,000-bushelTillotson elevator of 1946.

We don’t recall when or how this document miraculously came into our hands, but now is the time to share it. We hope you will enjoy it and benefit from the beautifully written, ever-so-erudite account and stay with us to the conclusion.

Co-op Way 01

Co-op Way 02

Co-op Way 03

 

 

 

Calling at Kingfisher, Okla., raises suspicions but leads to answers

By Ronald Ahrens

This past spring we dispatched our indefatigable correspondent, Rose Ann Fennessy, to Kingfisher, Okla., where Tillotson Construction Co., of Omaha, built a 240,000-bushel elevator in 1946.

Kingfisher is a large, multi-faceted complex. Naturally enough, Rose Ann found herself overwhelmed.

Meanwhile, her prowling aroused suspicion.

Without a definitive result–but with Rose Ann managing to avoid a lengthy sentence–we turn to a history of the Kingfisher Cooperative Elevator Association, which fell into our hands a few years ago.

This document was published in 1984 on the Association’s 50th anniversary.

Here we quote from it:

“The association ‘reincorporated’ for $130,000. The previous incorporation was for only $25,000. Also in 1946 the association wrecked the old 34,000 bu. elevator and built a new concrete elevator with a 250,000 bu. capacity. They also wrecked all the other old buildings except the office and scale house which they had built in 1942. It was remodeled into a concrete cleaning and grinding mill and warehouse.” 

There is a discrepancy of 10,000 bushels between Tillotson’s records and the capacity mentioned in the report.

It continues:

“A new skyline was developing on Kingfisher’s horizon. Burrus Mill and Elevator of Kingfisher, perhaps the cooperative’s most unrelenting competition, had built a 1,200,000 bu. facility in the 1930s and it had always loomed large in the farmers’ minds. Now, the farmers had a modern facility and it gave them confidence to know they could compete on a more equitable basis.” 

“For Kingfisher County farmers, who were accustomed to prairie landscapes, concrete elevators looked like skyscrapers, and it made them proud to have erected such a monument to their united efforts.” 

From the photo included in the report we see the Tillotson house in Rose Ann’s photo. As the construction record notes, it was built on an expanded Medford plan from 1941 and has “2 driveways thru center” and a single leg.

We are blessed with the cover photo, which shows the Tillotson elevator in the lower left along with the cleaning-and-grinding mill extending out of frame. The elevator’s rectangular headhouse bears the Kingfisher Coop stamp.

Is it any wonder the farmers felt proud to have a monument to their united efforts?

Listen on KOSU, from Stillwater, as we talk about road trip discoveries

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By Ronald Ahrens

Kelly Burley, news director of KOSU, called me up from Stillwater to talk about the recent road trip, focusing on the sites I visited in western Oklahoma.

He requested a couple of photos (seen here) with captions for KOSU’s home page.

Burley said the full interview would post on the station’s site, and an edited version would run as an insert during a broadcast of “All Things Considered.”

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Above, Pond Creek, Okla. Here, Tillotson’s first concrete elevator (right), 1939, Goltry, Okla.

Indeed, he was true to his word. The link to the 25-minute version is embedded here. The page will open in a new window.

Kristen and I have been blogging since December 2012, but this is our first media coverage and we’re pleased.

Final thoughts after 1,800 miles, 20 grain elevators, and one Czech sausage

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By Ronald Ahrens

As Kristen Cart and I have been blogging about Our Grandfathers’ Grain Elevators since 2012, she has been able to make the most of her Midwestern location by visiting “our” elevators in Iowa and Nebraska. But I live near Palm Springs, Calif., which is much better known for its midcentury modern houses. Down in the southern end of the valley they grow dates, grapes, strawberries, and leafy greens. No need for an elevator there.

Texas-Okla Logo 04I had only been to the Mayer-Osborn elevator in Tempe, Ariz., and Tillotson Construction Co.’s 1947 terminal in my hometown of Omaha. (Also, a superficial look-see at an elevator-mill complex in Colton, Calif., about an hour from my house.)

So I’ve been winging it.

The 1,800-mile road trip from April 15 to 22, 2018, was an education. I had to go about 1,000 before the first visit to one of “our” elevators in Hereford, Tex. But in the next 84 hours I visited 18 more locations, saw for myself the distinctions from one to the next, and learned a great deal.

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Workbench and storage in Pond Creek, Okla.

Subsequent conversations with my uncles, Chuck and Tim Tillotson, have sharpened those distinctions.

And of course, as I’ve been at my desk writing the posts in this series, I’ve pored over the company records as never before.

My takeaway from all this can be distilled into a few points.

  1. The people I met in Canyon, Bushland, and Booker, Tex., are super-smart and know their business inside and out. In Conlen, Tex., an employee named Jamie said the elevator there was “older than dirt.” In Meno and Pond Creek, Okla., I was encouraged by the astuteness of Matthew Thomsen, Tracie Rhodes, and Jeff Johndrow. They’re not so different from the leaders I interview in my assignments as a reporter for automotive and business magazines. I could see them in Silicon Valley or Detroit.
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    Pond Creek basement.

    Seeing the elevators–most of them in pretty good shape–and watching the work is gratifying. The first Tillotson concrete elevator, in Goltry, Okla., has not been operational for about a decade. But the fourth one ever built, in 1941, is still in use at Medford, Okla., and is looking at its 80th birthday in 2021. I’m sure my grandfather, Reginald O. Tillotson, would be proud. Kristen’s grandfather, William Osborn–who may have worked on some of these jobs when he was with Tillotson and who built one of the elevators that greeted me in Follett–would be the same. They did a splendid thing.

  3. On the Great Plains of the Texas Panhandle and western Oklahoma, it’s quite possible to see how these grain castles, some as high as 175 feet, changed the landscape. We know it happened in a 15-year period between Tillotson’s first effort at Goltry and 1954, when most of the building was done. Excepting the intensive effort to out-produce the Germans and Japanese during World War Two–the period from 1942 to 1944 when no elevators were built–the transformation happened even faster. If at the moment you weren’t in view of a grain elevator, you soon would be.

It was a propitious moment to do this road trip. Most of the elevators were still going about their noble business, but 20 years from now they’ll be reaching what we conceive as their maximum life-cycle. I fear that more and more of them will stand as decrepit monuments. Someone asked if they’ll be knocked down. The answer is that I didn’t hear any of the farmers’ cooperative employees mention a budget for pulverizing, in the case of Tillotson’s 350,000-bushel elevator at Farnsworth, Tex., 1,875 cubic yards of concrete and 127 tons of reinforcing steel.

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Tillotson Construction Co. manhole cover and other detail from Pond Creek.

Perhaps a good lesson comes from the news that Ford Motor Co. has acquired the Michigan Central terminal in Detroit. This building, abandoned for decades, became the chief emblem of “ruins porn,” those photos of the Motor City’s decrepitude. Ford will restore the building over four years and devote some space to its expanding innovations hub in the city.

We can only hope for the same with elevators. Not that Ford would be involved, but that the innovators we’ve written about–vertical farmers, property developers, recreation entrepreneurs–will find new uses or refine old ones.

Here I extend a big salute to the readers who’ve followed along on our road trip series. Your companionship and comments have been appreciated.