Sunset at Rockwell City, Iowa

The Tillotson elevator in Rockwell City, Iowa, as it appeared in 2014

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

Recently, one of our readers sent us some disheartening news. The skyline in Rockwell City, Iowa, has permanently changed, as announced by Paul Grage:

“…I would like to let you know that the Tillotson elevator in Rockwell City, Iowa, is currently being torn down. They blasted the head house because it was too tall for the crane that ran the wrecking ball. They are currently wrecking balling the rest. The rail that used to serve it was abandon[ed] long ago and an airport runway was built on the old bed. The elevator is shot and it’s presence makes about 1200 feet of the runway useless after course corrections. Its demolition was funded by the Iowa DOT and Landus Cooperative.”

Back in 2014 I paid a visit to Rockwell City, Iowa, located a few miles south of U.S. Route 20 in the western third of the state. I stopped to take pictures of the old Tillotson project, which was one of the larger elevators on my route from Nebraska to my home in Illinois.

The Tillotson landmark was permanently closed for business and deserted.

I spoke to an elderly gentleman standing outside of his small bungalow, which was tucked in close to its neighbors on a street radiating from the elevator property. He had recently moved to town, so he didn’t know any local history, but he shared his observations of the old site.  He said that an owl family had moved into the headhouse. Sometimes he would see the birds flying in or out at dusk, or he would hear their hooting at night.

Other than accommodating the new residents, the elevator stood silently, by far the biggest structure in town. Its doom was sealed when the rail line closed. I didn’t know it would be my last visit–the dull light of the day invited another visit for photos, so I set my images aside for a later post. I never got back there. But here are views of the old elevator, as I found it that day.

The tallest landmark in town is now the water tower.

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.

 

 

Uniqeness in an early Cargill elevator in northeastern South Dakota

Early Cargill 02

Brad Perry shares another photo of an early Cargill elevator, this one at Athol, S.D.

Athol and yesterday’s Ashton are twin towns in Spink County, a ways south of Aberdeen. Together they must have about 180 people.

We hope those people appreciate the uniqueness of their elevators.

The trading partnership of Bagley & Cargill in South Dakota

Bagley

Our friend, Brad Perry, saw the recent posts about Cargill history and was prompted to send some of his photos.

“The Bagley name still shows up in South Dakota along U.S. 12,” Perry notes. This elevator turns up in an online source that says the location is Andover, just east of Aberdeen.

“George C[olt]. Bagley was a member of a grain-trading family in eastern Wisconsin,” Wayne G. Broehl, Jr. writes in his massive history of Cargill. 

In the early 1880s, Wisconsin farmers were moving out of wheat and into livestock, so Bagley betook himself to South Dakota and partnered with Sylvester Cargill, one of the five Cargill brothers.

Broehl continues:

Most of the Bagley & Cargill operations were in that part of the Dakota territory that later became the northeastern section of South Dakota. Similar to Jim Cargill’s larger-capacity operations in the Red River Valley, the Bagley & Cargill’s 13 structures at the firms 10 locations were more substantial (although only one was classified as an elevator.) This elevator, at Aberdeen, had a capacity of 25,000 bushels; the Andover warehouse had the same; the Groton operation had an 18,000-bushel capacity and the Bath warehouse, 15,000.

An extensive biography of Bagley says the company concentrated on towns along the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad.

The partnership lasted “only a short time.” Bagley’s wife, Cornelia, would later recall, “Ves Cargill [Sylvester] was a partner but George could not put up with his suspicion of all deals and bought him out.”

 

One of Cargill’s early concrete elevators found in southern Minnestota

Elmore

Our friend, Brad Perry, saw the recent posts about Cargill history and was prompted to send some of his photos.

Here he shows us one of Cargill’s early concrete elevators. It’s located in Elmore, Minn., a tiny town in Faribault County, in the south-central part of the state right on the Iowa line.

As railroads pushed west in the 1870s, Will Cargill expanded his grain storage along the lines through northern Iowa and southern Minnesota.

And as the era of reinforced-concrete elevators unfolded, Cargill’s successors continued building.

We don’t know a thing about this elevator’s dimensions or who might have built it, but how impressive is the wooden elevator on the right? It stands almost shoulder to shoulder with the more modern concrete one. 

Early grain-storage leader Buffalo experienced the boom in full

Buffalo 07

By Ronald Ahrens

“Silent crowd watches through the long night hours as workers search mill ruins for more missing bodies,” the Buffalo Times blared in 1913.

As an early leader in grain storage and milling, Buffalo, N.Y., was also a test site (of sorts) for elevator mishaps.

This report, culled from a firefighting blog, shows how the explosion even hit a passing train: 

An explosion devastated a grain elevator, killing at least 17 men and injuring 60 more. The elevator, located at the Husted Milling and Elevating Co. at Elk and Peabody streets, was left in flames after the dust explosion. The engineer of a passing train was killed by the blast that shattered windows, injuring many passengers. A dozen boxcars loaded with grain were also destroyed. Every ambulance in the city responded, but there were so many injuries that the flatbed section of the damaged train was used to transport many of the wounded grain elevator workers. Firemen poured tons of water on the volatile remains all day and into the night, hoping to cool things enough to allow a complete search. Losses were estimated at a half-million dollars.

Grain dust is explosive. After the electrification of elevator mechanisms in the late-1890s, it took a while to figure out that electric motors should be shielded to suppress sparks.

Static electricity can build up around conveyor belts.

Machinery can overheat.

And of course, there’s a reason “No Smoking” warnings are now everywhere in an elevator.

Tillotson Construction Company’s first reinforced concrete elevator, which was built in 1939 at Goltry, Okla., had a dust collection system. Notes in the company records say, “3 H.P. fan, 42″ collector dust bin.”

We lack any more details but are striving to increase our knowledge of dust collection inside elevators.

 

 

 

 

Around 1900, electricity and concrete were advances for Buffalo’s elevators

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Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society

By Ronald Ahrens

Yesterday we looked at the rise of Buffalo, N.Y., as a grain storage and processing center, one that developed after the the Erie Canal opened in 1825. Buffalo was the port where grain was unloaded from lake boats to canal boats. A bevy of steam-powered bucket elevators sprang up.

Today we consider the advances made in Buffalo after the introduction of electricity and electric motors to replace coal and steam engines. We also look at the rise of slipformed concrete to replace wooden elevator houses.

In his essay on the history of Buffalo’s elevators, Henry H. Baxter notes that inexpensive electric power permitted the electrification of elevators. It also encouraged grain processing: the milling of cereal, flour, and animal feed.

Buffalo 05The first electric elevator–a retrofitting, we assume–was soon after a large-capacity generating station started up in 1895. Two years later, the Electric and  Great Northern elevators were built solely around compact electric motors.

“In this way they eliminated steam boilers, engines, chimneys, numerous workers, and the necessity of bringing fuel to the elevator or mill site,” Baxter explains.

Nevertheless, grain scoopers were still needed, and the Irish from South Buffalo dominated the International Longshoremen’s Association Grain Shovelers Union Local 109 as late as 1940. During Buffalo’s heyday as many as 3,000 men were employed scooping grain from the holds of lake carriers. By 1996, the Buffalo News reported only 80 scoopers remained, the last of their kind in the United States.

A Facebook page offers revealing photos of scoopers at work.

The corresponding advance was the use of reinforced concrete. Baxter explains: “At first, bins were built of wood and usually lined with iron. After 1890 steel bins were built in a number of different arrangements. Since that time reinforced concrete has been used.

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Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society

To get up to the headhouse, workers used a man lift. “This is an endless moving belt stretching from basement to the top with 12-inch square platforms attached every 25 feet or so. To go up or down a worker has only to step on a wooden platform going in his direction and hold on.”

Baxter does not specify what a worker might hold for security. Of course, a worker could  fall–that’s why enclosed cages replaced the more primitive method.

A reinforced-concrete elevator was built at Buffalo in 1907. Baxter’s understated description of the method is worth quoting at length:

At the beginning, a form usually four feet high was built on the foundation slab. Screw jacks placed at intervals of about seven feet were used to raise the form. Workers operated the jacks at a rate calculated to raise the form about six inches an hour. This rate gave concrete time to set at the bottom before being exposed by the slowly rising form.

Using this method it took about ten days for the Standard Elevator to reach the height of 125 feet. This was the average height of the bins. After completion of the bins, the workhouse was slipformed up until the structure reached a height of about 200 feet.

The top or deck of a grain elevator under construction was an extremely busy place. Placement of steel rods, pouring of concrete, and jacking of the form were continuous processes. Generally, each jack man had twelve jacks to tend to. A whistle sounded as a signal for each man to make one turn on each jack. Raising the form six inches required 24 whistle signals each hour. During that time a jack man would make 288 turns–almost five a minute–on his jack. Understandably a jack man occasionally got tired enough to miss a few turns. This caused his section of the form to be lower than the rest, resulting in a considerable stress on the form. Such an imbalance brought distress to the job superintendent.