Tillotson Construction’s signature, the curved headhouse, was a practical matter

The main house of Tillotson Construction's elevator at Dike, Iowa, built in 1946 (annex, left, 1949), is crowned by a rectilinear headhouse.

The main house of Tillotson Construction’s elevator at Dike, Iowa, built in 1946 (annex, left, 1949), is crowned by a rectilinear headhouse. 

In this post, Charles J. Tillotson explains how his father, Reginald Tillotson, president of Tillotson Construction Company, developed the curved headhouse design.

It would be nice to say that the curved walls were created by Dad for aesthetic reasons and leave it at that.

However, a number of factors actually influenced the design, those being:

  1. Re-use of the curved yokes (the horizontal framework supporting the vertical forms used during slip-form construction of the storage bins).
  2. Building square corners into concrete slip-form construction proved to be more difficult than curved corners.
  3. Placing horizontal reinforcing steel for square corners entailed bending it at a ninety-degree angle and then manhandling it into position, whereas with the curved forms, the horizontal reinforcing steel could be inserted much easier by sliding it into position.
Tillotson's Aurora, Neb., elevator, built in 1950, has a curved headhouse.

Tillotson’s Aurora, Neb., elevator, built in 1950, has a curved headhouse.

For numbers two and three above, keep in mind that all horizontal reinforcing steel, or rebar, was placed by hand (anywhere from twelve to sixteen inches) during the slip-form process, all while the forms were being slipped vertically by screw jacks.

The horizontal steel had to be placed rather quickly throughout the entire structure, so that the steel bars were approximately in alignment from the beginning of placement throughout the structure and back to the beginning point.

On large projects, steel placement was divided into segments with a team captain in charge of each, and all captains would then synchronize their start times for installing the rebar.

Slip-form construction involves a great deal of detailed labor to carry out specific functions while the forms are being jacked vertically in constant motion. It used to be about five to six inches per hour.

1920 census finds the Tillotsons settled in Omaha

By Ronald Ahrens

After their sojourn on Alda Street in Elba, Nebraska, where they were living at the time of the 1910 census, the family of Charles H. and Rose A. Tillotson found their way to Omaha.

When the census-taker came to the door in 1920, my great-grandfather gave his occupation as a “mechanic” in construction. This tells me several things. One is that just fifteen years earlier, the term “mechanician” was frequently used in the press. So it might be said that the language was in a sense settling.

Another thing is that mechanic was rather loosely defined. During the 1930s, Bill Knudsen, who became president of General Motors in 1937, gave speeches and interviews in which he insisted that every boy should learn the mechanic’s trade. This didn’t necessarily mean auto mechanics. It was more a case of learning the manual arts: sheet-metal work, electrical, maybe even plumbing or pipefitting.

But in the case of “Chas. H,” as he’s here listed (he was Charlie in 1910), I suspect it has something to do with assembling the legs and other internals of grain elevators.

Note that, whereas he was evidently an employer in 1910, he’s now a worker. The family was living at 624 N. 41 St, where they would be found again in 1930.

My grandfather’s name is entered incorrectly as “Oscar R.” instead of Reginald Oscar.

Joseph H. was 13, Reginald was 11, and Mary V. was 9. (Although that numeral may at first glance look like a 7, inspection by magnifying glass of a printed copy shows that it’s in fact a 9 with the loop nearly closed.)

Meanwhile, it’s certainly unusual that my great-grandmother Rose was thirty-five years old in 1910 but here is thirty-eight. Hers had to be the most effective anti-aging strategy ever!

The Tillotson Construction Story, by Charles J. Tillotson

Speaking to my Uncle Tim about the airplanes used for business travel in the years after World War Two by my grandfather, Reginald Oscar Tillotson, led me to make a cartoon of one of them, called a Stinson Station Wagon. Then my Uncle Chuck wrote the following narrative in response to some questions I had about the airplanes operated by the business and the nature of the company itself. With his response comes the proviso that his recollections may or may not be entirely accurate!

Looking back, Dad was really an adventurous contractor. Way ahead of his time but I guess he was driven to flight because he was worn out from driving. During the early years of his business, driving 100,000 miles a year was the norm.

Reginald O. Tillotson in his mid-20s

Although Dad took a few flying lessons and probably took the controls while in the air sometimes, he never actually piloted the plane. He had a couple of engineers/salesmen working in the office that got him into flying—both were ex-Air Force pilots. They flew for Dad from time to time but eventually one of them, Marvin Melia, became his full-time pilot. When he wasn’t flying, he was a general overall maintenance/handyman for the business. Dad had double hernias, which I think also prevented him from getting a license. And of course we were glad he couldn’t because of his drinking.

My Grandpa Charles was in the business of constructing wooden grain elevators back in ’20’s thru the late ’30’s. He passed away in 1938 and left the business to his two sons and daughter Mary. The boys, Joe and Mike, (nickname for R.O.) were already working in the business, and shortly before Grandpa Charles died the company started experimenting with constructing grain elevators using reinforced concrete via a method called slip-forming. This method allowed a contractor to build a concrete storage building very fast, which not only provided a more substantial structure but also far more grain storage capacity than the smaller wooden elevators.

After the war, the increase in production of corn, wheat, sorghum, rice, etc., caused the NEED for huge amounts of grain storage, which was virtually non-existent save the old wooden ones. So Dad, Joe, and Mary took off building concrete grain storage, and their business exploded. Many of the grain elevators that you see as you travel the grain belt—from Calgary, Alberta, to Brownsville, Texas, and from Colorado to Illinois, and even some southern states as far east as South Carolina (rice storage)—were built by Tillotson Construction & Development.

Ashland, Neb.

Shortly after the war, my Dad and Joe decided they couldn’t see eye to eye, so they split. Joe moved to Denver to form his own company and Mary remained with Dad in Omaha. As the business grew, the company took on a few employees, including the pilot types, and developed a cadre of field superintendents to handle the construction work. Dad was the initiator of the contracts. His job was to sell, sell, sell. Hence, the 100,000 miles per year of road travel. During the war years, synthetic tires were all you could obtain and of course they weren’t as good as rubber, so Dad went through many tires in those days. He used to come home with a trunk full of casings for retreading and at least one dog, which kept him company during the long hours of driving. He also came home with turtles, tarantulas, cats, shrimp on dry ice, and other sundry items that we got to consume or take care of!

Anyway, between 1940 and 1957, Dad built out hundreds, maybe thousands of elevators. I have no way of knowing how many nor exactly their locations other than to point you to the Midwestern Plains and look for the tall concrete storage tanks. Acquiring a plane was an obvious step. It provided him with faster travel, exacted less wear and tear on his body, and enabled him to spend more time at home.

stinsonstationwagon01When I went back for my 55th high school class reunion, we were invited out to some friends’ home in Gretna, and we drove from Omaha out the old highway, U.S. Route 6, to get there. On the way, I stopped and paid homage to Dad and my aunt in three little towns (spots in the road) where they had built. They didn’t build much in Nebraska, but in Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas they built one in every little farm town where a grain crop was produced. Of course, as the years passed, they had competition, some of which came from men who spun off from Dad—so he wasn’t the only company out there building these units.

By the late ’50s, the need to build more capacity began to diminish and his business started to decline, and it was the end of an era for Tillotson Construction & Development. Dad passed away in 1960 at the early age of 51. He had literally worked and drank and smoked himself to death. I didn’t appreciate all that he did for us kids until much later in life, but to do today what Dad did would be next to impossible with all the government/environmental/safety controls and taxation that now exist.

Tillotson Construction, Omaha, Nebraska, remains legible after 60 years or so. Photo by Charles Tillotson.

About Margaret Tillotson: http://baggyparagraphs.wordpress.com/2009/05/04/things-beyond-control/

“Prairie Cathedrals” article about photographers Bruce and Barbara Selyem, who document grain elevators:  http://www.americanprofile.com/article/31661.html

History of concrete:


Recommended book: