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.

 

Leaving Oklahoma and finding vexing likeness between 2 elevators in Medford

 

 

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By Ronald Ahrens

After Tillotson Construction Co. had built their first three modest concrete elevators on the Goltry plan starting in 1939, it became time to attempt a big one at Medford, Okla.

Texas-Okla Logo 04In 1941 the Omaha company upsized with a 212,000-bushel single-leg elevator in Medford. Tillotson’s records say they also built an identical companion elevator in Thomas, Okla., which had been too far south from my route across the state’s western region and must be reserved for a future visit.

I had just been in Pond Creek; now, on my way out of Oklahoma, I headed north to Medford. “Located in a wheat-growing region, Medford served as an agricultural trade center with a flour mill and several grain elevators,” Wikipedia reports. “By 1909 the local economy supported three banks and three weekly newspapers.” 

The elevator complex run by Clyde Co-op Association loomed on the horizon. This would be the last stop on my road trip–the 20th elevator in all. (I haven’t even mentioned stopping in Tucumcari, N.M., the very first site visit even before reaching Canyon, Tex.; that elevator had manhole covers embossed with the name Bleater Construction, of Amarillo.) I’d learned by now not to jump to the conclusion about what I was seeing.

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The south elevator, foreground, merits the adornment of wheat stalks. 

Indeed, here were two elevators and a storage annex at 567 Hwy. 81. So which one was the House of Tillotson? Turning to the company records, we find the ’41 giant had eight tanks, or silos, of 15.5 feet in diameter that rose 120 feet from the loamy earth. 

The cupola, or headhouse, towered further, being 21.5 feet wide, 48.5 feet long, and 33 feet high.

The job consumed 1,845 cubic yards of concrete and 82.5 tons of reinforcing steel.

On the scene I met Jacob States, a lanky young native of Medford who had worked for Clyde Co-op for a while but maybe too short a period to have developed a wealth of historical knowledge.

Alas, I came away with no photos of manhole covers from inside either house. I did snap one of a Johnson-Sampson plate on the storage annex.

The south elevator appears to be of the same general style but a larger capacity, and it has the larger headhouse. The north elevator looks as if it matches the dimensions listed in Tillotson records.

This morning, two months after my visit to Medford, I phoned the Co-op and spoke to Jenna, who said both elevators are operational.

I hate to end the road trip reports on a note of uncertainty. What can be told for sure  is that the total cost less commission for the Medford elevator was $41,888.37. The workers received 30 cents per hour straight time and 60 cents overtime.

In all, the job required 25,630 man-hours. Total payout was $11,015.50 for an average of 42.9 cents per man-hour.

The Thomas elevator, being identical, required 836 fewer man-hours (streamlined procedures?) and cost $41,275.28.

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The Czech sausage sandwich in question.

Rather than conducting a more thorough site visit, I needed to find a lunch spot and then get going in order to make it to my sister’s house in Omaha before bedtime. Jacob States had said I’d find no fast food in Medford, but he failed to mention Smrcka’s Dairy Shack on the north edge of town. In this one-of-a-kind restaurant I ordered a delicious Czech sausage sandwich and sauerkraut, along with friend and a limeade, for only $8.38.

“Have a nice day. Please come again,” says the sales receipt. I don’t know when that will happen, but indeed I’d like to come back to conduct further evaluations here an about 10 other Tillotson sites like Thomas, which I had to bypass.

 

A conversation in Pond Creek, Okla., about the future of concrete elevators

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By Ronald Ahrens

The morning of Thursday, April 19, was calm in more ways than one. The Ford Ranger that had conveyed me from Palm Springs wouldn’t start. I got a jump from AAA and took the truck to Walmart, next-door to my hotel in Enid. With a new battery, it seemed ready to go, so I headed north out of town. My destination was Omaha, but there were two more Tillotson elevators to visit before I left Oklahoma.

Texas-Okla Logo 04I drove for a half-hour before coming to Pond Creek. The town of less than 1,000 people has an impressive complex of three reinforced-concrete grain elevators and additional storage.

Tillotson Construction Co. built here in 1946 and again in 1950. The first was a 100,000-bushel storage job on an original plan. It had an attached driveway, four tanks of 15.5 feet in diameter rising 107 feet from the ground, and a “standard” cupola (according to the company records) that reached 18 feet in height. This elevator is seen at right in the photo at the top of the page. Another elevator, by what builder I don’t know, lurks behind it. 

The second job was a 252,000-bushel elevator on the plan established at Dike, Iowa, in 1946. This time, there were eight tanks, or silos, of 18 feet in diameter rising 120 feet from the ground. The distinguishing feature is Tillotson’s classic curved headhouse. You see this elevator on the left. 

The big one was open, so I helped myself to a tour and found the 68-year-old elevator operational and good condition. The interior is all elegant contours and secret passages. 

No one had noticed me, so I went to the Farmers Grain Co. office and met Jeff Johndrow, the location manager.

“The earthquakes haven’t been kind to the old girls,” Johndrow said, referring to tremors that are widely attributed to fracking in the area.

Then he tempered his remark by saying, “They’re fine–just some circular cracks, good cracks, not bad cracks.”

While the elevators are “very much in service,” he said they’re beyond their rated lives.

I said I wasn’t aware that the builders had established a life rating.

“The insurance companies certainly have an opinion,” he said.

This sobering revelation made me realize just how precarious is the continued operation of concrete elevators. I’d already seen a few discards on my road trip. It leaves one asking: Twenty years from now, how many of them will be in service?

 

How Tillotson managed to get it right (and level) in Goltry, Okla., in 1939

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By Ronald Ahrens

Compared to the big 350,000-bushel, twin-leg elevator that Tillotson Construction Co. put up in Farnsworth, Tex., in 1945, their very first elevator (foreground above), built six years earlier in Goltry, Okla., seems almost demure.

Texas-Okla Logo 04It isn’t hard to imagine the crew feeling their way along on this unfamiliar trip from the depths of the pit up every inch of the 96-foot drawform walls and then to the top of the cupola, or headhouse. Were the men keeping it level as they rose? How precise was the mixture of sand, cement, and water? Was the concrete finishing going well?

An answer to these questions is that this 60,000-bushel, single-leg elevator is still standing 80 years later and doesn’t look too bad, although it hasn’t been operated for perhaps a decade.

IMG_9364At the time of construction, the job required 758 cubic yards of concrete and 32.5 tons of reinforcing steel.

The elevator sat on an 18-inch-thick slab that measured 37 x 43 feet. It covered the pit, which was 14 feet 6 inches deep. The dump grate was 5 x 9 feet and the driveway was 13 feet wide.

Fully loaded with up to 1,800 tons of grain, the elevator weighed 3,532 tons.

The cupola, or headhouse, measured 15.5 feet wide, 31 feet long, and 23.5 feet high.

Looking at the leg, the roomy headhouse and deep pit meant that the pulley centers were 127.5 feet apart.

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The first Tillotson elevator, seen on the right here in Goltry, Okla., featured a central driveway, a trait that became common.  

The head pulley was 60 inches in diameter, 14 inches wide, and 3-7/16 inches deep. It must have seemed a marvel in its day. As in pre-war practice, the boot pulley was much smaller–just 18 inches in diameter–and 2-3/16 inches deep. After the war, Tillotson started to use boot pulleys of the same diameter as the head.

The belt that ran over these pulleys was a 13-inch, five-ply Calumet belt with cups measuring 12 inches wide and six inches deep spaced at seven-inch intervals. A 25-horsepower Ehrsam motor turned the head pulley.

No specifications are noted for the man lift other than that it was electrically operated. A 5-horse Ehrsam motor worked the truck lift.

Tillotson’s first concrete elevator has stood in Goltry, Okla. since 1939

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By Ronald Ahrens

I reached Goltry by driving six miles east on Route 45 from Helena, where I had nearly been blown off my feet by the wind.

Texas-Okla Logo 04Goltry is a curiosity. It had its largest population, some 346 people, in 1930. Today it’s more like 250 people. There used to be two Mennonite churches, but only one today. The Mennonites took their name from Menno Simons, who was also the namesake of the town of Meno, which I had visited earlier that day, April 18.

Goltry is also the birthplace of Wally Parks, who went to California and became co-founder of Hot Rod magazine. In 1951 Parks created the National Hot Rod Association, which still promotes drag racing today.

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Not incidental to my journey, two grain elevators of reinforced concrete stand in Goltry. The smaller, a 60,000-bushel house, was the first such structure that Tillotson Construction Co., of Omaha, put up. It was a touchstone for me and, really, the beginning of our story. I wish I could have come here first, but instead it was one of the last.

Because I arrived after 7 p.m., everything was closed up.

I yearned to know how they got the job in 1939. Just the year before, great-grandfather Charles H. Tillotson had died, leaving the business to his sons Joe and (my grandfather) Reginald.

Until then, the Tillotsons had built wooden elevators. But Reginald and Joe saw the future was in concrete. Among other things, demand for storage was growing as crop production increased. Concrete enabled the company to build much bigger elevators for their clients.

IMG_9348Nevertheless, even at 60,000 bushels, which is puny compared to later work, it took some nerve to proceed and manage this job. Would it come out straight and level?

Providing evidence that things worked out, they did an identical elevator the next year in Newkirk, Okla., a town about 80 miles to the northeast. Another on the Goltry plan went up in 1941 in Douglas, to the southeast of Enid.

The company completed five elevators in 1941. Grain elevator construction then ceased until Tillotson built one in 1944 and seven in 1945.

Company records from those early days include detailed information about costs. Here in Goltry, the total cost less commission was $21,522.97. Even at the rate of 30 cents per hour straight time, 60 cents overtime, the largest portion of that grand total was the $5,575.24 outlay for 14,000 hours of labor. Based on a 40-hour week, that’s 350 man-weeks of labor.

I wasn’t aware of this as I walked the site. Information about costs was a little too prosaic for the moment. My spirit was soaring as I took my photos, as if I’d reached a sacred place.

I didn’t know who built the second, larger elevator on the site, but it has a storage annex and a manhole cover with Tillotson’s name embossed. I guess they returned at some point.

The Goltry elevator looked in fair shape from the outside–no spalling or significant cracking–but was it still in use? While writing this post I phoned the Farmers Exchange of Goltry and spoke to Carol Jackson. “We haven’t used it in probably, if I say seven to eight years, it’s probably 10.” The bins leak, the leg, the man lift–everything needs repairs, she said.

It would have been better to find the first Tillotson elevator still in use, but at least it hasn’t been knocked down.

In the next post, I’ll share all the specs of the elevator that moved Tillotson Construction Co. into the modern era.

Thoughts on the short life of concrete, the man-made stone of the 20th century

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By Ronald Ahrens

Today I ask the reader’s forbearance as I interrupt our road-trip series. We have three more elevators to visit, including Tillotson Construction Co.’s first reinforced-concrete elevator, a little honey in Goltry, Okla. You can see the Goltry elevator complex in the photo above; Tillotson’s 1939 elevator is on the right.

Texas-Okla Logo 04More to come in the next post. 

But today I share some thoughts with an important point about impermanence. This topic came up in bold relief when I got to Pond Creek, the second of the remaining three stops, where the issue arose of an elevator’s rated life.

I had already seen crumbling concrete at the Johnson-Sampson elevator in Orienta. I was discussing this just the other day with Uncle Chuck Tillotson. He reminded me the problem lay with the right recipe for the original mix: cement, sand, and water weren’t blended in the correct proportions. Some 65 or 70 years later, we see the results.

Uncle Chuck recalled his own struggles as a teenager, whose mind was on girls, while being in charge of mixing the concrete on grain elevator construction sites around 1950. Was that the fourth or fifth load he had scooped in the tractor’s bucket and brought over to the batch plant.

(And then the tractor’s clutch would give out as it always did.)

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Uncle Chuck elaborated upon our lunchtime discussion in a subsequent email. “Most people don’t realize that a grain elevator, as is the case with any concrete structure, does not provide an indefinite lifetime,” he wrote. “It is subjected to all the elements of nature–wind, rain, freezing temps, terrific heat, and most of all the internal bearing pressure from the grain on the walls of the storage bins.”

Bearing pressure on the walls of the Goltry elevator was rated at 2.47 tons per square foot.

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St. Michael’s Church, Goltry, Okla., because I liked it. Hmm, brick will outlast concrete, won’t it?

“Concrete is not a permanent material,” he continued. “Unlike stone it is a man-made material and subject to deterioration over the years and very dependent on the proper amounts of sand, gravel, and cement made into a cementitious mixture and poured into a form to encase steel reinforcing.”

Our conversation received amplification from a June 17 op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times. The essay is adapted from Vince Beiser’s new book, “The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization,” which comes out Aug. 7.

Concrete, Beiser writes, provides “an almost magically cheap way” to build things. But this “man-made stone” brings its own problems.

“Concrete fails and fractures in dozens of ways. Heat, cold, chemicals, salt and moisture all attack that seemingly solid artificial rock, working to weaken and shatter it from within.”

He forecasts 100 billion tons of concrete buildings, roads, and dams need to be replaced. 

And that’s the question at every elevator I visited.

I was happy to discover most were still working and in good condition. But what happens in 20 years? There will probably be even more steel bins, although these have problems of their own.