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.

 

 

A mystery unfolds at the Tillotson elevator of Blencoe, Iowa

This elevator is attributed to the Tillotson Construction Company of Omaha, but evidence points elsewhere

This elevator is attributed to the Tillotson Construction Company, but evidence points elsewhere.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

In an earlier post, we showed that the elevator built by the Tillostson Construction Company in the northwest Iowa town of Blencoe had a structural failure prior to completion. A photo provided by Tim Tillotson showed that the concrete slumped over the driveway after the slip-form pour had progressed considerably past the point of failure. Construction would have halted there. The question of how the elevator was completed was never answered.

In the company records we have, the specifications log ended by 1956, while the company continued to build elevators beyond that date. So later records are lost to us. Tim Tillotson estimated that this mishap occurred in about 1955. I discovered, on review, that Blencoe was not in the specifications at all. Why?

A photo of the manhole cover on the rail side of the elevator could provide the answer. It is not typical for Tillotson elevators to have exterior manhole covers on elevators of this type, so the existence of these was a little surprising. More shocking was the identity of the company that placed them.

"Grain Storage Const. Co, 1959, Council Bluffs, Iowa" is embossed on the manhole cover

“Grain Storage Const. Co, 1959, Council Bluffs, Iowa” is embossed on the manhole cover.

The Grain Storage Construction Company of Council Bluffs, Iowa, is not familiar to us. It may be the company called in to repair the damage when the failure occurred.

We don’t know if Tillotson Construction was fired on the spot. But it is also possible that Tillotson was given a second chance–the design of the elevator clearly follows the trademark Tillotson design, whether copied by some one or built by the original contractor.

I wonder if the original repair destroyed the structural integrity of the elevator, and Grain Storage Construction was brought in to replace two of the bins. We know it was a later job because of the 1959 date on the manhole covers. Unfortunately, I made my visit on a Saturday, and the co-op was closed, so there was no one there to ask.

It is a beautiful, functional elevator today. It stands beside the older Mayer-Osborn elevator, which is also clearly in use sixty years after it was built. Both elevators had problems during construction, but the capacity was urgently needed, so both projects were finished. How the Tillotson elevator ultimately became a Grain Construction Company branded elevator is a mystery we will try to solve in a future post.

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Neglecting to lag an elevator’s head pulley led to disaster in Bellwood, Neb.

Commentary by Tim Tillotson

Note: What follows is from a phone interview on May 14. He tells of a grain elevator repair job undertaken for Ted Morris, who by 1959 was a former employee of Tillotson Construction Company.

From left, Tim and Chuck Tillotson and La Rose Tillotson Hunt in 2012.

From left, Tim and Chuck Tillotson and La Rose Tillotson Hunt in 2012.

Ted Morris was the pilot. He worked in the office with Wayne doing the drawing and getting the specs together. He flew Dad when Dad would go out to the jobs. Ted used to take me flying out to the job. He was a fun guy, good natured. He tried going into business himself. Matter of fact, when Mart and I got married, we went out to York, Nebraska, to do a repair job that he had a contract on, in the dead of the winter. That was in ’59. It was Bellwood–the one that had the explosion. It blew the damn headhouse apart. Mart and I were married in November ’59 and we went out.

They were dumping grain in the drive pits to feed it up to the tanks. It was cold and also windy, I believe. When they rolled the damn overhead doors down to shut off the wind tunnel through the drive, the dust built up and that was also a job … I don’t know who decided not to lag the head pulley; it’s like putting a tire on a steel wheel. I don’t know what the hell was supposed to be such a big savings. I don’t know we were the only ones that did it, the other grain elevator contractors did, too, they quit lagging the head pulley. That big pulley would slip for a little bit till it got some speed up. Eventually, they found out the hard way, it was taking the facing off the back of the belt and exposing the fiber web in it. The damn web spots would get hot and start on fire.

Conveyor_head_pulley_lagging_for_V_shaped[1]They called it lagging because they’d fasten or wrap a lag of grain elevator belt around real tight like a rubber tire to give it grip.

When I say we would lag the pulley, we didn’t do it. Where we purchased the pulley, they did it before they shipped. There was supposed to be some kind of cost savings. When you’re trying to pull 110, 120 foot of belt, with grain, it takes quite a bit to get thing rolling.

I guess because of the wind, they closed the overhead doors. The dust built up from the trucks just dumpin’ that grain, you can imagine, and it built up, The fire actually started in the boot pit. They were running that grain up, and I think they stopped the belt for a little bit because somebody went down into the pit to grease the bearing, and there was a fire and it exploded. It slammed him into the little steel ladder. The fire went right up the leg well, which was full of dust, and it just blew out in the headhouse.

The distributor floor was quite a height off the roof deck in the headhouse, and of course it was up overhead. You had to have some heights for the spider legs that went out to the tubes. That’s where it did its big explosion. It had enough force to actually bulge the headhouse walls. The distributor floor was concrete but held in place by a key way in the headhouse wall. They call it a key way when you slip the headhouse walls at a certain level. You put tapered two-by-four blocks in the forms that you could peel out later like teeth, so when you poured the floor it went into the keyways and that’s what held the distributor floor walls up. The explosion bulged the headhouse walls out so that they turned loose that distributor floor, which left it standing on the feed pipes that went into the tanks.

I’m trying to remember if Bellwood was the one with the galley out to the annex blowing the windows out of it, and it knocked the tripper–a little feeder that went out across the annex building and would fill whatever tanks you wanted–off its tracks.

The Bellwood Gazette reported the Holland Brothers' elevator fire in 1902.

The Bellwood Gazette reported the Holland Brothers elevator fire in 1902. It was the third elevator that had burned “inside of a year,” and as the town was gaining such notoriety, the Gazette was considering becoming a daily paper.

They were doing the repair on it. I think we pulled off because the temperature was so damn low you couldn’t put your bare hand on a piece of metal; it would stick. I remember we come back into Omaha and wasn’t out there that long. Mart and I came back to Omaha, stayed at my Uncle Ralph (Hassman’s) house, Johnny’s dad, before we got that apartment on the second floor of an old house that was turned into an apartment on Izard Street. That’s when I went to work for Leo A. Daly, the architects, in Omaha, for $300 a month. I went to work for them on the drawing table.

We were actually in York. It might have been a different repair job. Now that I think about it, I’m not even sure it was one of Dad’s elevators. We were married on Armistice Day of ’59. We had to be out there in December. I was working for Daly maybe a week when Dad passed on January 5, 1960.

The York job was a repair, and it was a repair from an explosion but nothing compared to Bellwood. I remember we were up in the headhouse when were there. The one asshole I didn’t know, and either did the other guy. He loaded, like, a shoebox on the floor with acetylene ’cause it’s a heavy gas, and it laid down in that box, and he turned around and threw a match over there and that that box blew up. I damn near ran off the frigging roof to get out of that headhouse. He thought that was so damn funny. I was about ready to bust him. I don’t like his sense of humor.  

Ted wasn’t doing well at the business. I remember a time or two he called Mother. He was distraught, he wasn’t making it. I don’t remember what happened to Ted.

Virginia Slusher remembers her years as Tillotson Contruction’s office girl

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Story by Virginia Slusher, photos from her collection

Editor’s note: Virginia Slusher, who lives near Kansas City, contacted us to share these recollections and photos. We have previously written about The Office, part of the old Anheuser-Bush brewery on Jones Street, which served as Tillotson Construction’s headquarters in the 1950s. 

Beginning in the fall of 1951, I worked for Mike (Reginald) and Mary Tillotson for seven years. I was the “office girl”–some bookkeeping, receptionist, et cetera.

I went to Commercial Extension School of Commerce, and Johnny Hassman was my date for our graduation party. He was in the office quite often. I think Johnny helped with sales. IMG_1390

One morning I arrived first, and the safe was hanging open. Because of the burglary, I immediately ran down to the gas station on the corner. The thief took the petty cash they kept in the safe. I don’t think he bothered anything else. The police came to investigate.

I loved working there; they were so good to me.

The three guys and I would sit up on the balcony and play cards sometimes when Mary was gone. It was a raised area where Wayne and Ted, the two engineers, sat. Bob the bookkeeper sat just below.

I loved the guys. They took me out for my first legal drink when I turned 21 years old. They teased me unmercifully but were so good to me.

I remember typing about 2000 W-4s at the end of the year. Men would work for one or two days and quit. I also sent all the “give us your business” cards to the small towns in multiple states. Virginia Slusher 01

The other woman–I can’t remember her name–was working there when I started.

They had a huge NCR bookkeeping machine that she taught me how to operate. Shortly after I started there, the company sold it to, I think, China.

Mary was different to say the least. She had an ugly Boxer that came to work with her sometimes. He would slobber on me; therefore, I did not like him!

She used to tape a St. Christopher medal on her desk. We joked that we wondered if the desk would take her somewhere.

Johnny Hassman and Virginia Slusher celebrate her business school graduation. Photo from the Virginia Slusher archive.

Johnny Hassman and Virginia Slusher celebrate her business school graduation.

She was very good to me, gave me nice bonuses at the end of the year, not quite as big as the three guys. But very good for the ’50s. I received $1000 to $15oo. The men usually around $10,000. Very large amount for the times.

Mike (Reginald) was funny, not in the office much. I had to write the checks to pay the family bills.

I was still Virginia Engel but married William Slusher while working there, 60 years now, and they were very nice to us.

When the company closed, Mary found a new job for me at Power District credit union.

Tillotson’s employee ‘Tiny’ could sucker the locals in any barroom

 

Photo from the Neil A. Lieb Archive.

Story by Ronald Ahrens, photo from the Neil A. Lieb Archive

He was called Tiny, and he could always put one over on the locals.

Neil Lieb couldn’t recall Tiny’s full name during our telephone conversation on April 29, when we sought to identify people shown in photos from Tillotson Construction Company’s job at Alta, Iowa.

As a young man just out of high school, Neil was part of the crew, and even sixty-five years later he still marvels at the older, wiser Tiny.

Members of the crew would go into the beer parlor after hours. scan0017

“Tiny would bet you he could drink a bottle of beer in 10 seconds,” Neil said. “It takes eight seconds for the bottle to run dry by itself. He would bet five or ten dollars, and he would find some sucker.”

Tiny was 6 feet 2 inches tall, Neil recalled.

Neil couldn’t identify the man at the rear of the photo, nor could he express details of the job they were undertaking because he had moved on after the Alta Cooperative’s new concrete elevator was finished.

Photos document the construction of a chimney that rose from a small building next to the old wooden elevator. We don’t know this stack’s purpose, but Neil (and my Uncle Tim Tillotson) don’t suspect it had to do with grain drying.

 

From their ever-rising perch, elevator men saw the workaday world of Alta, Iowa

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Story by Ronald Ahrens, photo from the Neil A. Lieb archive

Reader Frank Nine recently expressed fond memories of his job with Tillotson Construction Company, writing, “I can’t believe it has been 61 years ago that I started working for Tillotson. It seems like yesterday and was some of the best times of my life.”

This view of downtown Alta, Iowa, from Tillotson’s new grain elevator for the Alta Cooperative makes his statement easy to understand. Aside from the challenge of the work itself, part of the appeal of building a reinforced-concrete elevator was the high-profile nature of the job, in every aspect.

In a town like Alta, with 1350 inhabitants in 1950, the construction crew had to feel the eyes of everybody in town. Wherever they went, whether the cafe or saloon, they were known and perhaps treated differently.

And from their lofty perspective, the workers could be forgiven for harboring a sense of superiority over the townsmen, some of whom may not have been inside a building taller than three stories. Building an elevator made you part of an elite team, rather like a visiting circus troupe.

In the photo we look to the south-southeast and see a lumber company, the downtown businesses, and an important church. Assistance would be welcome in identifying buildings around the smokestack, as well as other establishments.

Welcome to Alta. Please slow-down and see our new grain elevator!

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Story by Ronald Ahrens, photo from the Neil A. Lieb archive

Why would we not be blamed for thinking the sign in the photo was actually about the new elevator that Tillotson Construction Company had just completed in Alta, Iowa? Or do we read too much into it?

Just think what was required to build the elevator in 1950. Men started in the mud and gloom of early spring. All they had were piles of sand and lumber and steel bars, relatively few, simple tools, and an ingenious way of keeping the formwork level. They were about to perform an amazing feat.

By midsummer, the job was done, the lettering affixed to the headhouse, and farmers could more efficiently store and ship their corn.

The men who built the elevator moved on to another job, maybe in Iowa, maybe in Texas.

What they left behind towered over the countryside of Buena Vista County. Some folks had probably never seen a monument this grand.

Shucks, by scrooching up your eyes, you might even have been able to see it all the way from Storm Lake, three miles down Route 7.