The J. H. Tillotson elevator in St. Francis, Kan. is nestled between two annexes.
Story and photos by Kristen Cart
St. Francis, Kan., stayed on my mind for months after I failed to find any sign of the work of my grandfather, William Osborn, on our first visit.
Out on the western end of Kansas, the town was well clear of any route our family would take on the way to somewhere else. It was a very intentional stop on our itinerary. On our first visit, we took a wide loop, arriving just after sundown, and we lost the opportunity to investigate further than one cursory look at the wrong elevator. The visit to St. Francis was shelved for several months, and I almost didn’t go, but when I did, I made sure to be there before nightfall.
The weather caught up, however.
St. Francis Mercantile Equity Exchange grain merchandiser, Shirley Zweygardt.
This time, I headed toward the highest structure in town. By the time I pulled up to the elevator office, fat flakes of snow wafted down and splotched the truck’s windshield, melting on contact with the ground. It was October, and the trees, which still held their leaves, were a golden brown backdrop for the early snow. I shook off the cold and entered the co-op.
A surprise awaited. A long-time employee of St. Francis Mercantile Equity Exchange, Shirley Zweygardt, greeted me at the door. Raised on a farm just down the road, she was intimately familiar with the elevator’s history and purpose, so in 1979, when a job opportunity arose, she was glad to fill in where needed.
It has been a happy arrangement. Shirley started as a bookkeeper, then worked in grain accounting and is presently in charge of grain merchandising. She has seen the St. Francis Mercantile Equity Exchange through many changes over the years.
She asked me to sit down and have some coffee, and she shared her experiences of working around the old St. Francis elevator.
The manhole covers on the interior of the driveway identify the builder.
St. Francis Mercantile Equity Exchange was incorporated in 1913. As slip-formed concrete construction methods advanced, the equity exchange looked for a company to build their first concrete elevator. Once it was completed in 1946, their quarter-million-bushel elevator was the biggest and most modern in western Kansas. It more than doubled the storage capacity of its lesser neighbors. And lo and behold, it was built by J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, of Denver, with the construction supervised by my grandfather, William Osborn.
It was not the only grain storage on the site for long. Soon, the capacity proved to be too little for the 1940s and 1950s boom years, so Chalmers and Borton came along and built the first annex.
Later, the site incorporated a flat storage facility which only holds wheat, since its air system does not ventilate adequately for moist corn. A second three-bin annex was built in 2000, using the same old technique of lifting concrete up to a dump cart that ran on a track around the perimeter of the rising elevator. It was completed just before the onset of a seven-year drought, and it took a few good harvest years to recoup the investment, since the annual wheat yield was too low at first to fill the bins.
Wall Street would not be the only beneficiary of perfect prognostication. The present snowfall was gladly welcomed in St. Francis.
The St. Francis Mercantile Equity Exchange will be celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. It has been and is the cornerstone of the town, and the center of business and economic life. Stay tuned for a little more of the history, and wonderful images, of this fine elevator, which Shirley kindly shared.
The Chalmers and Borton annex is in the foreground, and the new annex bins are behind the main house. The flat storage shed is on the left.