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 Texas and hightailing it across the High Plains of Oklahoma

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By Ronald Ahrens

Leaving the twin Tillotson and Mayer-Osborn elevators in Follett, Tex., I reached the Oklahoma border after nine miles. The wind blew hard, I could smell smoke from grassfires, and the desolation clamped down like a federal mandate.

The Welcome-to-Oklahoma sign was in tatters, having taken a few slugs. 

Texas-Okla Logo 04Again, something my father used to say–“Miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles”–was apt for the situation.

Having visited 10 elevators in the Texas Panhandle, I was driving east and then south on Route 15 until it met U.S. 60. It was classic High Plains topography, but before meeting the U.S. route, the road surprised me by plunging into the valley of Wolf Creek.

Out of nowhere, the town of Shattuck and a towering grain elevator appeared.

IMG_9242I crossed the railroad tracks and turned left for a cursory look and quick photo. The bigger elevator, which I guessed to be a contemporary of the Tillotson and Mayer-Osborn elevators in Booker and Follett, Tex., had the most monstrous headhouse yet. It also had an outside double-driveway and a shed over the rail siding.

Inside the office of CGB Enterprises, Inc., they couldn’t tell me much but were as friendly as could be despite my interrupting at lunch time.

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Scoular elevator, Omaha. Rose Ann Fennessy photo.

Here’s an interesting coincidence showing how nowhere can be connected to everywhere: Just three weeks before, CGB’s eponymous subsidiary, Consolidated Grain & Barge Co., had bought four elevators in the Mississippi Delta from The Scoular Company, of Omaha.

Later, one of the workers took a photo of a manhole cover and they texted it to me, but it only bore the name of the foundry. Later I would hear the Shattuck elevator was built by Sampson & Fisher. Whether that’s definitive, I don’t know.

Altogether, on the route I’d chosen, Orienta, my next destination, was still 90 minutes off. 

At one town along the way, I stopped in a minimarket for a corndog and was buttonholed by a poor lonely woman–who was buying cigarettes and had already bent the ear of the cashier and another customer–talk about her well-educated aunts and uncles.

IMG_9240Yes, one of those “conversations” in which someone needs another person to talk to, but I didn’t want to make eye contact lest I spend another 20 minutes hearing about her life.

Maybe I should have hung in there and listened to the whole story, but I got back in the truck and took off. There were four more elevators to visit; my main quest for the afternoon was Goltry, where Tillotson Construction Co. built its first elevator of reinforced concrete in 1939.

 

A Friday photofest from Follett

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Tillotson headhouse and ladder-climb challenge.

By Ronald Ahrens

Who wants to read an long rambling story about my travels through the Texas Panhandle and western Oklahoma when the weekend is coming and, before leaving work, you’d rather look at waders on the Cabela’s site?

Texas-Okla Logo 04How about we look at a few more pictures from Follett, Tex., instead? We have the unique circumstance of a Tillotson elevator and a Mayer-Osborn elevator at the same site.

The Tillotson stands on the south end and the Mayer-Osborn on the north. The Tillotson has center and outside driveways and a gigantic 52-foot-tall headhouse. Even though it started with the standard Medford plan, it ended up a singular thing.

The Mayer-Osborn has only an outside driveway, making the main house sleek as an eel, a showpiece with sheen. The east side smooths along like “On the Atchison, Topeka & the Santa Fe”–Johnny Mercer’s huge hit of 1945 (when neighbor Tillotson was built).

OK, let’s roll the pictures.

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Mayer-Osborn has a boom, like many of the elevators I visited. As far as can be told, it’s a boom without a bust.

 

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Tillotson, left, with High Headhouse and central driveway, and Mayer-Osborn, right, with dual outside driveway and the sleek, smooth profile. Both main houses have storage-annex extension. Quite a nice cottage, as well, on the corner of Nagel St. and Travis or Frazier Ave. 

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So long from Follett, Tex.!

 

Follett: Standard ’41 Medford plan but a ‘High Headhouse’ variant

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By Ronald Ahrens

The 212,000-bushel elevator that Tillotson Construction Co., of Omaha, built at Follett, Tex., in 1945, followed the plan that had been established at Medford, Okla., four years earlier.

Follett had the distinction of being a less common twin-leg elevator.

Texas-Okla Logo 04Farnsworth, not far away, also got two legs that year, but it had its own unique plan and was a much larger house with 350,000-bushel capacity.

It’s hard to know what the co-op had in mind when placing the order, but evidently they wanted to be able to move grain in a hurry. Another way Follett was unusual was its having a central driveway and outside driveway.

The Follett job required 1,975 cubic yards of reinforced concrete and, for the hoppers, 19 cubic yards of plain concrete.

 

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Follett is a strapping 172-footer! Plenty of symmetry, too.

It used 86.5 tons of reinforcing steel, a material that was now more available as the effort to defeat the Japanese in the Pacific concluded. (The dates of construction are unknown and whether this job took place before or after the surrender announced on Aug. 15.) 

We don’t know the total cost less commission, but Burlington, Okla., another 1945 job, another adherent of the Medford plan, had the same dimensions and capacity. Burlington cost $69,819.15. Reginald O. Tillotson didn’t want that dime and nickel to get away. 

We do know labor rates. The company paid $1.00 per hour straight and $1.25 overtime. This was up sharply from Burlington and Lamont, Okla., where they paid 70 cents straight and $1.25 overtime. In Cherokee, they got 75 cents straight! The scarcity of male laborers had expanded. I would think anyone going up to the heavens on the drawform would have been crazy; those daring souls would have thought it crazy to make women do that work.

Like Medford–as well as Thomas, Burlington, Cherokee, and Lamont, Okla., Elkhart, Kan., and in neighboring Booker, Tex.–the Follett elevator sat on a 21-inch-thick slab covering an area 51 x 65.5 feet. All are listed at 3,134 square feet, less than the 3,340 square feet our calculations produce. There are confusing notes about the 51 x 65.5 square feet being “outside on ground” and the 3,340 square feet being “actual.”

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Give you a 50 cents to climb that ladder!

Fully loaded, it weighed 10,798 tons. The silos were 120 feet high, and the headhouse –you see how massive–measured 21.5 feet wide, 50.5 feet wide, and 52 feet high. At 172 feet, this is the tallest Tillotson elevator I’d visited. As my father would have said, “It’s a big ‘un.”

In the leg, the pulley centers stretched to 180.58 feet apart. Again, I hadn’t seen such a big stretch in this period. The boot pulleys were 24 x 14 x 2 3/16 inches. The head was 72 x 14 x 3 15/16 inches. Tillotson would switch to much larger boot pulleys in 1946.

The pulleys turned at 42 rpm. On Follett’s page of records, the speed of pulleys varies from 38 rpm (Douglas, Okla.) to 48 rpm (Minatare, Neb.).

The six-ply Calumet belts were 14 inches wide, and the cups were 12 x 5 inches at nine-inch intervals.

The head drive turned with energy supplied by two 30-horse Howell motors. Theoretical leg capacity, listed at 5,120 bushels per hour, far exceeded actual capacity of 4,100 bushels per hour. So 22.4 horsepower was needed to operate the leg. I’m assuming the bushels-per-hour figure applies to each leg. Yes, it was a co-op in a hurry.

A 3-horse motor–no record of the make–operated the man lift. A 7.5-horse Ehrsam motor operated the truck lift, and a 3-horse motor was for the dust collection system.

No special notes pertain to Follett. Farnsworth’s entry bears the note, “Cupola not built per plans.” One can only imagine!

 

Looking for details of the Mayer-Osborn elevator in Follett, Tex.

By Ronald Ahrens

As I observed on Monday, we know a few locations where Mayer-Osborn built–for example, Roggen, Colo.; McCook and Maywood, Neb.; Odebolt and Blencoe, Iowa; and Cordell, Okla.

Texas-Okla Logo 04This Mayer-Osborn elevator in Follett, Texas, came as a surprise.

It’s a handsome one, probably dating to the late-1940s, and in good condition. And it has a new owner. We would love to know his plans.

Meanwhile, let me show you more photos of the mighty M-O elevator. One aspect you’ll note are the X-braced windows. My guess is it’s related to the routine, high winds.

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How Follett residents see their elevators. The 1945 Tillotson stands left, the Mayer-Osborn elevator on right. Without a central driveway, like the Tillotson, the M-O presents a sleeker, more streamlined profile.

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The headhouse has a step. This elevator was probably built in the late-1940s. In coming years M-O would enlarge the headhouse of their new elevators and curve the corners.

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The west side of the main house has a different shape from the east, which is smooth. The run from the headhouse and extending over the storage annex is unusually graceful.

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Smooth business on the east side. Note the generous double-driveway. Not only was reinforced concrete used for additional storage, but a metal bin joined the team as well

A few more details to share. Hover over each photo to make the caption appear.

In Follett, Tillotson and Mayer-Osborn twins are sold to new owner

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By Ronald Ahrens

The northeast corner of the Texas Panhandle was the subject of dispute of between Texas and Oklahoma for 79 years, from 1850 to 1929, despite the precise boundary coordinates having been given as 100 degrees longitude and 36 degrees and 30 minutes latitude.

Texas-Okla Logo 04A historical marker outside Follett says nine surveys were made to locate the Panhandle’s corner. None coincided. Nevertheless, land was annexed to Texas in 1903.

One man claimed he went to bed in Oklahoma and woke in Texas.

Finally, in 1929, the United States Supreme Court had a survey done, lines were moved, and that was that.

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The stepped headhouse would become a more exaggerated–and rounded–feature of Mayer-Osborn’s elevators. 

Whereas the officials had a hard time setting the boundary, the people on either side of it sure were good at growing grain, and it needed to be stored.

We find in Follett the unusual, perhaps singular, circumstance of a Tillotson elevator and a Mayer-Osborn one on the same site. See yesterday’s post for an explanation. The M-O house and annex are seen at the top of this post and in pictures throughout.

We know Tillotson’s was a 1945 job; without Mayer-Osborn’s records, I have to guess. Although this M-O has a stepped headhouse, which was their signature, it is composed of rectangles and has unique window arrangements, with three small daylight windows coyly stacked atop one another on the south face. (Again, this is seen in the topmost photo.) Like the Tillotson elevator, it is labeled “Farmers.” Both elevators have annexes by Chalmers & Borton.

My guess is this was an early job for Mayer-Osborn.

The exterior walls of the Mayer-Osborn’s main house have an attractive flat surface over the silos. It looks aerodynamcally efficient, even if that’s not the point of a massive structure of reinforced concrete sticking up 150 feet on the windy Plains.

The paint was excellent, almost glossy.

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Another feature was the outside double-driveway, something we hadn’t encountered before.

No one was around. I went over to the office and saw a sign saying “Farmers Grain & Sply Co” painted on the backrest of a bench. A paper sign hanging in the window said Tri-State Ag & Environmental LLC.”

I called the number given there and learned the elevators had recently been sold and was given a name and another number. But so far there’s been no response to my voice message.

Arriving in Follett, Tex., and stumbling onto a big surprise

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By Ronald Ahrens

As I drove east from Booker, Tex., on that peaceful Wednesday morning, there was no suggestion I was in for a shocking surprise.

Texas-Okla Logo 04Following Route 15, I passed through the tiny town of Darrouzett, heading for Follett. This is the last town in the northeastern corner of the Texas Panhandle.

Like Booker and Spearman, it was named for a railroad man, Horace Follett, a “locating” engineer. Even Darrouzett was named for a railroad attorney.

From a high point among the land’s gentle undulations, I got a glimpse of the elevator complex in Follett. Looming on the horizon, two elevators faced each other. I would have guessed the Tillotson job of 1945 was the one on the right with the rectangular headhouse. Later in the ’40s, they perfected their signature curved headhouse.

The other elevator with the stepped headhouse was rather mysterious.

IMG_9150Here, it’s necessary to remind you of some basic information. My grandfather on my mother’s side was Reginald O. Tillotson. He and his brother, Joe, took over Tillotson Construction Co. after my great-grandfather, Charles H. Tillotson, died in 1938. They started building concrete elevators, instead of wooden ones, the next year.

Reginald and Joe split up in 1948, and Joe went to Denver, where he established his own company. He built a few elevators before dying in a car accident.

My partner in this blog is Kristen Osborn Cart. Her grandfather, William A. Osborn, became a partner in Mayer-Osborn Construction Co., also of Denver, around that same time. Bill Osborn had worked for Tillotson Construction Co. before starting in business for himself.

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Looking west toward Darrouzett’s elevator and antenna tower.

We have Tillotson’s construction record, but so far the equivalent from Mayer-Osborn has eluded us. We do know of a few locations where Mayer-Osborn built–for example, Roggen, Colo.; McCook and Maywood, Neb.; Odebolt and Blencoe, Iowa; and Cordell, Okla. 

I was unable to guess that here, in the very northeastern corner of the Texas Panhandle, I was walking right into what may be a one-of-a-kind pairing.

When I got into town, I poked around the Pryor Avenue site. The two elevators looked to be in nice enough shape, but there was no sign of recent activity. I got my pictures of the Tillotson elevator. Then I marched across the yard to the other elevator, the mysterious and more handsome one with the stepped headhouse.

IMG_9204Much to my surprise, the manhole covers were engraved with Mayer-Osborn’s name. It was like having heard of a grand cathedral in some distant land but arriving there and finding it face-to-face with another great cathedral. 

And it made me wonder about something: Had Bill Osborn worked on the Tillotson elevator here in ’45 and made business connections?

I took a photo with my phone and sent it to Kristen right away.