A reader recalls elevator construction and the recent explosion in Hinton, Iowa

By Michael Pelelo

I was born in 1954, the same year the Tillotson headhouse was slipped in Hinton, Iowa. I can see it from my late parents’ farm south of Merrill, Iowa, where I grew up. I knew several local farmers who worked that slip in ’54.


The Hinton elevator in July 2015. Photos by Kristen Cart.

Within the last month or so, there was an explosion in that workhouse and it looks like the tank walls were breached, so it will probably have to come down. I spent many days in the 70s and 80s working in that complex and remember the old layout quite well.

In the 70s, as a young man, I became a millwright and worked for an outfit out of Oyens, Iowa, that built jump-form silos. Later I worked for D&B Construction out of Sioux City and helped slip workhouses in Oyens and Maurice, Iowa, and the set of tanks to the south of the Tillotson workhouse in Hinton.

I have probably been in every elevator in northwest Iowa at one point or another, and I worked as a millwright out of the sheet metal local, too. A lot of the guys who worked for Dad Sherrill and D&B Construction got their start at Younglove Construction out of Sioux City, which is still slipping elevators today after over a hundred years.

I am now retired and just this afternoon went to look at a pair of very large tanks that are being jump-formed in Sloan, Iowa, by Hoffman Construction. That outfit goes back a long way slipping and jump-forming elevators.

Way back when I was doing that type of work, old guys would come around every day and gawk at what was going on. Now, I am one of the old guys gawking!

* * *

DSC_0455My days in construction are ones I remember fondly, even though the work was hard and dangerous and the hours were long.

One of the companies I worked for was involved in a three-fatality accident at the Ritter, Iowa, Co-op in 1976. We were building 24-foot and 30-foot jump-form silos all up and down the Floyd Valley. I was working on the 24-foot forms in Sheldon, Iowa, south of Ritter at the time.

The March 17 explosion at Hinton was in the main workhouse, which is the Tillotson structure built in 1954.

Back in the ’70s and ’80s, I was very involved with work on several structures in that complex with two different construction companies. Much has been added since I last worked around there. From pictures in the media, it appears that at least one or more of the tanks in the Tillotson structure have ruptured, as I can see grain spilling out in some photos.

Tillotson Construction kicks off the 1950s with ubiquitous designs

Albert City, Iowa, ca. 1954

Albert City, Iowa, circa 1954.

Story by Kristen Cart

In the last post we studied the oddball Tillotson elevators that sprouted during the 1940s, the most creative period of elevator design. It was a time of multiple plans and innovations, and as the 1950s dawned, unworkable plans were dropped and popular designs emerged.

A surprising number of elevator ideas survived however, some with new names, as the Tillotson brand retained its distinctive features. Advances in engineering dominated the 1950s as elevator styles settled into lines that typified their makers.


Dallas Center, Iowa. Photo by Kristen Cart.

You can generally spot a Tillotson elevator by its rounded headhouse. Other subtle details are also telling trademarks. These style points became so common because a large portion of Tillotson’s building in the 1950s followed established designs, tweaked here and there for individual customers, without deviating greatly from the most popular plans.

We will examine the first of these enduring plans, which crossed over from the late 1940s, in this post.

Flagler by Gary Rich

Photo by Gary Rich.

Dike Plan:

This design was rolled out in 1947 with the elevator at Satanta, Kan., which had a 250,000-bushel capacity. No corresponding Dike, Iowa elevator is mentioned in our records, but presumably it was built (although I speculate whether the original Dike proposal sat on a desk without ever being approved, while Satanta’s updated elevator proceeded, thus the naming convention).


Photo by Kristen Cart.

The basic Dike elevator, with 252,000-bushel capacity, was built at Randall, Iowa (1949); West Bend, Iowa (1949); Pocahontas, Iowa (1949); Bushland, Tex. (1950); Pond Creek, Okla. (1950); Seibert, Colo. (1950); and Flagler, Colo. (1950). They all look like the typical Tillotson elevator, but with a larger-than-usual rounded headhouse.

The Satanta, Kan. (1947), and Gruver, Tex. (1947) elevators were built with a revised Dike plan, which was renamed the Satanta plan. They could be filled to a capacity of 250,000 or 265,000 bushels, respectively–the two elevators differed by five feet of draw-form height. Springfield, Colo. (1948); and Kildare, Okla. (1950); were also built with 250,000-bushel capacity using the Satanta (variously named Dike) plan.

The Pocahontas, Iowa, elevator, built using the Dike plan, got its own plan designation also. Into the mid-’50s, several elevators were built using the Pocahontas plan specifications: Albert City, Iowa (1954); Goldfield, Iowa (1954); Rockwell City, Iowa (1954); Thornton, Iowa (1955); and Dallas Center, Iowa (1955). Each could hold 252,000 bushels of grain.

Pocahontas, Iowa

Pocahontas, Iowa. Photo by Kristen Cart.

Because we are missing a page of the specifications for elevators built in 1954-1955, we do not know whether other elevators followed this plan, though I suspect some did.

The Tillotson Construction Company of Omaha continued to build for at least four years after our records ended. But reconstructing those records is a project for another time. In the next post, we will look at the Churdan and Jackson plans that originated in the late 1940s.


Tillotson’s orphan designs of the 1940s gave way to popular elevator plans


This Mayer-Osborn oddity in Cordell, Okla. was only built once for a customer with specialized needs

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

In the last post, we checked out two of Tillotson Construction Company’s earliest designs and their derivatives. In the 1940s, many elevator plans departed substantially from Tillotson’s first efforts, and they had plan names of their own. Some of those elevators were one-of-a-kind.

I will examine the orphan designs and a few that were used more than once, but failed to catch on, in the next two posts.

Orphan designs were unique storage plans, made to meet unusual customer needs. Non-standard-sized elevators were built to mimic Tillotson’s more basic offerings. Annexes were custom built. If an elevator and annex were built together, certain features were unique.

Here are the orphans of the 1940s.

Peterson Plan:

Peterson 01Peterson, Iowa (1944) was “storage, mainly,” with no driveway, a “x spout to leg,” and 12 1/2-foot-diameter tanks. It had a conveyor belt and a wooden, hand-operated man-lift. Its capacity was only 37,550 bushels. This was one of the smallest elevators Tillotson ever built, though a few were even smaller.

Farnsworth Plan:

Farnsworth, Tex. (1945) was the largest elevator Tillotson built to date, with a 350,000 bushel capacity. It had 19 bins with six 20-foot-diameter tanks, and a tunnel with a conveyor belt. A semi-truck driveway was built with a machine room directly overhead. Projects of this size were uncommon.

Peterson 02Farnsworth, Tex. will require a site visit, because we don’t know if a Tillotson elevator still stands. Three large elevators exist in Farnsworth, but none is typical of Tillotson’s style–two have hexagonal bins (the design made a big media splash in 1949), and the other could be a Tillotson, but looks more like a Chalmers and Borton elevator.

Dalhart Plan:

Dalhart, Tex. (1947) was a bit of an oddball, having an attached driveway rather than a center driveway. It had no basement and no distributor floor, but sported the “standard cupola.” It had four 20-foot-diameter tanks and could hold 150,000 bushels of grain. A 98,000-bushel annex was built alongside it at nearly the same time, which could explain the oddities: direct cross-spouts from the elevator provided gravity flow to the annex pit.

A second elevator was built in Dalhart, Tex., in 1949, which also gave is name to a plan: this “Dalhart Plan” described a large elevator with 310,000-bushel capacity.

Eva Plan:

Eva, Okla. (1947) was a very small elevator with only a 13,500 bushel capacity. The description says “cupola in D.F. [draw-form] wall.” The driveway was attached. It had two 14-foot bins, a “rope drive” and motor room.

Moscow Plan:

Moscow, Kan. (1948) is featured in an earlier post on this blog. It was a smallish elevator of 100,000 bushel capacity, four 14 feet-diameter tanks, and a 13 x 17 foot driveway with six bins directly overhead. It incorporated a dust bin.


Minneapolis, Kan., mill building, elevator, and annex

Mill Building:

Minneapolis, Kan. (1948) is a site that fooled me on first examination. No manhole covers were evident on any structures except for the mill building. I didn’t expect an elevator with a rectilinear headhouse to be a Tillotson creation, so when we featured the mill building in our post (follow link), I added specifications which describe the elevator beside it! We will publish the mill building specifications in a later post.

Greenwood 01

Greenwood, Neb. ca. 1951 with attached Tillotson annex

Hordville Plan:

Hordville, Neb. (1949) was a 70,000 bushel capacity elevator with four twelve-foot-diameter tanks, a driveway, and eight bins directly above the driveway. Its rounded headhouse, by 1949, was already standard on Tillotson elevators.

Hordville’s outward appearance is a miniature version of Tillotson elevators of the same vintage–a style that continued into the early 1950s. Greenwood, Neb. (1951), which was built using the Churdan plan, circa 1949, is a larger-scaled example of the type.

Pierson Plan:

Pierson, Iowa (1949, storage) had a 80,200 bushel capacity, four 15 1/4 foot-diameter tanks, a dump pit, one way scale, a spout floor below the bin roof, and cross spouts. It was designated “storage,” a structure more like an annex than a self-contained elevator.

Clare Plan:

Clare, Iowa (1949) was built to hold 88,800 bushels of grain with four 15 1/4 foot-diameter tanks. It had a spout floor below the bin roof and an attached drive.

The artists of the Tillotson Construction Company–architects and engineers, those creative, ingenious men–were prolific producers during the 1940s when elevator technology bloomed. The flower of their achievements can be seen scattered across the prairies, either finding useful work, or passing into idleness, while curious onlookers snap their pictures and move on.

After the 1940s, almost all of the first Tillotson designs were dropped or modified as technology advanced. Only two designs (Churdan and Jackson) of the late 1940s carried into the 50s, and they were rapidly replaced after that, as will be seen in the next post.

Will the 1949 Tillotson elevator in Paullina, Iowa, please stand up?


Story and photos by Kristen Cart

We know that the Tillotson Construction Company of Omaha built an elevator in Paullina, Iowa, but we are not certain which one. We have only newspaper accounts to guide us. The company records list all of their concrete construction projects until 1956 (albeit missing one page), but omit Paullina. A visit to the location provided no clue.

Perhaps the elevator they built was not concrete? There is a precedent in Hawarden, Iowa, where the company built a wooden elevator in the tradition of Charles Tillotson, the patriarch of the family elevator business. But that elevator went up in 1940. Paulina was built in 1949, well after the company had changed its construction method to slip-formed concrete. On review, indeed, we found that the newspaper account said the Tillotson elevator was to be concrete.

My family rolled through Paullina on a Sunday when the co-op was closed. Grain trucks were parked, and the facility was quiet except for the drone of circulation fans. We found no identifying manhole covers, so I had to content myself with photos. I took at least one image of each elevator on the site. None of the elevators followed the familiar Tillotson style, which may not have been fully developed by 1949 in any case.

Let the reader be the judge from the photos presented here.

These appear to be more modern construction than seen in 1949.

These appear to be more modern than elevators built in 1949.

The two older elevators at Paullina are concrete, but they do not seem to follow the protocol of a continuous pour. The newer-looking elevators deserve a closer look, in spite of their unfamiliar lines–particularly the smaller one on the left. Tillotson Construction set a precedent in 1947, when they built a rectilinear-styled elevator at Minneapolis, Kan.

Perhaps the old Tillotson elevator outlived its usefulness and no longer stands? We don’t know.

Reader input is welcome!


This elevator resembles some of Tillotson's early efforts, and seems to be a good candidate

This elevator resembles some of Tillotson’s early efforts and seems to be a good candidate

Abraham Tillotson, who fought in the Revolution, was too wealthy for a pension


The Tillotson family was adept at seizing opportunities such as the demand for grain storage in the 1940s.

The Tillotsons were adept at seizing opportunities, such as the demand for grain storage in the 1940s.

Story by Kristen Cart

Abraham Tillotson, the direct ancestor of Charles H. Tillotson, the builder of wooden grain elevators, joined the Continental Army in 1775 and served for more than a year, earning the grateful thanks of our new nation. After the war he became a farmer, but in old age he asked for a pension based upon his service.

In 1818, Congress authorized pension payments for veterans who had fallen on hard times. It was not until the 1830s that the pensions were offered to widows and orphans. Veterans had to prove their service (inconveniently, the British burned all of the Revolutionary War service records held in Washington during the War of 1812). To that end, they had to produce witnesses to their service. They also had to prove that they were poor and unable to care for themselves.

Sometimes, veterans navigated the rules adroitly and obtained their pensions without much trouble, and retired in relative comfort. Sometimes it took years for them to prove their service. And sometimes, many letters flew back and forth before a grudging pittance was approved–enough to usher the elderly veteran quietly to his grave.

Abraham’s pension file, digitally preserved at Fold3.com, provides an amusing counterpoint to the usual, sorrowful packet of letters.

Page 4-1

On Oct. 9, 1819, Abraham Tillotson, a resident of Casenovia, aged 63, appeared before the Court of Common Pleas in Madison County, New York to make his statement of service. He said he enlisted on Dec. 18, 1775, serving in Capt. Levi Wells’ company, Col. Samuel Wylie’s Regiment, in the 22nd Connecticut Line of Continental Establishment. He was discharged at Fishkill, New York, on Jan. 1, 1777. He had fought in the Battles of Flatbush and Long Island, and at the taking of General Burgoyne. He produced a witness to his service in the person of Henry Champion.

According to the court, Abraham’s statement averred that “he is in reduced circumstances and stands in need of assistance from his country for support.” Apparently, Abraham had no trouble getting onto the pension rolls. His trouble came later.

Abraham’s consternation was evident in the letter he wrote on July 11, 1822:

“… I am informed of the suspension of my pension until I produce satisfactory evidence doing away [with] information received at the War Department of my being ‘worth more than five to six thousand dollars.’ From whatever source this information may have been received, it is totally false, without a shadow of foundation, and must have been engendered in the brain of some malicious and corrupt villain. The information indirectly charges me with false swearing and if I knew the malicious informant, I would (as I did the enemies of my country) chastise him for his audacity, old and infirm as I am.”

He went on, protesting his honesty: “In obtaining the bounty of my country, for which I fought and bled (when, probably, your informant was in his cradle), I pursued an honest correct course and such as prescribed by the love of my country…”

He was up against a formidable stack of evidence to the contrary.

The Honorable E. Litchfield was the first to alert authorities to Abraham’s wealth, after he learned that Abraham Tillotson was worth between five and six thousand dollars. Abraham’s pension was suspended from that date, Dec. 6, 1821.

Page 42

Further investigation yielded more.

“State of New York,

We, the subscribers, freeholders and inhabitants of the town of Cazenovia in the County of Madison and of the town of Pompey in the County of Onondaga and state aforesaid, do certify–that we have been acquainted with Abraham Tillotson of said Cazenovia for a number of years–that we have lived and do still live [as] neighbors to him–that we have considered him one of our most independent farmers, one who has money to loan, whenever he can obtain extravagant interest, or dispose of some property at a high price and obtain good security–that his property year before last was valued by the assessors at about eighteen hundred dollars–and further we consider him the said Tillotson abundantly able to support himself and family–and under the existing law authorizing the payment of pensions do not think him entitled to a pension–given under our hands this 21st day of August 1822.

Rufus Lyon, Joseph Atwell, Daniel Allen, James McCluen, Joseph Atwell Jr., Elijah Hill.”


Other affidavits contain the same sort of accusations. Needless to say, Abraham never recovered his pension. He died two years later in 1824. His widow tried to reinstate his pension in the 1830s, also to no avail.

Page 33

Abraham offered to pay Rufus Lyon, one of his accusers, to testify in his favor

So began a Tillotson tradition of success and wealth, of sharp business dealings, and of a willingness to partner with the U.S. Government when advantageous–a perfect template for the private/public partnership that became the grain elevator boom of the 1940s and 50s. I would be quite proud of such a clever ancestor, notwithstanding a bit of shading of the truth. His neighbors (debtors?) might not quite agree.


The Pocahontas, Iowa, elevator remains a lovely monument to Tillotson ingenuity


Story and photos by Kristen Cart

The Tillotson elevator at Pocahontas, Iowa, first came to our attention as the site of a tragic accident where a young construction worker lost his life. Larry Ryan fell to his death because he tripped while crossing from the elevator to the annex on a makeshift wooden walkway, according to fellow workers. He wore brand new work boots and some speculated that they contributed to the accident. The young hoist operator was twenty years old when he fell 130 feet to his death from the top of the nearly completed annex in 1954.

I finally had the opportunity to see the site for myself this past summer. We took a wide detour north of our regular route from Nebraska to Illinois–it added a good four hours driving time, not counting the stops. My young cheering section (the kids) were not cheering about the extra road time.


Upon our arrival in Pocahontas, a town along Lizard Creek in north central Iowa miles away from any major state thoroughfares, we immediately noticed the Tillotson elevator and its trademark rounded headhouse. The annex stood beside the original elevator, rising higher (by 10 feet) than its 120 foot companion, and gleaming with clean whitewashed concrete. It showed no sign of its sorrowful beginnings.

Later additions, including an elevator with headhouse, a flat storage shed, old steel hoppers, and modern steel bins with external legs, surrounded the two concrete structures.

The Tillotson elevator and annex were flanked on one side by a quiet street with an old church and ancient maple trees. The bustle of grain trucks was absent on the Sunday afternoon of our visit, and the co-op office was closed. Only the elevator exhaust fans pierced the silence.

We circled the complex, taking a number of photographic views, before going on our way.

We have the specifications for both the 1949 elevator and its 1954 annex. The annex construction record is detailed here.


The Pocahontas annex was built with six 18-foot diameter, 10-foot spread by 130-foot high bins; with a basement; the bins were flat bottomed, built with 30-inch belt conveyors and tripper.

Planned capacity (with pack) was 222,440 bushels; translating to 1,863 bushels of capacity per foot of height. The total reinforced concrete, per plans, was 1,366 cubic yards. Plain concrete for hoppers, per plans, was 9.5 cubic yards, and reinforcing steel used, including jack rods, was 69.59 tons.

The design specified the average quantity of reinforcing steel used for the whole annex, which was 101.89 pounds per cubic yard of concrete.  Actual planned amounts were then itemized for various components of the structure:

Main slab: 27,017 lbs. steel/219 c.y. concrete

Drawform walls: 30,708 lbs. steel/990 c.y. concrete

Overhead bin bottoms: 9,957 lbs. steel/70.5 c.y. concrete

Bin roof and extension roofs: 6,740 lbs. steel/44 c.y. concrete

Cupola walls: 3,747 lbs. steel/33 c.y. concrete

Cupola roof: included in walls

Bridge/Tunnel: 1,020 lbs. steel/9.5 c.y. concrete


Dimensions and weight of the annex and its components were laid out also. The main slab was 52′ x 60′, for an actual outside area on the ground of 2,946 square feet.

The weight of reinforced concrete, calculated at 4,000 pounds per cubic yard of concrete plus steel, was 2,801 tons. The plain concrete was also calculated at 4,000 pounds per cubic yard and totaled 19 tons. The weight of the hopper fill sand was 177 tons.

When the weight of grain was added to the specifications, at 60 pounds per bushel (for Pocahontas, the grain load would total 6,660 tons), the planned gross weight of the annex could be predicted. Twelve tons of steel and machinery were added to the total, for a planned gross weight, loaded, of 9,669 tons.

From these figures, bearing pressure was calculated to be 3.28 tons per square foot.

To handle all of that pressure, the main slab was made 24 inches thick. It was built with #8 steel, placed at 6″ c.c. spacing. Tank steel and bottoms (for round tanks) used #4 steel at 9″ c.c. spacing.

The drawform walls, with extension, measured 411 linear feet, and 130 feet in height. Cupola dimensions were 16′ x 56′ x 8 1/3′.

Since this was an annex, distribution of grain was accomplished through the main elevator leg and thence by belt conveyors and a tripper. Many of the items expected for elevator specifications were absent for an annex. For machinery, the annex had top and bottom belts, rated at 600’/min or 3,000 bushels per hour. 7 1/2 horsepower drives were used for a total load rate of 9,000 bushels per hour.

Loading rates are key for grain storage operations, since they determine how quickly trucks or rail cars can unload and be on their way. Slow elevators become obsolete. The Pocahontas operation was at the leading edge of technology with its shiny new 1954 annex, and to this day it provides quick, efficient service.



Elevator investigations move farther afield with a side trip to Alta, Iowa


The trademark rounded headhouse identifies the Tillotson elevator, shown here behind the office and truck scale.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

It is getting harder to visit our grandfathers’ elevators. All of the elevators within a half hour either side of the I-80 corridor have already been exhausted, so a stop for photography requires real planning and extra gas, time, and effort, even when piggybacked on our normal family visit to Nebraska.

The trip to Alta, Iowa, required just such an extra investment in driving time. The town and its Tillotson elevator is just north-west of Storm Lake in the northwestern corner of the state, and is not, quite frankly, on the way to anywhere.


The Tillotson elevator in Alta, Iowa, where the old structure is mostly obscured by later bins.

I wonder how our kids put up with it. This trip in particular required over an hour’s northward jaunt before angling generally east-northeast, with a 30-minute divot or two along the Nebraska-to-Illinois route. Each detour took in wayward sites, including Alta.


A look up the rail line opposite the Tillotson elevator revealed the historical trappings of town, with a backdrop of new grain bins.

It is normally a 10-hour drive to get home from visiting their grandparents, but this elevator excursion would tax my children’s patience for several more hours. To be fair, we got an extra early start. But that meant the serious backseat fidgeting would start sooner.

You would think that I would study Tillotson records first, and inject some discipline and efficiency into planning our route.

But no, that task was left for after the trip, so I could see how closely we approached several sites without seeing them.

I don’t think the kids minded the near misses–but they’ll get to see the countryside again when we go through to mop up the strays.