The 1945 vintage elevator at Lodgepole, Nebraska, and the death of Bill Morris

DSC_0446Story and photo by Kristen Cart

A newspaper article recently came to light that upended our elevator construction timeline, causing us to reconsider the story of the Lodgepole, Neb., elevator and the careers of Joseph H. Tillotson and my grandfather William Arthur Osborn.

My dad, Jerry Osborn, said that the death of Bill Morris, the superintendent on the Lodgepole job, and that of Joe Tillotson, the owner of J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, came within a month or so of each other. Now it appears likely that the season was the same, but both fatal car accidents occurred in different years–1945 and 1947–a fact easily misunderstood by the young boy my father was at the time, as he listened to the adults talk about business.

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We believe this photo by William Osborn is from Lodgepole, Neb.

The article appeared in the Nebraska State Journal on Oct. 8, 1945:

Omahan dies after car accident

SIDNEY, Neb. (AP). W. B. Morris, 36, an employee of the Tillotson Construction company, of Omaha, was fatally injured Saturday night when struck by a car driven by Howard B. Kirk, 48, of Lodgepole, Neb., Deputy Sheriff Arnold Braasch said Sunday.

The deputy sheriff reported Morris was changing a tire on his car about ten miles east of here when the accident occurred. He died in a hospital about five hours later.

Braasch said Morris’ home was in Texas, but that he was living in Lodgepole while working on the construction of a new grain elevator.

County Attorney R. P. Kepler said he will decide on Monday whether an inquest is to be held.

We attributed the Lodgepole elevator’s construction to J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, the independent company Joe Tillotson started after his parting of the ways with Tillotson Construction of Omaha. We wrongly believed that both Bill Morris and Joe Tillotson had died in 1947 while working on the Lodgepole job. Now we know that Bill Morris died in 1945 while working for Joe Tillotson. The new fact pins down the date of Joe’s departure from the Omaha company–a move my grandfather made at the same time.

When interviewed in 1949 about his first, independent, Mayer-Osborn Construction venture in McCook, Neb., William Osborn named a number of elevators he had built before. We still believe all of the elevators Bill Osborn listed were J.H. Tillotson elevators.

According to the McCook article, Bill Osborn said the elevators in Maywood, Traer, Wauneta, and Lodgepole were built in 1945. If the reporter was right about Bill Morris’ employment, all of the 1945 elevators would be too early to be J. H. Tillotson elevators. However, none of them were recorded in the Tillotson Construction specifications and none built in the Omaha company’s style.

The reporter writing about Bill Morris’ death in 1945 was unaware of the freshly minted company Joe Tillotson had started, and wrongly identified Bill Morris as a Tillotson Construction of Omaha employee.

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An early photo of the Lodgepole elevator was kept at the location.

The fact that in 1945, Bill Morris went from a superintendent job at a verified Tillotson Construction project in Giddings, Tex to a superintendent position at the Lodgepole elevator job, a project demonstrably not built by the Omaha company, precisely dates the time Joe Tillotson chose to go out on his own.

The 1945 construction date of the Lodgepole elevator gives us a much more accurate understanding of the birth of J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, a venture that lasted about four years, until my grandfather built the McCook elevator for Mayer-Osborn Construction in 1949.

A tragedy took Morris in his prime, but my grandfather stepped into his place, gaining valuable experience as a builder. To this day, the graceful Lodgepole elevator serves as a fitting monument to Morris’ productive career.

Mayer-Osborn’s proposals were rejected at Wauneta, Nebraska

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Mayer-Osborn Construction lost their bid to build this annex.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

Our blog contributor Gary Rich was the first to visit Wauneta, Neb. in the hunt for elevators built by Mayer-Osborn Company and J. H. Tillotson, Contractor. He discovered that the Frenchman Valley Co-op had retained original documentation including blueprints for the original elevator, and the two annexes, which all still operate today. The various documents painted a confusing picture. Gary told me enough that I knew I needed to get down there and see for myself, which I finally did in October of 2012.

The builder of the original elevator was unclear, but presumably J. H. Tillotson had built it, based its appearance.  Mayer-Osborn soon returned with a proposal for the first annex, and a close reading of those documents seemed to indicate that the first elevator was completed by the same people, which at that time worked for the J. H. Tillotson, Contractor operation. But nothing definitive was found to that effect–even the manhole covers of the main house were blank after a renovation.

FVC BP6aThe most interesting discovery was a set of blueprints and drawings completed by Mayer-Osborn for their annex that was never built. Their proposal was submitted twice, once in 1950 and once a few years later, but the town finally decided on a different contractor after some delay. For some reason, the co-op retained all of the paperwork at the site. This blueprint, dated Feb. 17, 1950, was the first of these designs.

The co-op has retained the original written contract proposals, which will be detailed in a later post. It would be very interesting to discover what held up the original building plan. Because the annex finally went up in about 1957, it’s possible that the co-op just waited too long and built the annex after the demise of the Mayer-Osborn Company. The existing annex looks much like the original proposal. Did they show another company the plans, and ask, “How close can you come to this design?”

Mayer-Osborn elevator contract proposals are preserved at Wauneta, Nebraska

Much of the time on the road was spent marketing. William Osborn at the wheel

William Osborn at the wheel. Much of his time was spent selling elevators to prospective buyers.

Story by Kristen Cart

The Mayer-Osborn Construction Company built their elevators from 1949 until about 1955. To do this, they had to beat out a number of formidable competitors, both large and small, vying for the same jobs. But they did not win the contract every time they tried. One example of their perseverance survives at the Frenchman Valley Co-op at Wauneta, a town in southwestern Nebraska. Mayer-Osborn did not win their bid, but their contract proposals, made over a period of several years, are still kept in the co-op vault among blueprints and records spanning almost 70 years.

The cover letter for the Mayer-Osborn contract proposal at Wauneta, Neb.

The cover letter for the Mayer-Osborn contract proposal at Wauneta, Neb.

When I was first trying to get a handle on the scope of Mayer-Osborn’s business, I asked my dad, Jerry Osborn, which partner did most of the marketing. I was under the mistaken impression that Eugene Mayer was in charge of all that, and I thought that all my grandfather William Osborn had to do was show up and start pouring concrete.

“No,” Dad said, “Gene Mayer took care of the office and accounting, but your grandpa did a lot of the sales.”

This ad for Mayer-Osborn Company ran in Farmers' Elevator Guide over a period of several years in the early 1950s.

This ad for Mayer-Osborn Company ran in Farmers’ Elevator Guide over a period of several years in the early 1950s.

Grandpa put many miles on his cars, visiting prospective clients, when he was not supervising an active construction site. He spent almost all of his time on the road. Dad recalls that he and his mother were home alone during those years, while his brother Dick was in Korea and his sister Audrey was married. We have a few pictures of Dad with both of his parents, but they were taken at a job site. The sales part of Grandpa’s job took much more effort than I had ever imagined.

For a closer look at the Mayer-Osborn plans for Wauneta, Neb., and the final outcome of their efforts, stay tuned.

Elevator builders turned to wartime projects during World War II

Unknown, Gerald Osborn, William Osborn, Iver Salroth

Jerry Osborn (standing) with his father Bill Osborn (center) and Iver Salroth (right) in Galveston, Texas in 1945 during construction of Tillotson’s Fairmont building in Giddings.

By Kristen Cart

We have very limited information about the activities of Tillotson Construction of Omaha during World War Two. The other two elevator builders we profile, J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, and Mayer-Osborn, of Denver, Colo., began their operations after the war, but individuals working for both companies gained their experience during wartime, either at Tillotson Construction, or elsewhere.

Eugene Mayer, a partner in Mayer-Osborn Construction, previously worked in a partnership, Holmen and Mayer, based in Denver. Orrie Holmen was a University of Chicago-trained architect. Eugene’s sister Sheila was the wife of Joe Tlllotson. At some point after 1938, Joe left his brother Reginald in charge of the parent company, Tillotson Construction, of Omaha, and moved to Denver to start his own elevator business, accompanied by old Tillotson hands William Osborn and Bill Morris.

It would be fascinating to trace the wartime activities of each of these principal builders, if they can be learned.

Elevator photos026In the Tillotson company records, we found concrete elevator specifications beginning a few years before the War and resuming immediately afterward, but conspicuously absent were records of elevator construction during the War.

However, we know Tillotson Construction was active between 1942 and 1945. We found one snippet in an old newspaper, which we transcribed on the blog: https://ourgrandfathersgrainelevators.com/2012/05/08/nebraska-firms-get-government-contracts/.

When we learn more about the activities of the company during that time, we will certainly write about it here. It is an open line of inquiry, and we are eagerly seeking more information.

Wauneta, Nebraska’s elevator tells a compelling business story

Wauneta’s original elevator–built by J. H. Tillotson, Contractors, of Denver–is the centerpiece of the complex.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

In a sense, writing about the elevator at Wauneta, Neb., is saving the best for last. I visited Wauneta in June and held off writing about it, hoping for documentary confirmation that my grandfather, William Osborn, built it. But my dad, Gerald Osborn, said that he did, and when I visited, the clean lines and design details of the straight up elevator confirmed it.  It was without question one of J. H. Tillotson, Contractor’s efforts. My grandfather led the company’s construction effort in the late forties.

Cindy Fischer of the Frenchman Valley Cooperative

What I found there surpassed expectations. Cindy Fischer warmly welcomed me into the Frenchman Valley Co-op office, and kindly opened up the co-op records room, giving access to the history of the Wauneta elevator. We carefully unrolled blueprint after blueprint on the counter. The records showed that very soon after the original elevator was built, the cooperative found itself short of storage space as the grain boom (helped by federal subsidies) grew. So the co-op went shopping for an annex.

The Treow-Jensen built annex

The familiar name Mayer-Osborn Construction popped out immediately, on an old, yellowed set of blueprints, but the plans did not match what was eventually built. It left me scratching my head until I saw the plans submitted by Treow-Jensen. Ah, hah!  We were looking at competing proposals for the annex, and Mayer-Osborn had submitted two alternatives but was beat out by a lower-cost bidder. Treow-Jensen built Wauneta’s first annex in 1955. Jarvis Construction came in later to complete another annex in 1977.

Gary Rich, who contributes to Our Grandfathers’ Grain Elevators, had visited Wauneta before, and he and I had a protracted debate about what all the blueprints meant, since we found “Holmen and Mayer” on the plans for a building. What we could never settle was the identity of the builder of original elevator, whose plans were nowhere to be found. Eventually, we agreed to leave our diverging interpretations up in the air, all in good humor.

Cindy gave me access to the inside of the straight up elevator. She said that it had been completely redone, so the familiar Hutchinson Foundry manhole covers were absent. The replacement covers gave no indication of the elevator’s builder. Happily, the elevator appears to be ready to take on another sixty or more years of active service.

I wish to thank Cindy Fischer for her kindness and all of her time. We spent a whole morning going through plans, and I borrowed a number of them to be reprinted for my own records. She showed me, for the first time, the sales and engineering aspects of the Mayer-Osborn business. Many of these kinds of records have disappeared over the years, so she afforded a unique opportunity to peer into the past and see Grandpa’s business in a new light.

For that, I am grateful.

Elevator operations

Jerry McBride worked at Wauneta’s elevator in the ’60s before repairing cars

Jerry McBride at Bob’s Repair Service in Wauneta, Nebraska

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

On the way out of town after visiting the Wauneta, Nebr., elevator complex, we noticed a rather striking old building, which was an auto repair garage, currently owned by Robert Jones, and called Bob’s Auto Repair and Service, at 512 S. Tecumseh.

I stopped to take pictures. A man came out, introducing himself as Jerry McBride, and asked if I liked old buildings. I said I did, and that I had a particular interest in old elevators, having visited Wauneta’s that day. He invited me in to see the shop. It had been built in the 1920s, Jerry said, and mostly knocked down by a tornado sometime before the 1950s, when it was rebuilt and an extension added.

All of this happened before Jerry was employed there.

Wauneta’s original elevator

He said that he had been hired by Ivo Valentine Pennington in about 1962. Before that he was employed as a “broom man” at the Wauneta elevator for six months or so, making fifty cents an hour. Cleanliness was of utmost importance at the elevator. Wauneta gained the reputation for having the cleanest elevator in the state, Jerry said. Unclean elevators would catch fire, or worse, blow up. He kept the elevator clean, as dust free as possible, but it was nevertheless hard and dirty work and did not pay well, so he quit and looked into the possibility of going to school. Then I.V. Pennington offered him a job and all the training he would need to become a mechanic.


The shop today is an old-fashioned one that doesn’t take new cars. Parts could be machined there, and many of the tools had been manufactured by hand, to accommodate old cars.

Even the cash register was old–as Jerry pointed out, he did not have to close for a power outage, because the register still worked.

It struck me that Jerry McBride had first worked in this shop when the Wauneta elevator was less than ten or fifteen years old and the first annex was new. The repair shop was already old by then. Except for some modern tooling, the shop does not appear to be very different than in the 1960s.

Budd Gauger recalls delivering grain to the Wauneta elevator

Budd Gauger, who was born in 1930, grew up on a farm fifteen miles from Wauneta, in southwestern Nebraska. He went on to have a career as a newspaperman in Lincoln and Toledo. Here, in his lyrical style, he recalls details from his trips to the old Wauneta elevator. Mayer-Osborn’s plans for a new concrete elevator were approved, in 1949, by Farmers Coop Exchange (FCE), which merged with  Frenchman Valley Cooperative in 1990.

By Budd Gauger

Fourth of July means fireworks, but wheat farmers examine their fields hoping no fireworks such as lightning destroy their crops. They have decided to start the harvest.

When?

Now!

♦ ♦ ♦
 

I was assigned by my father to drive the big truck, usually a Chevrolet, hauling wheat to elevators in town. I realized that I had down time or wasted time when sitting in the fields waiting to load or at the elevator waiting to unload, so I enrolled in correspondence courses (this was in the ’50s) from Midland and Dana Colleges. A cousin, Thelma Gauger, taught me some words of shorthand, which came in handy for a journalist conducting an interview of newsmakers, so I sometimes practiced in the truck.

Frenchman Valley Co-op elevator complex at Wauneta. Photo by Gary Rich.

Wheat harvests come quickly and leave quickly on a march from Texas to Manitoba.

If the wheat was dry we could easily go most of the night in the fields. Sometimes I would stretch out atop my “gold” (wheat) in the back of the truck, and look at the soft-friendly of the moon, looking at me and billions of stars.

I marveled at the height of the elevators, not quite skyscraper high, but big nevertheless. They took a sample of wheat to make sure it wasn’t rotten. The price depended on the condition of the kernels.