The first Denver office of Mayer-Osborn is for lease at $8,000 a month

The 1717 E. Colfax Ave., Denver, Colo. location is for lease.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

While enjoying our leisurely October road trip, my dad, Jerry Osborn, and I sought out the former business office of the Mayer-Osborn Construction Company, the Denver-based business my grandfather, William Osborn, operated in partnership with Eugene Mayer. It still stands at 1717 E. Colfax Ave.

Mayer ran the business office, while Grandpa was in the field selling their services. Their former office has undergone a smart update, now sporting solar panels and new brick siding, which has added great street-front appeal for potential tenants.

An item from the Farmers’ Elevator Guide

The place was vacant, but it was settled into an optimistic, mixed neighborhood not far from the Denver Botanical Gardens. About four blocks from Denver’s Five Points, the area seemed to be on an economic rebound, though most buildings were older and fairly nondescript.

Dad and I pulled across a busy grocery store parking lot to get a good vantage point. The photo above shows modern updates, including passive solar panels installed to take advantage of Denver’s many days of sunshine.

Dad and I checked off another important historical visit, and went on our way, happy to see Bill Osborn’s Denver digs at last.

Some initials on a bronze plaque in Limon, Colo., help to solve a mystery

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

My father, Jerry Osborn, and I had a rare opportunity this October to take a road trip. Our goals were to see family, check out our hunting camp, and see some of the sights in the west. Dad is in his eighties now, so we don’t put off any chances to do neat stuff. This trip exceeded our expectations. Happily, we also were able to take in some elevators.

Jerry Osborn at Zion National Park, Utah

Our stop at the elevator in Limon, Colo., proved to be a wonderful surprise. There was a truck at the co-op when we arrived, but the office door was locked, so I approached the elevator itself and called out to see if it was deserted. When I turned around, a man was approaching from the office. I went to meet him.

Ed Owens was finishing up paperwork before going home for the night. I asked him about the history of the elevator, and he brought me into the office. Ed said his grandfather, S. L. Sitton, helped build the Limon elevator as well as the earlier, neighboring one in Genoa, Colo. He said his grandfather came into the area in 1939. He went away during the war, then came back and looked for whatever work he could find. Elevator construction provided a part-time laborer job that kept food on the table.

The builder put up the elevator like a layer cake, letting each concrete layer cure for a period before adding another, rather than by the continuous-pour method pioneered by early elevator construction companies. The Limon elevator was built in stages by farmers who built by day and farmed by night. I was impressed by Mr. Sitton’s fortitude, and I would have asked the old gentleman about it, but Ed said he was 97 years old and living in a nursing home in Flagler. He likely wouldn’t remember, and even if he did, he might not appreciate a visit.

The Genoa, Colo., elevator is in a neighboring town.

The best discovery was yet to come. When Ed ushered me into the office, he showed me the bronze plaque which originally adorned the driveway of the Limon elevator. Ed said all of the directors listed on the plaque were dead by now. The elevator was built in 1958, so all the community leaders of the time were long gone. But the key bit of information on the plaque was the name of the builder and designer, M. and A. Enterprises, Inc., of Denver.

I was very excited to see this name. The company was based in Denver, and the designer claimed to be the builder. Based on the design of the elevator, I had a strong suspicion of who that designer might have been. We now had a key piece of information.

Followers of this blog know that we have puzzled over a few mysteries while tracking our grandfathers’ elevators. The most difficult story to reconstruct, thus far, was how the Mayer-Osborn Construction Company met its demise.

The Denver-based enterprise lasted from 1949 until at least 1954, when my grandfather, William Osborn, apparently left the business. In the summer of 1954 he built the Blencoe, Iowa, elevator with the help of my dad, Jerry Osborn; by the summer of 1955, William was home from his Denver office and never worked elevator construction again. Meanwhile, his partner, Eugene Mayer, probably revived the company under various guises, but we know little of what became of him.

With our visit to Limon, Colo., we may have cracked the case.

Usually, the simplest explanation is the true one. The quickest way to explain why a thriving company would go away is to look for a disaster. Family lore says there was one. But I suspect the rumor of a collapsed elevator, lost to a crew that “shorted materials” and made bad concrete, might have been a tall tale that sprung from a much more pedestrian event. No such disasters can be found in 1954 or 1955 newspaper accounts.

The only related problem I could find occurred at the the Mayer-Osborn elevator in Blencoe, Iowa. During construction, when the elevator had reached about twelve feet high, the forms were slipped for the first time. As soon as concrete appeared below the slipped form, it began to slump and crumble. Bad concrete was indeed the culprit, and it necessitated a tear-down. To get back to a twelve foot height, the company had to add a day or two of expensive labor, which directly cut into profit. Could this event explain why William Osborn left the company? It’s the simplest explanation, so perhaps.

Several subsequent elevators bore the Mayer-Osborn manhole covers, but Dad didn’t know about these elevators, and he was certain that by 1955, his dad, William, was home for good.

The Mayer-Osborn elevator at McCook, Nebr. built in 1949

With its signature stepped headhouse, the elevator in Limon bears an uncanny resemblance to the first elevator Mayer-Osborn built in McCook, Neb. In fact, it is the same design, updated somewhat, and dated 1958. So it certainly went up after Grandpa left the business. But what about Eugene Mayer? Dad said that he was the designer, whereas Bill Osborn started as a carpenter and learned his construction skills on the job. Mayer still retained ownership of his elevator designs, which could explain why McCook clones continued to pop up all over the plains in the mid-1950s.

That brings us back to the builder of the Limon elevator, as inscribed on the plaque, “M. and A. Enterprises, Inc.” It seems inescapable that the “M.” was Mr. Eugene Mayer.

The Limon elevator had newer innovations but was built haltingly. Plainly, all was not the same as it had been when Bill Osborn was on the job. Perhaps fewer workers were available. Fewer contracts were awarded as subsidies waned. So the big, ambitious, day-and-night event of an elevator project was toned down somewhat. I expect we will find that Eugene Mayer’s design was eventually sold and others built it, then it passed into history, along with the great concrete elevator boom.

Happily, Limon’s elevator still thrives, and it gives us a peek at the amazing history of elevators on the American plains.

The layout of the elevator is used to record the content of each bin. Flat storage is adjacent to the concrete elevator.

 

 

A slip-formed lesson in character-building at Blencoe, Iowa

Mayer-Osborn pay stubs from August, 1954

Mayer-Osborn pay stubs from August, 1954.

Story by Kristen Cart

Just when you think you know all there is to know about your parent, you find a document that tells you something more. In this case, I found the pay stubs for when my dad, Jerry Osborn, worked for Mayer-Osborn Construction Company in 1954. He wedged a few weeks of hard labor between school in the spring and football in the fall.

The project was a large elevator similar to the first elevator Bill Osborn built with his partner, Gene Mayer, in McCook, Nebraska, in 1949. This example of the type went up in Blencoe, Iowa–and not without incident, as we have related in this blog.

It struck me that his pay rate was just that of a laborer. No cushy job for the son of the boss was offered–he laid steel rebar down during the uninterrupted concrete pour, working his way around the bin top as workers jacked the forms and scaffolding ever higher. Dad mentioned that when he worked for his father, he was paid the same as everyone else–a dollar an hour for back-breaking labor. Not a few times, laborers walked off the job after the first paycheck. It wasn’t easy.

Dad managed to find something to do on the job that was worth even less–he put in a fair amount of time at fifty cents an hour. I can only imagine what that job entailed.

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Jerry Osborn had interests other than building elevators for his dad. He was a champion golfer at Midland College. It seems odd that a good golfer, while cultivating the skill and concentration such sport required, would take time out to heave rebar for a summer job.

I’m not sure which year they won the championship, but I like the juxtaposition between the brutality of the labor and the finesse of golf.

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The summer job added up to a tidy sum for the time. Perseverance paid off.

These days, many of our college-educated young people seem too delicate for such work, especially in exchange for such a meager reward. It would make no sense to them.

But my grandfather, William Osborn, might say that this kind of work built character. Especially if you showed up for that second and third week.

The elevator in Odebolt, Iowa exemplifies the integrity of Mayer-Osborn’s style

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Story and photos by Kristen Cart

In March I had the chance to stop in Odebolt, Iowa, to investigate one of the last elevators built by Mayer-Osborn Construction, the company based in Denver and headed by my grandfather William Osborn and his partner Eugene Mayer.

Odebolt is a middling town in western Iowa. The grain facility looked deserted when I drove up, except for a man with a skid loader doing something I couldn’t quite make out. He disappeared through the elevator driveway, and was nowhere to be seen when I drove around to the other side.

A busy fertilizer operation sat adjacent to the elevator, and when I stepped into a nearby office, I had the pleasure of meeting the mayor of Odebolt, Mike Hoefling. He said I missed my mark and should drive past the bank (a neoclassical, tidy marble edifice in the center of town) to find the co-op in a green building. It was easy to find.

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The neoclassical-styled bank makes a stately neighbor to the sprawling grain facility in Odebolt, Iowa.

As a result of the April 1st merger of two Iowa stalwarts–the Farmers Cooperative Company and the West Central Cooperative, the Odebolt elevator complex will lose its “FC” signage and gain the name Landus. Landus is a brand new, giant cooperative based in Ames, Iowa (painters will soon be dangling off the sides of elevators all over Iowa implementing the name change). During my visit, the co-op in Odebolt was adjusting to its first day under new management.

A lady greeted me outside the co-op (I regret that I did not get her name). I asked her who built the old elevator, and when. She said she didn’t know, but at that moment a truck drove up, and she and two companions pointed out the driver and said he would know. As soon as the man stepped from the truck, she said “Do you remember when the old elevator was built?” The man, probably in his fifties, looked a little stunned and said “No!” Everyone howled with laughter. The 1950s vintage elevator was already on the scene before he was born.

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A vintage photo found in a 1974 history of the town, showing the Mayer-Osborn elevator.

The gentleman driving the truck introduced himself as Tim Gunderson. He said he worked at the elevator part-time to “help out,” but his full time work was farming. He offered to take me to the elevator to check it out. I hopped in the truck, and off we went.

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Tim Gunderson, standing in a basement doorway. Each concrete archway is beveled at the edge–for what purpose? We don’t know.

The elevator, sporting a stepped headhouse much like the McCook, Neb., elevator my grandfather built, was set among a cluster of newer additions. It sat silent, Tim said, because a leg had become clogged and awaited repairs. Tim led the way and I followed, donning a safety vest per regulations, and we entered the driveway and from there proceeded into the heart of the elevator.

Tim pointed out the “blue leg” which was the original, he said. Mayer-Osborn Construction painted the trim on all of its elevators blue–including the metal exterior of the leg.

We were on a level of the elevator beneath the bins (but not all the way into the pit) where a grain conveyor ran beneath the attached annex. Tim pointed out the workmanship and detailing of the concrete. “They didn’t have to do this,” he said, pointing to a neat beveled edge. “No one would ever see it here.”

According to Tim, the elevator was built with a pride of workmanship that you never see today. I noticed the same thing as we toured the elevator–utilitarian, routine equipment was thoughtfully designed to create a harmonious whole, imparting an impression of completeness and integrity.

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Neatness and graceful style, down to the switches and pulleys, exemplify a Mayer-Osborn elevator.

The elevator was impressive. It was remarkably clean and dust-free, a sign of a safety-conscious operation.

Tim also took the time to help me discover the vintage of the old house, and to this end we made several stops and visited more folks in the town. In the next post we will share more photos of this iconic elevator and delve into its history.

 

Bruce Selyem, an old hand in elevator photography, is still in the game

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Ione, Oregon

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

An eagerly awaited package arrived in the mail the other day. I opened it to find Bruce and Barbara Selyem’s 2016 elevator calendar–a vivid sampling of the photography work that Bruce has done over the years. Barbara Selyem called me to see if I would like one this year–I am an old customer, and I get one every year. So of course I asked her to send it.

Thirteen carefully selected images grace the calendar, and it does not disappoint.

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Indus, Alberta, Canada

Selyem Enterprises also produces framed elevator images for home and business, and if I bought everything I liked, I would run out of wall space very quickly. Bruce has documented many beautiful old wooden elevators in the United States and Canada that have gradually disappeared. Over the 20-plus years Bruce has been shooting elevators, most of the structures have only his photos to remember them by.

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Mossleigh, Alberta, Canada

If my kids had anyone to blame for the numerous side trips, excursions, and stops we have made to take pictures of wooden elevators in the wild, Bruce Selyem would top their list. I have studied his website carefully to plan for elevator photography trips in Idaho and Oregon. Many times the kids have admonished me for the odd elevator stop on the way to Nebraska. I can’t help it. They are beautiful.

Though not many of my wooden elevator photos have been published here, there is quite a collection of them. It is a passion, and I come by it honestly.

My grandfather, William Osborn, took many photos when I was a little girl. I remember the bellows on his camera, the camera body he carefully set up on a tripod, and his advice to sit still. He would pull the Polaroid photo out of the back of the camera while he started his buzzing timer. The hand on the timer would move interminably, and I would stand on tip-toe, eagerly awaiting the magic moment. Then he would peel the negative away and voila, a damp image would emerge, which I would hold gingerly by the edges while it dried.

As a girl, I wondered at the photo of his first elevator in McCook, Nebraska, that he built for Mayer-Osborn. I never knew I would combine his love for photography with his life’s work one day, and share all of it here.

To check out the photography of Bruce Selyem, visit his website at grain elevator photos. Bruce and Barbara Selyem welcome you.

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A concrete beauty. Nyssa, Oregon

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 tale from the Johnson Construction elevator at Galatia, Kansas

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Blencoe, Iowa

Story by Kristen Cart

Once again, one of our readers has supplied a fascinating glimpse into the construction of an elevator.

Emily Frank is the granddaughter of Darrell Greenlee, a foreman for Johnson and Johnson-Sampson. She related a story about the beginnings of the Galatia, Kan., grain elevator:

The Post Crescent 26 Mar 1959My grandfather built slipform concrete grain elevators while my mom was little. My grandparents moved around every three to six months from the time they were married until my mom (the third of six children) was in third grade. I find a lot of your stories remind me of the ones my mom told or my grandmother tells. You did one where a man fell to his death from an elevator during construction. Unfortunately that happened on a job where my grandfather was the foreman, as well…

My grandfather worked for Virgil Johnson. At the time the company was Johnson Elevator Company.

At a job in Galatia, Kan., in 1959, while Darrell was stabilizing the family trailer, it fell and he was hit across his back and shoulders. Rosina took him to the hospital. The hospital wasn’t going to see him until she could pay. She didn’t have insurance. She told them instead, “I’ve got enough money to buy this damn hospital.” When they left two days later, she paid cash.

Rosina called Virgil to tell him that Darrell had been hurt–not bad but he was pretty bruised up. Rosina wasn’t sure what they were going to do. She told Virgil she wanted to know what he was going to do because if Darrell didn’t work, he didn’t get paid. Virgil asked if his butt was bruised and then pointed to a chair and said “See that chair right there, he can park his ass right there and supervise from his chair.”

When the elevator was just about completed a man fell from the top of the elevator. Darrell was a witness to the fall. The guy opened the door at the top and the wind caught him and blew him over the side of the elevator. He fell 120 feet to his death. The man was Arthur Kronberg, 42, originally from Menasha, Wisconsin.

Rosina said when they called the man’s brother to tell him he could come pick up his belongings, he didn’t seem very interested, except he asked if there was anything of value. They had told him his brother had a truck. The man reluctantly agreed to get the truck.

Emily filled in some of the details of her grandfather’s career. The history of Johnson Elevator Company that she shared intrigued us, because the company took up where Mayer-Osborn Company left off and built strikingly similar elevators. The Galatia elevator is a close copy of the Mayer-Osborn elevators at McCook, Neb., and Blencoe, Iowa. Because of the similarities between them and a number of other Johnson elevators, we have speculated whether designer Gene Mayer continued his career with Virgil Johnson and brought his designs with him. Emily continued:

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Page City, Kan.

The elevator at Galatia is on one of Johnson’s business cards.

Johnson used to work with some brothers with the last name Sampson. They were Virgil Johnson’s brothers-in-law. They worked together for a while, too, under the name Johnson-Sampson.

My grandfather worked constructing concrete elevators from 1947 to about 1963. He worked for several different people.

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Mitchellville, Iowa.

Johnson was the man he worked for most, on and off over the years. When Virgil and his brothers-in-law split, my grandfather went to work for Dewey Construction and then Young Love. Then Virgil found a partner, and my grandfather worked for Johnson & Bratcher. Then Virgil went off on his own as Johnson Elevator Company.

When Virgil went broke after a missile base job in the 1960s, my grandfather worked for a guy by the name of Guy James. He did two jobs for him until he finally settled in Rushville, Ill. He never built another elevator, but he had his own company and they did a lot of elevator repair work.

My own grandfather William Osborn’s experience followed a similar trajectory–after he was done with elevator construction, he went on to elevator repair and maintenance. We always attributed the cancer that took him at age 75 to the dust he breathed during those years, though some of the damage could have been from smoking, a habit he dropped ten years before he died.

The hazards of the business were sometimes obvious, but often stealthy and unexpected. From dust, to wind, to new boots, to heedless roofers, many things in elevator construction took lives–but the monuments built by these mortal men remain, withstanding tornadoes, floods, hail, and every natural disaster.