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.

Part 2 of a photography outing unfolds the visual possibilities at Roggen, Colorado

Mayer-Osborn's Roggen, Colo. elevator has the typical stepped up headhouse.

The Roggen, Colo., elevator has the typical Mayer-Osborn stepped-up headhouse.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

The stepped-style headhouse on the 1950-vintage elevator at Roggen, Colo., raised our suspicion that Mayer-Osborn Construction built the elevator, and that my grandfather William Osborn had a hand in it. Our hunch proved to be right. A 1950 newspaper account detailed its construction, as well as that of the concurrent project at Byers, Colo. Roggen’s elevator was built on the heels of its twin, the Mayer-Osborn elevator at McCook, Neb., which was completed the year before.

Gary Rich explores creative possibilities at the Roggen elevator.

Gary Rich explores creative possibilities at the Roggen elevator.

Last year Gary Rich, contributor to this blog, paid a visit to Roggen. He documented the manhole covers inside the driveway, which bore the company name in raised letters across the top of the steel plates manufactured by Hutchinson Foundry. After seeing his photographs, I was very eager to see the elevator for myself.

Last fall on a visit to Colorado I met with Gary, and we took in Roggen and Byers among other elevators on a photography tour. Roggen is fairly accessible and located just east of Denver. The purpose of our tour was to document the elevators, but also to inject some creativity into the process. The results were very pleasing, especially at Roggen. This is part two of our photo tour.

When I started looking for my grandfather’s elevators, I never suspected it would open the door to the elevator photography and historical research you find in this blog. Best of all, our contributors Ronald Ahrens and Gary Rich have made this project great fun for all of us. I hope you, our readers, get a kick out of it as well, and are inspired to follow your own quests wherever they may lead.

Empty containers frame Roggen's 1950 elevator

Empty containers frame Roggen’s 1950 elevator. 

A photography outing reveals beauty at the Mayer-Osborn elevator in Byers, Colorado

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A documentary photograph of the Byers, Colo. elevator.

In the fall of 2012, Gary Rich, contributor to this blog, treated me to a photo tour of western Colorado elevators. I made a special stop to meet Gary and his wife Sandy. The last few years Gary has specialized in elevator photography, capturing the beauty and spare elegance of grain elevators, identifying their builders as he went. The Byers, Colo., elevator is one of the loveliest.

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Gary Rich, camera in hand, looks for a better shot.

Sandy Rich is a very good photographer in her own right, and she has challenged Gary to greater creativity in his compositions.  He explained how her inspiration led him away from “documentary” shots and toward more artistic photography. When we stopped at Byers, Colo., we took some of her ideas to heart, and we were very pleased with the results.

Mayer-Osborn construction built the Byers elevator in 1950, as noted in a contemporary newspaper account. My father Jerry Osborn remembers his dad William Osborn working on it.

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Using the foreground to frame the subject adds interest to the photograph. Gary shot this composition first as can be seen on his photo site.

Retaining some of the characteristics of the earlier J. H. Tillotson elevators, the Byers elevator recalls those at Traer and Hanover, Kan. The Byers elevator is bigger than the Hanover elevator, and you can see where design adjustments accommodate the greater volume. The windows are very similar to those at Traer. The manhole covers on the exterior at Byers represent an innovation to fulfill local needs.

Since elevator designs continued to improve over time, an elevator design genealogy becomes apparent. The innovations cross company boundaries and are seen by looking at elevators chronologically, especially where the same builders and architects continued working in the business, bringing their ideas to one company after another. This is a chronology we are still trying to understand.

As we strive to understand elevator history, we take pictures. Elevators are worthy of our understanding and preservation for their beauty, not just their utility. Beautiful photos convey that message in a way that words can never express.

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The manhole covers on the exterior of the Byers elevator identify Mayer-Osborn as the builder.

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The Big Springs, Nebraska, elevator proved to be a Mayer-Osborn Construction job

The Cheppell, Nebraska elevator built by Chalmers & Borton

The Chappell, Nebraska elevator built by Chalmers & Borton. 

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

My grandfather William Osborn built an elevator in the western Nebraska town of Chappell, according to my dad Jerry Osborn. Dad’s recollections have guided our search thus far, for Mayer-Osborn elevators. Surely over the kitchen table he heard the names of towns where his absent father had construction jobs. Or perhaps he saw the postmarks of letters sent home.

Chappell was probably stamped on one of those postmarked letters, or it was the nearest town with a motel, because when I went to visit in 2011, there was nary a Mayer-Osborn elevator in evidence. Impressive elevators there were, but I found out later that they all had the ubiquitous Chalmers & Borton nameplate, the trademark of Grandpa’s biggest competitor.

The Mayer-Osborn elevator lacked the annex when it was first built. It is the same plan as used in McCook, Neb. and Blencoe, Iowa.

The Mayer-Osborn elevator at Big Springs, Neb. lacked the annex when it was first built. It is the same style as used in McCook, Neb., and Blencoe, Iowa.

One stop east on the rail line, however, was a large, handsome elevator that looked like one of Mayer-Osborn’s jobs. It was the spitting image of the first elevator Grandpa built on his own at McCook, Neb. The first time I saw it, I was curious enough to snap a photo, but identification was going to wait for another year. My dad knew nothing about Big Springs.

When Gary Rich, a contributor to this blog, looked into the builders of the elevators he photographed, he solved the mystery. He identified the Big Springs elevator by its manhole covers inside the driveway, each embossed with “Mayer-Osborn Construction, Denver, Colo.” above the Hutchinson Foundry stamp.

The Big Springs, Neb. elevator in October, 2012

The Big Springs, Neb., elevator in October, 2012. 

I paid another visit to Big Springs last fall after our Wyoming elk hunt. We didn’t get any elk, but I did get some nice photographs of the elevator. It was a sleepy Sunday with no one around. Next time, perhaps I can see inside.

It is an honor to pay respects to my grandfather’s enduring work. It is living history of a kind that is rarely noticed or mentioned. Once gone, it is scarcely remembered except in dusty repositories of pictures, and in mostly forgotten stories.

At Big Springs, Neb., that day of fading away is still far off in the future.

The elevator at Bradshaw, Nebraska, still hides the identity of its builder

DSC_0107Story and photos by Kristen Cart

A couple of years ago, before we started this blog, I tried to find pictures of the projects we knew my grandfather William Osborn built. Sometimes I would find photos of look-alike structures at locations that my dad couldn’t remember. Most of these mysteries were eventually resolved with the help of Gary Rich, a retired Union Pacific man with an indefatigable curiosity. He visited the locations, identified a number of the builders, took beautiful photographs, and contributed his findings to this blog.

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The J.H. Tillotson look-alike at Bradshaw, Neb.

The Bradshaw, Neb., elevator remains an unsolved mystery. I visited the elevator early last year and photographed it from all sides. The style was a dead ringer for the elevators at Fairbury and Daykin, Neb., and Linn, Kan., all J. H. Tillotson, Contractor jobs. But since I had no access to the inside of the elevator, my tentative identification remained unverified.

Mr. Gordan, who lived across the street from the elevator, commented about the structure and its history, but his details were sparse. He said the elevator had a twin that no longer stood.

“It had problems with the headhouse,” he said.

And in another town he did not name, a similar elevator had been struck by lightning and burned.

Since the look-alike elevator in McAllaster, Kan. was demolished before we could resolve its provenance, and others also seem to have perished, it is clear that an unknown number of this type of elevator once existed. We hope to find the business records of Mayer-Osborn Construction and its predecessor, J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, to learn more about them.

The Bradshaw elevator bears an old FCA logo, but United Farmers Cooperative is apparently the current owner.

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New elevators

Mr. Gordan’s mother came out to greet me, but the meeting is a little vague in my memory, because I only made notes about it later. Both mother and son said the Bradshaw elevator was retired, but that the nearby gas station still operated, and the newer elevators a little down the rail line handled the grain.

I hope to visit again when the co-op is open, to learn more.

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Bradshaw, Nebraska

The town of Bradshaw is neat and clean, and displays a good amount of civic pride. Most notable is the broad main street–the expansive use of space has the look of a western town, rather than the neatly packed economy you see in the East. It inhabits a flat Nebraska landscape, nearly midway between Grand Island and Lincoln, with distant horizons and plenty of elbow room.

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Gas station

Bradshaw is well worth a return visit, preferably during harvest. Perhaps a local farmer can sit down for a cup of coffee and color in the details of this lovely Nebraska town.

Blue skies at Lodgepole, Nebraska, and a perfect photo opportunity

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The J. H. Tillotson concrete elevator, built in 1948, and operated by Frenchman Valley Coop

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

On the way home from our Wyoming hunt last fall, we drove through Lodgepole, Neb. one more time. Gorgeous weather quelled the protests from the truck’s back seat, and with windows open, everyone settled down with books and gadgets while Mom (that would be me) got out with her camera.

I hope you enjoy some of the results as much as I did. This elevator, built by J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, in 1948, still stands proudly along old Lincoln Hwy. 30, in a town that is still a tourist destination. No one seemed curious about a lady with a camera–seems like it’s not so unusual around here.

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A track-side view of both elevators in Lodgepole, Neb.

The wooden elevator in the town is still in use, less than half a mile down the rail line. It appears to be in spiffy condition and ready for business. The town obviously takes pride in its agriculture and its heritage.

Happily, the history of the town intersects with the history of my grandfather, builder William Osborn, and our family. It has become a destination for us and a beautiful stop alongside the road.

Even the kids grudgingly admit it isn’t too bad, for an elevator.

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The wooden elevator with metal siding, flanked by metal bins

A look at grain operations at the J. H. Tillotson elevator in Lodgepole, Nebraska

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A Union Pacific train rolls by the elevators in Lodgepole, Neb.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

A beautiful elevator can be truly inspiring. My first visit to Lodgepole, Neb., was on a hazy October day, on the way to Wyoming, where we hunt elk. The misty skies did not show the elevator to its greatest advantage, so the best photography had to wait for a later visit. But this time I had the chance to visit the office and learn more about the elevator and the town.

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Melvin Paulsen inside the elevator driveway during corn transfer.

Melvin Paulsen, a two-year employee of the Frenchman Valley Coop, hailing from Julesburg, Colo., kindly showed me inside the main elevator. The interior lacked the embossed manhole covers that would reveal the builder, J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, but we knew the origins of this elevator from the recollections of my father Jerry Osborn.

The Denver-based builder had lost its owner, Joe Tillotson, and superintendent, Bill Morris, in separate traffic accidents during construction at Lodgepole. The mishaps ended a successful run of elevator projects. My grandfather, William Osborn, soon picked up the pieces and started his own company, Mayer-Osborn Construction Company, also based in Denver.

Melvin explained that the elevator was in the process of shifting grain from a main bin to the annex. The grain dryer attached to the elevator was no longer operational, so only grain that was sufficiently dry (with 18 percent or less original moisture content) could be accepted for storage. Grain that was on the moist end of the acceptable range had to go to the annex, which had ventilation fans, to prevent damage from overheating.

A fair pile of dust could accumulate during the grain transfer, so the elevator driveway was kept open to help blow it out. A shovel leaned nearby to take care of the remainder. Dust had to be cleared out completely to prevent an explosive hazard.

One of the newer bins was home to an emergency response relay for radio communications between dispatch and fire and emergency responders.

Elevator photos006Inside the Frenchman Valley Coop office was an old aerial photo of the elevator and one that was taken during its construction. Melvin kindly furnished me with an extra copy of the aerial shot. The elevator looked very much like its J. H. Tillotson brethren.

Lodgepole celebrates Old Settlers’ Days each year. The park alongside the railroad tracks fills with horses and buggies, tractors, vendors, and all manner of activities. A parade winds along the streets. The scene recalls a time when a farmer would drive his wagon up to the old wooden elevator on the rail line, and dump his grain in the pit, hoping for higher prices.

The town also attracts visitors when the old Union Pacific steam engine, UP844, stops on a regular scheduled visit.

Lodgepole’s elevator was a milestone in my grandfather’s building career. It remains one of the most attractive elevators in Nebraska.

The Cordell, Oklahoma elevator project fused engineering prowess with family ties

Story by Kristen Cart

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Edwin Christoffersen was the superintendent on the Mayer-Osborn Construction project in Cordell, Okla. in 1950. His son and namesake kindly provided a notebook that gave a glimpse of the concrete engineering that went into the elevator. By trial and error, the company learned best practices, creating an enduring structure which would still operate more than sixty years later.

Edwin Louis Christofferson was the son of Jens “James” Lauritz Christoffersen, a first generation American who farmed and operated a farm stand in Fremont, Neb. Edwin was one of nine children. Ed’s sister Alice married William Osborn in 1923.

When the Mayer-Osborn enterprise was in full swing, Bill Osborn tapped relatives to manage projects or to provide manual labor. He followed a common practice.

Sons Dick and Jerry Osborn worked at various times building elevators. Bill Osborn entered partnership with Eugene Mayer, the brother of Joseph H. Tillotson’s wife Sylvia. At the Tillotson Construction Company of Omaha, Bill Osborn worked with Iver Salroth, husband of Emma, a Christoffersen cousin.

Naturally, when the opportunity arose, Ed Christoffersen found employment with his brother-in-law’s company an attractive proposition.

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Edwin Louis Christoffersen with his only child.

Ed’s son has kept a number of Mayer-Osborn keepsakes, in memory of his dad, who died when he was still quite young. One intriguing item was the logbook that Ed kept for the Cordell, Okla. elevator, recording concrete tests.

Various sand, gravel, and concrete mixtures were tested to a failure point to determine the ideal formula for a given project. The date and time of day was recorded for each test. In this journal, we discovered the year of construction for the Cordell elevator.

The elevator business brought families together to accomplish a common goal, and now, many years later, writing about the elevators brings the builders and their sons and daughters together again. The memories are kept in small personal repositories of clippings, photos and documents, and in tales of the job, and are captured fleetingly before the witnesses leave us.

Looking up at these great landmarks, we also look up to the patriarchs who built them, with respect, and awe.

Mystery elevator identified as Mayer-Osborn’s Cordell, Oklahoma project

William Osborn photo provided by his granddaughter Diane Osborn Bell

William Osborn photo provided by his granddaughter Diane Osborn Bell.

By Kristen Cart

christofferson040This photograph has left us scratching our heads for over a year. Gary Rich knew of no such elevator from all of his travels, so he rummaged through his photographs for any hint of it. He looked for an elevator with a single bin-width and two driveways, with a curve of track and a second elevator around the bend, all to no avail. The photo sat in my files waiting for serendipity to step in. Sometimes, it is best to bide your time, and if you are lucky you get more than a location and a name. We hit the jackpot in this case.

When Dad and I visited his first cousin, we sorted through boxes of hundred-year-old family pictures. Midway through the second box, we found a newspaper clipping about an elevator, with a photo I instantly recognized. There it was, plain as day.

This unique elevator was built in Cordell, Okla., a town almost directly south of Wichita, Kan., well within the territory served by Mayer-Osborn Construction. The superintendent on the job was Ed Christoffersen, brother-in-law to my grandfather William Osborn.

Cordell Oklahoma Elevator

In this photo by Joy Franklin, you can see two driveways, built for faster grain loading during harvest. The curve of train track is evident here.

After making the identification, I looked online and found Expedition Oklahoma, where Joy Franklin posted a beautiful current photo of the elevator. With her kind permission, it is posted below. She said the elevator is owned by the Wheeler Brothers Grain Company, founded in 1917, which presently owns eighteen grain elevators. It is a happy surprise to see that one of Mayer-Osborn’s most innovative elevators not only survives, but is still in use today.

 

History is preserved in pictures at St. Francis, Kansas

Story by Kristen Cart

Farmers line up their grain trucks at St. Francis, Kan.

Farmers line up their grain trucks at St. Francis, Kan.

One of the most pleasant surprises at the St. Francis Mercantile Equity Exchange was their historical record preserved in pictures. In its hundred-year history, the exchange has maintained a continuous presence on the site of the present elevator, and has seen many changes in technology. Fortunately, photos exist that document the old way of doing things, and  Shirley Zweygardt, the site grain manager, was kind enough to provide copies.

In this photo dated 1951, an old wooden elevator stands immediately behind the concrete house. It was demolished to make room for the second bank of concrete bins, built in 2000.

In this photo dated 1951, an old wooden elevator stands immediately behind the concrete house. It was demolished to make room for the second bank of concrete bins, built in 2000.

It is always a fantastic find when you locate a pictorial history of an elevator.

A picture album, filled with historical treasures, which Shirley Zweygardt was pleased to share

A picture album, filled with historical treasures, which Shirley Zweygardt was pleased to share

I had already acquired a 1947 dated postcard depicting the elevator, so we knew its age. These additional photos, dated on the reverse “1951,” show its stately beauty. They depict two additional wooden elevators, which have long since disappeared. The vintage automobile in the foreground of the first image substantiates the date of the caption. Without the car, this photo would appear timeless, even though it was taken shortly before the addition of the first annex built by Chalmers and Borton.

Another view, dated 1951

Another view, dated 1951

It was quite a lovely thing; by 1951, the largest known elevator built by J. H. Tillotson, Contractor, was celebrating its fifth year, and was still white and stark against the sky. The elevator at McCook, Neb., was only two years old when this photo was taken, and my grandfather, builder William Osborn, had gone on to other projects with the Mayer-Osborn Construction Company.

Shirley Zweygardt told me an elderly resident of the town had preserved these photos in an album, which she brought to the elevator office, where they became part of the records of the equity exchange. The prints, reproduced here, were duplicate copies, now part of my growing library of historical images.

The visit to St. Francis was a happy one, capping an October 2012 elevator tour. This elevator marked the pinnacle of J. H. Tillotson’s construction career. Impressive still, it is a fitting monument to the skill, ambition, and industry of its builders.