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

DSC_0065

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.

DSC_0697

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.

DSC_0557

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.

DSC_0674

A concrete beauty. Nyssa, Oregon

How ‘the crookedest elevator in Iowa’ was built

DSC_0416Story and photos by Kristen Cart

It was a terminal elevator, a family operation, capable of supplying a custom mix of feed fine-tuned to the individual farmer’s requirements. It sat along a rail line that ran through Dow City, Iowa, along U.S. 30 in the western part of the state. And it had been crooked as long as it existed.

There were two different explanations offered for its seemingly casual slouch. The first was intended for credulous tourists, and the last was a more scientific tale. But I liked the first story better.

You see, when the wooden elevator was built, the crew employed for nailing the boards was instructed to rotate around the structure as they built it. That way, the fellows who hammered harder would work their way around the elevator, keeping it even. That precaution had been neglected. The slackers on one side of the elevator, by not pounding as hard, left the rising wall noticeably taller on their side than did the guys who could swing a hammer. Thus, the finished elevator gained a noticeable tilt.

dsc_5941I bought every word of it. I imagined the men smacking the boards tightly on one side, and their chagrin when they discovered what they had done. But alas, the truth was far less romantic.

According to the owner, the builders set the foundation in soggy ground left from years of servicing steam locomotives, and the elevator sagged into the bog as soon as it was built.

Humbug.

dsc_5929In the next post, I will explain how this pay-as-you-go family operation skipped the concrete elevator stage of business. The present effort to modernize must do so without the subsidies that characterized the concrete elevator boom.

 

 

 

A mystery is solved with the discovery of elevator builder Van Ness Construction

The wooden elevator at Wymore, Nebraska, is representative of the style of Van Ness Construction

The wooden elevator at Wymore, Neb., is representative of the style of Van Ness Construction.

Story and photo by Kristen Cart

When we began investigating the elevators our grandfathers built, we had no idea how far the project would take us or what surprises would unfold. With the discovery of Van Ness Construction Company of Omaha, we have learned about the beginnings of the Tillotson family enterprise, and have entered a new phase of our search.

Charles_Tillotson_Obit__The_Nebraska_State_Journal__Lincoln__Nebr___19_June_1938

The Nebraska State Journal, June 19, 1938

We knew that Charles H. Tillotson, patriarch of the family and great-grandfather of Ronald Ahrens, built elevators before the days of slip-formed concrete. We found only one Tillotson elevator, made of wood, that predated the elegant concrete structures that sprang up all over the Midwest in the ’40s and ’50s–at least we found its obituary in a news video of its fiery demise. That 1940 vintage elevator, in Hawarden, Iowa, was built two years after Charles died. It burned down in 2006. We didn’t find, at the time, a project that we could attribute to Charles.

Then we had a breakthrough, thanks to Ancestry.com.

Ancestry has a wonderful collection of city directories. I had seen listings for the Tillotson family in Omaha before, but I missed a significant data point. While searching for Sylvia (Mayer) Tillotson, the wife of Joe and sister of Eugene Mayer, I discovered an Omaha directory for 1936 in which Charles H. Tillotson was listed as president of Van Ness Construction Company. Further Internet searches revealed some of the sites where Van Ness built its small steel-cased wooden elevators, but as yet we have found none that have survived.

Now we hope to find an existing elevator from the days before Joe and Reginald Tillotson dreamed up their slip-formed concrete designs. So far the closest we have come is an elevator that perished in a fire in Scribner, Neb., in 1971 , a nightmare that repeated itself in June, 2013.

Also, in a Google satellite image of the town of Diller, Neb., another identified site, a square concrete pad with a grain spout lying alongside it is located near new steel bins, right where an old elevator should have been. In Rydal, Kan., you can see a concrete pad with concrete pits near a horizontal storage building, with the remains of a rail siding alongside. I was a little surprised to find evidence of earlier elevators at these sites, but of course digging up tons of concrete for no special reason would be unnecessarily expensive, so there are remains.

Everywhere we looked for these ancient elevators, we found evidence of obsolescence and ultimate destruction, with little left to identify the sites. Newspapers were the only way to find the locations. Fire certainly destroyed some of them. For those that remained, the adoption of concrete and much larger storage facilities turned these old Van Ness elevators into relics and ultimately spelled their doom.

An old wooden elevator comes down at Halsey, Oregon, and shares its secrets

dsc_0317

Halsey, Ore., in early 2012.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

Elevators such as this one in Halsey, Ore., have elicited interest from photographers and curious travellers for as long as they have existed, especially since they are on the verge of extinction. Technology passed them by back in the early 1940s when most of the new construction in the United States went to slip-formed concrete.

dsc_0924

The remnants of the Halsey elevator, Feb. 2013, in a downpour.

Canada held out, building wooden elevators well into the 1970s, with a minority of them still in service today, and many more long since demolished, abandoned, or burned.

The end has come for the Halsey elevator. After hearing of its demise in an online forum, I recently passed near the town on I-5 and stopped to see the hulking remnant. It was a sorrowful sight, topless and dreary.

But beside it was a more interesting find.

In an empty lot next to the elevator, piled randomly, was the elevator’s leg. It brought to mind a story–a cautionary tale, really–which illustrated why concrete was so attractive to engineers looking for a better alternative.

dsc_0933

The leg from the Halsey, Ore. elevator, piled on the ground.

While exploring elevators in Alberta, Canada, I took a trip to a small town called Milo.

It was a snowy day, and as I gazed up at the lone wooden elevator, a gentleman pulled up in his truck and asked if I needed directions. He introduced himself as Ian Thomson. He was a long-time resident and farmer, and once we got on the topic of elevators, he told me that Milo once had nine wooden elevators lined up along the rail line. The sole survivor, silver-sided and huge, was built in the 1970s. It was still active, and its nearest neighbor had come down a year or two before.

DSC_0598

The lone wooden elevator in Milo, Alberta, Canada.

Ian told a tale of the demise of one of the old wooden houses.

One of Milo’s elevators was decommissioned in winter, years ago. When the leg was torn out, a salvage company tried to remove the conveyor belt to reuse the rubber. Water remained in the pit, and the lower portion of the leg could not be retrieved because it was frozen solid. So they cut the belt off at the top of the ice and hauled off what they could. The owners told Ian that as soon as the pit thawed out, he could have the rest.

It was an early spring day, and a thunderstorm rolled by. A farmer could always use rubber–Ian was thinking of mud flaps for his truck, so when he went to check the elevator that day, he was disappointed to find the leg remnants still frozen solid in the pit. So he left without them. But as he exited the elevator, he noticed a thin tendril of smoke rising from the headhouse.

DSC_0610

Ian Thomson displays his railroad collection.

With gut wrenching dread, he called the owners, but he knew it was already too late. A fire company fought the blaze, but by then the elevator was fully involved, and it burned completely down.

A nagging worry stayed with Ian. While he knew he had done nothing to cause the fire, he was seen leaving the elevator, and he thought his neighbors might wonder about it. But the real culprit was lightning. He needn’t have worried.

Ian Thomson was an honorable member of the community and an esteemed historian, with a proud military heritage. He was, and still is, a true gentleman farmer.

DSC_0593

Alberta wheat country.

The fire danger inherent in wooden elevators spurred engineers to try concrete building methods. Concrete elevators came with their own hazards, but also great advantages, and they remain the premier choice for durable, large scale grain storage.

But we still miss the proud old wooden denizens of the plains.