The Tillotson Construction Story

Speaking to my Uncle Tim about the airplanes used for business travel in the years after World War Two by my grandfather, Reginald Oscar Tillotson, led me to make a cartoon of one of them, called a Stinson Station Wagon. Then my Uncle Chuck wrote the following narrative in response to some questions I had about the airplanes operated by the business and the nature of the company itself. With his response comes the proviso that his recollections may or may not be entirely accurate!

Looking back, Dad was really an adventurous contractor. Way ahead of his time but I guess he was driven to flight because he was worn out from driving. During the early years of his business, driving 100,000 miles a year was the norm.

Reginald O. Tillotson in his mid-20s
Reginald in his mid-20s

Although Dad took a few flying lessons and probably took the controls while in the air sometimes, he never actually piloted the plane. He had a couple of engineers/salesmen working in the office that got him into flying—both were ex-Air Force pilots. They flew for Dad from time to time but eventually one of them, Marvin Melia, became his full-time pilot. When he wasn’t flying, he was a general overall maintenance/handyman for the business. Dad had double hernias, which I think also prevented him from getting a license. And of course we were glad he couldn’t because of his drinking.

My Grandpa Charles was in the business of constructing wooden grain elevators back in ’20’s thru the late ’30’s. He passed away in 1938 and left the business to his two sons and daughter Mary. The boys, Joe and Mike, (nickname for R.O.) were already working in the business, and shortly before Grandpa Charles died the company started experimenting with constructing grain elevators using reinforced concrete via a method called slip-forming. This method allowed a contractor to build a concrete storage building very fast, which not only provided a more substantial structure but also far more grain storage capacity than the smaller wooden elevators.

After the war, the increase in production of corn, wheat, sorghum, rice, etc., caused the NEED for huge amounts of grain storage, which was virtually non-existent save the old wooden ones. So Dad, Joe, and Mary took off building concrete grain storage, and their business exploded. Many of the grain elevators that you see as you travel the grain belt—from Calgary, Alberta, to Brownsville, Texas, and from Colorado to Illinois, and even some southern states as far east as South Carolina (rice storage)—were built by Tillotson Construction & Development.

Ashland, Neb.
A Tillotson job, Ashland, Nebraska.

Shortly after the war, my Dad and Joe decided they couldn’t see eye to eye, so they split. Joe moved to Denver to form his own company and Mary remained with Dad in Omaha. As the business grew, the company took on a few employees, including the pilot types, and developed a cadre of field superintendents to handle the construction work. Dad was the initiator of the contracts. His job was to sell, sell, sell. Hence, the 100,000 miles per year of road travel. During the war years, synthetic tires were all you could obtain and of course they weren’t as good as rubber, so Dad went through many tires in those days. He used to come home with a trunk full of casings for retreading and at least one dog, which kept him company during the long hours of driving. He also came home with turtles, tarantulas, cats, shrimp on dry ice, and other sundry items that we got to consume or take care of!

Anyway, between 1940 and 1957, Dad built out hundreds, maybe thousands of elevators. I have no way of knowing how many nor exactly their locations other than to point you to the Midwestern Plains and look for the tall concrete storage tanks. Acquiring a plane was an obvious step. It provided him with faster travel, exacted less wear and tear on his body, and enabled him to spend more time at home.

stinsonstationwagon01When I went back for my 55th high school class reunion, we were invited out to some friends’ home in Gretna, and we drove from Omaha out the old highway, U.S. Route 6, to get there. On the way, I stopped and paid homage to Dad and my aunt in three little towns (spots in the road) where they had built. They didn’t build much in Nebraska, but in Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas they built one in every little farm town where a grain crop was produced. Of course, as the years passed, they had competition, some of which came from men who spun off from Dad—so he wasn’t the only company out there building these units.

By the late ’50’s, the need to build more capacity began to diminish and his business started to decline, and it was the end of an era for Tillotson Construction & Development. Dad passed away in 1960 at the early age of 51. He had literally worked and drank and smoked himself to death. I didn’t appreciate all that he did for us kids until much later in life, but to do today what Dad did would be next to impossible with all the government/environmental/safety controls and taxation that now exist. 

Tillotson Construction, Omaha, Nebraska, remains legible after 60 years or so. Photo by Charles Tillotson.
'Tillotson Construction, Omaha, Nebraska,' is legible after 60 years or so. Photos by Charles Tillotson.

About Margaret Tillotson: https://baggyparagraphs.wordpress.com/2009/05/04/things-beyond-control/

“Prairie Cathedrals” article about photographers Bruce and Barbara Selyem, who document grain elevators:  http://www.americanprofile.com/article/31661.html 

History of concrete:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concrete#History 

Recommended book:

http://www.amazon.com/dp/0307351785/?tag=yahhyd-20&hvadid=42537719511&ref=pd_sl_8yzx0tx6xo_e

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15 thoughts on “The Tillotson Construction Story

  1. I’d never given much thought to seeing those grain elevators…but someone had to come up with the idea. Such a contrast to modern society’s “throw away” structures. Built to last vs built only until the next idea comes along. Indianapolis’ Hoosier/RCA dome comes to mind.

  2. I’m always amazed at any family’s history. Isn’t American farm architecture and design terrific? I never tire of looking at farm buildings, implements and landscape. Good photographs.

  3. This is a nice piece of family recollection. Too bad your uncle had to end it with the anti-government slam. Of course there are thousands of small businesses in America that get along just fine with current laws and regulations. All those elevators would not have been needed if it were not for federal agricultural and trade programs that benefited midwestern grain farmers. Your grandfather would have succeeded in any environment, I suspect. He seems to be that kind of guy.

  4. April 24, 2009
    I worked for your Dad (my uncle) from Sept 1948 to Jan 1951. My first job was Paulina, Iowa, where I did the timekeeping and a lot of other odd jobs needed at the time. After that I moved to Montevideo, Minn., doing the same work thru Nov 1949. I had an appendix removed in Nov and went to work in the Omaha office in December 1949. Your Dad paid for flying lessons which I used flying the different construction jobs in Nebraska, Kansas and Okla. I flew the Stinson Voyager and the Station Wagon. My dad Ralph went to work as a salesman in 1947 and sold many of the elevators sold during that [period] until 1952. I also was the pilot that flew for my dad to several of his jobs. While in the office I [was] trained by the office engineer to design buildings and was the major designer with R.O. to build his new home in Florence, Neb. Many mornings he would arrive with new ideas of what he wanted changed in the house, and we would start all over. Starting in Nov. 1950 we began construction on the new house. The foremen were kept busy in the winter doing that work. All using a concrete house with the ideas we used in Elevator Const. That was the coldest, windiest place to work in December. I left to go the the Air Force because I was about to be drafted in the middle of the Korean War. That was the end. The company closed before I returned. It was an exciting learning business that helped me for the rest of my working days as I have always been involved in some form of construction.

    John Hassman

  5. I found it very interesting as I don’t really know very much about the Tillotsons, except that great grandma’s house had a lot of roaches and the pool was always filled with leaves and rusty fenders.

    Golden Gate Guy

  6. It’s nice to see that Baggy Paragraphs has moved into the 21st Century, off the page and into the blogosphere, Ron. Thanks for sharing your recollections of our grandparents and for posting Dad’s (your uncle’s) narrative as well. Since my Dad was the oldest son and learned the construction trade from his father Reginald, went on to become an architect himself, and has worked in the field for decades, I’m confident his recollections will certainly be more accurate and informed than anyone else’s in the family. Growing up, I don’t recall my Dad talking too much about his childhood. As the oldest child of six children in a family with an alcoholic father, there’s likely some memories and feelings that pains him to recall. But my father has always valued skill, intelligence, and hard working people who do a day’s work for a day’s pay. I’m grateful that he can remember that in his own father.

    Growing up in California, my recollections of both Grandma and Grandma’s home are actually cherished memories. My sisters and I visited in the summers when we were young and I loved going to grandmas where she would have us pick berries for her mouthwatering pies. Like you, I remember the upstairs game room where your brother, Dan, and I would play at the billiard table and try to roll the balls into one another’s fingers. We’d play tag outside on the rundown tennis court and I’d be in awe of the fireflies, the empty pool, and the humidity — something I had little experience with being from Southern Cal.
    It was a quirky house, but coming from a home that was always extremely orderly (even the one across town — my other grandparent’s home), Grandma Tillotson’s home was a place to explore and have fun. I loved her tin colored cups in the kitchen and the checkered patterned floor. I remember her clicking her tongue when she didn’t approve of something and the records always playing. And my gosh, there was a dog, sometimes more than one. I never had a dog, and grandma would have always one or two on her porch.

    In 1982 I went back to visit Grandma with my oldest sister. We slept in Aunt LaRose’s room as guests did. We laughed until our stomaches ached when we tried to wash our hair in LaRose’s bathroom shower. So, although I don’t remember it as a child, I did get to experience the lack of water pressure you wrote about in later years.

    I’ll continue to check your blog. Stop in next time you and Susan come out to Colorado!

    Teri

  7. My sons will be graduating from high school soon and it just hit me why they may be mathematical wizards! I was telling my oldest son James of his Grandfather, Uncles, and his Great Grandfather’s talent for architecture and engineering. I decided to google Tillotson grain elevators and here this story was. I only know bits and pieces of the history of the family grain elevators and this was a great story for my sons to hear. My youngest Matthew, 16 years old now, wants to become an engineer…he lives for mathematical challenges…thank you Uncle Chuck for the pictures and thank you baggyparagraphs for the history. My boys, my husband, and myself have enjoyed this very much.
    Tressa (Tillotson) Frutos

  8. I just realized that the posts above mine are my cousins Teri and Ronnie! A thank you to the both of you for your stories:)

  9. I enjoyed this very much. I worked at Tillotson when the office was in the boondocks, I worked with Ted,Bob and cant remember the other one’s name, I was receptionist,helped with bookkeeping and just stuff. I remember when Mary brought her boxer to work with her. What ever happened to Johnny? Would love to hear from you and what happened to everyone. I went from there to OPPD Credit Union, then quit working to raise a family. Now I live in Kansas.

  10. I just finished reading previous comments. I guess the one from Johnny was the one I know. I married my husband,Bill, while working there. I thought of Tillotson when the grain elevator “exploded” last week. I remember sending cards to grain elevators all over promoting Tillotson.

  11. My grandfather William Osborn was a builder for Tillotson Construction before he went on his own in Denver, after the owner Mr. Tillotson died and also Mr. Morris, superintendent. He and Gene Mayer started Mayer Osborn Company and their first elevator was McCook, Nebraska. Grandpa built elevators from 1941 until about 1955, the last 6 years on his own with Gene Mayer. I think he must have worked for Joe Tillotson? I never knew there were two companies. Anyway we are trying to figure out which elevators where built by which company–a task that is harder than it looks!

    Kristen

  12. Here is a picture of a grain port found on a the Greenwood, NE elevator built by Tillotson Construction of Omaha. Many elevator builders can be identified this way.

    A port on the elevator my grandfather built in McCook, Nebraska:

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