The Great Corncob Fire of 1958
PHOTO OF CORNCOB FIRE COURTESY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS LIBRARIES
It goes without saying that Memphis is a special place, but even longtime residents find it hard to believe that one of the worst fires in our city’s history involved a mountain of corncobs.
In the 1950s, the Quaker Oats Company had been stockpiling more than 70,000 tons of corncobs, piled into a mountain almost six stories high behind its factory on Chelsea. Using a complicated process of distillation, the plant extracted a chemical from the cobs called furfural, which was an essential ingredient in the manufacture of nylon, plastics, insecticides, and other products. Many women probably never dreamed that their stockings were actually made from corncobs — just thinking about it makes my itchy — but it’s true.
On the afternoon of December 2, 1958, somebody noticed that those corncobs were smoldering. The fire department rushed to the scene, and newspapers the next day reported the blaze in a tiny article. After all, how hard was it to extinguish a pile of burning corncobs?
Well, very hard indeed. It turns out the Great Corncob Fire, as it came to be known, did not begin on the surface of the pile (perhaps as the result of being struck by lightning). Instead, it began very deep inside it, perhaps caused by spontaneous combustion. Once that fire got going, it proved almost impossible to extinguish. For one thing, the firefighters couldn’t get to the source, way down inside that mountain of cobs. And when corncobs burn, they tend to form a kind of plastic shell over their surface, which then crusted over the entire pile, preventing any water from reaching the flames.
Firemen brought in bulldozers and all sorts of equipment to push the massive pile this way and that, but it was slow going. In the 1950s, firefighters weren’t equipped with masks and oxygen tanks as they are today, so more than 20 firefighters were admitted to area hospitals for smoke inhalation, their lungs seared by the harsh fumes and chemicals put off by the corncobs.
The dense smoke drifted over neighborhoods near the plant, and Douglass High School was just two blocks away. Though the newspapers made no mention of any plans to evacuate area residents or close the school, special equipment was brought in to monitor the carbon dioxide levels near the plant.
That pile of corncobs burned for almost a month, creating a dense pillar of smoke that could be seen for miles, before it finally burned itself out on Christmas Eve. It had been an unusual challenge for firefighters, and for years afterwards, Memphis Fire Department officials held special seminars, which they called “Operation Corncob,” to show other municipalities what to do if they ever encountered a similar problem.
“The Memphis department had no experience fighting a fire of such proportions and, as far as we can tell, no other department had the experience,” one fire department official told reporters later, when the ordeal was over.
At any rate, it never happened again, partly because scientists came up with other — presumably easier — ways to manufacture nylon, so there was no need to maintain huge stockpiles of corncobs. The big chemical plant is still standing at Chelsea and Holmes, but it’s no longer owned or operated by Quaker Oats.