A Reminder of Memphis' Great Corncob Fire of 1952



A scene from the Quaker Oats corncob fire of 1952.

Photo courtesy Special Collections, University of Memphis Libraries

Just before 2 a.m. on Monday morning, September 24th, an explosion wrecked the Penn-A-Chem chemical plant at Chelsea and Holmes in north Memphis, destroying buildings and sending two critically injured employees to the hospital.

The blast, which rattled windows in homes miles away, was a reminder of another disaster that took place 60 years ago at the same site, when the Quaker Oats Company operated the plant there, extracting a variety of chemicals from corncobs.

Yes, corncobs.

Until the evening of January 15, 1952, most Memphians probably thought corncobs were pretty harmless things. The worst that could happen to you was getting lung cancer from puffing on a corncob pipe. But on that evening, a five-story pile of corncobs somehow burst into flames, and quickly erupted into one of the largest fires in our city's history — and one of the most difficult to extinguish.

I've told this strange story before, so won't repeat myself. Go here to read about the Great Corncob Fire of 1952. Just one of the many events that made Memphis famous — for all the wrong reasons.

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Ask Vance is the blog of Vance Lauderdale, the award-winning columnist of Memphis magazine and MBQ: Inside Memphis Business.  Vance is the author of three books: Ask Vance: The Best Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History and Trivia Expert (2003), as well as Ask Vance: More Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History Expert (2011) and Vance Lauderdale's Lost Memphis (2013). He is also the recipient of quite a few nice awards, the creator of several eye-catching wall calendars, and the only person we know with a vintage shock-treatment machine in his den. 

You can find him from time to time in the pages of the Memphis Flyer and MBQ, on WKNO television, and on Facebook. When he is not exploring the highways and byways of Memphis, he spends his time sleeping, napping, and dozing.

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