Photo courtesy Special Collections, University of Memphis Libraries
A scene from the Quaker Oats corncob fire of 1952.
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.
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.