Dear Vance: The Fire Museum of Memphis lists the worst fires in our city's history, and mentions a Quaker Oats corncob blaze. Can you enlighten us (so to speak) about this conflagration? — J.Y., Memphis
Dear J.Y.: Dear J.Y.: The Fire Museum is indeed a great establishment, but it's unfortunate that their listing of great fires unaccountably omits the Lauderdale Mansion Fire of 1952. On the afternoon of January 15, I was playing with leftover Black Cat sparklers in one of the basement vaults, when I accidentally set fire to half a dozen canvas moneybags. There was no currency in them, of course, but they had been stuffed with Top Value stamps that we had planned to redeem on a new toaster. Oh, Father was angry. For years afterwards, whenever I asked for a slice of toast at breakfast, he would grumble, "You'll just have to toast your bread with your damn Black Cat sparklers." I was glad when the police finally took him away.
The December 1958 fire at the Quaker Oats Company on Chelsea didn't exactly enhance our city's national reputation. We had for years been perceived as a hick Southern town, and when one of your city's greatest blazes involves a big pile of corncobs, well that's just not the kind of fire that causes trouble in places like New York City or San Francisco.
But it's not like we were piling up corncobs to make corncob pipes for every man, woman, and child in Memphis. Instead, using a complicated process of distillation that only white-coated scientists with Ph.D.s in corncob chemistry can understand, the Quaker Oats company extracted a chemical from those cobs that they called "furfural." Yes, I agree that's just a terrible name, but perhaps they were in a hurry and it's the best they could do. And though you might never think that ladies' stockings actually came from corncobs — just the thought of it makes me itch — it's true. Furfural was used as the main ingredient in nylon, plastics, insecticides, and all sorts of odd things.
Quaker Oats used to do a lot more than just make oatmeal, you see.
Anyway, that's why the massive Quaker Oats plant, which had opened in Memphis back in 1920, was stockpiling more than 70,000 tons of corncobs, piled into a mountain behind the plant more than six stories high.
On the afternoon of December 2, 1958, somebody noticed those corncobs were smoldering. The fire department was called, as you might expect, and newspapers reported the blaze in a tiny article. After all, surely it would be extinguished that day, right? Well, it turns out, the Great Corncob Fire — as it came to be known — did not begin at the top of the pile as the result of a strike by lightning, as was first suspected. No, it began way in the bottom of the huge pile, caused by spontaneous combustion. And once that fire got going, it was almost impossible to put out. For one thing, you couldn't get to it, down in the bottom of millions of corncobs. And for another, 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 cobs this way and that, but it was slow going. And though this may seem hard to believe, in the 1950s, firemen weren't fitted with masks and oxygen tanks as they are today, so more than 20 firemen were admitted to area hospitals to be treated for smoke inhalation, their lungs seared by the smoke and chemicals put off by the corncobs.
This was no laughing matter. That dense smoke drifted over the residential neighborhoods to the west of the plant, and Douglass High School was just two blocks away. I found no mention in the newspapers of the school, or area residents, being evacuated during the blaze, but I hope they were. At any rate, special equipment was set up around the plant to monitor carbon monoxide levels.
That pile of corncobs burned for almost a month, creating a pillar of smoke that could be seen for miles, until it was finally extinguished on December 24th. It was an unusual challenge for local firefighters, and for years afterwards, fire officials held seminars — which they called "Operation Corncob"— to show other municipalities what to do if they 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. The big chemical plant is still in operation at the corner of Chelsea and Holmes, but it's no longer owned or operated by Quaker Oats. And if they have any corncobs stored there, I sure couldn't find any.
Dear Vance: When I was a kid, my parents shopped at a store on Lamar called Bittman's. Who was Bittman, exactly, and what happened to his store? — F.P., Memphis.
Dear F.P.: Every day, it seems, the postman brings me queries like yours — questions about little ma-and-pa grocery stores, bakeries, gas stations, and other establishments remembered fondly by former customers. In years to come, will people ask the same questions about Costco, or Sam's? I doubt it.
And all too often, I am forced to put aside these queries, because too many times the only things left from these little businesses are the memories they created. But with Bittman, I struck gold, because the University of Memphis Special Collections not only provided a nice photo of Herbert Bittman (shown here as he looked in 1939), but a good interior shot of the appliance store he opened in 1951. Plus, the Lauderdale Library possesses an unopened pack of playing cards that was used as a promotion for Bittman's grocery store, complete with the slogan, "Where you won't get bit."
Bittman was born here in 1906. Sometime in the late 1940s he purchased property in the 1600 block of Lamar — just a few blocks from his home at 1930 Foster, where he lived with his wife, Elizabeth, and son, Herbert Jr. He opened a WeOna store, number 12 in the citywide chain of more than 120 similar markets, and a little "five-and-dime" store next door. In December 1951, he expanded his ventures with Bittman's Appliance Store. According to the newspapers, it was a completely modern facility, decorated in "flag gray, medium gray, and yellow trim." What color is "flag gray," I wonder? The store carried just about every appliance a homemaker of the 1950s might require: refrigerators, freezers, electric and gas ranges, vacuum cleaners, and tv sets. For its grand opening, Bittman gave away a refrigerator, a "giant basket of groceries," and various souvenir gifts — such as the packs of playing cards, perhaps?
Bittman stayed in business until the late 1970s. He passed away in 1981, and I'm sorry to tell you that the stores you remember from your youth, F.P., are now a vacant lot. M