Burning the Downtown Elevator

1979 photo courtesy of Bob Deppe

Thirty years ago, the Froning and Deppe Elevator at 213 Duff was burned as a 3-day fire training exercise.  During the first day, a low storage shed was used for practice as it was ignited and extinguished several times.  The second day the tall north bin was burned, and on Sunday, the old cob shed to the south finished the controlled burns.  For insurance reasons, elevator owner Bob Deppe was invited to light the first fire.  ISU fire extension personnel coordinated the burn using men and equipment from the Ames Fire Department.  The dramatic blaze on Sunday produced a smoke plume tall enough to spark calls from concerned Marshalltown citizens.  This event ended a century of grain storage in downtown Ames.

Ames Daily Tribune, October 10, 1979


A city grain elevator that saw central Iowa through good years and drought years is scheduled to go up in smoke this weekend.  The 75 year old structure is too old to modernize and too big to move.

"It's too bad it sits in the center of Ames or I would have never torn it down." Bob Deppe said during one of his last trips through the elevator.  It's been part of the Ames skyline and business scene since 1904.  Before that, another elevator stood on the same spot [but north of the tracks]. That structure was built around the 1879s and burned in 1904.

If the weather cooperates, the two elevator buildings will be burned to the ground in controlled fires this weekend.  (A storage building, located between the two structures, was burned Friday afternoon."  The fires are part of a training exercise for the ISU Fire Extension Service and the Ames Fire Department.

Deppe speaks with respect as he tells of tales and successes associated with the elevator.  Until a year ago, it loaded boxcar after boxcar and truck after truck each day with 1,800 bushels of corn in 13 minutes.  Deppe said that's a speedy rate compared to other country elevators, a somewhat sluggish rate compared to very modern elevators.

"An efficient, well-built elevator" is how Deppe described the structure as he pointed to the "legs" which bring the grain out of the bins and into the railroad cars.  He noted the scale, which was one of few in the country used to weigh boxcars in recent years.

Seventy five years ago the elevator was probably built for $7,000 or $9,000 - that includes the scale - a sizable item in the overall coast of the elevator.  Deppe said it would likely take a quarter-of-a-million dollars to replace the setup.  And possibly that much to add on storage facilities and bring it into compliance with OSHA and Environmental Protection Agency regulations.  In order to keep up efficient operations, Deppe said, additional storage areas would have to be added.  The storage capacity now is at 405,000 bushels of corn.

"There's not a great deal that can be salvaged," Deppe said.  He did note some newer equipment that's being moved to one of his two other elevators.  And there are always the "collectibles" - gears and weights and the like - that will be added to the decor in someone's home.  "We preached a lot about safety." Deppe said when showing a photographer how to use a man-lift in the elevator.  "We used it 100 times a day."  And over the years there were never any accidents.  It's a rather dirty way to get to the top of a 70 foot building - but it's efficient.  A new OSHA-approved lift would probably cost about $10,000, Deppe said.  And there's more that can break down in the new lifts.  In the old one, maintenance meant replacing a rope from time to time. Since the elevator had no devices to measure grain flow, constant trips up the elevator were essential.  When two people had to make a trip to the top at once, Deppe said they would flip a coin - the loser climbing a ladder.

There was a "crummy drought" the first year Deppe bought the place.  And another one in 1977 that hastened the elevator's closing.  Millions of bushels of corn moved through the elevator over the years.  At times Deppe said it's tough to tell what stories about the elevator are true and what ones are tall tales.  One he's heard often - and believes to be true - involves the molasses holding tank just east of the elevator.  One time the Cuban Black Strap molasses arrived.  but there was too much molasses in the tank car for the molasses pit and the result was a stream of molasses across Lincoln Way.  The Ames Fire Department apparently had a "horrible mess" to flush away.

The Molasses was so rich, Deppe said, that people from around town would buy jugs full from the elevator.  In recent years, Deppe said the elevator sold bird seed, pet food and lawn seed.  There was quite a demand for these products, he said.  A dusty sign in the elevator office listed somewhat outdated prices for these commodities. Harpsichord music coming from a nearby radio seemed fitting as Deppe pulled out a 1912 shipping record.  If the weather cooperates this weekend, records, tall tales and memories will be all that's left of the elevator that now stands south of the tracks in downtown Ames.

Ames Daily Tribune, October 29, 1979


The controlled burning of the old Froning and Deppe Elevator this weekend is pretty close to a text book example of how elevator fires should be fought.  Keith Royer, supervisor of fire service education with ISU's Fire Extension Service, said the burning went according to plan - with very few exceptions.  One snare he mentioned involved high voltage power lines to the north of one of the structures.  Firefighters had to put extra water coverage on the lines to keep them cool while the elevator burned.

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"We were prepared to cope with it," Royer said.  Knowing how to cope with elevator fires was largely the reason for the controlled burning exercise over the weekend.  The exercise leveled an elevator setup that has stood vacant for the past year.  The structures, located at 213 Duff Ave., were built in the early 1900s.  The training exercise involved fire extension personnel and the Ames Fire Department.  Royer explained that in fire control it's especially important to understand how to cope with various situations.  "When you understand something, you set up a sequential way of coping with it," Royer said.  "If you don't understand it, you go on a trial and error basis."
But, Royer said, when fighting a fire one can't say, "'Whoa, wait a minute fire.' The fire just keeps on going."  Royer said this is why it becomes extremely important for firefighters and those making decisions about fighting a fire to have hands on experience and understand what is actually happening.  The exercise helped firefighters learn how to size up the situation and to understand how the fire behaves in an elevator environment.  As explained last week by Roger Sweet, fire extension training specialist, fire behaves differently in elevators, with their tall, chimney-like stature and other unique factors.  And with so many grain elevators in Iowa, firefighters should know as much as possible about fires within them, he added.

Because of the way the fire was controlled, Royer said the bins fell straight down.  "It all came down in very good shape," he said noting the method used to influence the direction in which the bins fell.  "But that didn't happen by accident," Royer added.

According the the Ames Fire Department log for Oct. 27, sparks from the burning elevator caused a fire at the Franck-Wengert Plumbing Warehouse, 112 Duff Ave.  The log lists an estimated $800 damage.  Also in the log for Oct. 27 is a report of hot cinders at the Sinclair Station on the corner of Duff Avenue and Lincoln Way.  Station manager George Everhard said hot ashes and cinders hit some people at the station, damaged a customer's coat and damaged his and an assistant manager's cars.  Everhard said he did shut the gas pumps down for about two or three hours because of hot ashes from the elevator fire...
View additional photos of the elevator in downtown Ames.