All Fall Down: The Leaning Tower of Peanuts

The other day I was crossing the river in Trinity Park when I looked to the west, beyond the Lancaster Avenue Bridge, and saw one of the buildings that constitutes So7 (the South of 7th Street urban village).

One So7 building—ArtHouse condominiums—has stood since 2006, but I consider it to be a “new” building because I remember the building that once stood there.

That building had stood for seventy-four years in 1989. But that’s when progress—represented by demolition expert Jerry Vann—caught up with the old building and laid siege to it. Vann played “El Degüello,” if only symbolically, and the building made its last stand—a last stand that in duration and firepower surpassed the Battle of the Alamo.

Some back story: The top photo shows ArtHouse condominiums. The bottom photo, from 1952, shows what stood there from 1915 to 1989: a grain elevator.

That elevator was part of the wholesale grain business of Elbert George Rall, who also was a resident and developer of Chase Court.

According to the Tarrant County Historic Resources Survey the elevator was built in 1915, but Rall family members recalled that grain silos had stood on that site since about 1902.

A century ago today’s So7 area was a commercial zone located beyond the city limits. The area developed commercially in part because it was served by the Frisco and Texas & Pacific railroads, which could haul in raw material—such as wheat and oats from west Texas—and haul out finished products.

For example, in 1916 the Chevrolet company built a 286,000-square-foot assembly plant just north of the grain elevator and south of West 7th Street (then named “Arlington Heights Boulevard”). In 1922 Chevrolet would vacate the building, and in 1924 Montgomery Ward would move in. In 1928 Montgomery Ward would move into a new building on the other side of West 7th Street.

Early in the twentieth century Fort Worth was a major grain center, thanks in large part to the city’s network of railroads. In 1917 the Rall elevator was enlarged to a capacity of 500,000 bushels. Even with the enlargement, Rall would rank a distant second in storage capacity to Fort Worth Elevators Company but ahead of Bewley and Burrus mills. The city’s total capacity would be increased to 3.7 million bushels.

Elevators of the Fort Worth Elevators Company still stand on 1st Street east of downtown (part of the Land O’Lakes Purina Feed mill, top photo) and on Alice Street in Worth Heights on the South Side.

By 1925 the pre-So7 commercial zone was still beyond the city limits. The zone included Rall’s grain elevator, the Bain peanut plant, Montgomery Ward in the U-shaped former Chevy plant, and the lumber yard of William Cameron, a longtime owner of lumber yards and a flour mill. (Burleson Street today is University Drive.)

In this 1923 ad note that the Rall grain elevator’s silos are on only one side of the elevator’s tall headhouse (conveyor tower).

But in 1929 the elevator was again enlarged.

By 1952 the grain elevator had thirty-eight silos arranged in nineteen pairs. The grain elevator, at 110 feet in height, and the 1928 Montgomery Ward building, at 112 feet, were the skyline of the near West Side.

Fast-forward to 1971. Elbert George Rall was dead, as was his son Marvin Crenshaw Rall Sr. Marvin Crenshaw Rall Jr. was vice president of the grain company.

By 1976 the Rall family was transitioning from grain to ranching. The Ralls sold the elevator to Charles McCurdy.

Mrs. Marvin Crenshaw Rall Sr. was the last living member of the Rall family. She recalled that the Rall family sold the elevator to McCurdy for “practically nothing.” In other words, for peanuts. And that is fitting because Charles McCurdy owned McCurdy Peanut Company. He bought the elevator to store—in technical terms—megagobs of goobers.

Fast-forward another ten years. The Chevrolet plant was demolished in 1986.

By 1989 two more of the original industries of today’s So7 area—the Bain peanut plant and the Cameron lumber yard—were gone.

That left the Rall/McCurdy grain/peanut elevator. And the elevator itself had been abandoned, populated by 1989 by rats, pigeons, snakes, and people who temporarily needed a roof—albeit a roof 110 feet high—over their head. Some people in town considered the elevator to be an eyesore, even a dangerous environment (in 1988 a Japanese tourist was found stabbed to death at the elevator).

Then developer James Toal bought the twenty-eight acres that included the elevator. Toal had an ambitious plan: He would raze the elevator and develop the site with apartments, eateries, offices, etc.—an urban village.

Toal hired Blasting Specialists, a Chicago demolition company. Blasting Specialists president Jerry Vann and his wrecking crew breezed into town thinking the job would take eight days of preparation and two days of blasting with dynamite.

But then Vann and crew beheld the monolith face to face.

And they understood why three other demolition companies had declined to bid on the job.

Vann’s workers spent one month laying wires, drilling holes, dismantling the elevator’s superstructure.

Then they began to blast.

On April 30 the crew set off dynamite charges three times. Three times the ground shook. Three times a boom resounded across the near West Side.

Smoke and dust.

Sound and fury signifying . . . you know the rest.

Well, a bit more than “nothing”: The elevator was now leaning an almost imperceptible six inches.

Soon the elevator story was promoted from insides pages to the front page of the Star-Telegram.

On May 2 the showdown continued. As Vann’s crew prepared its next dynamite attack, curious bystanders and photographers were kept at a distance. The nearby Lancaster Avenue bridge was closed to traffic. Fire trucks stood by.

This time five of the elevator’s silos pancaked fifteen feet their base. The elevator was now leaning at fifteen degrees.

The explosives set off the burglar alarm of a car parked nine hundred feet away.

After dynamite failed to topple the elevator, Vann’s crew tried to pull down some of the silos. Workers attached one end of a steel cable to the top of the silos and the other end of the cable to a track-loader.

The track-loader tugged and tugged with all its diesel might and its most positive attitude:

“I think I can, I think I can. . . . I . . . can’t.”

The double whammy failed.

The elevator stood.

Deputy Chief D. L. Peacock, head of the Fort Worth fire department’s explosives unit, explained that Vann and company faced two obstacles:

“There’s one whale of a difference between a regular building and a grain elevator. Most buildings are put together with brick, steel, and glass like an erector set. When you cut the columns and beams, the impact load [the weight of the collapsing building] brings the whole structure down. But this grain elevator is all in one big, concrete piece, up to three feet wide at the base. It would probably take twice as much dynamite as they’ve been using to bring the thing down. But we won’t let them use that much because of the surrounding property.”

In other words, Vann was not allowed to ka-boom the elevator to its knees. He could only kiss it to its knees.

This Star-Telegram diagram shows that the elevator was built of concrete from six inches to two feet thick and reinforced with steel rods.

And why, you ask, are elevators built so solidly just to store grains of wheat or peanuts?

An elevator can store tens of thousands of bushels of grain. That grain creates dust that permeates the silos. A spark from a light switch, static electricity, or even friction can trigger a tremendous explosion within the concrete walls.

When the force of a grain elevator explosion is sufficient to fragment such a fortress, the results can be catastrophic.

As the drama south of 7th Street played out, it was easy to personify the old elevator as flesh and blood, not concrete and steel. It became to some a hero, besieged but unbowed.

The old elevator became the underdog. Its fans pulled for it to somehow withstand the Siege of 7th Street.

One of those fans was John Reynolds, an engineer.

“I used to play in those when I was a kid. We used to climb up there with ropes onto the conveyer belt, then lower ourselves into the silos with flashlights mounted on our heads. . . . I hate to see an old landmark go. A lot of people think it’s an eyesore. But being this close to town, it shows you part of what Fort Worth went through in the ’20s and ’30s.”

On May 8 five pairs of silos on one end of the elevator finally gave up the ghost. Five down, fourteen to go.

Vann had taken the demolition job for a flat fee. He soon was losing more than $1,000 a day.

Meanwhile, the siege became news from coast to coast. On The Tonight Show Johnny Carson joked about the siege in an opening monologue. (Carson located the elevator in Dallas. Ouch.)

But by May 12 the behemoth showed cracks along its base. It was leaning. If the elevator had been a boxer, it would have had one knee on the canvas, its head bloodied.

On May 12—the forty-third day—at 2:30 p.m. Vann applied another 145 pounds of dynamite. He had used more than a ton so far.

There was a boom, which the near West Side had become accustomed to. But this time was different: Suddenly the elevator, like a magician vanishing behind a cloud of smoke, was gone.

The Leaning Tower of Peanuts had fallen; the Siege of 7th Street was over.

Jerry Vann was magnanimous in victory: “She was a fine old lady that died real hard.”

The elevator was reduced to a hill of rubble thirty feet high.

Then began the cleanup.

But the old elevator, like an organ donor, lived on in death: A salvage crew used blowtorches to cut up the steel reinforcement bars to be hauled off and recycled.

(During the cleanup a blowtorch accidentally ignited a ton of peanuts that had been moldering in the elevator. The peanut fire smoldered for days.)

Track-loaders scooped up chunks of concrete, which dump trucks hauled across town to fill in land on the Nolan High School campus.

Eight months after the siege ended, the site where the Leaning Tower of Peanuts had stood was scraped clean and ready for So7.


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