John Shearer: Central Soya Plant Was Once A Manufacturing Trend-Setter

Wednesday, March 11, 2020 - by John Shearer

A recent series of photos by Mark Herndon in the Chattanoogan.com has shown the old Central Soya plant off Amnicola Highway in the initial phases of being torn down.

 

As was announced in 2019, the land where it sits was being marketed by Fletcher Bright Co.

real estate firm for possible redevelopment as a new industrial site, and the demolition is apparently part of those plans.

 

The vacant grain mill in recent years has looked almost haunted or ghostly when seen from across the Tennessee River from places like the Enclave at Riverview, the Rivermont Park ballfields and the Champions Club tennis facility.

 

But at one time it was considered a modern engineering wonder for processing grains, soybeans and other animal feeds.

 

Also, while someone these days might easily think that all Chattanooga plants and mills of any significant size were built in the late 1800s or early 1900s, and the worn look of this structure would lend itself to that thought, the Central Soya plant actually opened in 1955.

 

It was built during that second golden phase of industrial development locally right after World War II, not long after the then-mammoth DuPont plant – the Volkswagen plant of its generation -- opened off Access Road.

 

In May 1954, longtime Chattanooga Times reporter Fred Schneider wrote that company founder Dale W. McMillen had announced plans to build an ultramodern soybean-processing and feed-manufacturing plant here for several million dollars.

 

It was to be constructed on 67 acres near the Judd curtain pole manufacturing facility and the Titanium plant.

 

The Fort Wayne, Ind.-based industrialist said Chattanooga was chosen because of not only the power and navigation resources available here, but also because the city was a good central location to bring grains from the Midwest and sell them to feed Southern farm animals.

 

Mr. McMillen, who was an early proponent of nutritional supplements for farm animals and who could be spotted around downtown Chattanooga regularly while the plant was being planned, said the new facility would have three functions. It would process soybeans – a crop that had been popular in Asia and was then somewhat new in the U.S. – and would be used for manufacturing the Master Mix feed for animals and for grain storage.

 

It was to be the company’s sixth plant, with one also located in Memphis.

 

It was apparently designed by Central Soya engineers, and it was constructed by Stein Construction and Mark K. Wilson. The valves, fittings, heating systems and plumbing were installed by the T.S. Raulston Co. of Chattanooga.

 

Some 5,000 yards of concrete went into the 38 silos that were each 110 feet high, could store 2½ million bushels and were arranged in a U shape. Within the U was storage area for a million bushels of feed ingredients.

 

Another 8,500 yards of concrete and 600 tons of steel were used in the feed mill and its labyrinth of 128 bins.

 

It would eventually have two circular feed storage bins that had coverings that looked like rice farmers’ hats and could each store two million bushels of grain.

 

The new plant also used the world’s largest Rotocel extractor that was mostly outdoor and dry cleansed the oil from the prepared soybean flakes with a solvent. The flakes were then toasted, ground and used with other meals for animal food.

 

The plant also had a number of conveyor belts, equipment to get the grains and other products on and off barges, and rail lines.

 

The plant was officially dedicated on Oct. 27, 1955, when Leslie Burket – the 2½-year-old great-granddaughter of Mr. McMillen -- pressed a button that put the modern plant into operation. Her father, Richard Burket, was to be the assistant manager of the grain department at the new Chattanooga plant.

 

Also taking part in the dedication were Chattanooga Mayor P.R. “Rudy” Olgiati, the Rev. J. Harper Brady of Brainerd Presbyterian Church, family members and company officials Dale McMillen Jr. and Harold McMillen, and Fort Wayne singer Robert Cocherille and organist Jean Brown Bosselmann.

 

After the plant opened, old newspaper articles make reference to the fact that the plant started shipping soybean oil in 1959.

 

The plant also went through stalled union negotiations around the 1970s. The stalemates were written up several times in the paper during this time.

 

One positive story in the paper focused on pioneering woman salesperson Barbara Nelson, who sold the company’s Master Mix feed to farmers in East Tennessee. She spent some time in 1978 working at the farm of Henry Brooks in Ooltewah learning more about agricultural work.

 

Among plant developments in later years, in 1989, Central Soya joined with Calgene to become the first operator in the country to crush, refine and process American-grown canola oil from rapeseed.

 

In 1990, some soybean oil spilled into the Tennessee River, causing a minor environmental mess.

 

In 1991, the soybean plant closed, but it was bought by Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), which evidently operated there until 2001.

 

Further study of the animal feed economy over the last 30 years or so would probably be required to learn what brought down the Chattanooga plant in terms of its production or business.

 

And now the old Judd Road plant that was often not visible to those away from the river or the river’s edge is coming down as well.

 

Jcshearer2@comcast.net


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