From Barns To Behlen Buildings

By mid-20th century, changes in the way farmers produced food and fiber made fundamental changes in the function and design of farm buildings. The barn had been the signature structure of a farm for hundreds of years and its basic function – storing hay and grain in order to feed and milk livestock – had changed only a little.

Behlen Atomic Test Building

But by the 50s and 60s, farmers were beginning to specialize in one crop or type of livestock. There was less diversification, and so, farm buildings became more specialized structures. Most of these structures no longer looked like barns. New building materials replaced the traditional wood, post and beam construction. And new manufacturers grew to meet the new needs of agriculture.

Here are some of the factors that resulted in changes in farm building technology.

  • Many farmers in the 50s and 60s decided to specialize in one crop. They got rid of the few head of cattle that many had and the horses that were no longer needed when they bought tractors. So, outbuildings on the farm were now used to store more and larger equipment. The haymow in the barn was replaced first by corn cribs and then by specialized grain bins. Eventually, the grain bins were outfitted with drying mechanisms to heat and circulate the air in the bin.
  • Those farmers who decided to specialize in livestock had to manage dozens and then hundreds of animals. Chicken, egg and swine producers began experimenting with buildings specifically designed for their needs. These confinement facilities soon became the future of meat production because the grower could control the optimal environment for the animals and more easily dispose of the waste. There were even experiments in confining cattle.
  • Changes in ag equipment changed building technology. For instance, when a farmer bought new baling machines that produced large round bales, the haymow was obsolete. These bales are densely packed and sometimes wrapped in plastic, so the need to protect loose straw inside a building was long gone.
  • As equipment manufacturers came out with ways to adapt their machines to a variety of crops, the farmer needed a large space to store the machines in and make the adjustments required. For example, combine builders came out with different “heads” and internal threshing units that allowed the same basic machine to harvest corn or wheat or soybeans. Farmers now needed a lot of protected space to replace one head with the other between harvests.

Behlen Manufacturing. Behlen began in the garage workshop of a farmer’s son in Columbus, Nebraska, in the middle of the Depression. Walt Behlen wanted to invent and manufacture products out of that garage, and he tended to stick with products for an market he knew, agriculture. A spring-action husking hook was his first product, but hand husking was being replaced by mechanical pickers and combines. Next he brought out metal fastener for egg cases, metal toe caps for safety shoes and internal parts for mechanical corn pickers.

Next, Behlen listened as his farmer neighbors told him they needed a good way to dry their crops if the weather forced them to harvest in wet conditions. He built a drier that used a kerosene or fuel oil burner and a fan to force hot air into a corncrib. In his first test, the drier paid for itself in the first year by producing a better grade of corn to for the farmer to sell at a higher price.

Then, in response to wartime metal restrictions, Behlen designed a farm gate made out of wire instead of much larger metal tubing. The gate got its strength because the wire mesh was corrugated. The ripples in the mesh made the panel much stronger than flat metal mesh. In 1947, the same corrugated mesh panels were expanded to produce rectangular corncribs.

In 1949, Behlen developed what would become his best-known product – the Behlen Building made out of corrugated sheet steel panels. What was different was that the large, undulating ridges pressed into the steel panels made them strong enough to span hundreds of feet without a separate frame or internal columns to hold up the roof. Farmers now had large open spaces store big equipment or thousands of bushels of grain at a relatively inexpensive price.

Walt Behlen was a born promoter. At first, no one – not even structural engineers – could believe that a building without a steel or wooden frame to support the wall panels and roof would be able to stand, let alone support tons of winter snow or interior equipment. So Behlen built a 50′ x 200′ building at Columbus and invited architects, engineers, journalists, dealers, metal suppliers, military procurement officers and a few farmers to see it. When they walked in, there were 16 new Farmall “M” tractors suspended up off the floor by cables attached to the roof ridge of the building. That was 64,000 pounds suspended by a building with no frame or internal columns. Behlen made his point and orders started coming in.

In 1955, the company got another chance to test the strength of their buildings when the head of the Federal Civil Defense Administration – and former Nebraska Governor – Val Peterson invited Behlen to test his buildings at a nuclear test site. The test was known as Operation Cue. A 30-kiloton atomic bomb (equal to around 30,000 tons of TNT) was set off at Yucca Flat, Nevada. Behlen and other manufacturers built several buildings at varying distances away from the blast. His competitors built their own buildings right next to his.

film_freeman_RAt 6,800 feet from the center of the bomb blast – a little over a mile – the Behlen building withstood wind pressures of 600 pounds per square foot. The building was designed to withstand only 30 pounds per square foot. The
windows and door were blown out and the roof dented a little, but the machines inside still worked. The buildings of two competitors right next door did not survive the blast.

Behlen publicized the results of the nuclear test far and wide. They even brought the building back to Nebraska, painted it bright orange and set it up at state fairs and other events to show potential customers how strong corrugated steel could be. Don Freeman saw the building that survived the atomic bomb at Behlen’s factory in Columbus. He was impressed. “It certainly lended stature to their company,” he says. “Of course, that curvete building was used all over on the farm for machinery storage and grain storage. That was great.”

Besides the storage structures, Behlen began to design buildings like the “Broiler Factory” of 1962. The idea was to confine hundreds of animals inside a temperature-controlled building with automatic systems for feeding them and removing the waste. These confinement buildings have become the preferred way for large-scale operators to produce hogs, chickens, eggs and turkeys.

Behlen began to design buildings like the “Broiler Factory

Behlen grew into a multi-million dollar enterprise by the late 60s. The buildings grew larger and became popular for wide-span recreational, commercial and industrial applications as well as agriculture. The company diversified into a wide range of products and a transportation enterprise.

The company went public – that is, became a publicly traded company owned by stockholders – in 1959. In 1969, it was acquired by Wickes Corporation. But in 1984, a group of managers from Columbus bought the company back from Wickes and runs it today.

Walt Behlen died in 1994.

Chief Industries. Meanwhile, just down Highway 30 at Grand Island, Nebraska, a small construction firm decided to begin manufacturing the same kind of steel buildings they were putting up for farmers in the mid-50s. Chief Industries began to build grain bins, grain handling and conditioning systems and pre-engineered metal farm buildings, much like Behlen.

Over the years, they added products like factory-built housing, commercial buildings, recreational vehicles, wastewater treatment systems, electronic displays, railroad boxcar doors and fixtures for prisons. In recent years, they began to manufacture ethanol fuel and cattle feed from the by products of the ethanol plant.

Today, Chief Industries has facilities in Grand Island, York, Aurora, Kearney, Hastings, Omaha, and Ogallala in Nebraska, plus plants in Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, Kansas, Colorado, England and France.

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2007. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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