Delavan, WI tornado, Aug 1924


Murphy Products Firm Led Way In Revolutionizing Livestock, Poultry Food Business In 1920's

By W. Gordon Yadon

For many years Murphy Products Co. was an internationally-known manufacturer of livestock and poultry feed concentrates. Although located in Burlington for most of its existence, the firm started in Delavan in 1921 and might have remained here had it not been for a 1924 diminutive tornado that destroyed its facility.

The company was started by James H. and Lawrence E. Murphy. The former, a graduate of the Wisconsin College of Agriculture, was among the first county agents in the state. In 1916, he became manager of Delavan's Tilden Farms, later known as Borg Farms. At the time the Tilden operation consisted of 1600 acres and a herd of 350 purebred Guernsey cows, 1000 Chester White hogs and 2500 Leghorn chickens.

Scientific feeding was in its embryonic stage. Livestock and poultry rations were mostly high protein commercial feeds that frequently caused feedlot problems - low production, rickets, thumps, goitre and premature deaths. Murphy was hired by the Tilden operation to correct these problems.

Working with the Delavan veterinarian, Dr. Edward A. McCullough and University of Wisconsin's Science and Animal Husbandry Department, Murphy and his brother began formulating rations to correct feed deficiencies and utilized the Tilden animals for experimentation. Utilizing a simple mineral formula which was added as a supplement to regular rations, the results were highly satisfactory as previous problems lessened or disappeared.

In 1921, the Murphy brothers decided to go into feed business and obtained a lease on property from the C.M.St.P. and P. railroad, located south of the tracks at 8th and Ann Streets in Delavan. A large World War I barracks, located at Camp Grant, Illinois, was purchased and moved to Delavan in sections to serve as an office-manufacturing plant. The company got off to a fast start as Jim Murphy was well known and highly respected in agricultural circles and many of his articles on animal nutrition had been published in leading farm journals.

The Murphy firm manufactured a dietary supplement containing calcium phosphate precipitate, potassium iodide, calcium carbonate, charcoal and trace ingredients. Soon testimonials from stock breeders began pouring in, repuorting notable improvement after using Murphy feed products.

By 1924, the company's product was in strong demand. Most of Murphy's feed concentrates were shipped by rail cars from the Delavan yard. When everything looked bright for the new company, an unfortunate incident took place.

On August 4, 1924, at approximately 8 p.m., Delavan was hit by a diminutive tornado with violent wind and a deluge of rain. Huge trees throughout the city were blown down and many buildings and homes were damaged. Hardest hit was Murphy Products Co., whose building was caved in and the roof blown away. Rain flooded the interior of the building, ruining $8,000 worth of feed concentrate being prepared for shipment.

Although the building was insured against wind and tornado damage, the feed inventory was not covered. The company temporarily moved its office to a vacant store in the east end business district. While the severely damaged manufacturing building was being repaired, the company received several offers from cities in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin to relocate in their communities.

An offer from Burlington was especially attractive. A large milk plant, built in 1918 by Milk Producer's Cooperative, had closed in 1922 and was available. The Murphy Co. purchased and remodeled the plant and took occupancy in May, 1925. Several of its Delavan employees moved to Burlington to remain with the company.

Murphy Products enjoyed a long and sucessful existence in Burlington, even prospering during the depression. During its peak years, the Murphy firm has a managerial staff of 14, with 105 employees and a sales force of 130. The firm switched from direct selling to sales through feed dealers and once had 1,200 outlets in 12 states. During the 1930s and early 1940s, the company sponsored the popular Murphy Barn Yard Jamboree on Chicago radio station WLS.

Following Murphy's Delavan departure, the rehabilitated building was utilized as a storage facility for many years by the Bradley Knitting Co., G.W. Borg Corporation, Borg Fabric and others. Three arson suspected fires took place in the building, the most serious one on June 25, 1977, which destroyed most of the structure. A short time later the former Murphy Products building was razed and the land it occupied remains vacant.

Delavan's Beacon Magazine, Delavan, WI, Mar 1994