Walter Dietrich Behlen, 1905-1994 [RG1595.AM]


RG1595.AM:  Walter Dietrich Behlen, 1905-1994

Papers, records, photographs:  1905-1994, and undated
Columbus, Platte County, Nebraska:  Entrepreneur, inventor, philanthropist
Size:  10.5 cu. ft. of papers; ca. 160 photographs; 1 reel of microfilm


Walter Dietrich Behlen was born on a small farm near Columbus, Nebraska. He was the second of nine children born to Fred and Ella Behlen. His high school education was interrupted by illness, but he returned to school at age 20, and received his diploma at age 23. He married Ruby Cumming in 1940, with whom he had two children.

Behlen began his industrial career and the Behlen Manufacturing Company as a one-man operation in 1936. While working as a railway express man, he began producing steel toe caps for wooden-soled industrial shoes using various hand tools, a grinder poured from scrap metal, and a homemade forge he had installed in his garage workshop. During this time he also invented a lid clamp for wooden egg cases, which became “the first of a long line of products completely designed and fabricated in our factory.” This part-time operation continued until 1941 when Walter and his father, Fred, began manufacturing small products as a full-time occupation. They were joined by Walter’s brothers, H.P. “Mike” Behlen and G.E. “Gib” Behlen in 1946. The 1946 product line included the Behlen corn crib, portable farm grain dryers, and grain tanks.

The Behlen Manufacturing Company’s most well-known product was the frameless steel building system which it developed in 1950. This system employed deeply corrugated steel panels which could be assembled to form a complete load-bearing shell without any supporting frame. Behlen buildings can be found all over the United States, as well as in many foreign countries. Behlen’s nineteen-acre facility in Columbus employed some 1100 people at its height. A nationwide network of five hundred builders marketed the company’s product.

In 1969, Behlen Manufacturing Company became a subsidiary of the Wickes Corporation of Saginaw, Michigan. This arrangement continued until 1984 when the local management bought the company through a leveraged buy out. The Company continued to be locally owned.

Among the awards and honors he received over many years of business and civic service, Behlen earned the Horatio Alger Award in 1968, the first Nebraskan to be so honored. He was granted honorary doctorates from the University of Nebraska, Midland College, and Doane College. Walter Behlen died on July 26, 1994.


This collection consists of manuscript materials, photographs, 1 reel of microfilm, and oversize items arranged into seven series: 1) Chronological files, 1951-1988; 2) Topical files, 1938-1994; 3) Printed Matter, 1955-1994, and n.d; 4) Scrapbooks, 1905, and 1927-1987 (microfilm); 5) Ledger, 1940-1941 (microfilm); 6) Miscellaneous; and 7) Unprocessed.

Materials in the collection relate to both Walter D. Behlen and to the Behlen Manufacturing Company. According to Behlen family members, many of the topical files relate to Behlen’s activities after retirement, continuing his lifelong interest in energy, science, etc. All of Mr. and Mrs. Behlen’s philanthropic activities were done personally, not through the Company. The Chronological and Topical series (Series 1 and 2) are based on Walter D. Behlen’s own folder titles, and on the arrangement of the files in the packing boxes as received at the Nebraska State Historical Society. The order of these series is to some extent a reconstruction, with loose materials found in the packing boxes foldered, labeled, and interfiled as appropriate. Folder titles not assigned by Mr. Behlen are designated in brackets []. Series 3, Printed matter, is entirely composed of items found loose in the packing boxes.

The chronological files of Series 1 contain correspondence, speeches, photographs, reports, programs, award materials, an appointment calendar, and clippings relating to Walter Dietrich Behlen and to Behlen Manufacturing, with miscellaneous items of interest to Mr. Behlen.

The topical files of Series 2 are arranged alphabetically. They relate both to the Behlen Manufacturing Company and to the interests and activities of Walter Behlen, including philanthropic activities (Behlen Community Hospital, Behlen Laboratory, Behlen Observatory, etc.), technical and scientific issues, and a large subseries on energy topics. Materials include correspondence, speeches and articles by Behlen, awards, photographs, business records (annual reports, company newsletters, some financial and advertising materials, merger information), technical drawings, architectural plans, maps, etc. Of particular interest are files relating to atomic research and the survival of a Behlen building during a test blast called “Operation CUE.” Dates of materials present may range widely within each folder.

Series 3, Printed Matter, consists of books and serials which mention, or contain articles about, Walter Behlen, Behlen Manufacturing Company, or Behlen products and how they are used. Also present are various technical manuals.

The scrapbooks of Series 4 contain newspaper clippings, photographs, certificates, programs, and advertisements relating to the history of the Behlen Manufacturing Company. Through these documents, the product line of the company is highlighted, and the achievements of Walter Behlen are illustrated.

The ledger of Series 5 shows purchases made and cash received by the Behlen Company, 1940-1941. Series 6, Miscellaneous contains the National Register of Historic Places registration form for the Behlen house. Series 7 consists of five boxes of unprocessed materails. These materials were added after the bulk of the collection was processed. No inventory is currently available for these boxes, but they include both personal and professional materials, as well as blueprints and other documentation relating to the Behlen House in Columbus.

Note: Please see the photo component [RG1595.PH] for additional photographs.


BMC = Behlen Manufacturing Company
[] = Processor’s folder titles and/or notes

Series 1 – Chronological Files, 1951-1988

Box 1

  1. 1951-1954 (all)
  2. 1955 (all) [photos – Group 1]
  3. 1956 – Co.
  4. 1958 – Awards
  5. 1959 – Awards
  6. 1959 – Speeches
  7. 1959 – Personal
  8. 1961 – Co.
  9. 1962 – Personal [photo – group 2]
  10. [1962 – Million Dollar Exhibit]
  11. [1962 – Million Dollar Haul] [photos – Group 3]
  12. [1962 – Million Dollar Haul] [photos – Group 3]
  13. 1963
  14. 1964 – Co. [appt. calendar, 1958?]

Box 2

  1. 1965 – Co.
  2. 1966 – Co.
  3. 1967 – Co.
  4. 1968 – Awards, Horatio Alger & Newcomer
  5. 1969 – Co.
  6. 1970 – Co.
  7. 1972
  8. 1973
  9. Behlen Co. 1981-1988
  10. BMC – Old 1935-1984 [photos – Group 4]
  11. Letters etc. 1945 to 1975
  12. Letters etc. 1945 to 1975

Box 3

  1. Letters on WDB talks 1954-1978

Series 2 – Topical Files, 1938-1994

  1. A
  2. [BMC – Annual reports, 1960, 1962-1968]
  3. [BMC – The Behlen Breeze, 1959-1972, n.d.]
  4. [BMC – Histories, 1961, 1968, 1978]
  5. Behlen, Neb. Expansion [architectural drawing]
  6. Behlen Products – Buildings
  7. [Behlen Products – Buildings] [photos – Group 5]
  8. [Behlen Products – Buildings] [photos – Group 5]
  9. [Behlen Products – Farm]
  10. [Behlen Products – Safety shoes]
  11. [Behlen Products]

Box 4

  1. Walt Behlen some old some personal some company
  2. WDB Stories, etc.
  3. WDB talks & articles some published
  4. WDB talks etc.
  5. WDB talks etc. – personal
  6. WDB articles, talks, etc.
  7. [WDB]
  8. Behlen Hospital
  9. Behlen Hospital
  10. Behlen Hospital
  11. Behlen Hospital

Box 5

  1. Behlen Laboratory of Physics
  2. China
  3. Diamond Press
  4. Doane College
  5. Dunning
  6. E
  7. Los Alamos and other Atomic
  8. Energy Los Alamos etc. etc. etc.
  9. [Atomic binder]

Box 6

  1. Misc. Atomic Energy
  2. [Misc. Atomic Energy]
  3. [Misc. Atomic Energy]
  4. [Misc. Atomic Energy]
  5. Alcohol-Ethanol Biomass Energy
  6. Ethanol
  7. Earthquakes
  8. Ecology & Environment
  9. Energy Conservation
  10. Energy & other natural resources
  11. Energy storage conservation Hydrogen-metal storage
  12. Energy talks & papers astronomy etc. etc.
  13. Fossil fuel energy
  14. Geothermal-energy
  15. Geothermal-energy
  16. Geothermal energy Los Alamos
  17. Energy – Geothermal ocean temp. differential aerial crane

Box 7

  1. MHD energy
  2. Minto Wheel energy
  3. New and other energy ideas Groundwater “heat” etc.
  4. Energy – Nuclear
  5. Sea Energy
  6. Solar Energy

Box 8

  1. Water power
  2. Wind energy & water
  3. Horatio Alger [photos Group 6]
  4. Horatio Alger [photos Group 6]
  5. Horatio Alger [photos Group 6]
  6. Horatio Alger to 6-1-79
  7. Mergers
  8. Mesh Products
  9. Metals-alloys
  10. Misc.
  11. Misc.
  12. Museums etc. Dinosaurs-Morrill Hall Bertrand Shultz [photos – Group 7]

Box 9

  1. Museums [photos – Group 7]
  2. Nebraskalander
  3. Newcomer
  4. Painting
  5. Patents – stitching machine
  6. Pension
  7. Personal photos [photos – Group 8]

Box 10

  1. Photos – misc. [photos – Group 8]
  2. Property & water tank [maps, drawings]
  3. Publicity, etc.
  4. Shelters: personal, aircraft
  5. Smoke eliminators
  6. Space
  7. Space

Box 11

  1. Space & Apollo 11 & 17
  2. Space, Atomic, Schools etc. talks
  3. University of Nebraska etc. Behlen Observatory [photos – Group 9]
  4. University etc.
  5. University & colleges
  6. Wickes
  7. [Wickes merger] [photos – Group 10]

Box 12

  1. [Wickes]
  2. [Wickes]
  3. [Wickes]
  4. [personal]
  5. [loose clippings]
  6. [loose miscellaneous]
  7. [loose miscellaneous]
  8. [loose miscellaneous]

Series 3 – Printed Matter
Box 13

  1. Opportunity Still Knocks: The Living Proof: Horatio Alger Winners, 13th edition 1968 [2 copies]
  2. Opportunity Still Knocks: The Living Proof: Horatio Alger Winners, 1969 [2 copies]
  3. Operation Teapot Nevada Test Site, February-May, 1955 [3 copies]
  4. Operation CUE Nevada Test Site, Spring 1955
  5. Operation CUE Motion Picture Film Catalog, November 1955
  6. The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, June 1957
  7. The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, Revised edition, April 1962
  8. The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, Revised edition, April 1962, Reprinted February 1964

Box 14

  1. Security & Exchange Registration Statements, 1959, 1971, 1974
  2. Central Steel, 1972-1973
    [Technical manuals]
  3. Tasco
  4. Tasc-eeze
  5. Aero-Go Systems
  6. Airfloat
  7. Inland System
  8. Invisilift
  9. Reader’s Digest, March 1955 [reprint]
  10. Time, November 3, 1958 [2 copies]
  11. Nebraska Alumnus, June 1959
  12. Nebraska on the March, November 1961 [2 copies]
  13. The Bulletin, Chicago Edition, June 1964
  14. The Bulletin, Youngstown Edition, August 1964 [2 copies]
  15. Building Progress, November 1964
  16. Building Standards Monthly, July 1965 [2 copies]
  17. Nebraskaland, August 1965 [2 copies]
  18. Nebraska Blue Print, October, 1966
  19. Building Construction, October 1966 [3 copies]
  20. New Mexico Professional Engineer, January 1967 [2 copies]
  21. Skylines Midwest Architect, April/May 1967
  22. TRendletter, [n.d., 4 copies]
  23. GO Profile, May 6, 1968
  24. Construction Products & Technology, June 1969 [3 copies]

Series 4 – Scrapbooks (on microfilm)
Reel 1

  1. 1905; 1927-1987
  2. 1929-1954

Series 5 – Ledger (on microfilm)
Reel 1

  1. 1940-1941

Series 6 – Miscellaneous
Box 14

  1. National Register of Historic Places registration form for the Behlen house, Columbus, Nebraska

Oversize Box 084

  1. Certificate, Operation Teapot, 1955 [+ frame]
  2. Poster, Operation CUE, 1955 [+ frame]
  3. Photograph, 1969 [Photos – Group 11]
  4. Poster, “Million Dollar Building,” 1962
  5. The Columbus Telegram, July 27, 1994, August 2, 1994
  6. The Dakota Farmer, February 16, 1963
  7. The Omaha World Herald, Centennial Edition May 14, 1967
  8. The Omaha World Herald, January 14, 1968
  9. Sunday Journal & Star, Nebraska and Its People, February 26, 1967
  10. University of Nebraska School of Journalism Depth Report No. 5, Centennial Edition

Series 7 – Unprocessed Materials

Boxes 15-19   Various personal and professional materials

OB 017   Various oversize publications, certificates, illustrations, etc.

Oversize drawings and renderings of the Behlen House, etc. (see oversize)
Blueprints and drawings of the Behlen House (see oversize)

Subject headings:

Behlen Community Hospital (Columbus, Neb.)
Behlen Family
Behlen Manufacturing Company (Columbus, Neb.)
Behlen, Walter Dietrich, 1905-1994
Business enterprises — Nebraska — Columbus
Civil defense
Columbus (Neb.) — History
Inventions — Nebraska — Columbus
Inventors — Nebraska — Columbus
Structural engineering — Nebraska
Wickes Corporation (Saginaw, Mich.)

KFK/JMK   05-02-1995; 02-28-1996
revised, KFK   03-11-2003
revised, TMM   08-27-2008

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