Bona Allen, Inc. was established in 1873 in Buford, GA. Millions of tons of leather have gone through its plants, thousands of lives have been shaped by its code; and yet today most people remember it primarily for its perfect employment record during the Depression, its championship semipro baseball teams and its original owners: the Allen family, starting with Bona senior and going down through his great-grandchildren.
Founder Bona Allen, Sr., started the company in 1873 not long after returning from the Civil War. He picked up tanning from his father, Washington Allan, who individually tanned hides to supplement his farming needs. Washington used the crudest of methods, soaking and liming the hides in pits, unhairing them by hand and tanning them in vats of water and ground bark.
- 1873 Bona Allen Sr. est. Bona Allen Company
- 1897 harness and horse collar factory begun
- 1898 Saddle Plane started
- 1903 Fire completely destroys tannery
- 1905 Bona Allen is incorporated
- 1913 Shoe Factory started
- 1914 Chrome Factory begun
- 1925 Bona Allen, Sr. died
- 1927 Chrome Tannery burned and rebuilt
- 1932 Bona Allen, Inc. hits peak employment of 2,200 people
- 1936 baseball team wins 35 straight, runner-up in national semi-pro tournament
- 1942 Shoe and Chrome tannery closed
- 1943 number of employees dips to 500
- 1945 fire in Tannery, destroyed vat yards. Rebuilt in 1946 and 1947
- 1958 study begun on waste treatment facility
- 1964 Bona Allen, Jr. dies
- 1967 John Allen dies
- 1968 Waste Treatment Plant completed at cost of over $600,000
- 1972 Saddle and Harness Factory closes
In business matters. Bona, Sr. relied heavily on the advice of his wife, the former Louisa Jane Stanley, while he turned to H.W. Christian concerning production and personnel. Christian stayed with the company until 1928.
Photographs of Bona Allen, Sr. reveal him as a very erect, very upright athletic type whose firm chin and deep-set eyes convey intense determination. He loved horses, galloping about from job site to job site and seldom discounting. Early he built a reputation for fair play in business dealings and humane treatment of employees. His people weren’t pampered, nor did they get rich; but the company would pick up a hospital tab in emergency cases and even build homes for employees, renting and selling them at very low prices. The company’s swift recovery from two devastating fires (in 1903 and 1945) attested to its business integrity since recovery loans were granted by virtue of the Allen name alone. Clarence, the oldest Allen son, and Kate, the only daughter, sold their shares in the business but sons Wadleigh, Victor, John Q. and Bona, Jr. made the company their life. The company spurted just as the four matured and each received a healthy slice of the action. In 1905 when the company was incorporated, Vice Presidents Victor, Bona, Jr. and John Q managed the Shoe Plant, the Tannery and the Saddle Operation respectively while Wadleigh served as Treasurer and managed the Horse Collar factory.
Each had his own distinct personality, strengths and weaknesses; but together they guided the company through over 55 years of financial stability, steady employment and community responsibility.
The Depression, more than anything, proved the company’s financial stability. Here mammoth corporations were closing down or cutting back all over the country, and yet Bona Allen, Inc. was actually netting larger profits and gaining more workers. In fact the company employed over 2,000 in a town of about 5,000 during the bleakest of the Hoover years. This spectacular triumph over a nationwide crisis engrained many of its people with a sense of company loyalty and trust that endured long after the Depression. Turnover had always been light at Bona Allen and perhaps it’s because a seasoned vet can always choke a gripe session, saying: “Well, we had jobs here when most people were in the soup line.”
After 100 years, over 25% of the employees had 25 or more consecutive years of service with 13 over 30 years.
The Allen family, however, never stopped with the mere survival of its employees. Sure the workers were always adequately fed, comfortable sheltered and medically cared for; but the Allens also wanted to instill some company pride, a feeling of being a part of something special. And here is where the Shoemakers came in. During the thirties and early forties, baseball was like pro football is now, and so Vice President John Q. Allen combed the college ranks plus the pro and semi-pro circuits for the best baseball talent available. He ended up with a bunch of ex-Southern Leaguers, ex-Big Leaguers and college stars who breezed through 100-game seasons practically unbeaten and then either won or placed in the top three in national semi-pro tournaments. Fans flooded the stadium during home games and mobbed at tournament time just to hear play-by-play accounts read over the wire.
“The baseball team brought the entire town together,” related former Shoemaker outfielder Gerald McQuaig, who went on to become principal of Sugar Hill Elementary. The fans treated the players like conquering heroes during the season and the company offered them easy jobs during the winter months.
Whereas the Depression revealed Bona Allen’s stability, and the Shoemakers its grandeur, the Allen family itself shaped the company’s character. Most successful older companies have a dynamic personality about them, one that usually derived from its founder and passed on down through its descendants. You can see this locally in Rich’s Department Store, and nationally, the J.C. Penny company is this way. Bona Allen, Inc. also follows this line.
The Shoe Factory
The Shoe Factory was the most inconsistent of any Allen project, enjoying great heights and then sinking fast. It started in 1913, stumbled around for about seven years, picked up drastically (even being nationally advertised by the Shoe Maker’s baseball team) and then after surviving the great Depression began sinking when most other companies were getting back on their feet. In 1937 it built a daily capacity of 5,800 shoes and employed over 1,300, but from 1939 until 1941 it stayed in the red and closed only to be revived briefly as a government war time operation. Ironically the company which took over the old shoe building was the first industry to move into Buford since Bona Allen itself.
Vance Dodd of Buford remembers the shoe business well; he helped set up the equipment when it first opened, and stayed with it until the end. He knew the Allens: playing baseball with John Q., setting up the first shoe shop with Bona Sr. and working under Shoe Plant manager Victor Allen. He vividly remembers the plant’s stumbling beginning: “We began in the old Tannery building. No windows. No heat. Just a leaky roof over our heads. Mr. Nona, who could cut a piece of hide straight as an arrow without the use of a gauge knife, knew leather, but he didn’t know the shoe business. He brought in Leslie Joseph from Cincinnati but they never really got going until Prince Royal took over in 1919.
The Shoe Makers
Gerald McQuaig remembered his Bona Allen days as more than just a good, hard, clean way to make a living. The company offered him a grand lifestyle where he was treated like a celebrity and people went out of their way for him. Herald played ball for the Shoemakers during the championship years, and also worked at the plant in the off season.
“The Allen’s wanted you to go first class all the way, “ McQuaig said. “We traveled all over the country, with tournaments in Denver, Houston, and Wichita and always stayed in the finest hotels and ate at the top restaurants. John Allen’s keen interest in sports had a lot to do with such great treatment. The Buford ballfield was in better condition than most minor league parks – certainly that infield was as smooth as a billiard table.
“John Allen could really get the talent. The one I’m sure no one will forget was lefty Boots Poofenberger who came to us after getting kicked out of the Southern League for throwing a ball at an umpire. He was the darling of the town, speaking to everyone, tipping barbers, shoe shine boys and waitresses a dollar back in the days when a buck was really something.”
“Merritt ‘Sugar’ Cain was another great pitcher and former major leaguer, and you may remember Jack Jacietti who won 18 games for the St. Louis Browns during the war years. Everyone on the team could really tag the ball, but Eddie Baxter was the most consistent. We could have stayed with the most minor league teams – and even a big league bunch on a given day – but we didn’t have the pitching depth to compete professionally for a full season.”
One year when the Crackers were tops in the Southern League the Buford team topped them two of three exhibition games.
McQuaig came to Bona Allen from the Atlanta Crackers. Although he faced the toughest in big league pitching his two years with Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics, he still believes Satchel Paige was the best ever. “I faced him playing winter ball in Puerto Rico. He was blinding fast but you could trust him not to hit you. His control was excellent, never wasted a pitch and that’s why he lasted so long.”
Mercer Harris, a professional baseball scout and Lawrenceville resident, and Whack Hyder, retired Tech baseball coach, both remember Bona Allen as an opportunity for pro ball. Harris managed and played third base, while Hyder shared outfield duties with McQuaig. “Bona Allen made it possible for me to afford college,” Hyder said. “In fact I got signed by a scout covering the Shoemakers.”