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Bona Allen leather works long gone, but name persists

POSTED: March 22, 2009 1:00 a.m.

The Bona Allen leather enterprises have been long gone from Buford, but the Bona Allen name lives and forever will be identified with the Gwinnett and Hall counties town of Buford.

Companies are being adversely affected in today's recession, but during the Great Depression in the 1930s, Bona Allen not only survived but prospered. People from all over the state came to Buford trying to find work in the leather industry.

Bona Allen IV, now retired in Towns County, never actually got deeply involved in the company, except during summer breaks from school making a quarter an hour. But he knows the history and is flush with mountains of memorabilia.

R.H. Allen started Buford's leather business with a harness shop and tannery. After the Civil War and after the Southern Railroad came through Buford, Bona Allen Sr. moved to town from Rome and joined his brother. The Bona Allen name first appeared on the company in 1873.

But the brothers didn't get along so well, Bona Allen IV says, and Bona Sr. bought his brother out. Senior and his wife had five sons and a daughter, Wadleigh, Bona Jr., Victor, Clarence, John and Kate. All were involved in the leather company, though Clarence sold his interest to the family and moved to Gainesville. Wadleigh, grandfather of Bona IV, died at age 34. Victor Allen once captained the University of Georgia football team.

The company went into shoe production in the 1930s, and though it was making 4,000 to 5,000 pairs a day, it wasn't profitable. After shutting that tannery and shoe factory down, the federal government reopened it during World War II to repair shoes for the military.

Leather products, especially saddles, earned the company a worldwide reputation in the 1950s. It also made strap leather, leather for luggage, harnesses and bags for postal carriers. Bona Allen was known for its Western saddles, but also made English saddles, among other types.

Bona Allen Jr. died in 1964 and was succeeded by his son, John, who died in 1967. The next year, Tandy, Inc., of Fort Worth, Texas, then a leather goods company, purchased the remaining Bona Allen business in Buford. It operated until 1981 when it left leather-making and dived into electronics with Radio Shack and other such businesses.

Former employees under Bona Allen recall long hours and hard work, especially in the tannery, where they had to lift heavy hides that had been soaking in vats. But they were loyal and content for the most part.

Louie Dodd was quoted during the 100th anniversary celebration as saying he worked there from age 8 until he was 20 when he went into sales. In high school, he'd go to work at midnight, getting off in time for school, then catching some sleep after classes. Harold Hannah told of working 12-hour week days, another six on Saturday and six more at the company store.

But over the years, work hours decreased, and benefits improved. Bona Allen at one time had 200 houses it rented to employees for $4 to $12 a month. Many workers later bought them for nothing down and minimum monthly payments. The company maintained the rental properties.

Fires plagued the company in its history. One in 1903 destroyed the tannery; the chrome tannery burned in 1927; a tannery fire in 1945 destroyed the vat yards. Another tannery fire in 1981 spelled doom for the leather industry. Tandy didn't rebuild, and the remaining 160 leather workers lost their jobs.

The company's peak employment of 2,200 came in 1932 when most companies were laying off workers. By 1943, however, the company employed only 500 after the horse collar factory, shoe and chrome tannery closed.

Bona Allen saddles continue to be traded on the Internet, some of them bringing a pretty price. During the heyday of Western movies, most of the cowboy stars sat in Bona Allen saddles. Some would come to Buford to specially fit their horses.

Roy Rogers was among them, bringing his horse on a train to Buford for custom saddles hand-tooled by the Bona Allen craftsmen. A statue of Rogers, his horse Trigger and saddle-maker Jack Johnson now stands in a downtown Buford park across from the old leather company as a tribute to the craftsmen.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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