The Allen family played a role in the city of Buford from 1867 until 1977. Although they ran a wide range of businesses including a livery, shoe manufacturing and harness factory, the Allen's would become most famous for the tannery they began in the city in 1873. In much the same way as Dalton, Georgia is famous for its carpets, Buford, Georgia was famous for its leather. Buford, at times, has billed itself as the "Leather City."
The industrial base gave the city unprecedented growth in its time, surpassing other Gwinnett County cities in population in 20 years and retaining its lead in population for a quarter of a century. The tannery also created a semi-pro baseball team in the mid-1920's, the Shoemakers.
Robert H. Allen settled in rural Gwinnett County in 1867, five years before the town of Buford was organized. His first business was a livery, where horses were kept, sold and rented. He began a small tanning operation in 1868 east of present-day Buford, probably in anticipation of the arrival of the Atlanta and Richmond Air Line Railway, now part of the Southern Railroad, which was completed to Buford in April, 1871.
The town was named in honor of the President of the Richmond and Danville Railway, Colonel Algernon Sidney (A. S.) Buford and created in 1872. R. H. invited his brother, Bonaparte Allen to join him in Gwinnett that year. "Bona" (short for Bonaparte) relocated from Rome, Georgia and the two worked near each other for the rest of their lives.
While RH (his preferred form of address) worked at a variety of businesses at the same time, Bona concentrated on a single enterprise, a tannery that bore his name not very far from the depot in Buford. Although the operations were small in 1873, he did look for opportunity wherever it could be found.
Later that decade Bona Allen bought his brother's tannery operation from the RH Allen Company and incorporated it into his own leather company. His brother may have joined Bona's company briefly in 1878 and 1879, after the sale of the tannery. In addition to the tanning factory, Bona Allen did manage an active farm that included boars and sows in their livestock and wheat and butter beans as crops. RH owned a variety of businesses including a general store in Buford. RH was known for the goat cart that carried him around town because of severely limited mobility.
A 1901 patent of the tanning process had a hide placed into a drum of the extract of quebracho trees (Schinopsis quebracho-colorado; red quebracho), which were rich with a protein-binding tannin. Quebracho trees (Spanish for "the axe breaks") are evergreens that grow in southern South America. The longer a hide was left in the drum, the darker the tan. When the hide was removed the contents of the drum was dumped into the creek behind the building which became known as Black Creek because of the color of the waste.
In the Spring of 1902 Bona Allen decided to spin the tannery into a separate company majority owned by Clarence Allen and E. O. Miles, with Bona Allen Sr. and Bona Allen Jr. holding minority stakes. Miles was an Atlanta-based hide dealer who had been selling hides to Bona Allen for years. Within a year the venture filed for bankruptcy and the tanning operation returned under Bona Allen. In 1903 the straw shed caught fire.
Starting in the early 20th century Bona Allen saddles were offered in the Sears Mail Order catalog under a variety of names.
On February 4, 1909, The Bona Allen harness plant and box factory burned to the ground, according to a story in the Harness Herald. The estimate loss was $75,000 to $100,000 and was only partially covered by insurance. The 1910 U. S. Census showed Buford to be the largest town in Gwinnett County with 1683 people. Lawrenceville, the county seat, had 1618.
When the tannery was rebuilt in 1911, it was renamed Bona Allen and Sons, although the Sons was dropped after Bona Allen Sr. died in 1925. Manufacturing of leather shoes in the new plant began in 1913. As control of the company passed from Bona to his sons, they benefited from an increase in the use of horses from 1925 to 1940.
Both Bona Allen Sr. and Bona Allen Jr. supported research, and both held patents on chemical processes invented by them or chemists in the company. Bona Allen Jr. continued with research into chemicals with a lab in the tannery headed by John Arthur Wilson in the 1930's. The lab employed five chemists full-time even during the Depression and engaged in researching the chemicals used in the tanning process.
Labor unrest in the shoe factory led to a strike in October, 1941. Although the strike was dropped in 1942 the plant was not making enough money to support itself and was closed in 1942. The federal government wanted the plant to produce shoes for the men fighting World War II, so the Allens kept it open until 1945, when they closed it along with a number of other operations.
Since 1900 the use of horses for functional work (pulling a plow, for example) had fallen off dramatically. Although the trend changed briefly between 1925 and 1940, once the Depression was over the trend continued, faster than ever. It was simply too expensive to keep horses when compared to the cost of a tractor. The downsized company continued to produce goods, concentrating on high-end tack including saddles, for which the company gained a good deal of fame. Roy Rogers used a Bona Allen saddle on his horse Trigger as did many other western stars.
One of the last known pictures from Bona Allen in December 1981
In 1968 the tannery was sold to Tandy Corporation. Most people today associate the name with Radio Shack, but in 1968 Tandy also owned a chain of leather goods stores with a brisk mail-order business and management was trying to vertically integrate to cut costs. Georgia identified the Bona Allen Tannery as a point source facility for pollution under the Federal Water Pollution Control Amendments of 1972. Clean-up of existing pollution and reducing future pollution to meet the requirements of the Clean Water Act in 1977 cost Tandy Corp. a good deal of money and increased future costs for the plant. When the facility burned in 1981 Tandy Corp. chose not to rebuild.