This firm, established in 1873, operated a tannery and leather goods factory. Its management met the business threat of the motor age with an assurance that has paid off handsomely. True, there wasn't enough demand, to support the industry on the scale of pre-Model T days. But concentration of the few scattered users of saddles, bridles, harnesses and horse collars proved enough to keep Bona Allen well supplied with orders. Today the 86-year-old tannery and leather goods factory may well be the largest of its kind in the country. Stanley Allen, grandson of the founder and secretary-treasurer of the company, puts it this way: "If there's a larger one, we've never heard of it."
Bona Allen's two major divisions, each housed in a separate building several stories high and a block long, represent a blend of the present and the past. Modern machinery is evident throughout the tannery division, but a great deal of hand labor is still necessary in converting tough, stiff, hair-covered cowhides into smooth, flexible sheets of leather. In the "harness" factory, a designation carried over from the heyday of the horse and buggy, the majority of the plant is devoted to manufacturing riding equipment. Here, highly-skilled craftsmen (and women) painstakingly cut, stitch and hand-tool the high quality Bona Allen leather especially made to withstand rugged use. Saddles, bridles, halters, harnesses, stirrups, and a dozen or more different kinds of riding accessories are cut and assembled in this section.
The company takes special pride in its saddle making. In a year's time, some 30,000 to 35,000 saddles are produced and sold both in and outside the United States. Its catalog lists 86 different models ranging from simple jump saddles to heavy, ornate "westerns: The latter carry such sagebrush-scented names as "Rio Chico", "Cheyenne Chief", "Texas Quarter Horse", and "Cow Country". While some designs can be stamped by machine to give the appearance of hand-tooling, the majority of Bona Allen's saddles carry the label "fully hand carved". This means hours of work with mallet and stamping tools have gone into carving the intricate floral designs traditional for western saddles. To the layman, a saddle may appear to be nothing more than a few pieces of leather tacked or riveted to a wooden frame. But an average saddle requires 128 different manufacturing operations. Cost may run well over a hundred dollars. Small wonder that cowboys as portrayed in TV westerns will shoulder their saddles for miles when their horses are crippled or shot." While the saddlery is considered the "glamour" end of the business, the tannery continues to form the financial backbone of the company. The current output of the tannery is more than 700 hides a day with about half being consumed in the harness factory and the rest sold to other leather users. A number of well known sporting goods firms are among the company's customers.
In 1903, when the company was 30 years old and well on the way to becoming one of the foremost harness factories in the country, a fire swept through the frame buildings and completely destroyed the tannery. Not only did Allen lose about a half-million uninsured dollars he had invested in the firm but Allen's reputation as a manufacturer and business man was so highly regarded that a local bank offered him any amount he chose to borrow to re-establish his business. It wasn't long before he had paid off his loans and again had a thriving business, this time fully insured.
Bona Allen died in 1925 and left the firm in the hands of his three sons, Bona, Jr., John and Victor. Under their management, the company continued to follow the founder's policy of producing what he firmly believed was the best leather in the nation.
Excerpts from The Southern Railway
Saddle Makers Mark
Spur Straps Makers Mark