Buford...Rich in History
Buford, Georgia is situated in northern Gwinnett County with a small portion of the city limits extending into Hall County, 35 miles northeast of Atlanta.
For more than 60 years, Buford was the largest city in Gwinnett. While many small southern towns were characterized as sleepy agricultural villages, Buford was Gwinnett County's industrial heart. The town became famous for its leather tanning and the manufacture of saddles, collars, harnesses, and other related goods. In the not too distant past, Buford was known internationally as “The Leather City”.
At the time Gwinnett County was established in 1818, the area where Buford formed was still Cherokee Indian Territory, even though the land was ceded to the United States the year prior. By the 1860s, there were a few scattered inhabitants.
Silas King, an evangelical Baptist clergyman, was the first non-Indian to occupy the area now known as Buford. Originally from South Carolina, he purchased 250 acres on March 10, 1822. His cabin sat where 75 Shadburn Avenue is now. It later became the site of the first hotel. Other early residents of note were William Sudderth, who owned some 2230 acres in Gwinnett County. Wyatt Wilson owned more than 1000 acres near the present-day Lanier Water Park and Museum. Near the Chattahoochee, William Scales owned almost 2000 acres. The 1860 Census counted 114 families in the Buford/Sugar-Hill area.
While the name Bona Allen is synonymous with the leather industry in Buford, it was his older brother, R.H. Allen, who established the first tanning operation here in late 1870, early 1871. R.H., though partially paralyzed and unable to walk, worked tirelessly. He traveled by goat cart soliciting business, selling hides, and manufacturing saddles, harnesses, bridles, and other leather goods.
In April 1871, the first train appeared in Buford, running along the newly constructed railroad. The city sprang up along the tracks. By 1872, the town of Buford was incorporated.
By the 1920s, Buford had earned it’s Leather City reputation, and the local economy prospered. Even though automobiles and tractors were replacing the need for horses and related equipment, Buford ’s leather industry continued to grow by gaining a larger share of the national market and diversifying its product line. Not only was the Allen Company producing more saddles, harnesses, and collars than ever before, in 1921 the shoe factory superintendent, P.L. Royal, reported that 521,000 pair of shoes were produced and sold, and by 1928, the Shoe Factory reached an output of 3000 pairs a day.
The Bona Allen Company kept expanding, from the tannery and leather manufacturing industries into lumber, groceries and dry goods. Even during the Great Depression, workers enjoyed steady employment. Bona Allen, Inc. reached its peak employment level in 1932 with 2200 employees. In 1935, the harness factory was expanded, and in 1933, a Bona Allen saddle won a blue ribbon at the Chicago World ’s Fair.
In addition to providing many Buford residents with jobs and products, the Bona Allen Company also provided a good bit of recreation, primarily by sponsoring semi-pro sports teams. These included basketball, football, and most notably, the Shoemakers baseball team. The Shoemakers had their own private bus, traveling to other states, and winning more than they lost in games against professional teams as high as AA classification.
While the Depression did not adversely affect Buford’s industry, some impact was felt. Area farmers suffered the most, and local businesses offered liberal credit or accepted farm products as payment. Many students were kept in school through contributions by local townspeople, and churches, clubs, and lodges collected and dispersed food, clothing, and other necessities to help the needy.
The labor tranquility of the Bona Allen company came to an end in 1941. That summer, union interest spread rapidly, and in August a strike was called. By October, the company closed the shoe factory and ended shoe leather production. Six months later, the U.S. Army reopened the plant to repair army shoes. By mid-1942, the plant was again in full operation.
The collar factory closed in 1943, and the shoe factory closed for good after the war.
After World War II, the construction of Buford Dam was the talk of the town. The project was designed and administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Construction began in March 1950. By 1954, cemeteries in the area destined to become Lake Lanier were relocated, and 1955 was the last year for farmers. Then, on February 1, 1956, the gates were closed, and the Chattahoochee River began to fill the lake. When the reservoir filled and power production peaked in 1958, the Army Corps opened the lake for public recreation.
From 1960 to 1981, Buford went through a profound transitional period. Many prominent citizens and business owners passed away, the schools were integrated, new shopping centers usurped business from the old downtown district, local newspapers were absorbed by larger publishing companies and phased out, and local city and fire departments were abandoned. Following the death of John Allen in 1968, the tannery and saddle and harness factory were sold to Tandy Corporation. The railroad depot closed in 1972, and the demand for horse-related leather goods decreased. While Tandy Corp. continued operations for a few years under the Bona Allen name, after the devastating tannery fire in December 1981, they chose not to rebuild, and the last 160 Allen employees were let go.
Though no longer “The Leather City” Buford has grown in other ways, and in many other industries. The Lovable Corporation located operations here in 1969, followed by Anitox in 1970. Heraeus Amersil came in 1985, soon followed by Makita, to name just a few.
In more recent years, the construction of the Mall of Georgia just outside the city limits and its related support businesses boosted the local economy. The restoration of many properties in Historic Downtown Buford has created a beautiful Main Street of galleries, restaurants, and shops, many of which are active members of the Buford Business Association.
To visit the Museum of Buford, Click Here.