Southern Oak Leather Tannery
Norcross now has a residential complex, Broadstone Junction, just south of the historic downtown, constructed on the site of the headquarters of WestRock paper company and its predecessor companies. But there have been a number of businesses there over the years. This article will focus on one of them, the Southern Oak Leather Company, a tannery located there in the early 1900s.
Tanneries convert the skins and hides of animals into leather, and are many times co-located with facilities that use the leather to make finished goods, such as gloves, shoes, harnesses, saddles and “horse collars”. The conversion process includes first cleaning the hides and then soaking them in a chemical mixture, typically involving tannins, a class of chemicals found in the bark of oak and related trees. The soaking process softens the leather. The process of tanning skins into leather dates back to Roman times and before, and the English word “tannery” comes from the tannin chemicals used in the production process.
Tanning hides in years gone by would generate strong odors due to the state of the hides when they arrived at the facility and the chemicals used to soak the hides. This issue has been reduced to some extent over the years through the use of alternative chemicals for the soaking.
Likely the best-known tannery in Gwinnett history is the Bona Alen Company, which was founded in Buford in 1872 and was in business for almost a century, turning out leather, shoes and related products. They were well-known in the 1930s especially, being the source of saddles used by many of the stars of western movies popular in that era, including Roy Rogers and his famous horse Trigger.
Our local tannery dates from 1903, when it moved from Flowery Branch to the area of Norcross where Broadstone Junction is found today. The Lawrenceville News Herald newspaper reported in a January 1903 article
The Southern Oak Leather Company will move their tannery and harness factory from Flowery Branch to Norcross soon. The Southern Railway has just finished a spur track for them. They will commence at once to put brick on the grounds and as soon as the weather will permit they will commence to build. These people are tanners of “Ye old fashioned leather” and you can find no better harness and collars than those made by this company.
The business bought land from Homer V Jones and Jones C Davenport of Norcross in early 1903, and evidently the construction process moved quickly, since at the end of May that year the Lawrenceville newspaper’s Norcross correspondent reported
Our new harness factory begins work this week. They want to work about one hundred men.
The photo below shows the tannery after it was in operation.
Noye Nesbit (1894-1989), who grew up in Norcross and worked at the tannery in the summers as a young man to earn money to help pay for his education at Georgia Tech, provided these notes on the back of a photograph describing the tannery layout and his work there:
Building on left – Tannery
Building on Right – Downstairs collar factory, office extreme left, upstairs harness factory
I (Noye) blacked leather here 50 cents [per] day of 10 hours, 7AM to 6PM, one hour off for dinner
Storage bldgs. In rear
Noye Nesbit is shown in the photo below, which dates from circa 1939.
Thompson B. Ray (1856-1936) was President of Southern Oak Leather Company during this period, according to John Adams, writing in a book detailing the history of the town of Norcross, published circa 1990. Mr. Ray is shown in the photo below.
Ray built the home that still stands at 442 North Peachtree Street in Norcross, shown in the photo below. Mr. Ray and many of his family members are buried in the Norcross City Cemetery.
Elmore (or Elmo) L Barrett, who grew up in Flowery Branch, was also involved in moving the tannery business to Norcross and running it once it was moved. While he was living in Norcross he was active in real estate sales; later he moved to Atlanta and then Florida, where he continued his real estate activities.
The tannery expanded its land and equipment over the next several years, and survived a substantial fire in October of 1911, but by 1914 it had fallen into bankruptcy. C. A. “Gus” McDaniel, a prominent local businessman who built and lived in the distinctive home at 126 North Peachtree Street, served as bankruptcy trustee. One of his duties as such was to advertise the sale of the assets of the tannery business, as is shown in the legal notice of the day printed below.
The assets were sold on April 8, 1915 for $8750.00 to J L and W B Shadburn of Buford, who were involved in a tannery business there. And at that point the Southern Oak Leather Company was gone!
The Shadburn Brothers carried on the business for some years, but it had faded from the scene in the post-WWII years.
This article was written by Gene Ramsay and refreshed in March 2023. Many thanks for Rufus Dunnigan, Carl Garner Jr and Jimmy Garner for their help in providing information.