Chattanooga Manufacturing From Cradle to Grave

Sunday, November 15, 2009 - by Harmon Jolley
Though the corporate name changed over the years, the use of the Buster Brown brand name remained constant.  Click to enlarge.
Though the corporate name changed over the years, the use of the Buster Brown brand name remained constant. Click to enlarge.

If all of the manufacturers represented in the history of the Chattanooga area had remained in business, we would have had a good start towards self-sufficiency.

Foundries produced parts for automation – to produce products faster and with lower cost – and for locomotion – to transport products to market and to move people to their destinations. Consumer needs were met by companies that produced yarn, machines that made the yarn, and textile mills that turned the yarn into products. There were manufacturers that supported each other – witness the links between makers of glass bottles, wooden cases, and vending machines in the local soft drink industry.

In the wide spectrum of things they made for markets near and far, Chattanooga manufacturers supported consumers from cradle to grave. Here are two examples.


DAVIS HOSIERY MILLS / UNITED HOSIERY MILLS / SKYLAND INTERNATIONAL / BUSTER BROWN APPAREL

Two milestones occurred two years apart in the early 1900’s which became part of the long time-line of a successful manufacturer in the East Chattanooga area.

In 1902, Richard F. Outcault created a comic strip that was published in the New York Herald, and which starred an impish young boy, Buster Brown, and his talking dog, Tige. The character was so successful that Buster was eventually featured in movies, radio, and television. In 1904, John Bush, an executive with the Brown Shoe Company, envisioned the financial rewards of product licensing of the popular Buster Brown. Mr. Bush acquired the rights to the name, and introduced it at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition.

In 1904, the Davis Hosiery Mills was founded through the industrial expansion efforts of the East Chattanooga Land Company. Three local businessmen headed the firm – W. B. Davis, Frank L. Miller, and G. H. Miller. Davis Hosiery Mills was granted the rights to sell childrens wear bearing the Buster Brown label.

The company was renamed in 1916 to the United Hosiery Mills Corporation, with Frank L. Miller, Jr. assuming the role of president in 1923 and continuing with the company until 1954. According to an article in the March, 1966 American National Bank “Notes” newsletter, Mr. Miller’s philosophy was stated in a resolution he gave to employees on January 1, 1955: “To do those things which ARE in the consumer interest, to not do those things which are NOT.”

Steady growth enabled United Hosiery Mills to serve its growing market. The mill was expanded in 1919 by 53,000 square feet, and included a new dining room that could serve 1,000 people. The company also erected cottages near the mill that were rented exclusively to employees.

United Hosiery Mills expanded again in 1945. Company management looked beyond the end of World War II to a baby boom, with lots of babies needing the company’s cotton anklets. United added underwear, sleepwear, and head wear to its line, and adopted the motto, “From Toe to Crown in Buster Brown.”

“Our postwar plans calling for new equipment, expansion, and increased employment are just a drop in the bucket in Chattanooga’s economy,” Frank Miller was reported in the August 21, 1945 Chattanooga Times to have told the board of directors. “But if there are enough drops, the bucket can be filled,” he concluded.

By 1963, the company employed 3,500 people at nine plants in Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. There were 700 employed at the Chattanooga plant. The October 17, 1963 Chattanooga News-Free Press featured an article about how the Buster Brown name was known around the world. However, only Brown Shoe Company and United Hosiery remained as firms which still licensed the brand.

After more than forty years in business, it was time again for a new name. On July 14, 1965, the Chattanooga Times reported that stockholders agreed to a renaming of the company to Skyland International Corporation, reflecting its global markets.

Gerber Products acquired Skyland International in the early 1980’s, and changed the name of the company to Buster Brown Apparel, Inc.

Ownership of the Buster Brown brand name changed again in 1999 as a result of the purchase by Kleinert’s Inc. The Chattanooga Times Free Press reported on July 8, 1999 that the sale was complete. However, as many as 1,500 workers at four remaining plants would lose their jobs. Earlier that same year, Buster Brown had eliminated the last of its manufacturing base in Chattanooga.


CHATTANOOGA COFFIN AND CASKET COMPANY

Much was recorded of the business history of Buster Brown Apparel and its predecessors that made products for the beginning of life. However, there is not much of a eulogy for a business that provided products for the other end of life – Chattanooga Coffin and Casket Company.

The tales of the crypt supplier were briefly told, however, in the 1911 local business history, “Pen and Sunlight Sketches of Chattanooga.” The firm began in 1887, and took advantage of being located in an area of raw hardwood suitable for crafting into its goods. Chattanooga Coffin and Casket’s factory was located on four acres in the East Lake area. Its address was on Twenty-Fifth Street, adjacent to the Belt Line railroad which carried many local manufacturers’ production to its final destination.

Eighty workers were employed at the factory, while six traveling salesmen represented the company throughout the southeast. Several months ago, a reader mentioned having in her possession some small casket models from this business which were likely shown by salesmen. They could call their orders into the factory at Hemlock 127.

While the aforementioned hosiery mill changed its name several times, Chattanooga Coffin and Casket changed ownership or management often. Some of the executives who headed the company were:

* Michael O’Grady.

The Cleveland, Ohio native moved to Chattanooga around 1887, and initially joined an insurance business. In addition to working at Chattanooga Coffin and Casket, he had roles with the West Chattanooga Land Company and Chattanooga Daily Press.

* J.F. Loomis

J.F. Loomis was a partner in Loomis and Hart, a furniture manufacturing and sawmill firm. In 1888, he was listed as president of Chattanooga Coffin and Casket, with office and factory at Ridgedale.

Undertakers who may have been customers of Mr. Loomis in 1888 were L.J. Sharp – a livery, stable, and undertakers business on the present site of the Volunteer Building – and Jermiah Long, who also was a carpet dealer, at 722 Market Street.

* Willard Warner

Granville, Ohio native Willard Warner took part in the Civil War battles in the Chattanooga area. In 1873, the established a blast furnace for the Tecumseh, Alabama Iron Company, and did the same in 1887 and 1888 at West Nashville.

Warner moved to Chattanooga, and became a director of the Chattanooga Savings Bank, Chattanooga Wagon Company, and Richmond Spinning Company. He was president of the Chattanooga Coffin and Casket Company until November 23, 1906, when he passed away at his office desk. His son, Willard Warner, Jr., succeeded him, after leaving his position with the Roane Iron Company at Rockwood, Tennessee.

* Thomas C. Betterton

Mr. Betterton was listed as the head of the company in 1920. He also served as a Chattanooga city commissioner. The Tennessee Coffin Company was a local competitor during his tenure.

Chattanooga Coffin and Casket may have been one of many businesses that succumbed to the effects of the Great Depression. It was listed in the 1930 city directory, but was not found in the one published in 1940.


If you have additional information on Buster Brown Apparel and its predecessors, or Chattanooga Coffin and Casket Company, please send me an e-mail at jolleyh@bellsouth.net.

Ink blotter advertising Chattanooga Coffin and Casket Company.  Click to enlarge.
Ink blotter advertising Chattanooga Coffin and Casket Company. Click to enlarge.

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