Kristi L. Reed

Statue of Hollywood legends to commemorate Bona Allen leather craftsmen

By Kristi Reed

BUFORD – A local businessman hopes to raise $130,000 for a sculpture to commemorate the city’s craftsmen and artists, both past and present.

Long before the city’s current artist colony existed, many skilled artisans called Buford home. Bona Allen, Inc., a leather goods company, employed such talented craftsmen that even Hollywood took notice.

Beginning in the 1930s, Hollywood cowboys would bring their horses to Buford to have them custom fitted with Bona Allen saddles. Audie Murphy, Congressional Medal of Honor winner turned Hollywood cowboy, had a Bona Allen saddle. Even Pa, Hoss, and Little Joe Cartwright of the TV show “Bonanza” rode the fictional Ponderosa on Bona Allen saddles.

Perhaps, the most famous of all Hollywood cowboys, Roy Rogers, traveled to Buford in the late 1940s to have his equally famous horse, Trigger, fitted with a Bona Allen saddle.

Local artist Vic McCallum commemorated that visit in a sculpture. The sculpture depicts John Johnson, the last living Bona Allen saddle maker, presenting Roy Rogers and Trigger with their custom Bona Allen saddle.

“I thought it was a pretty fascinating story,” McCallum said. “It illustrates the past and what a rich history [Buford] has.”

McCallum says he enjoys telling stories with his sculptures.

“There’s a lot of history here that people just aren’t aware of,” McCallum said. “The reason Buford is here is because of Bona Allen. The families here worked [at the factory] for generations. Their whole lives revolved around Bona Allen.”

Don Arsenault, owner of the Historic Buford Antique Market, was inspired by McCallum’s work and his two-foot-tall sculpture of Roy Rogers and Trigger.

“I was intrigued by [the Rogers statue],” Arsenault said. “I thought ‘Gee, wouldn’t it be great to have a life-sized statue made of it.”

Arsenault set up a non-profit group to collect funds to build the monument. If the drive for funds is successful, the life-sized bronze statue would be located in a park across from the old Bona Allen factory.

The fund-raising effort has resulted in pledges of approximately $15,000. In March, a fundraiser will be held at the Bona Allen mansion. A silent auction will include works contributed by local artists. The event will also feature a display of Roy Rogers memorabilia and a Bona Allen saddle owned by Audie Murphy.

Money is also being raised through the sale of brick pavers that will line the walkway to the statue and the area around its base. Memorial pavers are being sold for $50 each.

At an estimated cost of $130,000, the statue is no small project. However, Arsenault is undaunted by the task.

“It is a big undertaking, but not like the [restoration],” Arsenault said.

The restoration was a three-year, $3.5 million project to refurbish the Bona Allen factory buildings. Arsenault and a group of investors completed the restoration in January of 2002.

“It was a labor of love,” Arsenault said.

Arsenault grew up in a factory town in Rhode Island. His hometown severely deteriorated when the local factory closed its doors. The town now stands marred by the ruins of the abandoned factory. “I didn’t want that to happen to Buford,” Arsenault said.

“I wanted to do something for the town. I found these old buildings and I got involved with a group and we [renovated] the entire facility. The investors are young and old people who wanted to preserve something.”

The 13-acre site on West Main Street has three brick buildings with over 115,000 square feet of floor space. It is home to the Buford Antique Market, which is operated by the parent company of the Lakewood Antique Show in Atlanta.

The Buford Antique Market celebrated its first anniversary in January. The market is open the third weekend of every month. Arsenault has plans to utilize the property more fully.

“My original idea was to make it another Tannery Row. My idea is to have other venues and turn it into a destination place that will be open six days a week,” Arsenault said.

The site is also home to the Museum of Main Street. The museum showcases memorabilia from the time when Buford was a factory town and two-thirds of the townspeople worked for Bona Allen.

Established in 1873, Bona Allen Inc. employed over 2,200 people in its heyday. The company remained the town’s main employer until the factory was closed in the late 1960s.

Arsenault believes Buford has a bright future and wants to preserve the town’s history. “When I retired and moved to North Georgia, I fell in love with Buford,” he said. “Buford is going through a metamorphosis. One day it will become a real destination place,” Arsenault said. “It’s a place where time has stood still. People haven’t discovered it yet.”