Thursday, September 8, 2011

High Cotton- Part 2 The back story

Using Google Reader/ Bloglovin and the like requires the reader to make an effort to read comments, which causes us to miss out on some of the world's greatest stories. It may have happened to you Sunday.

In her comment on the original High Cotton post, Flo sent a link to the December 15, 2009 edition of Mr. Write, the blog of Rocky Smith. Rocky published the photo I printed Sunday and its back story. I find his blog a worthy read. With his kind permission I present his post "The Savannah Cotton Exchange" in its entirety:


The Savannah Cotton Exchange
December 15, 2009 by Rocky Smith
On October 29, 2008, this article appeared in the Savannah Morning News:

———————

Driver arrested in Cotton Exchange crash

A woman who smashed into a 19th century statue before crashing into the Savannah Cotton Exchange building was slammed with charges Wednesday related to the August incident.

Donna Haddock, 39, was arrested and taken to jail after being charged with drunken driving, failure to maintain lane, no insurance and two red-light violations.

On Aug. 30, Haddock was driving north on Drayton Street about 7:15 a.m. when her early-model Toyota Corolla left the roadway at Bay Street and plowed through antique wrought-iron fencing.

The car snapped a lamp post in half and decimated a 19th century terra cotta lion that was the centerpiece of a historic fountain.

The Toyota then smashed against the front entrance to the Cotton Exchange, with the car’s underside facing the street.

Haddock was extricated using the Jaws of Life, then was taken to Memorial University Medical Center after suffering minor injuries.

The building is owned and occupied by Solomon’s Lodge No. 1, an English-chartered Freemasons’ group.

City officials have said a replacement version of the statue that had stood in front of the Cotton Exchange since 1889 could be back in place by January.

———————

Sixteen months later, the replacement version of the terra cotta statue still isn’t ready. The city says it won’t be much longer.

I should correct the article on one point: the statue demolished in this incident was not a lion, but a griffon. A griffon is a winged lion — a legendary creature that is a cross between the king of beasts and the king of birds.

I know this because the fountain, the statue, and the Cotton Exchange have been familiar to me all my life. My grandfather, the first Walter Smith, was in the cotton business in Savannah for many years as a cotton factor.

Through much of the 1800s and well into the 1900s, Savannah was the largest cotton seaport on the Atlantic and the second largest in the world. During Savannah’s heyday as a cotton port, two million bales per year moved through the city.

Cotton factors were experts on the cotton market who served as agents for the cotton growers. The factors graded the cotton, set prices, and arranged to export the bales to New York, London, and other large markets.

The Cotton Exchange was built in 1887 as a headquarters for the factors and factorage companies working in Savannah. It was the first building in the city to be constructed over an existing street.

By the time my grandfather entered the business, the heyday of factoring was in the past. More planters were selling their crops at inland markets, and the expansion of the railroads made it easy for farmers to ship their cotton north instead of east.

But my grandfather still had a long career as a cotton factor. He worked in the business from 1921 until 1945.

In 1938, he was elected to a term as President of the Cotton Exchange. For most of his career, his office was in the building to the right of the Exchange, ground floor, first window. As president, he had a swanky office in the Exchange building itself.

Even though the factoring business was quite active through the 1940s, eventually, the Cotton Exchange itself closed.

For a time, the building housed the Chamber of Commerce. Later, it became the home of Solomon’s Lodge, the oldest Masonic Lodge in America, founded in 1734 by James Oglethorpe.

Oglethorpe is the guy who made a land deal with the local Creek tribe and established the British colony of Georgia. He is a popular fellow around Savannah. If the inebriated lady had leveled Oglethorpe’s statue instead of the griffon, she might not have survived to appear in court.

Last September, I went to Savannah for a visit, and my Aunt Betty and I went downtown to the Cotton Exchange one afternoon to see how the repairs were coming along.

The debris, of course, was removed long ago. The griffon is notable for its absence, at least to the locals, and some windows in the Cotton Exchange remain boarded up.

Photo of the Cotton Exchange taken before the crash.

Photo taken in September 2009. No griffon, no lamp post.

As Betty and I stood there talking and taking pictures, a small group of men appeared. They began to examine the front steps of the building, which had been damaged in the crash in 2008. We assumed the men were city maintenance people.

Soon, a man in a suit emerged from the building and joined them. The men buzzed with conversation as they pointed up, down, and sideways in an official manner.

Finally, Betty walked over to group and stood there quietly until someone noticed her.

When they did, she told them that in the old days, her father had been a cotton factor. Would it be possible, she asked, for her nephew to see the inside of the old Cotton Exchange building?

The fellow in the suit was delighted to be asked and happy to oblige. He held the doors open and ushered us inside. His one caveat: no pictures. Drat.

The interior of the building is simply stunning. Magnificent. It reminded me of being inside some of the stately historic buildings in Washington, D.C. — the National Archives, the Supreme Court.

Everything — the furniture, the flooring, the trim — is beautifully elegant and perfectly maintained. The most memorable feature: in the main hall, overlooking the Savannah River, is a giant, elaborate stained glass window dominated by the word COTTON.

The fellow in the suit led us into a small side room that has been set up as a mini-museum. He pointed to a battered photograph in a frame on the wall.

“This photo shows a group of cotton factors from the 1920s,” he said. “We only know the names of a few of them.” I noted that several names were written across the bottom of the photo in faded ink.

Betty pointed to the man on the far right in the photo. “This is my father, Walter Smith,” she said.

The man was surprised. He took the framed photo down. “Do you know any of the others?” he asked. Betty said she didn’t.

The man thought for a few seconds, then said, “Why don’t we break the rules and let you take a picture of this photo? If someone in your family can identify the other gentlemen, we would be grateful to have the information.”

I didn’t argue and proceeded to break the rules. This is the photo.



After I got back to Jefferson, I sent a copy of the photo to my uncle John in New York.

John is the family computer-brain. He absorbs everything, never forgets anything. He is 89 and can tell you what he had for lunch on May 22, 1983.

But even for John, a photo from 1927 was a bit much. He could identify only two other people in the photo.

One is the black guy standing behind my grandfather. John said he was a company employee who drove the bale to Savannah for the photo.

The other is the white-bearded gent in the center: P. D. Daffin, chairman of the Savannah Park & Tree Commission.

I’m not sure why P. D. is in the photo. Maybe he was in the cotton business. Maybe they wanted a dignitary in the shot and he was available.

The sign on the cotton bale reads, “Georgia’s First Bale 1927 Crop” “Shipped to Savannah Cotton Fctg. Co.” Savannah Cotton Factorage Company was my grandpa’s company. At the time the photo was taken, he was V.P. & General Manager.

The 1927 photo, I should point out, was taken on the front steps of the Cotton Exchange.

Those are the very steps where the early-model Toyota driven by the inebriated Ms. Haddock came to rest upside down — after leveling the antique wrought-iron fencing, mowing down the lamp post, and decimating the historic and beloved terra cotta griffon.

It’s probably a kindness that P. D. Daffin, Walter Smith, and the others are gone now and thus are spared that knowledge.

August 2008: a city worker sweeps up debris.


Interior of the Cotton Exchange in the 1940s.


Photo from the 1950s. Note the street beneath the building.

************************************************************************************
BTW, "the Civil War Vet, with pride of place, front and center" was Mr. P.D. Daffin, in fact a Civil War vet, also the man who created the parks and squares for which Savannah is so well known. A brief biography may be found here

Toad

8 comments:

Linda McMullan said...

You're right! I missed Mr. Write..thankfully, you made this post, and I got to read this amazing story. Which opened so many Memory Doors again...and tells me what eventually happened to all that cotton that my Uncle James grew in Alabama. As a little girl,I thought that once it was smashed into that bale, it went off on Southern Railways to a place that turned it all into dresses and shirts. You and Mr. Write have filled a gap...thanks so much!

Martha said...

Thanks for posting this story. We were in Savannah last year and fell in love with her. This is a great story.

Rocky Smith said...

Well done, T. I LOVE the bio of P. D. Daffin. I'm sending printouts to my Aunt Betty in Savannah and to Uncle John, the family computer-brain.

Anonymous said...

"I LOVE the bio of P. D. Daffin."

So did I! The 1982 history paper that traveled around the globe via internet, and landed on my desk this morning 2011 courtesy of Sir Toad [who I hope takes a lesson from Mr. Daffin's unfortunate demise following vigorous wintertime ogling of ladies without benefit of muffler, the window rolled down for a better view]. Lesson for ladies men: do not ogle without protection!

-Flo

Clara Walmsley said...

Fascinating ! My great grandfather was the president of the New Orleans Cotton Exchange. This inspires me to do some research !

Toad said...

All thanks to Flo and Mr. Write.

Anonymous said...

"This inspires me to do some research!"

I strongly recommend google as a rich resource. In fact, it was google that led to Rocky Smith.

What I did was take the exact wording from Toad's photo, "Georgia's first bale 1927 crop," put it verbatim into google, and back came Toad's original post followed by Mr. Smith's revelations.

I'm in deep, serious trouble the day google decides to charge a fee per search.

-Flo

Legallyblondemel said...

Fascinating. Thank you for the peek into Savannah & your family's past.