Thursday, July 26, 2012

Update on Cotton Row Audio Documentary

Memphis, TN--I've been in Memphis for almost three weeks and have recorded and interviewed three figures for my audio documentary on the history of Front Street in Memphis: William B. "Billy" Dunavant Jr., whose company, Dunavant Enterprises, was one of the world's largest cotton firms until 2010, when Mr. Dunavant sold his cotton business to another Memphis firm, Allenberg Cotton, which is owned by the international commodities conglomerate Louis Dreyfus and is today located in Cordova, Tennessee, a suburb of Memphis; Bill Griffin, who for many years was a cotton merchant for a Memphis company named Block and Unobsky and who today runs William B. Griffin Cotton, a risk-management consultancy; and Rudi Scheidt, who was a top executive with Hohenberg Cotton, which in 1975 sold out to Cargill and today does business as Cargill Cotton. I am tracking down two other former cotton men to interview. I hope to return to Durham with five interviews in the can, as they say. Then I'll take stock of what I have and see what kind of piece I can produce.

On a related note, I encourage readers to visit the Cotton Museum in the Memphis Cotton Exchange. The main part of the museum is on the old trading floor of the Exchange, with its spectacular fifty-foot blackboard on which, back in the day, up-to-the-minute cotton prices from the major markets were recorded. In what used to be telephone booths the museum has computer monitors on which visitors can watch videos related to cotton. Among the videos are some wonderful oral histories by people who were directly involved in the cotton business in Memphis. There is a children's section as well, and an attractive gift shop.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Cotton Companies on Front Street

Memphis, TN--Yours truly, normally in exile in Durham, North Carolina, is writing from the city that is the subject of this blog, Memphis, Tennessee. I'm here on an extended visit. As most of my friends know, for the last two years I have been intently interested in cotton and especially the old cotton culture that used to exist on Memphis's Cotton Row, that four- or five-block stretch of Front Street between Jefferson and Beale. Today will be an exciting day: I'm scheduled to meet with three of the very few cotton merchants who still operate on Front Street: Calvin Turley, of Turley Cotton; Danny Lyons, of Lyons Cotton; and Kenny Jabbour, of Jabbour Cotton. Their offices are in the Cotton Exchange Building, which technically is not on Front Street but at 65 Union Avenue, at the corner of Union and Front.

On Monday, I spent a couple of hours in the Memphis and Shelby County room of the public library poring over the 1962 Polk's Memphis City Directory. I wanted to create a list, by address, of all the cotton companies that were located on Front Street in that year. Here is the list, which is rather long. The terms in parentheses are the description of the business as recorded in the directory. A linter is the fiber that stays on a cottonseed after the cotton is ginned. As far as I've been able to tell in my reading, a buyer is a company that purchases and takes ownership of cotton from a farmer; in contrast, a broker is a company that simply sells cotton on a farmer's behalf. A factor, at least in the nineteenth century, was a company that loaned money to a farmer so he could buy seed and equipment to grow the crop; in return, the farmer not only repaid the loan (with interest) but gave the factor exclusive rights to sell his cotton on his behalf. I don't know precisely what the term dealer meant and how a dealer differed from a buyer or broker. Sometimes the term listed in the directory was simply cotton; I omitted it in those cases.

At the time, the biggest cotton companies in Memphis were probably Anderson Clayton (at 2 S. Front Street), Weil Brothers (93-95 S. Front Street), Allenberg (104 S. Front Street), and Hohenberg (266 S. Front Street). Of those four, Allenberg and Hohenberg were headquartered in Memphis; the two are still in business, their headquarters now on Goodlett Farms Parkway in Cordova. Allenberg still does business under that name, although they are owned by Louis Dreyfus. Hohenberg was sold to Cargill in 1975 and today operates as Cargill Cotton. Another company that would over the next thirty years become one of the largest in the world was W. B. Dunavant and Co. In 1971, Dunavant became Dunavant Enterprises and moved to a new, modern office at 3797 New Getwell Road. In 2010 Dunavant, which now is located at 959 Ridgeway Loop Road in Memphis, sold its cotton business to longtime rival Allenberg.

22-26 N. Front Street (Falls Building)
  • Max D. Lucas and Co. (cotton linters)
  • Trammell and Co. (cotton linters)
  • William C. Manley Jr. (cotton linters)
  • Bill C. White (cotton linters)
  • Stapleton Linters
  • Harold Holt Co. (cotton linters)
  • Railway Supply and Manufacturing Co. (cotton linters)
  • Cotton Warehouse Inspection Service
  • W. M. Rootes and Co. (cotton linters)
  • Brode Corp. (cottonseed products)
  • William S. Roberts Jr. (cotton ginner)
2 S. Front Street
  • Anderson Clayton and Co. (cotton buyers)
44 S. Front Street
  • Mid South Cotton Growers Association
48 S. Front Street
  • Frank Oakes and Co.
  • Fulton and Sons
  • Covington and Smith Co. of Mfs. [Manufacturers?] Cotton
50 S. Front Street (building no longer extant)
  • Alex L. Bernstein (cotton brokers)
  • John A. Lyons Jr. (cotton brokers)
52 S. Front Street (building no longer extant)
  • Cotton Boll Liquor Store
  • Cotton Row Café
56 S. Front Street
  • Staple Cotton Cooperative Association
  • William R. Copeland and Co. (cotton buyers)
  • Ramsey-Austin Cotton Co. (brokers)
  • Clarence Hossley and Co.
  • John R. Williamson and Co. 
  • Malcolm L. Wilson (cotton broker)
  • Bradshaw Cotton Co. (buyers)
60 S. Front Street
  • F. M. Crump and Co. (cotton brokers)
  • Austin Brothers Co. 
  • Williams Cotton Co.
  • Dudley S. Weaver and Co. (cotton buyers)
  • W. B. Bridgforth and Co. (cotton dealers)
64 S. Front Street
  • Riverside Cotton Sales Inc.
  • John C. Weaver Co.
66 S. Front Street (Magnolia Building; I believe this is the building just north of Union Avenue, on the other side of which is the Cotton Exchange Building)
  • Richards Cotton Co. (cotton brokers)
  • E. F. Creekmore and Co. (cotton buyers)
  • W. L. Ford and Co. (cotton brokers)
  • Wesson and Co.
  • Mfs. [Manufacturers?] Cotton Sales (office)
70 S. Front Street (building no longer extant--unless this was an address in the Cotton Exchange Building)
  • Goodbody and Co. (cotton brokers)
81 S. Front Street (at this point we are now just south of Union Avenue)
  • A. W. Grimming Cotton Co.
84 S. Front Street (building no longer extant--unless this was an address in the Cotton Exchange Building)
  • May Sternberger and Co. (cotton brokers)
86 S. Front Street (building no longer extant--unless this was an address in the Cotton Exchange Building)
  • Cotton Exchange Café
88 S. Front Street (building no longer extant--unless this was an address in the Cotton Exchange Building)
  • De Soto Cotton Co.
  • Herbert Esch and Co.
  • John Hopkins and Co.
  • Newbern and Co.
  • George M. Darms
  • John V. Welch
  • O'Neal Cotton Co. (buyers)
89 S. Front Street
  • John A. DuPre and Co. (cotton dealer)
  • Lytle-McKee Cotton Co. (brokers)
  • Taylor Cotton Co.
90 S. Front Street
  • A. R. Wetenkamp and Co.
  • George S. Peyton and Co.
91 S. Front Street
  • Barnwell and Hayes (cotton buyers)
92 S. Front Street
  • Patton Brothers Inc (cotton brokers)
93-95 S. Front Street
  • Weil Brothers Cotton Inc. (buyers)
94 S. Front Street
  • Carl-Lee Cotton Co. (buyers)
  • Lloyd N. Judson
  • R. W. Luke Holland (buyer)
  • Herman J. Inderbitzen
  • Kyle Patton and Co.
96 S. Front Street
  • Columbia Compress Co.
  • Duncan and Sims Co.
  • Charles M. Parker Cotton Co.
97 S. Front Street
  • D. O. Andrews and Co. (cotton exporters)
104 S. Front Street
  • Allenberg Cotton Co. (buyers)
105 S. Front Street
  • Hugh E. Tucker and Co. (cotton brokers)
  • A. S. Byrd Cotton Co. (dealers)
  • D. D. Dumas and Co. (cotton brokers)
  • Southern Cotton Co-op Association
  • Horace E. Jester
  • L. Gordon Yancey Cotton Co.
  • James C. Hill and Co.
  • Ben F. Hill Cotton Co.
  • D. L. McDonald Cotton Co.
  • Crawford and Co.
106 S. Front Street
  • McAdams and Co.
  • Sam Parker
107 S. Front Street
  • J. L. Mercer and Co. (cotton factors)
109 S. Front Street
  • Sledge and Norfleet Co. (cotton factors)
  • R. A. Armistead and Co. (cotton buyers)
  • Day Brothers Cotton Co. (dealers)
  • Hubert N. Stovall (cotton brokers)
  • Robert M. Day (cotton brokers)
110 S. Front Street
  • C. W. Hussey and Co.
  • Nebhut Cotton Co. (exporters)
111 S. Front Street
  • Bluff City Cotton Co. (brokers)
  • J. J. Powers and Co. (cotton dealers)
  • Jones-Beal Inc. (cotton dealers)
  • Larkin-Hinkel Cotton Co. (buyers)
  • Chickasaw Cotton Co. (dealers)
  • James H. Cobb (cotton broker)
  • Junius D. Hobson (cotton brokers)
  • C. L. Andrews Cotton Co. (buyers)
  • Arlie C. Brooks (cotton shipper)
  • Boeving Brothers Cotton (cotton ginners)
112 S. Front Street
  • W. B. Dunavant and Co.
  • F. Eug Cau
114 S. Front Street
  • C. M. Austin Co.
  • Reese E. Austin (broker)
  • T. H. Austin Cotton Co. (buyers)
115 S. Front Street
  • F. G. Barton Cotton Co. (cotton factors)
116 S. Front Street
  • Berry B. Brooks (cotton broker)
  • Charles R. Cash
  • E. Hope Brooks (cotton broker)
117 S. Front Street (building no longer extant)
  • Graves-Beasley Inc.
  • Beasley ACT and Co.
161 S. Front Street (building no longer extant)
  • Crespi Cotton Co. (buyers)
  • W. D. Lawson and Co. (cotton buyers)
  • Thomas H. Todd and Co. (cotton buyers)
  • Molloy H. Miller Co. (cotton dealers)
  • Ted I. Lewis (cotton dealer)
  • Cannon Mills Inc. (cotton-buying office)
  • Murff and Co. Inc. (cotton buyers)
  • L. T. Barringer and Co. (cotton buyers)
  • S. Y. West and Co. (cotton buyers)
266 S. Front
  • Hohenberg Brothers. Co. (brokers)

Friday, July 6, 2012

Cotton Man

It is the spring of 1995, and the editor of Barron's sends one of its writers to Memphis to do a story on William B. Dunavant Jr., the greatest cotton merchant in Memphis history--indeed, the greatest cotton merchant the world has ever seen. Cotton prices are on the rise, as China, India, and Pakistan have all seen their cotton crop destroyed by Mother Nature, and there's money to be made--lots of money--by the merchant who can play his cards right. And no merchant plays a better hand than Mr. Dunavant. How does he do it? In a market with so much volatility, how does he stay on top?

I can only imagine that the writer Barron's dispatched to Memphis was 27 and from the North. How else would a sentence like this appear in the final copy? "The unpredictable nature of the [cotton] trade is never far from people's minds at Memphis' Front Street cotton market, where Dixie chauvinism and nostalgia for antebellum glories have driven countless Sons of the South to dream of $1 cotton and mount suicidal Pickett's charges on the market." Predictably, Dunavant's voice is a "drawl" that is--you've got it--"smooth as molasses." And right on cue, an "air of Southern gentility" settles over his office.

To be fair, aside from the excess and cliches, the author, whose name is Jonathan R. Laing, provides an intriguing profile of Mr. Dunavant. We learn that Mr. Dunavant keeps a clean desk and writes nothing down, relying solely on his memory. His messages are delivered in shifts by one of two secretaries, who hand him notes written on sheets from scratch pads.

Mr. Dunavant, who was the principal owner of the Memphis Showboats of the old USFL, is known by many in Memphis as the guy who tried to get the city an NFL team. When that effort failed, he consoled himself by purchasing a 14,000-acre ranch in Montana. With crates of Mississippi tomatoes in tow, he spends several months a year in the Big Sky State.

At the time the article appeared in the May 8 edition, Dunavant Enterprises was buying and selling around 4 million bales of cotton a year, to the tune of approximately $2 billion, making it among the largest cotton firms in the world. In 2010, Mr. Dunavant, who is now 79 years old, sold his cotton interests to another longtime Memphis firm, Allenberg Cotton. Today, Dunavant Enterprises focuses on "logistics," that is, the transportation of goods and commodities from one point to another.