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VOL. 125 | NO. 187 | Monday, September 27, 2010

Lasting Legacies

How some Memphis businesses have endured a century or more

RICHARD J. ALLEY | Special to The Memphis News

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The Arcade Restaurant at 540 S. Main is open daily from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Once a hangout for Elvis Presley, the Arcade dates to the early 20th century.
Photos: Lance Murphey

Consider the continent as it was when Memphis was founded in 1819. No railroads crisscrossed the land and Tennessee roads would not be paved until after World War I.

For a city to thrive and prosper, transportation would be paramount. For Memphis, the Mississippi River, an integral artery of commerce and communication in America, would be its gateway to greatness.

The owners of the city at the time, John Overton, John Christmas McLemore, Andrew Jackson and James Winchester – businessmen all – realized the importance of Memphis’ location, and with more than 5,000 acres to work with, they planned the city accordingly.

One look at the layout of Main Street and its four public squares named for commerce – Court, Market, Exchange and Auction – hints toward founders’ emphasis on businesses.

Memphis would become, and has remained, a city run by industry and those who helm it.

“Politicians generally have not had the ultimate power here,” said Dr. Charles Crawford, history professor at the University of Memphis. “The real power was held by people who had money and the major businessmen in the city, and always in fairly limited number.”

The city’s oldest businesses boast names that are familiar, yet their tally was small relative to their influence. Names such as Hohenberg Bros., founded in 1879; Federal Compress & Warehouse Co., 1887; Anderson-Tully Co., 1889; D. Canale Beverages, 1866; and the city’s oldest business, Orgill Bros., founded in 1847.

These businesses all continue to have a presence here more than a century later, so the question is not why these companies were built in Memphis. Rather, how did they survive and thrive through times that brought yellow fever and natural disasters, one great depression and numerous smaller recessions, world wars and – for Orgill – Civil War?

The answer, as always, is location. While some businesses grow and flourish as a function of industry, others are population driven, said Dr. John Gnuschke, director of the Sparks Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Memphis.

Hohenberg, at home on the banks of the country’s largest mode of transportation and entrenched in its most fertile growing region, grew astoundingly as did most cotton merchants of the era including Dunavant Enterprises and Allenberg Cotton Co.

“Memphis traditionally has ties to agribusiness because it was the market center for the Mid-South, which was primarily agricultural,” Gnuschke said. “So it makes good sense that we would have some businesses in that arena that would have stayed here, there was reason for them to stay here, and they grew and prospered here and lasted here through a lot of recession and hard times and good times.

“They managed to make it work and that’s frequently because of their management, but it’s also because they were in the right business.”

Enduring names

Just as industry and profits grow, so grows an area’s population, which has needs and demands for services and care. As a result, Baptist Memorial Health Care Corp. grew and at one time was the largest private hospital in the world. The institution will celebrate its 100th year in 2012.

Campbell Clinic, another local medical stalwart, was founded in 1909 by Dr. Willis Campbell, who also began the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center and the Crippled Children’s Hospital.

The clinic has become a world leader in orthopaedic surgery and techniques with 42 physicians, literally writing the book – “Campbell’s Operative Orthopaedics” – on the subject. Campbell Clinic has called on its past and reputation to lead its industry’s innovations and its mere presence here has helped to attract global medical manufacturers such as Smith & Nephew and Medtronic Inc. to Memphis.

George Hernandez, current CEO of Campbell Clinic, likes to tell employees on their first day of work, “We can be very proud of the legacy that Dr. Campbell left and the fact that we’ve been in business for the last hundred years, but the opportunity for us today is that we’re now at year one of the next century of Campbell Clinic, so we can make our mark, albeit in a large or small way, on this next century.”

One company that has made its mark on Memphis is A.S. Martin & Sons auto body repair at 411 Monroe Ave. The fifth-generation business began by repairing buggies and wagons that traveled the roadways in West Tennessee, North Mississippi and East Arkansas, according to the company's website. Chris Martin, who runs the business today, has brought the shop into the 21st century by making it a modern collision repair facility.

Though the largest Italian migration to the area wouldn’t happen until the 1870s through 1890s, Dominick Canale got a head start when he disembarked the steamboat John Simon in 1859. He began selling fruit and vegetables from a wagon and only seven years later moved his operation to a warehouse at No. 8 Madison near Front Street.

The company was eventually taken over after the death of Dominick in 1919 by his sons John, James, Anthony and Andrew. The Canale boys grew the company over the years, adding goods such as olive oil and cheeses and other imported foods, in addition to wine and liquor (including a bourbon called “Old Dominick”), though concentrating on beer by the end of prohibition. D. Canale Beverages, an Anheuser-Busch distributor, was sold to the Hand family of Clarksville, Miss., this year.

Speros Zepatos from Cephalonia, Greece, bought the Paris Cafe just after World War I at the corner of Main and Calhoun, then surrounded by railroads and the growing industries of the South, and tore it down to build what is now The Arcade, Memphis’s oldest restaurant, in 1919.

“His original plan was to put a seven-story hotel on top, and they structurally designed it at that time to do that, but money was running short, the Depression was around the corner and they opted to quit with the single story,” Harry Zepatos, The Arcade’s current owner, said of his grandfather Speros’ dreams and the reality of the time. “Some years later they leased a building across the street and renamed it The Arcade Hotel.”

The businesses became “part of the machine of Memphis” Harry Zepatos said.

Distributor extraordinaire

In 1847, Memphis was not quite 30 years old with a population of 7,000. It was the year that Joseph Orgill and partner opened R.T. Lamb & Co. under the partner’s name, selling hardware stock to the new city’s residents and those pioneers heading west across the Mississippi.

According to Clark Porteous’ book “The First Orgill Century: 1847-1947,” the inventory in 1848 was valued at $28,432 and was brought from Orgill’s original concern in Petersburg, Va., by boat down the James River to the Atlantic Ocean, through the Gulf of Mexico to New Orleans and up the Mississippi River.

Lamb died in 1849 and his interest was purchased by employee Henry Lownes, the new firm becoming Lownes & Co. and moved to the northeast corner of Front Street and Monroe where the Shrine Building stands now. Porteous writes: “The firm occupied this building through three wars, through the yellow fever plagues, through good times and bad, as Memphis and the Mid-South grew around it.”

An archival photo shows the repair of an old car at A.S. Martin & Sons. The auto body repair business at at 411 Monroe Ave is in the same area where the company was founded in 1898.

In 1857, Edmund Orgill moved from New York to become the first Orgill to head the company publicly and it was in this year that the name Orgill Brothers & Co. took hold. Edmund’s grandson would later become the mayor of Memphis. When Memphis fell to the Union Army in 1862, the business persevered and by 1870 the city was twice the size of Atlanta.

In 1908, all retail stock was sold to the DeSoto Hardware Co. and Orgill Bros.devoted itself exclusively to the wholesale hardware business as it remains to this day, employing about 2,000 and still majority-owned by the Orgill family. Joseph Orgill, great-great-grandson of the original, sits on the board of directors and holds a deep respect for his ancestors, the work they did and the name of Orgill in the city.

“It’s extremely unusual to have a company that’s 160 years old with the same people involved so obviously you have a connection that goes back and hopefully stands for … generations in the future,” Orgill said.

King cotton

In a land built by sickle and saw, and sustained on produce, beer and baklava, cotton has always been king. Though Morris and Adolphe Hohenberg founded their firm buying and selling cotton, groceries and dry goods in Wetumpka, Ala., in 1879, the company grew quickly, spun off from itself and expanded until in 1932 M. Hohenberg & Co. moved its headquarters to 131 S. Front St. In 1943, the firm was reorganized as Hoenberg Bros. Co. without the capital of the founders’ estates due to a shortage of manpower as more than 50 employees left for World War II.

Cargill, Inc., a global commodities trader out of Minneapolis, purchased Hohenberg Bros. Co. in 1975 and continues to operate Cargill Cotton from its headquarters in Cordova, proof that, though an entire industry might become mobile, a business’s roots will cling to its home soil.

“There is a strong respect for the longevity of the cotton business and we have lots of employees who are multiple generations in the cotton business,” said Doug Christie, president of Cargill Cotton, which continues to employ about 100 people from the area. “The world is pretty mobile, but we see value in maintaining this legacy location in Memphis because we have an ability to retain and attract people who have an affinity and a passion for the cotton business here, and it’s a place that is centrally located to where the U.S. cotton production is in the southeast and in Texas, and it’s connectable globally through technology.”

Only three years before the Hohenbergs set up shop in Memphis, William “Buck” Dunavant and T.J. White began Dunavant Enterprises, buying and selling cotton here and, eventually, abroad. In 1972, a 39-year-old Billy Dunavant, William’s son, participated in the first sale of U.S. cotton to China and brokered the largest individual sale, worth $225 million, with that country in 1990. Today, Dunavant Enterprises handles more than 6 million bales of cotton per year with capabilities of ginning 700,000 bales per year. Dunavant Enterprises recently merged with Allenberg Cotton Co. and its parent company, Louis Dreyfus Corp.

Whether cotton fibers or a blacksmith’s hammer, olive oil or a new knee joint, Memphis has proven to be a world leader in business and stamina. The businesses of old have paved the way for hotel chains, modern supermarkets, medical advancements and overnight delivery. The business leaders of today owe a debt of gratitude to the Orgills, Martins, Canales, Campbells and Hohenbergs, and they can still, remarkably, find them, in one form or another, just down the street.

PROPERTY SALES 89 339 12,708
MORTGAGES 42 227 7,982
BUILDING PERMITS 171 518 29,639
BANKRUPTCIES 32 129 6,029