Robbins and McGowin marker dedicatedPublished 4:29pm Monday, November 12, 2012
The dedication of a historical marker at the old Robbins and McGowin building on Friday became something of a living memorial as family members and former employees told stories about the building and its former occupants.
The structure was the first brick building built in Brewton around 1878, made of bricks shipped from Montgomery.
The marker is the third erected in Escambia County.
“This is a project we think is very important,” Escambia County Historical Society vice president Sally Finlay said of the markers.
The Curtis Finlay Foundation has financed the new markers, including one at Pollard United Methodist Church and the original Escambia County High School.
Sally Finlay said the Robbins and McGowin building was an important local business.
“Not only was it a local business,” she said, “it reached out to the panhandle of Florida and as far as east Mississippi.”
The business was first located in three small one-story buildings and was organized in 1897 with the consolidation of J.I. Robbins and J.G. McGowin, the millinery business of Miss L.A. Cunningham, Blacksher-Miller Lumber Company commissary and J.E. Finlay Company. The five departments were labeled Ladies’ Wear Department, Men’s Wear Department, Millinery and Piece Goods Department, Tailoring Department and Grocery and Hardware Department.
In celebrating the marker placement, Historical Society members and those connected to the building shared memories of the store.
Sally Finlay recalled that the second floor was a favorite spot for children as Christmas approached.
“That’s where you went to play with all the new electronic toys and dolls,” she said.
John David Finlay, who had managed the department store, remembered when an explosion rocked downtown, including the store.
“We had a lot of challenges,” he said. “We had an explosion one time. I called our insurance adjuster and said, ‘You’d better get downtown; most of it just blew up.’”
Thought he wasn’t around in 1928, Finlay also recalled that the major flood that year saw water 9 feet deep in the store. “One young man swam the length of the store,” he said.
According to John David Finlay, who is the grandson of J.E. Finlay, things that may seem primitive today, were actually modern and up to date at the store.
“Light was furnished by gas, and telephone service was installed, making the store very unique, even though the streets were not paved at this time,” Finlay said.
Business was so good that soon the business moved to a larger building, which was the original home of Foshee Mercantile Company.
The two story part of the building is one of the oldest in the downtown area of Brewton, having been built in 1883, and said to have been the first brick building in Escambia County.
As business increased, it became necessary to build a three-story addition and in 1909, the firm moved into its new home.
From the beginning, the owners of the business wanted it to cater to a wide range of people. They sent buyers to New York to see what the trends were and bring back the latest merchandise to their customers. They also realized a large number of their customers were farmers and they carried a wide range of farm equipment. They even sold wild horses.
“J.E. Finlay began a dry goods store in Brewton in February 1892 and bought the controlling interest in 1906,” John David Finlay Jr. said. “The name of Robbins and McGowin was an established one so the store retained the name until just a few years ago. From the beginning, the business had plenty of space to display their goods, but as time passed. business grew until it was necessary to expand into the second story.
“The third floor was eventually made into office space and Ed Leigh McMillan and his law partner had offices on the third floor,” Finlay added. “The McMillan Trust was also on the third floor.”
Robbins and McGowin flourished until the depression hit and even were among the first to publish a catalog of merchandise. Buyers were sent to market several times a year to make sure the store was offering the very latest in trends and styles. They were even able to purchase custom-built clothing for customers.
In 1919, the store opened a mail order business. People were able to order what they wanted from the catalogs sent out around the area.
“Catalogs were published twice a year,” Finlay said. “Some of them had as many as 60 pages in them and 10,000 copies were mailed out to all the southern sates. Catalogs were discontinued in 1929 because the customers could be reached more effectively through a paper published once a month. Thus, the next publication was The Brewton Trade Record, which was mailed to customers in a large area around Escambia County. It was published 10 times a year.”
According to John David Finlay Jr., J.E. “Ned” Finlay was even contacted by people of J.C. Penney at one time and told him they would like to see a copy of the catalog. They thought it might be a good idea to have a catalog for their customers.
The landmark building which has stood for more than 100 years, Robbins and McGowin has seen good times and bad. They thrived during the time of World War I, and suffered during the depression. World War II was rough on the store and there were so many shortages of materials, but somehow they struggled on. Perhaps one of the most devastating events in the building’s history was the flood of 1929. The flood, along with the stock market crash that same year, caused a great deal of loss for the company.
According to an account written by John David Finlay Sr., he witnessed first-hand the devastation of the flood that year. Just a year before, Brewton had been flooded by rising waters, but the worst was still yet to come,
“It had been raining for almost a month, when on March 14, 1929, several cloudbursts added insult to injury when Murder Creek and Burnt Corn Creek overflowed their banks and rushed into downtown Brewton,” Finlay said. “Employees tried to put merchandise up far enough it would escape the flood waters, but the water rose so fast, it was impossible to save it all.”
John David Finlay Sr. related his experience of watching a boy dive into the water inside the store and swim the length of the store.
“Electric lights were out, but the lightning flashed so frequently, we could see how to move about,” he said.
“One man kept a record of the rain and at times it was raining an inch an hour. The main street was a regular river carrying trees, bridges and even houses away in the flood waters. Every now and then, we could hear the railroad signal bell, and it made a very creepy feeling go over us to hear the bell ringing out in the midst of the flood waters.”
Extensive repairs were made to the building after the flood with reinforced steel and concrete. A modern elevator was installed for the convenience of the customers, but also to move merchandise quickly in the event of another flood.
According to John David Finlay Jr., after the store closed, it was used for offices for some time and stood empty for a number of years. But about six years ago, a former resident of Brewton, Donna Wendling and her husband Greg Wendling, bought the building and turned it into a restaurant. Today the three-story part of the building is the home of Orleans Po Boys. Changing Season is in the two-story part of the building.