Sale of Robbins &McGowin building buys city native a piece of history

Published 8:15 pm Wednesday, May 3, 2006

By By LYDIA GRIMES – Features writer
The former Robbins &McGowin Department Store buildings at 100 and 102 St. Joseph Avenue in the heart of downtown Brewton have been sold, according to John David Finlay, principal owner.
The new owner is Donna Kay Steele Wendling, who grew up in Brewton but now lives in Louisiana. She and her husband, Greg, plan to open a family friendly restaurant on the main floor of the three-story building.
The building has had several businesses come and go during the 17 years since Robbins &McGowin closed its doors in 1989.
Wendling said the historical significance of the buildings in her hometown attracted her to the deal.
The two-story section of the building, constructed with brick shipped in by train from Montgomery, is the oldest brick building in Escambia County. It was used by the Foshee Lumber Company until it was purchased by J.E. Finlay in 1904. He was the grandfather of the present owners, which include Emily Finlay Wesley, Catherine Finlay Fountain and Mary Finlay Martin.
The three-story building was constructed by the Finlay family in 1908 and used by the department store until it closed in 1989. The family business began in another location in 1892 by consolidating businesses owned by J.I. Robbins and J.G. McGowin and the millinery business of Miss L.A. Cunningham, Blacksher-Miller Lumber Company Commissary and J.E. Finlay Company.
The buildings have weathered two major floods, an arson attempt and an explosion and is one of the most familiar buildings in historic downtown Brewton.
During the 1920s, Robbins &McGowin sent buyers to New York to purchase items to be sold in the store.
The flood of 1929 was devastating to the store and did a lot of damage, but the owners rose to the occasion and reinforced the building to avoid further damage. An elevator was installed, not only for the convenience of second and third floor customers, but to be used to move merchandise to higher levels in case of another flood.
According to John David Finlay, in 1944, Ed Leigh McMillan, lawyer for the firm, discovered that bookkeepers had been embezzling money. The bookkeepers were watched to get evidence before calling in the auditors, Finlay said. Somehow the bookkeepers heard about the audit and the night before the audit, the store suffered a severe fire. &#8220It was a clear case of arson,” said Finlay in an interview in 1989. &#8220Charges were brought and the bookkeepers pled guilty, but they were never indicted.”
The store suffered another severe flood in the spring of 1975 but with the help of 26 men, the merchandise was moved to the upper floors.
The very next year, an explosion in downtown Brewton broke more than 50 windows and a double-glass door in the store.
The buildings were listed with Hines Realty with Sylvia Peach as the agent. The selling company was Champion Realty of Flomaton with Judy Champion as the agent.

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