Francis Bannerman and Sons – The Legend
Francis Bannerman and Sons for me was a very special place... never to be forgotten. I am one of those fortunate enough to have visited the retail store when it was located at 501 Broadway, New York back in the 1950?s. The Bannerman?s experience and the treasures which the store once held have now become only memories ? but the legacy of that place is legendary.
My interest in military artifacts was sparked back in 1955 … at the age of 10. At that time our family lived in a WWII veteran’s housing development in the Italian section of Westbury, Long Island, New York. There I had the opportunity to listen to many first-hand accounts from Second World War veterans to whom special housing was made available at that time. We lived in one such house.
These men had all “seen the elephant” and appeared to be so old to me at the time. In reality , they were mostly in their late 20’s or early 30’s … still just kids. But they had all fought in “The Big One” and had many tales to tell. I was like a magnet. I couldn’t get enough of those stories. Back in the 50’s, we had the custom of having “Block Parties” once a month. The street would be blocked off at both ends and tables set up for a huge picnic lunch. There, we would stuff our faces with delicious homemade food prepared by the vet’s wives … all of this in the middle of the street. It was during these block parties that the vet’s personal accounts and war stories would proliferate. Very often they would bring out their war souvenirs while relating how they acquired them. It was there that I was bitten by an interest that would last all my life.
My father … also a veteran and being the wonderful dad that he was … saw how taken I was with military history and realized that this was something that would not be going away anytime soon. One Saturday, in August 1958, he told me to get ready to into New York City. Some of his fellow veterans had told him about a store in downtown Manhattan that sold “military surplus” and that I would probably enjoy visiting it. So we got in the car and drove the short distance to the Westbury train station where we soon made the 45 minute journey into Manhattan on The Long Island Railroad. Then it was the 20 minute subway ride to the Canal Street stop. We emerged from the dark subway station into the bright sunlight and hot climate of the August day. We were in the Bowery section of Manhattan. My father had written the address down a scrap of paper … 501 Broadway.
Never having been there before, we soon became lost. I asked my father to ask someone for directions but he said that he could find it without anyone’s help. True to his word … he did. We were across the street from 501 Broadway. I could see a very tall building with a lot of people standing around, looking through a large storefront window. We cross the street, walked through the door … and my life was about to change forever.
The building was a tall narrow structure. The ceiling of the first floor showroom looked to be about 20 feet tall. The first thing I experienced was that old, musty, dusty military antiques smell that we all know so well and which defies description. As you walked through the front door there was a staircase directly in front of you that ran up the right hand wall to the second story and beyond. In the upper levels of the store were offices and special gathering rooms which were not open to the public. There was a rope across bottom of the stairs that said, “PRIVATE – No Admittance.” To the immediate right, at the foot of the stairs, was a small glass showcase. In this showcase was a WWII German k98 Mauser bayonet, some Nazi armbands, medals, badges and 2 daggers. The case was full.
To the immediate left and behind the storefront window were 2 long show cases sitting on a long table. In these cases were Civil War relics of every description … U.S. Buckles, canteens, all sorts of leather accouterments, bayonets … you name it. Below these cases were bushel baskets filled with Civil War pistols. One basket had 1860 Army Colts and the other had 1851 Colt Navy Revolvers. I only knew the models of the pistols because each basket had a hand written sign taped to it that read … “Colt 1860 Pistols, $2.50 each” and “1851 Colt Navy Pistols, $2.50 each” The place was filled from top to bottom with every type of war relic imaginable … cannon balls, rifles, muskets, swords, flags, bayonets, hats, helmets, packs, belts, buckles, uniforms, cannon barrels, shields, saddles, ammunition and memorabilia from all corners of the world. It was absolutely unbelievable. There we things there that I had never seen before and thing I had only seen in the movies. I thought I had died and gone to heaven.
As you walked around to the left of the staircase, behind it continued the right hand wall of the building. Hanging on this wall were at least 400 guns and muskets of every type and description. Each had a white number painted on the stock … 15-, 25-, 30-, 45-, 60- and so on. I asked my father what the numbers meant and he told me they were the price of each gun. I had never seen so many rifles and muskets in all my life. They were hung horizontally in columns … about 20 or more to the column. Each column extended from the top of the wall and stopped about waist high at the bottom. There were many more rifles and muskets stacked vertically all along the base of the wall as well.
Looking at the left hand wall of the store, there was a small glassed-in office in the corner where the front window and the wall met. It too was filled with all sorts of military items that had been purchased through the famed Bannerman catalogs and were now in varying stages of being packed for shipment to their new owners. I latter found out that this was once the office of the original owner … Francis Bannerman. It was now the office of the store manager … Jim Hogan.
As my father and I stood there in bewilderment, trying to take all this in, Mr. Hogan approached us and introduced himself to us. He asked if he could help us and my father said that we were just looking around for the moment. Jim, as he preferred to be called, told us to take our time and if we needed any help with anything to let him know. There were several other people in the store milling around … some of them making purchases and walking out of the store, the proud new owner of some sort of military artifact. There were Spencer rifles and carbines in racks all along the wall that extended from the office in the corner to mid way along the wall. I didn’t know a Spencer rifle from anything but learned what they were from the arced sign above the rifle rack that read, “Spencer Repeating Rifles”. Where the Spencer display ended, a long row of wooden drawers lined the wall from the middle of the store and extended almost all the way to the back of the store.
In these drawers was every type of military insignia imaginable. They were filled with Civil War oval U.S. buckles, square U.S buckles, SNY buckles, Eagle buckles and round eagle plates. There were cap boxes, Hardee hat eagles, medals, badges, hat wreaths and devices of all kinds, Texas star buckles, crossed cannon and saber hat devices, Civil War infantry horn devices and on and on and on. I didn’t know that this much stuff existed on this planet. On hangers hooked to some of the partially opened drawers were Civil War artillery jackets, cavalry shell jackets, Civil War 4 button blouses, overcoats from the Civil War, the Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War, WWI and WWII; overcoats and foreign uniforms from countries all around the world. Bright red British uniforms, blue French uniforms, green Mexican uniforms, gray German uniforms … double breasted, single breasted, with braid, without braid and of every rank possible were on display throughout the center part of the store. In one part of the center section were bails of Civil War tarred knapsacks, wooden frame knapsacks, wooden boxes stacked and filled with pith helmets and gun parts of every kind. Looking back toward the front of the store, I noticed that there was a door with a staircase descending down into what appeared to be a basement. This was located directly behind the stair case that you faced when you first entered the store.
We had been in the store now for about an hour and a half and still hadn’t seen everything. Jim Hogan came over to us again to ask if we had found anything yet. To my great surprise … my father said, “Yes.” He wanted to purchase a Civil War musket and bayonet to hang over our fireplace back home. I thought that Jim would get on the ladder and pick one off the wall. Instead, he went through the door behind the staircase and descended into the darkness below.
As we waited, I noticed a tired old Confederate battle flag with printing on it that was on its flag pole and mounted so as to stick out at an angle from one of the center support columns in the middle of the store. I thought, “That’s for me!” There was a label on the flag that read, “Battle Flag of the 53rd Virginia”. Some of the printing I could see on the flag was “SEVEN PINES” and that was about it. The price tag was $100.00. I had seen GONE WITH THE WIND and knew what a Confederate battle flag was and what it represented … but $100 … that was WAY out of my league. Maybe if I could cut lawns and shovel snow from driveways I could earn enough to buy the flag in a year or so? Then there was my 25 cents a week allowance and if I saved my $1.25 per week school lunch money instead of wasting it on food … it might just be possible. My mind was made up. I was going to have that flag!
Jim immerged from the darkness of the basement with an 1863 Springfield musket and a bayonet in the scabbard that fit on the end of the barrel. My father looked it over and then asked the price. Jim said “35.00 for the musket and $2.35 for the bayonet and scabbard. The total will be $32.35.” I’m thinking, “Man! That’s a hell of a lot of money!” It was when Jim was writing out the sales receipt that I first noticed he was missing his right arm. When I grew older I found out that Jim was a Korean War veteran that had lost his right arm in a combat action for which he was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Without any help, Jim wrapped the rifle and bayonet … after all … we had to take them on the subway and the Long Island Railroad for the trip home. Can you imagine carrying that stuff on the train or subway today?
As we left the store, I looked back over my shoulder at the Confederate battle flag that one day would adorn my bedroom and said to myself … “I’ll be back!” That was long before Arnold Schwarzenegger stole that line from me. It had been a glorious day … and as I said … one of those days that not only changes your life forever but one that will stay with you as long as you live.
There were subsequent trips to Bannerman’s that year … and for many more years to come. On one visit my father purchased a Sharps carbine, a Civil War belt and oval U.S. belt and buckle, a McKeever cartridge box and a Civil War canteen … all for $29.10. On another trip he purchased an 1862 Civil War navy cutlass with a broken handle …. I didn’t want a sword with a broken handle … that was until I noticed that there was .36 caliber bullet hole in the hand guard cup through which the bullet had passed on its way to breaking the handle.
Over the course of the next year, I made several more trips with my father to the 501 Broadway store. On one of these trips, I finally asked Jim what was in the basement. He told me that there was just as much stuff in the basement as in the main showroom. Not only that … but there was a sub basement below the basement that was also overflowing with militaria. For safety’s sake no one other than store employees were allowed to go down there. I did sneak a peek from the top of the stairs to see wooden boxes upon wooden boxes stacked from floor to ceiling with swords, muskets and all sorts of firearms.
In a visit to the store in 1959 my father purchased one of the 1860 Colt Army Pistols for $2.50. As we left that day, I didn’t know that I would never see the store at 501 Broadway again. I had thought that the store was invincible … immortal … sadly, it was not.
That year, 1959, the beloved store at 501 Broadway was sold and immediately leveled to the ground in order to make way for a new parking lot. It was unbelievable … but the structure of the old store had become very weak and unstable due to the massive weight of all the firearms and ordinance stored there. The store was moved out to a much smaller location at Blue Point, Long Island … right across from the waterfront. It was now to become a “mail order only” type of business. Jim, however, maintained a small show room in the front of the building with his office and shipping station in the back. There was also a larger space in the back where much of the inventory was stored. It was also around this time that Jim told me of Bannerman’s Island Arsenal where tons more of military artifacts were stored and periodically brought back in small quantities to replenish the Blue Point store.
I had become very good friends with Jim Hogan. He watched me grow up from that first visit in 1955 at the age of 11 until 1974 … just before I moved from New York to Virginia. In 1963 I enlisted in the Marine Corps and made a last visit to the Blue Point Store to say “good bye” to Jim. There would be no more Bannerman’s for me for the next four years. As I left the store, before shipping out to boot camp at Parris Island, I though back over the many pleasant years I had spent in both stores and how lucky I was to have had the opportunity to live the Bannerman’s experience.
When I returned from Vietnam in 1967, one of the first places I made a beeline for was Bannerman’s Blue Point store. Jim was still there and as cordial as ever. After a warm reunion, we sat down and talked about “the good old days” and the world situation. The war in Vietnam was still going hot and heavy. Over the next several years I continued to make as many visits to the Blue Point store as I could afford.
Then, in visit to the store that I made in August 1969, I was informed by Jim that the castle and arsenal on Pollepel Island, where it was located, had been destroyed by a devastating fire in which the roofs and floors were destroyed. The island was also now placed off-limits to the public. All of the militaria that remained at the arsenal had, for the most part, been destroyed in the fire. It was a tragic end to an incredible era … and an absolute heart break for me.
After moving to Virginia in 1974, I still made trips up to visit my family in New York … and with that came the inevitable visit to the Blue Point store. Up until the late 70’s, I was still purchasing Civil War oval US buckles and leather belt for $2.00 each and bringing them back to Virginia and selling them for a whopping $15.00 per set. I thought I was quite the entrepreneur … that was until the belts and buckles at Bannerman’s ran out.
When the store at Blue Point closed and was bulldozed to make room for yet another parking lot, the Bannerman era was TRULY over … and, to my dismay, I lost touch with Jim Hogan. Unfortunately, I have not seen him since.
And it is here that my story ends.
Oh, if you are wondering about the Confederate battle flag of the 53rd Virginia … I worked, slaved and saved for a year. Just prior to the closing of the 501 Broadway store, I had almost saved up the $100 purchase price. I had earned $85.00 over the course of the year. I felt like Sergeant York slaving away and working day and night for 75 cents a day to earn the $140 dollars to buy a piece of “bottom land”. My father, seeing how hard I had worked to earn the $85.00, agreed to lend me the remaining $15.00. I now had the full $100. As we sat on the train on our way into Bannerman’s to pick up the flag, I dreamt and imagined all of the ways I could display it in my room.
I bet you think that when we got to the store the flag had already been sold. Nope … as we walked in it was still hanging there … ready for me to furl and take home. Jim asked me what I was there to purchase and I said I am here for that Confederate flag. Without another word, he got a stepping stool, went over to the column upon which the flag hung, stepped up, took the flag out of its holder and handed it down to me. I was ready to burst. As we walked to the counter, Jim said, “We have had this flag for a long time … ever since I began to work here.” We got to the counter and I pulled out my $85.00 and said that my father was going to lend me the rest of the money to buy the flag. Jim said that my father must love me very much to be helping me buy the flag. I told Jim that I had worked and slaved all year to get the money for that flag. We were all smiles as Jim wrote the sales receipt for the flag. I handed my $85.00 to my father and Jim said, “That will be $1,000 plus tax.” WHAT!!!!! Certainly, there was a mistake here. I told Jim that the price tag was for $100, not $1,000! Jim untangled the price tag that was wrapped up in the fringe of the flag and which had been that way forever. Sure enough … it was $1,000 dollars and NOT $100. My heart sank to the bottom of the ocean …I was totally crushed. My father said that we were sorry for the trouble but we couldn’t afford the flag. Jim smiled and said that it was completely understandable. He went back over to the stepping stool, stepped up and hung the flag back in its holder with the tag more clearly displayed. The price tag had become bent around one of the folds in the flag’s material and hidden the last “0” on the price tag. I couldn’t speak. I was fighting back the tears as I gave my Confederate flag its final look. It was a long, silent trip back home.
That flag was still hanging in a predominant place at the Blue Point store showroom during many of my subsequent visits. However, after returning from Vietnam the price had gone up to $5,000. On one particular visit I made to the store … as I walked through the door, I immediately noticed that there was something very different about the showroom … the flag was gone! I asked Jim where the flag was thinking it might be out for some type of preservation. He told me that some woman had come into the store and bought it as a present for her son who was graduating from … as you may suspect … law school. I thought … “That figures.” And that was that. The flag had walked out the door of Bannerman’s and into the pages of history. My heart sank once again. It was now gone forever.
My last hope now is that when I approach those Pearly Gates up in heaven… if I am judged worthy … that the Good Lord will ask me where I would like to spend eternity. I will reply … Bannerman’s, please Sir.