After spending the summer of 1939 going door-to-door, selling subscriptions to magazines such as the “Saturday Evening Post” and “Colliers,” I had finally collected a grand total of $10 (a fortune for a kid back then), which I kept securely hidden in a cigar box in my room.
At Center School, in West Hartford, Conn., most of the boys were excited about collecting souvenirs from the Revolution right up to prewar 1930s. Two of the most popular catalogs on the school grounds were a Practical Jokes catalog (whoopee cushions, exploding cigars, Japanese finger locks, etc.) and the most valued of all: Bannerman’s Antique Gun and Military Collectors Catalog.
What was the Francis Bannerman Sons Co.? It was one of the oldest war-surplus houses in the United States, having been established by Bannerman, a Scottish immigrant, at the end of the Civil War when the government had huge stocks of material to dispose of at the cessation of hostilities. Due to their long experience, uniformly high quality of goods and services and sound business practices, Bannerman became the leader in surplus military goods for generations, remaining in business for approximately 100 years.
For weeks, I pleaded with my dad to take me to New York City so I could actually see this mysterious emporium of my dreams called Bannerman’s, which was located on lower Broadway (501 Broadway, to be exact). Dad finally relented, and to the envy of my male schoolmates, we finally boarded a dirty, cinder-coated coach on the old New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad to make that long-awaited trip to the big city. In those days, this was a whole $5 for a round trip ticket! After a subway ride to lower Broadway, we emerged from the bowels of the city and walked a short distance up to the front door of Bannerman’s aged and grimy, block-wide building.
The entry door was to the right with a big display window taking up the rest of the frontage. My eyes immediately locked on the row of cases that ran from the front of the sales area to the rear of the store, where there was an inviting, open display section. It was the mother lode and I was certain I’d died and gone to Collector’s Heaven! Then I saw the thing I had only read and dreamed about: the famous “One Dollar Table.” Tearing my eyes away from the contents of the display cases and hastily deciding I could examine these later, I hurried to “The Table.”
Without hesitation, my hands darted out and grabbed a complete but slightly rusty .50 caliber Springfield trap-door musket (when I went to Bannerman’s about a year later, I picked up a Siamese-marked Model 1871 single-shot Mauser rifle). The next three hours were better than any Christmas morning of my young life, and I spent it in a frenzy of unabashed greed. For less than $2, I picked up odds and ends that included a bayonet and scabbard for the trapdoor rifle, along with ammunition pouches, belts and canteens. All that was lacking was the look of envy I was sure to see when I told my pals at Center School about my big adventure and then showed them the spoils. If only they could see me now!
Years later, I decided that Ralphie and his Red Ryder BB gun in that now-famous Gene Shepherd holiday classic “A Christmas Story” had nothing on me – but I could sure understand his anticipation and the excitement that followed when his fondest dream came true.
But back to Bannerman’s. Presiding over the sales area was a crusty individual whose name, if I remember correctly, was Butch. If you asked Butch for something but he couldn’t find it after rummaging around for a bit, he proclaimed himself a self-appointed final arbiter and decided what you were going to get – and that was that! This was a powerful position and Butch seemed to enjoy it to the utmost. I had my heart set on 50 rounds of packaged dummy .30-06 cartridges in clips. Butch searched to no avail, so I ended up with 50 rounds of 6mm Lee Navy straight pull cartridges in clips, in 15-round boxes, which, had I known it then, were invaluable. Although disappointed at the time, I can now send up a hearty “thank you” to Butch.
Believe it or not, when I returned from overseas in 1946, I stopped at Bannerman’s for old times sake and lo and behold there was Butch presiding over his domain just as he had seven years before. Much to my surprise, many of the other faces were also familiar. Obviously, Bannerman’s employees enjoyed working there as much as I relished being a part of it, if only for a few hours! What was I doing returning from overseas in 1946 when I was only 9 years old in 1939? Well, I was one of those underage guys who managed to enlist in the Army when only 15. But that’s a story for another day, so back to my childhood experiences.
In addition to Butch’s One Dollar Table, was an eye-catching panorama surrounded by a barrier of ropes. There were more than 50 6mm Lee Navy straight pull rifles that had been recovered from the “USS Maine,” which had been blown up in Havana harbor. Each was covered with a discolored layer of rust, but because they were from this famous ship, the price was set at a whopping $40! Throwing caution to the winds, I managed to wander behind the rope line and who could blame me? I was as wide-eyed as a kid with carte blanche in a candy store, and nothing could stop me now. Not quite, for I was promptly chastised and sheepishly returned to my place behind those darn ropes.
To the right of the “Maine” rifles were several beautiful Gatling guns mounted on field carriages and surrounded by some World War I Vickers machine guns on tripods. Front and center in this dazzling display was the famous old “Dynamite gun” of Teddy Roosevelt fame from the Spanish American War. Notoriously inaccurate, this gun used a dynamite projectile that was fired by compressed air generated by a blank cartridge. There was also a captured .45 caliber Spanish-Nordenfeldt multi-barrel “machine gun” fed by hopper, which I saw many years later in the collection of a fellow Connecticut collector. As if that wasn’t enough to keep my head reeling, hanging from the ceiling over the entire display was a copper, 10-foot-long early compressed-air Spanish Torpedo from the Spanish American War, complete with warhead, air-chamber, engine propellers and rudder.
Running through my mind while I stood there entranced, eyes wide and mouth agape, was a simple question – could there ever in this world be a more glorious display?
But all truly great things must eventually come to an end. Dad kept his eye on the time to make sure we got back to Grand Central Station in time for the train ride home. It had to be a strange sight, for would you believe that we carried all these new-found treasures onto the subway and through Grand Central Station, and when we boarded the train, I toted a rifle down the aisle until we found seats. Once we arrived in Hartford, I hoisted these treasures onto the bus that took us to the suburb of West Hartford.
What’s amazing when I view this journey through the prism of today’s politically correct mindset, is that no one seemed the least bit concerned at the sight of a kid carrying what were obviously a rifle and bayonet loosely wrapped in paper. When finally seated on the train and determined to admire my “haul,” I remember Dad cautioning me not to keep taking the bayonet out of the scabbard. Nevertheless, these items didn’t represent a threat to public safety in anyone’s mind. All were simply things boys were enamored of and often collected, which even made them popular objects of “show-and-tell” in grade school! (Believe it or not, no one flinched when I later proceeded to drag a rifle down the sidewalks of West Hartford, flushed with pride at my latest find for “show and tell”!)
For me, that trip to Bannerman’s marked the beginning of a lifelong avocation and a day I’ll never forget. What was my tally for all these treasures, you ask? Believe it or not, a mere $6.55, leaving me with $3.45 to put back in that cigar box until I painstakingly collected more for my next trip to the big city – and, of course, Bannerman’s.
That special time came one year later. Now a seasoned Bannerman’s veteran and having saved enough for a return visit to “Collector’s Heaven,” the maiden aunt of a neighborhood buddy agreed to take two wild Indians to New York City and Bannerman’s emporium; God bless Aunt Clara for what must have been the most stressful day of her long life. I’m sure she regretted her decision before we had even stepped foot off the train in New York. And God bless my dad for helping to make the dreams of a kid come true. Unfortunately, we’ll never see those carefree times again, but I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been a part of them. As a post-script, I held on to the 1871 Mauser rifle until I was in my 80s and had to start selling off my collection so that the grandchildren wouldn’t be stuck with the job. I still have about six or seven Lee-Navy straight pull dummy cartridges on clips that I picked up on my very first journey!
Next time, a look at the fascinating history of the Bannerman Empire.
Bob Ball is an expert on vintage firearms, a former dealer, firearms auction catalog director and freelance writer for Gun Digest magazine. Read more of Bob’s writing over at Gun Digest with a look at The Gran Chaco War, 1928-1935, Mauser Q&A with Bob Ball Part One and Mauser Q&A with Bob Ball – Part 2.
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