Trace the rise and fall of the Bannerman military surplus empire

By Bob Ball

Frank Bannerman led an illustrious but unusual life. Born in Scotland in 1851, his family emigrated to the U.S. when Frank was only 3. The elder Bannerman joined the Union Navy during the Civil War, leaving Frank with partial responsibility for supporting the family.

By dint of necessity, Frank Bannerman commenced selling old rope and scrap iron that he salvaged from in and around the waterfront of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. At first a part-time business, it eventually led to what would become the Bannerman Empire.

Before long, he realized that the historical and collecting value of many of these and later finds far exceeded their scrap value, and by 1867, he had moved his fledgling operation to a store and warehouse in Brooklyn, where he sold not only Navy surplus, but Army surplus, as well. As the business grew, even the Brooklyn warehouse became inadequate, and he eventually moved from Brooklyn to what would become Bannerman’s renowned address at 501 Broadway in New York City.

Bannerman castle  Bannerman’s Castle shows its crumbling state in January 2010, decades after its abandonment. Photo courtesy Wikimedia.

It was from this location that Bannerman outfitted many regiments of volunteers during the Spanish American War. At the end of the war with Spain, Bannerman bid on and secured more than 90 percent of the captured guns, ammunition and equipment of the defeated Spanish, making it necessary to locate a place outside any corporate limits for the storage and shipping of millions of cartridges. This new location would also provide much-needed space for all of Bannerman’s acquisitions from the Crimean, Russo-Turkish and Boer wars.

Polopels Island in the Hudson River across from West Point, at the northern entrance to the Highlands, was purchased for this purpose and proved to be ideal for his expanding requirements. Here, Bannerman created harbors and storage facilities that were patterned after castles of his native Scotland. He also took advantage of the beauty and seclusion of the area by making the island his summer home.

At the time of construction, Bannerman unwisely accepted some building supplies in payment for bills that were owed him, but not long after completion, the cement was discovered to be of highly inferior quality, causing the storage areas to deteriorate rapidly and cause the need for continuous repairs over the ensuing years.

Bannerman proudly stated that once given notice of intent to purchase, he could completely equip a small country’s army or navy within a short time. Many years later, the late Val Forgett of Service Armament, Fort Lee, N.J., was called in to assist the Bannerman Co. with an unexpected problem at the Island. Heavy ordnance from many wars and rebellions were stored in structures dotted across the landscape, but no one had ever given a thought to disarming them.

Forgett labored mightily and for longer than he thought the job would take. On what was intended to be his last day, as he and some of his helpers rode one of the motorboats out of the harbor entrance, a last-minute thought entered his mind, and he suddenly said, “I wonder if anyone ever checked those artillery projectiles on either side of the entrance to the castle?”

Turning the boat around, he disembarked, climbed up on the heavy artillery shells, opened them and found to his horror that they were packed full of live powder! Forgett often remarked on the thousands of small items — obviously untouched and probably unseen for years — to be found in a sorry state on the floors of virtually every area.

This article originally appeared in Antique Trader magazine

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Bannerman soldiered on during World War II, but things had changed. The souvenirs brought back with returning G.I.s, and later the full spectrum of militaria from this most recent war, satisfied the collecting interests of many.

Meanwhile, some of the formerly popular pieces from earlier wars no longer generated as much interest. This would, of course, change in the ensuing years, but during that transition time, Bannerman’s sales had gradually become insufficient to warrant a presence on Broadway. And so, not long after the end of World War II, a decision was made to depart from lower Broadway and relocate to Long Island.

Preparations for this move resulted in a wonderful buys on rare stock items that hadn’t seen the light of day for many years. Bannerman wisely decided that moving these would be more costly than selling them off at bargain-basement prices — and savvy, sometimes merely lucky, collectors reaped the benefits. Unfortunately, relocation did not improve sales, and some time during the late 1940s or early 1950s, Bannerman’s closed its doors forever.

I will always consider myself fortunate to be among those who had the opportunity to avail themselves of this treasure trove of militaria — and the mystique of the emporium that held them. Unfortunately, we will never see its likes again, but we can still thank Frank Bannerman for the industriousness and foresight that enabled him to bring it to us.

Bob Ball is an expert on vintage firearms, a former dealer, firearms auction catalog director and freelance writer for Gun Digest magazine.

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