Editor’s Note: Russell County has a long history that is important to the State of Alabama and its evolvement from an area described in the book “Russell County in Retrospect” by Anne Kendrick Walker as a “barbaric land” to what it is today. Many of the people who set their roots in the county in its early days including the state’s first Territorial Delegate to the United States Congress, important Native Americans who paid with their lives to cede land that created the county, a family that started a place of higher learning in south Russell County that later led to the establishment of one of the state’s most known institutions of education today and a former slave who placed a monument to honor his former owner, are very much important to the formation of Alabama. The story that follows is another of a series to inform you – our readers – about the history of Russell County.
There is hardly a resident of the area that does not know the name W.C. Bradley. He was one of the major industrialists of the South whose legacy lives on today through the businesses he established. Bradley was born and raised in the Oswichee community of Russell County. His home was near what is present day Holy Trinity.
Bradley was born June 28, 1863 in the middle of the War Between the States to Forbes Bradley and Theresa Clark Bradley. His father moved to the area from Connecticut just before the war. His mother was born in Muscogee County, Ga.
Bradley attended school in Columbus at Slade High School. He later attended Alabama Polytechnic Institute at Auburn – later to be named Auburn University. He left college before he was able to graduate to return home to manage the family farm.
All of this happened prior to 1887 when at 24 years old and after serving as clerk in the office of Bussey-Goldsmith and Company, cotton factors. He with his brother-in-law, Samuel A. Carter, purchased the firm and expanded its work to include the sale of fertilizer and groceries.
In 1888 Bradley entered the world of banking as he and G. Gunby Jordan incorporated the Third National Bank and the Columbus Savings Bank. These banks merged in 1930 to form Columbus Bank and Trust, which is the ancestor company of CB&T Bancshares, Synovus Financial Corporation, and Total System Services Incorporated (TSYS), a world leader in third-party electronic payments processing.
According to the Encyclopedia of Georgia, in 1895, Bradley bought out his brother-in-law and reincorporated as the W. C. Bradley Company. This company expanded and took on new ventures, many of them establishing the vertical integration of the company’s products and services. For example, the enterprise operated a grocery business and later bought farms to produce the crops sold in Bradley’s stores.
The company also purchased textile mills and invested in steamboats that hauled groceries and fertilizer down the Chattahoochee River and returned with loads of cotton. Specific companies controlled by W. C. Bradley included the Eagle and Phenix Mills, Columbus Grocery and Supply Company, Eufaula Grocery Company, the Bradley Realty and Investment Company, and the Merchant and Planters Steamboat Line. Later acquisitions included the Columbus Iron Works and the Bradley Farm Division.
As Bradley’s business flourished, he was tapped to serve as a director for other companies beyond Columbus: the Gate City Cotton Mills in Macon, the Central of Georgia Railway, the Citizens and Southern National Bank in Atlanta, and the Irving Trust Company in New York. The relationships he developed in New York helped to attract other northern investment and business to the Columbus area.
Bradley married Sarah Hall, the daughter of a Connecticut businessman who financed shipbuilding. They had a son, Forbes, who died as a child, and a daughter, Elizabeth, who became the family heir. Elizabeth married D. Abbott Turner, and the couple had three children, including William Bradley, who was tapped at the age of eight by Bradley to be the heir to leadership in the family.
In 1919, Bradley partnered with Ernest Woodruff, another businessman with Columbus roots, to develop a group of investors that purchased the Coca-Cola Company from Asa Candler for $25 million. This purchase created a relationship between Coca-Cola and the Bradley family that lasted for three generations. Bradley, Turner, and grandson William B. Turner all served on and chaired the Coca-Cola board of trustees. Bradley is also credited with securing loans that saved Coca-Cola during the sugar crisis that followed World War I (1917-18).
Additionally, he served as a mentor to Woodruff’s son, Robert, who was president and chairman of Coke from 1923 to 1981.
Bradley was a member of St. Luke United Methodist Church. In 1923, he donated his company’s entire line of steamboats to the Columbus Chamber of Commerce, which continued to run them until changes in transportation technology made them unprofitable.
During the Great Depression, Bradley and his business partners kept the textile and ironworks factories open, despite losing money. According to Columbus oral history, Bradley would withdraw funds from his bank account daily to give to widows, children of employees, or others in need.
In 1943, he began the W. C. and Sarah H. Bradley Foundation with 4,000 shares of Bradley Company stock. In 1961, D. Abbott Turner also started a foundation, and in 1982 these two foundations merged to become the Bradley-Turner Foundation, which reported assets of almost $163.8 million in 2003.
At the time of Bradley’s death in 1947, his heirs donated his house and property on Wynnton Road to the Muscogee County School System. This land is now home to the Columbus Museum.
Evidence of Bradley’s legacy, through his company and through the organizations endowed by him and his heirs, are found throughout Columbus. Units of his business heritage, such as Synovus and TSYS, have been named among America’s best places to work. Family members and business leader heirs trace this success to the model of integrity and servant leadership that Bradley exhibited during his lifetime.
Bradley died at 84 years of age of a heart attack on the porch of his home in Columbus.