By some estimates, it was not the best time for Mr. Bird to start a company.
It was 1865. The Civil War had just ended and the country was engulfed in uncertainty. The life and livelihood of many Southerners had forever changed. During the war, William M. Bird had been a blockade runner, a thrilling but dangerous occupation. He had been caught and imprisoned in Boston until the end of the war. When he returned to his native Charleston, South Carolina, he discovered a city in ruins. There was work to be done which is precisely why Mr. Bird decided it was the perfect time to begin the William M. Bird Company.
The goal of the William M. Bird Company was to supply the materials and goods to help restore the South. Little did he know (or maybe he did?) that determined, entrepreneurial spirit would carry forward his company into the next 150 years.
William McElmoyle Bird was born in Charleston on August 14, 1837. When he was young, he was employed in the paint business by Curtis and Hovey. Many years later, this experience would serve him well. When he started William M. Bird Company with business partner C.H. Bass (they would later dissolve their partnership in 1878), the company was primarily a paint company, but would quickly expand into other building materials. The business flourished due mostly to Mr. Bird’s high standards and reputation for supplying good products at a fair price.
In 1878, Mr. Bird expanded the William M. Bird Company’s territory by building the schooner William M. Bird as a freight vessel for the company. The vessel was used to transport Southern lumber and naval stores (pine rosin and turpentine) from Savannah and Charleston to Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore. On its return voyages, it would bring back paint, cement, glass and whale oil.
The company’s inventory would increase to include imported cement from Belgium, which at that time was packed in heavy wood barrels, lined with black waterproof paper and contained about 400 lbs. of cement. They also imported French window glass and French glues. William M. Bird offered basic hardwares such as a full line of paint brushes and brooms. He stocked marine supplies such as Plymouth ropes. Other diversification over the years included store and bank safes such as Marvin, Diabold, Heming Hall, Miller and Ely Norris brands. The company was an agent for Howe Scales of all kinds.
In short, Mr. Bird’s company provided a solution for every business need.
Mr. Bird was undoubtedly a very smart and successful business man, for when he was just 22 years old, he was named in “The List of Taxpayers of the City of Charleston, S.C.” for the year 1859 as owning real estate valued at $15,000. This was quite impressive during that time. He had a sharp eye for investment opportunities, specifically in cotton mills, which enabled him to grow the business.
Mr. Bird was a stout man with snow white hair and mustache. He was known to frequently wear a black cutaway coat, striped trousers, fancy embroidered vests, batwing collars and a black derby. He was proud of his hauling equipment and would be seen traveling around Charleston in one of his two drays which were always kept beautifully painted in Brewster green with gold leaf lettering and highly varnished. When the company decided to discontinue the use of horse drawn equipment in 1919, Mr. Bird was disappointed. He was fond of horses, but realized that horses were too slow to keep up with the trend of business.
Mr. Bird was an ardent horseman and owned highbred racing stock which he entered in races at the Washington race track. He took great pride in and care of his horses. In the summer, he would take them to his home on Sullivan’s Island so he could enjoy them there. It was a common sight to see Mr. Bird on the 3:00 p.m. ferry that commuted between downtown and the island.
While Mr. Bird ran a tight ship at his store, he was very sympathetic to his employees’ needs. In 1965, an employee, F. Kracke, who had been with the company for 60 years documented a history of William M. Bird. He wrote of when he was with the company for just a few years, he was stricken with a very severe case of influenza. He was bedridden for several weeks with a slow recovery. Mr. Bird sent him to the mountains for a month and paid his wages, railroad fare and board while he was away. Mr. Kracke said, “My opinion of Mr. Bird after that was of the highest and has always remained so.” This sentiment was echoed by several of his employees, many of whom worked for Mr. Bird for numerous years.
William M. Bird died on January, 9, 1920 when he was 83 years old. A generous man, he bequeathed his life savings to local charities, churches, close business associates and long-standing employees.
“For half a century active in the commercial life of Charleston, keenly interested in every phase of the community’s affairs, broad in his sympathies and generous with his substance, William M. Bird, who died yesterday in his eighty-third year, will be held in happy remembrance. He preserved unto old age the freshness and vigor of youth, delighted in the society of his friends and was a good companion to men of all ages. He was ever ready to contribute his counsel and his money to good and helpful causes and in fraternal, educational, and benevolent activities, he was a constant participant. He found life pleasant and practiced cheerfulness, and he passed on in contentment for himself, thoughtful to the last of the happiness of others.”
– quote from the Charleston Evening Post, January 10, 1920
He had served as President of the William M. Bird Company for 53 years. During his time, he had successfully steered the company through a devastating earthquake, fire, a disaster at sea and war. His indomitable spirit to overcome all odds became a hallmark of the company he founded and has established a legacy that the company upholds today.