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A Biography of the Boss: Robert Winship Woodruff (Part 1 - Those Who Came Before)

We are ringing in the new year with a spotlight series of the "Boss," Robert Woodruff, highlighting the Woodruff family's history in Columbus and their Coca-Cola connections. As you know, Columbus has longstanding, strong Coca-Cola ties - John Pemberton, Ernest and Robert Woodruff, W.C. Bradley, D.A. and Bill Turner - but this series is focusing more on the Woodruff side of things with Columbus woven all through it. And speaking of Coca-Cola, I hope you all will stop by Historic Columbus' John S. Pemberton and Coca-Cola Exhibit on the first floor of the newly renovated 11th Street YMCA Building. HCF is grateful to the W.C. Bradley Company for allowing us to install the exhibit there for all the public to experience. It had been previously (since 2014) in the 9th Street Welcome Center but became in need of a new spot when the CCVB decided to relocate. Thank you for all you do for preservation in Columbus! SOURCE: Robert Winship Woodruff: A Biography of the Boss by Charles Elliott, 1979. Heritage Park: A Celebration of the Industrial Heritage of Columbus, Georgia by Dr. John S. Lupold, 1999.


No one knows when begins the molding of the die that creates any individual. It might have started an eternity of eternities ago. All evidence is that it took a long-time a-building. Whether he comes willingly or unwillingly into the world, a baby does not reach up and pull his intellect, instincts, and personality out of nowhere. He is not born only of flesh and blood, but of genes of generations that culminate in him, and upon which he builds to become the adult he eventually will be. His immediate ancestors are the bearers of those genes, which have been passed down through the ages to each individual in a special formula that helps determine the physical looks, character, and capacity of that person. Were it possible to return along his ancestral lines and meet those responsible for his existence, one might be amazed at how like some of his ancestors a person is in thought and deed. For it is from those who came before him that he inherits the tendencies toward such traits as honesty, ambition and vision, or the antithesis of these.

To help evaluate his driving force, his restless spirit, his deep concern for others, his toughness when necessary – to understand the man himself – go back several generations for a brief look at those people whose genes culminated in Robert Winship Woodruff (pictured above). The records show that behind him are centuries of endeavor, of imagination, or vision, of positive action – all of which seem to have climaxed in what many have called a giant of this (past) century. When following the background of Robert Woodruff’s ancestors on both sides of the family, one is impressed that the strides made by the various individuals, the accomplishments, the attitude they had toward life, were no more than a building process toward his business and humanitarian ideals. When you examine the records and hear the stories left by these people, you can almost picture this ancestor or that one as Mr. R.W. Woodruff himself.

As with most Anglo-Saxon names, Woodruff (it had several spellings, as Woodrove, Woodrough, Woodrow, Woodroue, Woodrof, and possibly others) seems to have originated from an occupation. The Wood-Reeve was a minor English official; a type of forest warden or wood-bailiff. Earliest recollections of the family in England were of John Woderoue of Oxford, in 1273, and of Robert Woderoue of Huntingtonshire, about the same time. As nearly as may be determined, most of the American Woodruffs can be traced back to John Woodroffe of Devonshire, early in the sixteenth century. One of his sons, David, was the first sheriff of London in 1554, and David’s son, Sir Nicholson, was first Lord Mayor of London in 1574. One of Sir Nicholson’s grandsons, Matthew, born in 1612, was the direct bloodline of Robert Woodruff. Matthew was among the first Woodruff to bring the family name to America. The date of his arrival is lost in the annals of time. The first record we have of Matthew was when he moved from Hartford, Connecticut, around 1640, some mile west to a settlement which later was incorporated as Farmington. Matthew was a leader and prominent in civic affairs. He lived out his life there. In 1682 when he passed on in the town he helped create, he left three sons and three daughters. The third son, Samuel, was in the long line of great-grandparents of Robert Woodruff. Several generations of Woodruffs lived in Southington – which in the beginning was a part of Farmington, but later became a separate community – where many of the family members distinguished themselves in business and civic affairs. George Wyllys Woodruff was the first of the clan to venture southward. In 1832, he moved to Smokey Ordinary, Virginia, with his two sons, George Waldo and Charles Henry, and ten years later migrated to Macon, Georgia and then to Columbus.

Like other Woodruffs before him, Georgia Waldo was always looking for new fields to conquer. As saturated as he was with a restless pioneer spirit, we can imagine his father found him a willing companion when he proposed moving to southern lands; and a willing helper wherever they set up a place of business. When George Wyllys established his stores in Macon and then in Columbus, George Waldo clerked for him in both places. Years later, George Wyllys became lonely for the land of his birth. With his son Charles Henry he returned in 1848 to Southington where he lived out his last months. George Waldo, at the age of 18, remained behind to make a permanent home in Columbus. This was Robert Woodruff’s grandfather. George Waldo Woodruff then went into business for himself that same year. With a Mr. Merry, he opened a clothing store at which they were very successful. It was known as Woodruff and Merry. George married Virginia Bright Lindsay of Columbus on April 23, 1850, in the elegant Sherwood Hall (what is now the Jordan-Johnson neighborhood). They spent the first year of married life in "Hard Bargain," a tiny cottage on the Lindsay plantation.

The restless spirit bloomed again. In 1853 the family moved to Juniper, ten miles east of Columbus. The country around this community was heavily timbered, lumber was in demand for construction in the growing South, and George Waldo set up a sawmilling operation with R. R. Goetchius, father of one of his friends. Like his other partnership, this was also successful. It ended some six years later when the Woodruff family returned to Columbus to further expand its horizons. Serendipitously, the Goetchius and Woodruff families were reunited when, as part of the early historic preservation efforts in Columbus, Jim Woodruff, Jr. (George Woodruff's great-grandson) moved the ornate Goetchius House into the original city on Broadway. In 1859, George joined W.G. Clemons and Israel F. Brown in a cotton gin company. Soon, they (or Woodruff alone) also established a steam-powered gristmill at 9th Street between Front Avenue and Broadway, the Empire Mill, grounding flour and corn meal. This was by far the most successful of George Waldo’s ventures, and with it he built two fortunes, one before and one after the Civil War.

During the war, Empire Mill was operated largely for the benefit of the Confederate government. George also developed a rope walk that manufactured an essential item for the war effort. The mill was spared during Wilson’s Raid because it produced foodstuffs. Even though the building was not destroyed in 1865, Woodruff had his individual fortune wiped out. According to family tradition, he put everything he had, with the exception of a $10 gold piece, into Confederate currency. And, according to legend, he buried three barrels of it at the end of the war. After the war, with all resources gone and the mill in desperate need of repair, George convinced business neighbor and friend Riley Brown, proprietor of the Columbus Iron Works, to repair the mill on credit. George then borrowed enough money from friends to purchase one freight car load of corn and one of wheat. With this small start, he resumed operation and in the many years that followed, Empire Mill produced a second fortune for its owner. Woodruff made the Empire the largest milling operation in the city. It reached its heyday during the 1870s and 1880s, when it concentrated on flour production. By 1888, George had invested enough money in the newly organized Third National Bank to make him an initial director along with G. Gunby Jordan and W.C. Bradley.

George Waldo and Virginia Lindsay Woodruff gave to the world six children. Their eldest son, Henry served as a business partner to his father, and he maintained his father's Columbus holdings after his father's death in 1911. All three of Henry's sons, James, Harry, and George, also made significant contributions to the city, state, and region. In 1916, the three of them organized the Woodruff Company, a highly successful real estate and insurance firm. Additionally, both George and Harry were very involved with the University of Georgia athletics. Harry was on the football, track and baseball teams. George, also known as "kid," served as captain of the 1911 team and returned to coach the Bulldogs (for a salary of a dollar a year) from 1923 - 1927. During his coaching career, Columbus became the site of the annual Georgia - Auburn game. George's older brother, James, Sr., went to Auburn University and graduated in 1900. Jim's first business experience would be in Atlanta working for his uncle Ernest in his streetcar company and his Atlantic Steel Company. Jim then returned to Columbus. His later business career involved a wide range of interests including a dairy farm, beef cattle, thoroughbred horses, a hardware store, a cotton and peanut plantation, the Columbus Truck and Supply Manufacturing Company, radio stations, and early television.

Ernest, the third child of George Waldo and Virginia and younger brother of Henry, was born in Columbus in 1863. He grew up in the period of Reconstruction, when pennies were tight, and dollars were tighter. It was necessary to readjust their sense of values, roll up their sleeves and get back to the job of rebuilding. Because the dollar came hard, it was more thoroughly appreciated. Young Ernest learned early to value money and to make few decisions until he was reasonably well assured of the results. The lesson stayed with him throughout his life. Even in later years when he occupied a prominent financial position in the affairs of Atlanta, he would go home for his meals while his contemporaries and those working under him at the Trust Company, where he was president, were having sumptuous luncheons at nearby exclusive clubs or in the best eating establishments. Ernest started his business career as a flour salesman for his father’s expanded Empire Mill. His sales region included a sizeable portion of west Georgia and east Alabama, and often he needed a full week to make his rounds by horse and buggy. Sometimes he would cross back and forth across the river by ferry. As did his son Robert who followed in many of his father’s footsteps, Ernest loved hunting and often on his sales rounds would take along his dog and devote an occasional afternoon to shooting quail, which were said to have reached their peak of abundance shortly after the Civil War. Ernest married Emily Caroline Winship of Atlanta in 1885 and carried his bride to live in Columbus, where he remained a salesman for the Empire Mill until 1893. Emily and Ernest's home was located at 1414 Second Avenue and is a part of what is now known as the High Uptown Historic District. Ernest was a far-sighted organizer, a super salesman. As long as he lived, he looked for new worlds to subdue. When Joel Hurt, who had married Ernest’s sister, Annie Bright Woodruff, offered him a position with the Atlanta Consolidated Railway Company, he left his job as a flour salesman for his father’s mill in 1893 and moved to Atlanta with his wife and two young sons, Robert and Ernest, Jr.

Ernest’s rise to prominence in the business world was almost meteoric. He seemed to know instinctively how to reach down into the heart of a problem and come up with the right answer. He rose from vice president and general manager of the Atlanta Consolidated Railway Company to vice president in charge of the Atlanta Railway and Power Company, which in 1902 combined with the Georgia Railway and Power Company. A quarter of a century later this became the Georgia Power Company. The same year he came to Atlanta, Ernest was also elected a director of the Commercial Travelers Savings Bank. That was also the year the name of the bank changed to the Trust Company of Georgia, and in 1904 Ernest Woodruff succeeded Joel Hurt as the bank’s president. During the eighteen years under his leadership as president, the Trust Company developed into one of the South’s most trusted and solid financial institutions.

Robert Woodruff and Ernest Woodruff

As president of the Trust Company, Ernest, by one means or another, brought a prodigious number of industrial firms to Atlanta, as his son was to do in later years. He served several of these companies on their boards of directors, and many of these prospered in their southern home because of business conditions and his almost infallible judgment of character. Robert’s relationship with his father was a never-ending pattern of affection, rebellion, respect, defiance, devotion, tolerance, and admiration. In some respects, they were so nearly alike it was only natural at times they could not get along. Among the gifts that Ernest Woodruff passed on to his sons were integrity, the capability of hard work, a devotion to people, and a far-sighted wisdom which was at times almost prophetic. With these as tools, he built several empires which stand today as monuments to his integrity and vision. NEXT WEEK: The purchase of Coca-Cola and the stormy relationship of father and son.

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