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Grand Rapids - grand furniture.

Grand Rapids - which proudly calls itself the "Furniture Capital of America" - is named for the rapids on the Grand River, which drop the river a distance of 8 feet at that location before sending it on another 25 miles to Lake Michigan. The point at which it was founded was the best place to ford the river, first by Indians, then by pioneers, finally by roads. The river has a wide floodplain, on which development first occurred. Today's downtown area in the floodplain is protected by concrete walls that keep the river within its bounds. The river as transportation and the great forests of Michigan as a material source, replacing the depleted eastern forests, were all that was needed to set Grand Rapids on a course that would take it to world fame as "Furniture City."

The ancient forests of the upper Midwest were ignored until those of the northern East Coast were almost used up. Then it was discovered that Grand Rapids lies directly on the dividing line between northern softwoods and southern hardwoods. Here, furniture makers had great choice in the woods to use - oak, maple, basswood, walnut, ash, beech, and pine.

By 1850, there were almost 600 sawmills in the state, and vast quantities of the cut logs were floated down the Grand River to Grand Rapids. Less-than-honest sawmill owners often snatched from the river logs that weren't theirs, a theft call hogging - very different from the "hogging" in today's furniture factories. Those 600 sawmills were just the beginning. From 1870 to 1890, timber was cut at the rate of 33,000 acres a year.

Beds, coffins, and innovation

As was usual in any developing community, infant Grand Rapids had several cabinetmaking shops. Premier among them, around 1836, was the shop of William Haldane. More commonly known as Deacon Haldane, he produced both beds and coffins - two items of equal importance in a frontier community. Haldane and other newcomers hailed from New England, especially the Boston area, where furniture-making was in full flourish. In Michigan, they found themselves surrounded by great forests, with a convenient power source in the river's falls and a ready market in their growing community.

Although their firms did not last, David Wooster, Zephaniah Adams, and John L. Smith were pioneers in using the river. Their chair-making shop was powered by the falls on the adjacent river.

Making the assumption that an industry cannot be founded until the company, or companies, comprising it sell beyond their local community, the founding business in what became the Grand Rapids furniture industry was a partnership of William Powers with E. M. Ball. Ball was a schoolteacher from New Hampshire who showed up in 1849 with money to start a business, just as Powers was in serious need of funds to expand. Within only a few months, their lumber and furniture-making business was supplying a large order for chairs to be delivered to Chicago. They also opened a showroom-retail store in downtown Grand Rapids.

The Powers and Ball factory was powered by steam power and had a belt-driven circular saw. It employed more than 30 men. Ball, fascinated by the whole process, wrote home that the factory was so efficient at making Windsor chairs that, "We can, almost as it were, throw whole trees into the hopper and grind out chairs ready for use."

As entrepreneurs saw the success of Powers and Ball, they, too, began small furniture-making companies. In 1854, William Haldane took on a partner from New Hampshire, E. W. Winchester. But apparently the relationship was just a holding pattern for Winchester because when his brother arrived the following year, the two formed Winchester Brothers. Haldane later took on another parmer named Abbott.

The Winchesters failed to survive the recession of 1857 and their assets went into the hands of C. C. Comstock, a lumber merchant. He didn't succeed in selling the company, and so had to make the company succeed instead. One move responsible for his success was the opening of Grand Rapids' first distant showroom, located at Peoria, Illinois, in 1861, followed quickly by one at St. Louis, Missouri. Comstock's enterprise eventually turned into the Nelson-Matter Co.

In 1856, George Widdicomb arrived from England, with four eager sons. George worked in the Winchester Brothers factory for a year and then opened his own firm, with his sons supplying the labor. Soon thereafter, William A. Berkey also arrived in town with his brother, Julius. Although William opened a millwork shop, brother Julius used a corner of the shop to make tables and start the furniture enterprise that soon became Berkey and Gay, a major player on the national furniture scene for the next 80 years.

Grand Rapids was not just making furniture. It was also making the machinery to make furniture - an important factor in the city's becoming a vital location in furniture history. Grand Rapids Iron Works and the Valley City Foundry Co. were important sources of machinery. And when a railroad - the Detroit, Grand Haven and Milwaukee, later called the Grand Trunk - finally found its way to Grand Rapids in 1858, industry finally had reliable, year-round transportation. In addition, after false starts by other people, Grand Rapids residents A. D. Linn and Z. Clark Thwing developed the first successful kiln-drying apparatus. The city was beginning to grow as a furniture center, prepared to distribute its products to the entire Midwest.

Many other furniture companies were started. Not all succeeded, however. Some were brought down by inadequate financing, which made them fail during the Depression of 1873. One company that struggled for the first few years but finally lived up to its prospectus was the Grand Rapids Chair Co., founded by C. C. Comstock and his colleagues to produce nothing but chairs.

"Furniture City"

In 1876, three major companies sent special star products to the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Berkey and Gay, Nelson, Matter, and Phoenix Furniture Company all won medals for their spectacular entries. Nelson, Matter's three-piece suite consisted of an incredible 6,000 pieces of six different kinds of wood.

Proudly, the Centennial Exposition medallists opened showrooms in New York City. The name "Grand Rapids" began to be synonymous with "furniture."

Drawn by the national recognition the city was receiving, buyers began making the trip to Grand Rapids to select their purchases on site. Although annual sales events may have started earlier, the first recognized furniture market was opened in December of 1878. At that time, Berkey and Gay held a widely advertised auction of its goods, drawing buyers from all over. Other manufacturers, recognizing the opportunity, held their own sales.

Within a few short years, manufacturers from other parts of the country began to take advantage of the Grand Rapids market and rented exhibit space of their own. Eventually the market became a semi-annual routine lasting several weeks each January and July. When rental space ran out, the Waters-Klingman Building, with 8 acres of floor space, was built specifically for furniture showrooms.

Starting about 1880, when Stow-Davis opened its doors, the production of office furniture developed side by side with home furniture. Many of the classic metal-legged classroom desks with wood tops that generations of children etched their initials in came from the factory of the Grand Rapids School Furniture Co., known today as American Seating Co. Today, Grand Rapids is still the headquarters of the institutional and office furniture business.

In 1883, after heavy rains, the flooding Grand River let loose its vast load of logs. They smashed into the growing city's downtown area, crushing buildings, tearing apart three bridges and generally wreaking havoc. The damage did not last long, however, and by 1890, Grand Rapids had 31 functioning furniture companies employing more than 4,000 people and selling more than $6 million a year.

The wood supply still appeared to be endless. In 1889, Michigan led all the states in the production of lumber, mainly white pine. In that year, Michigan produced 4.3 million feet, compared with Wisconsin's 2.9 million and Pennsylvania's 2.1 million feet. But the end of easy access to timber was just around the corner.

By the time that Wood & Wood Products' forerunner was started in 1896, Grand Rapids furniture makers had weathered a three-year depression and were having to buy their wood from distant sources. In some ways, North Carolina, with its unexploited timber supplies, was about to gain prominence. Even so, the heyday of Grand Rapids was just beginning.


In 1922, a small pamphlet called Reflections Commemorating Fifty Years' Progress in the Making of Fine Furniture by the Grand Rapids Chair Co. related the history of furniture to the history of human aspiration and pride. It concluded with the philosophy of E. H. Foote, its general manager for more than forty years. He said that the company, "... has made about all the mistakes that any human organization could possibly make in the course of 50 years, but they were honest mistakes for which it has paid in experience and cost. It has overestimated and under-estimated public demands, it has over-sold and under-sold its products, but down through the years it has learned that quality furniture produced to meet average means, furniture that will perform what is expected of it, that will give comfort to the user and lend enchantment to the home, cannot be compromised. Wherever it goes, furniture is either a credit or a discredit to its maker. It is its own best salesman, and the problem before the modern manufacturer of good furniture is how best he can live up to and, if possible, improve upon, that which he has already produced."


An early issue of Popular Mechanics magazine pictured an attractive baby crib made from a wooden barrel. The barrel was cut in half lengthwise to a point just below the second hoop, leaving a canopy over the baby's head. Staves were painted white and the hoops black, and the barrel was bolted to a wooden frame.


In 1900, Thonet Brothers in Austria, producer of Thonet bentwood chairs, was producing 15,000 pieces a day, mostly chairs. The simplest Thonet bentwood design chair sold 50 million copies between 1859 and 1930, many of them as ready-to-assemble kits. The Thonet patent ran out in 1869.
COPYRIGHT 1995 Vance Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:1896-1996: Wood & Wood Products Centennial; includes related article; Michigan's furniture industry
Author:Black, Jean Blashfield
Publication:Wood & Wood Products
Date:Jan 1, 1995
Previous Article:Reinventing the forest industry.
Next Article:The furniture markets.

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