Indiana-made furniture still provides rustic comfort
Few businesses have survived two world wars, the Great Depression and a recession, but the venerable Old Hickory Furniture Co. has persevered by turning out rustic lodge furniture.
Legend has it that North Carolina native Billy Richardson and his father made hickory sapling hoop chairs for The Hermitage, the home of President Andrew Jackson, and used Jackson's nickname, Old Hickory, as the company name. Richardson moved to Indiana and began selling his chairs in Martinsville in the 1890s. The company was founded in an abandoned Martinsville church in 1894, andit incorporated in 1898 when it started producing a full line of hickory sapling furniture.
The rustic chairs proved popular. In 1904, the New York Store on East Washington Street ran an ad in The Indianapolis Star claiming to be the exclusive seller of Old Hickory Chair Co. furniture. "No old-time hotel or mansion was complete without a dozen or so old hickory chairs on its lawn, verandas or spacious libraries — used now from Maine to California."
In 1906, the Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone National Park took delivery of Old Hickory chairs that are still being used in the main hall's dining room — with the occasional maintenance and re-caning. Today, almost all National Park lodges feature Old Hickory furniture.
The company changed its name to Old Hickory Furniture Co. in 1921 to reflect the addition of more furniture pieces.
Old Hickory closed in 1978, but it was purchased in 1982 by Bobby Welsh, who moved the company to Shelbyville. In the early part of the 20th century, Shelbyville had more than a dozen furniture factories, so it seemed appropriate that Old Hickory would move into the 1885 building of the former Shelbyville Desk Co.
In 1989, the company was purchased by William Morrison, Chris Williams and Craig Campbell. Rocco Liott was named president. Annual sales during the past 20 years have ranged from $4 million to $14 million, said Bob Morrison, vice president of sales and marketing.
A lot goes into making handcrafted, rustic, Appalachian-style hickory furniture.
All framework is made of self-regenerating young hickory saplings, mainly from Tennessee and Mississippi. The bark is left in its natural state. The hickory poles are kiln-dried at 160 degrees for a week to achieve a particular moisture content and to kill any insects. After a boiling water bath, the wood is pressure-bent to specifications and dried. Next comes measuring, drilling and sizing. The frames are doweled, and then joined, using a mortise-and-tenon process. The pieces then are hand-caned by specially trained workers. After lacquer or tint is applied, each piece gets a tag or medallion with the date and the company's logo. Early furniture pieces were branded.
This attention to detail and craftsmanship has long been appreciated. Old Hickory furniture has found a home in Franklin Roosevelt's Warm Springs, Ga., retreat, the Maryland presidential retreat Camp David and even Disney resorts.
In Indiana, Old Hickory is used at the Abe Martin Lodge in Nashville, Clifty Falls Inn in Madison and Spring Mill Inn in Mitchell. Other state parks inns in Indiana have what is known as "prison hickory," furniture that was made by Indiana State Farm Industries at Putnamville from the late 1920s to mid-1960s. These pieces are refurbished/re-caned by Old Hickory.
In the early 2000s, the company started making inroads into private residences when lodge-style rustic furnishings became popular. Celebrities such as Robert Redford, Reggie Miller and Oprah Winfrey own Old Hickory furniture. Retail prices vary on the products, but most rockers have a retail price between $600 and $1,200. Small items such as coat trees start around $250, while a high end bed retails for around $4,000.
Always busy, the company's 45 craftsmen are working on beds, tables and chairs that will be used in Alaska's Glacier Bay Lodge. The company also displays at the High Point Market in North Carolina. While it has a catalog of products, it also does custom furniture work and the occasional restoration of an original Old Hickory piece. John Kirk Furniture in Carmel and Woodland Gallery in Nashville are the only retailers of Old Hickory products in Indiana, but select pieces may be purchased through Bass Pro Shops and interior designers.
"It's classic in style and will last forever because it's comfortable, durable and fits your body," Morrison said. "It's rustic comfort, if you will."
Source: Indy Star