The Furniture Capital of America
The furniture industry, which has earned for Grand Rapids the title of "The Furniture Capital of America" and given it a world-wide reputation for quality of output, had humble enough beginnings. William Haldane--Deacon Haldane, as he is usually referred to--is the father of this industry. He came here from the east in 1836 and the next year erected a frame dwelling at the southeast corner of Pearl street and Ottawa avenue. Later he built a stone dwelling on the same spot--site of the Michigan Trust building. In those two dwellings he worked as a cabinet-maker.
Archibald Salmon, who came the year after William Haldane, erected a cabinet shop on Prospect hill, close to the deacon's establishment, and also carried on many years at that place. The next maker of cabinet were Samuel F. Butler, had a shop near the Bridge Street house, on Michigan street. In 1849, Abraham Snively opened a shop on part of the site of the Morton house. He, however, soon removed to Grandville.
Most of the furniture was made by hand until 1848, when Deacon Haldane built a shop on Canal (Monroe) street and installed in it a circular saw and lathe, brought from Ohio, and began making furniture by machinery. With a force of seven men he turned out tables, bedsteads, chairs and bureaus, all rather crude in construction, but fine enough for those days. Residents of Lowell, Grand Haven and Holland came here to trade produce, grain and pork for it. The deacon's employes accordingly had to take eggs, wheat or spare ribs in lieu of a cash wage.
In July, 1854, Mr. Haldane went into partnership with Enoch W. Winchester, but after a year the latter withdrew and formed a partnership with his brother, S. A. Winchester, and the firm built a two-story wooden factory at Lyon street and Campau avenue. Mr. Haldane's later partners were a man named Abbott and Henry Jewett. The deacon erected a three-story block north of the present Hotel Pantlind. This block soon was in demand for offices and stores and, the rent yielding a substantial income, Mr. Haldane quit making chairs, beds and bureaus.
William T. Powers, who came in 1847, was an important factor in the furniture industry. His first shop was at Fountain street and Ionia avenue, and he had a salesroom on Monroe near Pearl. Early in 1848 he rented a room of James Scott, who operated a sash, door and blind factory where the Valley City mill now stands. Here he put in a turning lathe, a circular saw and a boring machine, and his factory was something for the village to boast about.
In 1851 Mr. Powers entered into a partnership with E. Morris Ball, and Powers & Ball erected on Erie street a two-story building, 25 by 100 feet, which housed a sawmill for cutting cabinet stuff and the firm's furniture factory. Powers & Ball turned out bedsteads, bureaus, bookcases and chairs, and their business prospered so greatly that the annual finished product sold for $30,000--a big business for those days, when no railroad entered the city. Thirty to forty men were employed.
Mr. Powers decided to engage in the manufacture of lumber, and in January, 1855, the firm of Powers & Ball was dissolved. Its furniture business was continued by Ball, Noyes & Colby. When the panic of 1857 demoralized business, Ball, Noyes and Colby sold the business back to Mr. Powers, who continued it until Civil War times.
Eagles & Pullman brought in a stock of furniture in 1853 and also manufactured some at Monroe and Crescent. The Pullman of this firm was George M., inventor of the Pullman sleeper now used on all railroads.
The panic of 1857 embarrassed the Winchester brothers and they sold to C. C. Comstock, who had made money operating a sawmill and a large sash and blind factory. Mr. Comstock himself was badly crippled in the panic, but he was able to weather the financial storm. In 1864 he established a branch for the disposal of his furniture output at Peoria, Illinois. He shipped the first carload lot of furniture that ever left Grand Rapids.
James M. and Ezra T. Nelson purchased a half interest in Mr. Comstock's factory in 1863, and the firm became Comstock, Nelson & Co. Two years later Mr. Comstock sold the remainder of his interest, one half to his son, Tileston A. Comstock, the other half to james A. Pugh and Manley A. Colson, the latter foreman in the factory. The firm name then was reversed to Nelson, Comstock & Co. In 1870 Elias Matter purchased Tileston A. Comstock's interest, and the Nelson-Matter Furniture company came into existence.
George Widdicomb, an Englishman, came here in 1856 and worked as a cabinet-maker at the Winchester brothers' factory for more than a year, when he started in business in a rented factory near the east end of the Bridge street bridge. With his four sturdy sons, William, George Jr., Harry and John, and a few other workmen, he made furniture. William Widdicomb, who went to Milwaukee to sell the product, has the honor of being the first furniture commercial salesman of Grand Rapids. A retail store was opened on the west side of Monroe avenue between Huron and Erie streets, over the door being a sign, "William Widdicomb & Sons." This store was kept open until 1863. When the Civil War started the two elder sons, William and George, went to the front at the first call for troops. Harry and John enlisted a year later, then the father retired from business. But when the boys came back from the war they established a furniture factory just south of Michigan street on Monroe avenue. George Widdicomb, Jr., died in 1866 and in the same year his three surviving brothers bought a piece of land on Fourth street and on it erected a 40 by 50-foot factory, two and a half stories, which gave employment to about 25 men. Theodore F. Richards purchased an interest January 1, 1869, and the firm name became Widdicomb Bros. & Richards. The business was incorporated in 1873 as the Widdicomb Furniture Factory.
In 1859 Julius Berkey and James Eggleston began making sash, doors and blinds in a small shop on Erie street. Mr. Berkey, a skilled mechanic, also made quartette stands. About this time William A. Berkey established a similar factory on Mill street, opposite Hastings, and in 1860 Julius Berkey and Alphonso Ham were using a portion of the second floor of that building for furniture making.
In the following winter Julius A. Berkey sold out his interest in the Berkey and Eggleston business to his partner, who soon wound it up. But in April, 1861, Mr. Berkey started it again at the same place and continued making furniture alone until November, 1862, when he and Elias Matter formed the partnership of Berkey & Matter, the foundation of the present Berkey & Gay Furniture company. Julius Berkey put into the business about $5 in cash and a few hundred dollars' worth of machinery and materials, and Elias Matter inventoried his tool chest at about $6. Robert W. Merrill declares:
"Undoubtedly the honor of founding the wholesale furniture trade of Grand Rapids belongs to Julius Berkey. He first saw the possibilities of manufacturing and selling furniture at wholesale from Grand Rapids. His early partner, Alphonso Ham, was an enthusiastic believer in the future of Grand Rapids and was among the first to prophesy that Grand Rapids was destined to become a furniture city."
William A. Berkey bought a half interest in the firm, October 5, 1863, when the name was changed to Berkey Bros. & Co. The capital stock was $17,215.33. In 1866 George W. Gay purchased the half interest of William A. Berkey and the firm name was changed to Berkey Bros. & Gay. Elias Matter withdrew February 28, 1870, and William A. Berkey in January, 1873. In August of the latter year the Berkey & Gay Furniture company was incorporated, with a capital stock of $500,000.
In 1868 William A. Berkey was made assignee for Atkins & Soule, cabinet-makers. Two years later this business was purchased by the Phoenix Manufacturing company, capital $100,000, and these officers: William A. Berkey, president; Nelson W. Northrop, treasurer; Grant McWhorter, secretary. For several years the company did a small business at Ottawa avenue and Fairbanks street, but when Mr. Berkey retired from the firm of Berkey Bros. & Gay in 1873 he devoted his energies to building up the business, which had been reorganized as the Phoenix Furniture company, with $200,000 capital. In the fall of 1872 ground was broken for the erection of a factory on eight acres at West Fulton street and Summer avenue.
The Royal Furniture company was organized in 1890. In 1900 Robert W. Irwin, Alexander Hompe and Ralph Tietsort purchased the controlling interest in the Royal. In 1920 the Phoenix and Royal were consolidated under the name of Robert W. Irwin company.
The Grand Rapids Chair company was incorporated in October, 1872, by Henry Fralick, president; C. C. Comstock, vice-president; F. W. Worden, secretary and treasurer, and a capital of $300,000. Buildings were erected that year on upper Monroe avenue. The company manufactured chairs exclusively up to 1882, when it began to make a general line of furniture.
The Luce Furniture company began as the McCord & Bradfield Furniture company in 1878. The corporation was formed by Ransom C. Luce, Thomas McCord, John Bradfield, George Kendall and F. R. Luce. The business at the start was confined to the manufacture of folding beds, after a patent obtained by John Bradfield. But soon a general line of furniture was turned out.
The Oriel Cabinet company grew out of a business conducted for a number of years previous to 1880 by Wheeler, Green & Gay.
The Sligh Furniture company was organized in 1880, with $25,000 capital, its guiding spirit being Charles R. Sligh, who ever since has been at its head.
The Stickley Bros. company was organized in 1891 by Albert Stickley, with $100,000 capital, and a factory built on Godfrey avenue.
This brief record, devoted to beginnings, does not permit tracing the history of all the other thriving furniture establishments.
FURNITURE OF QUALITY
Quality of its factory product has earned for Grand Rapids the title, "The Furniture Capital of America." Manufacturers early recognized the necessity for turning out the finest furniture that the most able designers and the most skilled craftsmen could produce. They scoured the United States and Europe for artists to make the designs. They employed the best cabinet-makers to be found in the old country and the new. Every invention which could improve quality was eagerly seized upon, every machine that could increase output and reduce cost of manufacture without the sacrafice of quality, was installed in the factories.
The words, "Made in Grand Rapids," stamped upon a piece of furniture, were made to mean that this particular piece was the best. Dealers everywhere who advertised "Grand Rapids Furniture" but sold a cheap grade of beds, bureaus, chairs, etc., made elsewhere, were enjoined from doing so by numerous court actions. The Furniture Manufacturers' Association of Grand Rapids was organized November 23, 1911, to protect in every way the good name of the city and its furniture output. The association is ably managed by its secretary, Francis D. Campau.
As Grand Rapids became famous for the quality of its furniture, more and more buyers and retail dealers came here each year to inspect the output of the various factories, and to make purchases. Gradually the manufacturers devoted more attention to making displays, and thus was born the idea of establishing semi-annual markets, in January and June-July, for convenience of visiting retailers or their representatives. The first market was held in 1878. It proved so successful that manufacturers in other cities determined it would be to their advantage to have displays of their furniture at the semi-annual markets. They rented quarters in down town buildings, but as the places of exhibition were not always satisfactory, enterprising capitalists constructed large buildings specially adapted for the display of furniture. Today there are a dozen of these buildings, in which outside manufacturers rent quarters the year round.
Manufacturers exhibiting here improve the quality of their output, as they came in competition with local manufacturers and other who sent displays of their finest products. Even foreign competition was encouraged, and the choicest furniture made in Italy, France, England, China and Japan could be inspected here.
The semi-annual markets attracted not only furniture displays, but exhibitions of everything that enters into home embellishment. Art objects, lamps, rugs, kitchen accessories, curtains, drapes, etc., may now be inspected by market visitors. The net result has been the greatest stimulus for better and more artistic homes, with Grand Rapids virtually setting the styles for everything used in furnishing the home and making it comfortable and cheerful.
GRAND RAPIDS MARKET ASSOCIATION
In 1915 the manufacturers of better things for the home formed the Grand Rapids Market association, to develop and direct the affairs of the market. Today more than 400 outside manufacturers of funiture and other articles for the home ship samples of their productshere for exhibition purposes. These manufacturers are located in 22 different states. As many as 2,500 retail dealers are registered in January and June-July, during the four weeks of the semi-annual markets. Buyers come from every state in the Union, from Canada, Mexico, Hawaii, even from England, France and South Africa.
There are now 68 furniture factories, large and small, in Grand Rapids. These establishments employ about 13,000 artists, skilled craftsmen and other workmen.
Transcriber: Ronnie Aungst
Created: 16 January 2000