One of the oldest, largest and best appointed furniture manufactories in the Northwestern States is that owned and conducted by Messrs. Nelson, Matter & Co., at Grand Rapids. It was established in 1855 by Hon. C.C.Comstock, who conducted it alone until 1863, when he was joined by the Messrs. Nelson Brothers, who have been honorably identified with the early settlement of the Grand River Valley.
It is not much to say that this extensive factory was the pioneer institution of the kind at the Rapids, and that all those which have sprung up after it owe their great success not a little to the efforts of this firm. It is always easier to follow in the tracts of another through a pathless forest than to work out one’s own course by the aid of our own unaided ingenuity. So it is also easier to establish and succeed in a new enterprise when guided by the land marks of another. When this factory was first started it was completely an experiment, and it required an abiding faith in the future growth of Grand Rapids to induce one to embark in it. Such was the faith of Mr. Comstock and the Nelson Brothers, and time alone has developed how keen and penetrating was their foresight. No one person’s means had been invested to demonstrate the feasibility of the plan; no end had been accomplished that in any way demonstrated its propriety, and few were the signs and faint the hopes for the future greatness of the Valley City. Grand Rapids was comparatively a mud hole; its inhabitants were mostly French – in short; there was nothing in the place which gave the sound of American enterprise. A miserable and declining traffic with a few tribes of wretched Indians inadequately supported the French population, whose wonder and disapproval were not a little excited at the conduct of the few "Yankee" pioneers, who, with keen axes upon their shoulders, marched bravely into the depths of the forest, building their hopes upon a sound faith in the future development of the whole Northwest.
This is a grand view, and needs only to be painted in dim colors to please those old pioneers who still live to enjoy what they then diligently hoped for. Look at the enterprising man of 1836, who leaves his eastern home and penetrates the wilds of the western forests. When he can no longer travel by the jolting stage, and when there is no longer any road or trail by which to complete his journey, he completes the distance by cutting his way, until steadily progressing day after day and week after week, he finds himself shut out from civilization, encompassed by a desolating forest, and, perhaps, a family depending upon him for support. He toils on with his only weapon, by which the majestic trees were made to bow their lofty tops to the ground. Soon his little hut begins to assume shapely proportions, and now the shivering wife and children, who have all this time warmed themselves by a log fire, gladly retreat within the log enclosure, which, after all, is but a poor excuse for a shelter. The December storms beat through the open windows or the large openings between the logs, but still the warm heart of the pioneer beats on, and the lonely family forget their sorrows as they listen to his hopeful words.
Such was the picture of life in the valley of the Grand River when James M. and Ezra T. Nelson came to Kent, the principal town for miles around. It contained about half a dozen houses, five or six hundred Indians, a few Indian traders, a mission house, a blacksmith shop, one or two stores, no streets except in a imaginary point – in fact nothing but a few miserable huts in a lonely wilderness.
But they were not discouraged. Believing that is a near future a large and prosperous city would grow up at the head of navigation on the Grand River, they invested their means sin Kent property and began to share the common lot of the pioneer.
Being in a mercantile frame of mind, they bought out Mr. James Lyman, or Messrs. Lyman & Dwight, in order to get a store, and commenced business. Soon after Mr. James M. Nelson purchased a lot in the Kent plat and began preparation for building a house. He supplied Mr. Barney Burton with means to erect a saw mill on Mill Creek, and sent men into the lumber woods. The first raft of logs ever brought down the Grand River belonged to Mr. Nelson. The mill was put into operation and the lumber for the proposed house was soon provided and the building erected.
Mr. Jas. M. Nelson lumbered on the river for nearly twelve years with his brother, Ezra T. Nelson, built several mills, and prosecuted a large and profitable business. He soon became honorably identified with the business and political interests of the town. He was Postmaster of the town four years, and Supervisor and Overseer of the Poor until the city was organized, when he returned from public life in order to five his time more unreservedly to business. He was also active in promoting the educational interests of the city, having built the old Union School House and purchased the property on which it stood. His influence was also exerted for the promotion and welfare of the city churches, especially those of the Episcopal denomination. Upon the organization of the city government he was unanimously nominated for the first Mayor of Grand Rapids, and would have been elected without any considerable opposition had he not declined the honors and responsibilities of the office.
As I have already mentioned, Mr. James M. and Ezra T. Nelson purchased a half interest in the furniture factory of Hon. C.C. Comstock, in 1863. The firm was then called Comstock, Nelson & Co. In 1865, T. A. Comstock, M. G. Colson and James A. Pugh purchased Mr. C.C. Comstock’s interest, and the firm name was changed to Nelson, Comstock & Co. The business was successfully continued by this firm until 1870, when Mr. E. Matter purchased Mr. T. A. Comstock’s interest changing the firm name to Nelson, Matter & Co., which style it still retains. In February, 1872, Mr. Stephen S. Gay purchased Mr. Colson’s interest, the firm continuing under the same name. In 1871 the firm purchased the interest of James A. Pugh.
Mr. E. Matter, who became a member of this firm in 1870, came to Grand Rapids in 1855. After clerking a short time in a boot and shoe house, he engaged as foreman of C.C. Comstock’s factory – the same concern in which he afterwards became a leading partner. He afterwards joined Julius Berkey in the manufacture of furniture, and as we have seen, became a partner with the Nelsons, under the firm name of Nelson, Matter & Co.
Mr. Matter has thus come up from small beginning to a position of leading importance. Beginning in Grand Rapids in 1855, without any capital, he has persevered skillfully, until he has accumulated an independent fortune – the result of his great energy and faultless integrity.
The firm of Nelson, Matter & Co. is, perhaps, one of the wealthiest, or to use a business phrase, "soundest" concern in Grand Rapids. It is not improbable that the recent financial panic has considerably interfered with their business, but it has in no way shaken the solid foundation on which they stand. They represent an invested capital of over $300,000, and sell annually over $200,000 worth of furniture. These immense sales extend into nearly all the States, and into the whole Northwest.
Their factory, which is located on the corner of Lyon and Lock streets, in the very heart of the city, is supplied with ample steam power, and is the most complete and best appointed establishment in Grand Rapids. It is a five story brick, including a basement 70x160 feet, and has a capacity of over two hundred workmen.
The visitor’s eye is first captivated by the steam engine, boilers, pumps, and extensive steam works. These are located in the rear of the factory, where, beneath then, exists a large reservoir, carried in from the canal, for the purpose of supplying the boilers with water. The immense boilers are heated by furnaces which are supplied with fuel in a peculiar manner. The shavings are carried from the planning and molding machines by means of section pipes to the doors of the furnaces, so that when the factory is running to its fullest capacity, it is almost self-sustaining in point of fuel.
The engine is an immense one, of 200 horse power, which supplies its own strength by pumping the water from the reservoir below into a large tank, where it is met and heated by the exhaust steam, and from there pumped into the boiler. This is great improvement over pumping cold water into steam boilers, is a great saving of fuel, and is a valuable prevention against accidents. It would require half a volume to give anything like a detailed account of how the steam is conducted through the building for heating purposes, and I shall be contented with saying that it is the most perfect, and withal, the most interesting contrivance in the country.
There are three entrances to the main floor of the factory – one from Lyon street, one from Lock street, and one from the river. In each of these entrances an iron track is laid, upon which trucks are run in and out, loaded with lumber or stock, by steam power. There is a turn-table in the center of the building, so that the trucks can be removed from one track to another, as convenience may require.
On this floor the lumber is subjected to the cross-cutters and rippers, and is cut into drawer fronts, sides, table tops, pieces for dressing cases, etc. It is also planed on this floor, and is then sent to the second floor, where are located the band and jig saws, the molders, borers, joiners, turning lathes, etc. Here they "machine" the joiners, turning lathes, etc. Here they "machine" the stock, and the performance is indeed an interesting one. There is no better amusement than to stand by one of the molders when in operation, or to watch the intricate circles of the band and jig saws. This floor presents a busy scene. Every machine is running with full velocity, and the rough, unshapely stock is converted into beautiful ornaments as if by the power of magic.
The work is next carried, by the elevator, to the third and forth floors, where it goes into the hands of the workmen at the benches and is put together. Here it begins to take the shape of furniture. The carving and designing department is located here, and is under the efficient supervision of James F. Donnelly.
On the opposite side of Lock street are located the warehouses, which are always filled with excellent furniture of all kinds, ready for shipment. One of these warehouses has a frontage on Lyon street and the other on Huron street. They are connected with each other and to the factory by means of bridges.
A very important part of this establishment is the lumber yard, which is located on Kent street. Here is to be found over 1,000,000 feet of lumber. The drying kiln is always full and thus the stock is well seasoned before going into the factory.
The exposition rooms, Nos. 33, 35 and 37 Canal street, is a building 54x80 feet, three stories above the basement. In this building are located the offices, show-rooms, parlor, finding and trimming departments.
Nelson, Matter & Co. make the largest variety of furniture of any house in Grand Rapids – chamber, parlor, dining room and office furniture, are, however, specialties. Their chamber suites are among the best manufactured, ranging from the plainest to the most elegant and costly.
They find a ready market for their goods, both east, south and west, and their immense trade is annually increasing.