Keeping Chair City Alive, Gardner Today News and Entertainment Weekly, May 10, 1989
View Full Image
The article "Keeping Chair City Alive" by Marilyn Haynes published in the May 10, 1989 Gardner Today News and Entertainment Weekly. The article talks about the S. Bent & Brothers Inc. and Nichols and Stone Company, two furniture manufacturing companies in Gardner, Massachusetts, that were keeping the rich tradition of furniture and chair manufacturing alive in Gardner. Gardner once had the nickname "Chair City" due to many furniture companies that made their home in Gardner, including Heywood-Wakefield Company which at one point was the largest furniture manufacturing company in America. The article talks about the companies, their attention to quality and the dedication to their workers and the tradition of quality furniture. Nichols and Stone Company started its operations in Gardner in 1857, but has roots going all the way back to 1767 with the Nichols Brothers Chair Manufactory in Westminster, Massachusetts. Today it is the oldest furniture manufacturing company in America and still has its main operations still in Gardner. S. Bent & Brothers, Inc. was started in 1867 and made colonial chairs, rockers, children's chairs, breakfast sets and institutional furniture. S. Bent & Brothers, Inc. closed in 2001. Keeping Chair CityA-L-I-V-EBy Marilyn Haynes Gardner will keep its "Chair City" for a long time if the owners of S. Bent BrothersInc. and Nichols and StoneCompany have any say in the matter. The two furniture companies inGardner each make about 2,100 chairs a week in much the same way as they were made more than 100 years ago when the companies first started.People remember Heywood- Company as the prominent chair manufacturer and the one responsible for the nickname, "ChairCity of the World." When the company closed down in 1979, some no longer associated Gardner with chairs.But with the opening of HeritageState Park Visitors' Center, the city was reminded of its heritage and the skilled craftsmen who worKed in the furniture factories which made Gardner famous.People began to take pride in the city again. The downtown section was remodeled. The big chair in Iront of Helen Mae Sauter School on Elm Street was sanded and refinished. And the remaining furniture factories began trying to improve their image, expanding work areas and introducing some modern technology to their businesses. Nichols and Stone is making sureGardner's chairs are known outside theUnited States. Recently the companybegan exporting chairs to Japan.John Thomas, manufacturing systems engineer, said Carlton 'Tuck' Nichols Jr.,and Ron Kirwood, vice-president in charge of sales and marketing, got together with Japanese buyers last year and now each month a shipping container from Chair City goes to Japan.Thomas said American-style furniture is popular there. "A large percentage ofShaker-style furniture -very simple clean lines-is going there."The Shaker-style chair has a webbed seat hand-woven by Phyllis Gilbert ofGardner. She makes the job look easy."If you know how to weave potholders,this is the same thing," she said. "You have to like working with your hands todo this."Gilbert said she has been weaving chairs for the company for about two years. Before that she was a stitcher and upholsterer. Pete Jensen said the company began making the Shaker chairs with the web seats about five or six years ago when this type of furniture became popular.He said fiber seats, first made at the firm75 years ago, are still in demand. Tuck Nichols is the fifth generation Nichols at the firm, which was started in 1857. His lather is semi-retired, but drops by the business each day lor a few hours.Thomas said the company was started inWestminster by the Nichols and Stone families. A generation ago, the Stone family was bought out.Recently a new building was added to the main building on Shennan Street.Thomas said the company broke ground for the new building Dec. 1, 1987 and moved in July 1, 1988. The table and case goods division, the Brewster Division formerly located in tbe old Heywood-Wakefield building, moved there.The company makes mostly dining room furniture and a few rocking chairs.Thomas said, "We make about 100 different styles of chairs.We have 30 different tables and 30 different buffets and hutches." Wood used in the products, which comes from allover New England and parts of Canada, is mostly ash or birch, he said.The "college chair" makes 10 to 15 percent of the business. Thomas said over 2,000 universities, banks hospitals, professional associations Rotary Clubs and others order these chairs which have a silk-screened logo applied by hand to the back of the chair."They make great retirement or graduation gifts," Thomas said.Harvard University has its own version of the chair, which is not the same design as the other college chairs,Thomas said. They have different logos for each of their schools -law,business,medical.Doug Delay, sales manager at s. Bent Brothers said most furniture factories in Gardner came from Heywood-Wakefield Company. S. Bent's was started in 1867 by Samuel Bent, who worked at Heywood's before going out on his own. His brother George started a separate company,Delay said.The business has always been located on Winter Street, but it has changed a lot in the past 122 years. Delay said the last expansion was about 15 to 18 years ago when the office building and part of the warehouse was enlarged.Delay said the company owns a sawmill in New Hampshire, and buys wood for its furniture right from local loggers. Some wood comes from other parts of New England, Ohio and Canada.Chet Sawicki, supervisor, said he has been with S. Bent's for 10 years. "When I first came here, we made only chairs.Now we make full dining rooms. We had to do thaL When you make just chairs,you're an accessory item." He said by adding the complete dining room sets, business got better.Delay said people come from all over the United States to buy Gardner furniture. He said three or four stores inGardner sell S. Bent furniture."They're all retail stores. If we sold factory direct at lower prices, we'd lose our retail distribution. Our own business might do-fine, but the total business would suffer. No retail wants to sell against a factory."Delay said the business is doing well."You've got to be progressive. You have to be a leader in the industry, not a follower. You have to offer high quality,well-styled, competitively-priced furniture.As long as you .provide these services, the buyers will-be happy."He said there is a lot of competition from Carolina and Virginia-based companies,but added, "In my biased opinion,the northern manufacturers give a better value for the dollar."All furniture begins with little pieces of wood. The defects in the wood are cut out and different-sized panels are cut and glued together by machine into larger panels. The waste wood is pulverized and burnt in boilers to provide heat for the building.The larger panels become tables,chair seats or hutch panels. The smaller pieces are shaped into spindles for chairs. Machines do everything, with the help of a lot of skilled workmen. The machines do the cutting, boring, sanding and bending of chair backs, but it's the workers who must handle each piece properly to assure a quality product.Chairs are saturated with stain and individually wiped by hand. Only the human eye can detect defects in workmanship, so the chair industry will never be fully automated, Sawicki said.According to Sawicki, it takes a good six months to train a new worker.Signs in the factory area remind workers of the importance of their jobs."You expect quality in what you buy,our customers expect it in what you make."There are practically no "seconds"produced at the factory. Each piece is examined for defects. A chair or table with a defect is sent to the repair shop area. Parts are replaced to make a perfect chair. The few that can't be repaired easily are used in the company cafeteria, Sawicki said.Tony Menegoni said the steam and boiling room is more than 100 years old and the equipment used there is almost that old. To make the chair backs bend,the wood must be steamed or boiled and then slowly dried in a room known as a"hot box" to maintain their shape. He said a lot of the old machinery still does the job, so there's no need to change it.The final finishes are applied while the chairs are circling through the factory on a conveyor belt. The conveyor speed is timed so the chairs are dry by the time the next coat is applied. Menegoni said S. Bent's also does a big "college chair" business. "It's a great gift item."Last year the company won a leader ship award from the Greater GardnerChamber of Commerce for" 10 years of outstanding business achievements and continued commitment to enrich the economic well-being of the Greater Gardner area. Image is of the article "Keeping Chair City Alive" by Marilyn Haynes, pages four and five, in the May 10, 1989 Gardner Today News and Entertainment Weekly. Published by the Worcester Newspapers, Inc. Text and images published courtesy of and with permission from the author, Marilyn Haynes. Is part of the W. Joseph Carr Collection, LaChance Library, Mount Wachusett Community College, Gardner, Massachusetts, http://www.mwcc.edu/Html/Library/index.html. For further information, see the Greater Gardner Furniture History Documentary Project website, http://www.mwcc.edu/gardnerfurniture/default.html.
|Mount Wachusett Community College|
|Furniture industry and trade--Massachusetts--Gardner|
S. Bent & Brothers, Inc
Nichols and Stone Company
Text and images are the property of the Mount Wachusett Community College and are protected by copyright. Other individuals or entities other than, and in addition to, the Mount Wachusett Community College may also own copyrights and other propriety rights. The Mount Wachusett Community College prohibits the copying of any protected materials on this website except for non-commercial use. A credit line is required and should read: Courtesy of Mount Wachusett Community College. The copyright symbol should accompany the reproduction if applicable. Commercial use of Mount Wachusett Community College property is subject to publication fees and/or royalties. Contact host institution for more information.