Old chair factory in Michigan


Grand Ledge Chair Company Plant, Grand Ledge Michigan
Date added: February 24, 2023 Categories:
1906 factory facade from south (1987)

The Grand Ledge Chair Company Plant is the only example surviving in the Grand Ledge-Lansing area of a furniture-manufacturing complex built during the heyday of the furniture-manufacturing industry in southern Michigan in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It housed one of Grand Ledge's principal industrial concerns and largest employers in the early twentieth century. The 1906 brick factory building is the best preserved and least altered example of turn-of-the-century factory design in the Grand Ledge-Lansing area and exemplifies the use of fire-resistant mill construction techniques characteristic of Michigan factory design of the period.

Furniture manufacturing flourished in southern Michigan in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, because of the availability of high-quality wood from the deciduous forests of the central and northern Lower Peninsula and the development of railroad lines which facilitated the shipping of raw materials as well as finished products. The reputation for fine quality furniture which Grand Rapids had achieved in the wake of its furniture manufacturers' popular displays at the 1876 Centennial Exposition perhaps also had a spin-off effect. The result was that plants manufacturing furniture for the home, school, church, lodge hall, and other commercial and institutional uses were established in many smaller southern Michigan towns, such as Sturgis, Allegan, Hastings, Ionia, Northville, and Ann Arbor, beginning in the 1880s and down to the 1920s. The Grand Ledge Chair Company fits into the general pattern.

The Grand Ledge Chair Company originated in 1874 as a small furniture shop located near the corner of Bridge and River Streets in the center of Grand Ledge. The original firm, variously called the Grand Ledge or Michigan Chair Company, was reorganized and incorporated on December 1st, 1888 as the Grand Ledge Chair Company by the three original owners, Thomas Garrett, Harry Jordan, and Edward Crawford of Grand Rapids. The three sold out in 1893 to Edward H. Turnbull and George W. Fletcher. Turnbull soon bought out Fletcher's interests.

Under the management of Turnbull, who lived nearby on West Jefferson Street, the company prospered. In 1902, Turnbull, along with relatives David Bell and George Coryell, founded the Grand Ledge Table Company and constructed a three-story factory, a power house, and a one-story mill building on the newly acquired Perry Street site. The company intended to manufacture living room tables, but chair orders increased to the point of requiring additional facilities, and some of the chair production was relocated to the Perry Street site. Between 1902 and 1905, Turnbull purchased both the Coryell and Bell interests. He then expanded his operations in 1906 by constructing a large three-story brick building adjacent to the existing Table Company Building and connecting them at the third floors. This new building provided product finishing on the third floor, upholstering and storage on the second, and shipping and offices on the first floor.

Edward Turnbull died in 1916, leaving the chair company to his wife, Emma A. Turnbull. Emma, along with trusted key employees, continued to manage the company through the Depression years and a 1941 unionization, until her death in 1944. At that time, the company was willed to her youngest sister, Mrs. Raymond Hull, who, along with her husband Raymond, managed the company through a lengthy strike and incorporation in 1949. Mrs. Hull died in 1950, leaving the company to her family. The firm was managed by her husband until 1966 and for the next seven years by Mrs. Hull's grandsons. In December 1973 the company became the Grand Ledge Chair Company, Division of Holabird Company, a manufacturing holding company. Finally, due to falling sales, the factory was permanently closed in the fall of 1981.

One of the most significant historical impacts of this company is its employment over the years of the company's existence. The population of Grand Ledge grew from 1,378 in 1890 to about 3,000 in 1910. This same period saw the development of the chair factory, along with a brick works and two sewer/conduit pipe plants, as the principal industries in town. Although accurate accounts are difficult to obtain, an 1884 account listed "17 hands employed" at the Chair Company. A later report in the Detroit Free Press in 1901 noted 100 employees. In early 1906, the Grand Ledge Independent reported that the business employed 225 men the full year with a payroll of $8,000 per month and, with the completion of the new brick building, Mr. Turnbull was predicting employing an additional 400 men. However, in a November 13th, 1926 article in the Lansing State Journal, only 200 employees were reported. In 1936, 130 men and women were employed with a payroll at the peak of 15,000 every two weeks. Another State Journal report on November 23rd, 1941 (the year of unionization) claimed 250 were employed. In 1948, there were 116 employees and "many home workers," mostly women weavers creating cattail chair seats and backs. By August 2nd, 1964, the workforce had dwindled to 70 workers.

Research into the Annual Reports of the State Bureau of Labor noted the employment of 113 men and 2 women in 1902, 158 men and 6 women in 1906, 110 men and 3 women in 1912, 77 men and 7 women in 1915, and 110 men and 26 women in 1920, the last of the Annual Reports.

It appears that the optimistic 1906 report by Mr. Turnbull of being able to employ 600 men and women was a bit of "chest thumping." However, it is very apparent the factory was the largest employer for many years in the Grand Ledge community. There was hardly a family in the area that didn't have at least one member as a Chair Factory employee.

A second significant historical impact of the company is the product that was produced. The company, though with very small beginnings in a carpenter shop, soon received substantial acclaim for the quality and design of the chair produced. Even in 1934, an account in the local newspaper identified the Grand Ledge Chair Company product as being distributed worldwide. The company sold primarily to the quantity buyer or large contract sales. Locals could, however, purchase a variety of the chairs in the Tucker Department Store. Meanwhile, entire shipments of chairs were arriving at institutions such as Michigan State University, University of Michigan, Indiana University, and others. The chairs also graced the parlors of hotels, embassies, corporate offices, and similar businesses. Perhaps the company's greatest glory and national recognition came when 2,800 chairs were chosen to furnish the Library of Congress and the Rayburn Office Building in Washington, D.C. in 1964. Today many of the remaining chairs grace homes and museums as collector pieces, remnants of an era of fine woods, craftsmanship, and elegant design.

The Chair Company's three-story, brick, factory building is today unique in the Grand Ledge-Lansing area as a little altered example of a turn-of-the-century factory design constructed with a timber framing system. The building's design exemplifies the standard "mill construction" of the period that was designed to be fire resistant and to reduce fire damage to a minimum. The ideal, fire-resistant factory building of the period had masonry exterior walls to discourage the entrance into the building of a fire originating outside and a heavy timber frame substantial enough that it would continue to provide support even if the timbers were reduced in section dimensions through burning or the floors had unusually heavy loading from water poured on the fire. Finally, the interior was designed with the framing and flooring fully exposed to view and without craw] spaces or hollow partitions. This made fighting any fire which did break out much simpler. The Grand Ledge Chair Company 1906 building seems to exemplify all these design innovations, which were coming into com mon use in Michigan only in the 1890s.

Building Description

The Grand Ledge Chair Company Plant is located near the western edge of the city of Grand Ledge. It occupies a seven-acre site on level ground atop a wooded bluff overlooking the Grand River. A Pere Marquette Railroad line forms the northwest border of the complex and crosses the Grand River directly adjacent to the plant's river frontage. The plant contains three buildings and four structures. The principal building, which terminates the view along the short street providing access to the site, is a long and narrow, three-story, brick factory building built in 1906. The site also contains a small, frame factory building, brick power house, and veneer storage shed built of clay tile.

The factory complex is located at the end of Perry Street, a short, minor street containing several modest, turn-of-the-century, frame houses. The 1906 factory stands at the end of the street and is highly visible from the West Jefferson Street intersection, the ornamental central part of the facade, crowned by a water tower, being positioned directly in line with Perry Street. The grounds in front of the 1906 building to the right of Perry Street and behind the 1906 building back to the river bluff are level lawn areas containing a scattering of old deciduous trees. Some parts of the grounds have become somewhat overgrown in the years since furniture manufacturing ceased.

The 1906 factory building is 353.5 feet long by fifty feet wide and is three stories in height and built of cream-color brick with red brick accents. This structure, which housed the assembly, finishing, and shipping processes of the chair company, exemplifies heavy, timber, mill construction typical of the tum-of-the-century period. The building has a flat, built-up roof. Except for enclosed staircases, the building interior on each floor is largely a single open space with exposed plank flooring above floor joists for a ceiling and chamfered-edge vertical posts. The building's facade has a regular fenestration of double-hung windows set into segmental-arch heads. The portion of the facade fronting on Perry Street is treated in a somewhat more ornamental fashion, with a stepped-gable design containing in its center the main entrance and tripartite windows in the second and third stories above it. The parapets have corbelled brick detailing below the cornice line. Perched atop the roof on a square, brick base and in line with the main entrance is a wood-slat water tank held together with steel bands. Water penetration since the closing of the furniture operation has caused considerable damage to framing members as well as brickwork in parts of the building.

Immediately to the west of the 1906 building is a low, steel-frame, sheet-steel-sided warehouse structure constructed in 1957-58. Used originally for cutting, shaping, and assembly operations, this replaced the original three-story, frame factory building at this site.

To the north of the 1957-58 structure is a thirty-two by one hundred twelve-foot, one-story, frame building that was part of the original factory building. Part of this building has collapsed and the remainder is ruinous.

West of the 1957-58 structure and the frame factory building are the foundation remains and rubble from a bending room, engineering room and storage, and drying kiln, demolished several years ago.

North of the frame factory building remnant is a red brick boiler house structure that dates from 1902. This flat-roof, steel-frame structure was enlarged at some undetermined time after the original construction to contain an additional boiler. The structure adjoined a railroad siding and the steel-frame canopy covering the siding survives on the structure's north side. The boiler house is severely deteriorated.

The final factory structure on the grounds is a one-story, twenty by fifty-three-foot, clay tile veneer storage shed. This gable-roof structure has settled unevenly and one part of a wall has collapsed.

The property also contains a one-story, modern, brick house and garage behind it. These are located on the east side of Perry Street in front of the 1906 factory building. On the west side of Perry Street in front of the 1906 building is a parking lot.

At one time, smaller structures existed on the site, including an oil house and storage structure near the center of the property, a storage and glue structure north of the original wood factory and east of the boiler house, and a stock shed and storage structure in the southwest corner of the site. Railroad sidings penetrated the site near the boiler house, the kiln, and along the north side of the brick factory. Only minor above-ground remains of these improvements exist.

In the late 1980s the 1906 factory building was rehabilitated into apartments and the other buildings were demolished.

Grand Ledge Chair Company Plant, Grand Ledge Michigan 1906 factory from west-southwest (1987)
1906 factory from west-southwest (1987)

Grand Ledge Chair Company Plant, Grand Ledge Michigan 1906 factory facade from south (1987)
1906 factory facade from south (1987)

Grand Ledge Chair Company Plant, Grand Ledge Michigan Center of 1906 factory facade from southeast (1987)
Center of 1906 factory facade from southeast (1987)

Grand Ledge Chair Company Plant, Grand Ledge Michigan 1906 factory, 2<sup>nd</sup> floor facing west (1987)
1906 factory, 2nd floor facing west (1987)

Grand Ledge Chair Company Plant, Grand Ledge Michigan 1906 factory, 3<sup>rd</sup> floor facing west (1987)
1906 factory, 3rd floor facing west (1987)

Grand Ledge Chair Company Plant, Grand Ledge Michigan 1906 factory and veneer storage shed from northeast (1987)
1906 factory and veneer storage shed from northeast (1987)

Grand Ledge Chair Company Plant, Grand Ledge Michigan Veneer storage shed from northeast (1987)
Veneer storage shed from northeast (1987)

Grand Ledge Chair Company Plant, Grand Ledge Michigan Veneer storage shed, original factory, boilerhouse from southeast (1987)
Veneer storage shed, original factory, boilerhouse from southeast (1987)

Grand Ledge Chair Company Plant, Grand Ledge Michigan Original factory and boiler house from south-southeast (1987)
Original factory and boiler house from south-southeast (1987)

Grand Ledge Chair Company Plant, Grand Ledge Michigan Original factory and boiler house from east-southeast (1987)
Original factory and boiler house from east-southeast (1987)

Grand Ledge Chair Company Plant, Grand Ledge Michigan 1957 warehouse and 1906 factory with remains of demolished structures to the west from west-northwest (1987)
1957 warehouse and 1906 factory with remains of demolished structures to the west from west-northwest (1987)