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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

Grand Rapids - Early Furniture Makers

by Albert Baxter

The first chair shop in Grand Rapids was in a small building, where was also the first turning lathe run by other than foot power, upon the little creek, which comes down from Division Street and discharges into the river a short distance below the Chicago and West Michigan Railway Bridge.

A portion of the foundation and race, or flume, where the shop stood, is yet discoverable, a little south of the gas works. It was built in 1835 by David Wooster and Zephaniah Adams, and in 1836 John L. Smith, a turner and chair maker worked there. (Robert M. Barr, a settler of 1834, says that Smith made the first chairs manufactured in this town, and the latter, in 1865, so stated to the writer of this).

Several of the pioneers now living have chairs, well preserved, that were made by Smith or Wooster as early as the spring of 1837 or earlier. When they began business doubtless 300 chairs would have supplied nearly all the settlers in this region. Soon came others who made chairs—William Haldane and Archibald Salmon among them. In 1841, Loren M. Page was carrying on the business in a small way, and advertising for material.

Then among those who in the forties were more or less engaged in the business, were James T. Finney, Warren W. Weatherly, and Nehemiah White. Mr. White was a thorough workman at this trade, it being his life occupation. He made the first flag-seat chairs for this market, and these were considered somewhat of a luxury in those days for common and even for parlor use. About 1848 William T. Powers had men engaged in chair making, and in 1849 Albert Baxter and Cyrus C. Bemis. The beginnings of chair making of course were small. Salmon, Haldane and Powers made it a part of their regular cabinet business, and it was generally carried on in connection with cabinetmaking. It was not until after the civil war, when the rapid development of our mechanical industries began in connection with machine work, that chair manufacture as an exclusive business assumed much importance. Yet as early as 1853, William T. Powers began the making of chairs for shipment, and sent large quantities of chair frames to the Chicago market in the "knock down" or unfinished state.

Source: History of the City of Grand Rapids by Albert Baxter. 1891.


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