Grand Rapids Furniture Industry 1865-1875
by William Widdicomb
Widdicomb notes advances in the furniture industry via changes in city directories.
The first directory of Grand Rapids was published in 1865 (the first directory was published in 1859 and a business directory in 1856). It shows William Widdicomb the only additional name to those that I have already mentioned, and Berkey & Matter changed to Berkey Brothers & Company. This directory has an interesting account of our earlier days by Prof. Franklin Everett, descriptive of the progress of our city of about 10,000 inhabitants; yet in this long article there is not a single line about furniture manufacturing. It is evident our infant industry was not of sufficient moment to command any attention from the Professor.
The 1867 directory notes Berkey Brothers & Company as Berkey Brothers & Gay through the addition of George M. Gay to the firm. Widdicomb & Capen and Spanjer & Son are listed as manufacturers and E.W. Winchester resumes business.
In 1869 our City Directory mentions Widdicomb Bros. & Richards, “Manufacturers of Bedsteads” at Fourth Street and G.R.& I. Railroad, and Atkins, Soule & Company, corner Ottawa and Fairbanks Streets, as manufacturers of chamber furniture. The five men composing this firm were a partnership of workmen from Nelson, Comstock & Company who were not successful. They made an assignment of the company to William A. Berkey in 1870. Mr. Berkey continued the business for a time, eventually organizing the Phoenix Furniture Company out of it, which was the origin of the present Phoenix Furniture Co., manufacturer of parlor furniture
Several changes occurred about this time: Elias Matter withdrew from Berkey Brothers & Gay to enter Nelson, Comstock & Company through the purchase of T.A. Comstock’s interest, and that firm became Nelson, Matter & Co. The two junior partners, Mr. Pugh and Mr. Colson, died and their interest was purchased by Stephen S. Gay.
In 1872 William A. Berkey withdrew from Berkey Brothers & Gay, devoting his entire attention to the Phoenix Furniture Company’s affairs. More, Richards & Co. also appear, composed of More, Richards, DeLand, Foote, and Baars, doing business at the corner of Canal and Trowbridge Streets. Richards and DeLand retired and More, Foote & Baars continued the business on Butterworth Avenue, building the factory premises now occupied by the Valley City Desk Co. The Grand Rapids Chair Co. was incorporated in October of 1872 and the buildings erected in 1872 and 1873.
For a time the City Directory was published intermittently, and the directory for 1872 in its announcement says, “A good directory is a necessity in a city like this and the town is large enough to require an annual publication;” yet this necessity was not so urgent as to call for a classified list of its business concerns and industries. I did not find any additions to the manufacturing for that year.
In 1873 Berkey Brothers & Gay were incorporated as the Berkey & Gay Furniture Company, and Widdicomb Brothers & Richards as the Widdicomb Furniture Company.
In 1874 we find More, Foote & Baars changed into the Grand Rapids Furniture Company, Fred Baars withdrawing from the firm and taking an interest with the Widdicomb Furniture Company. That year lists several additions to the business: Sylvester Luther & Co., Michigan Furniture Co., and John Bradfield, upper Canal Street, the origin of the Luce Furniture Co.
Some six or eight workmen not mentioned in the directory formed a co-operative concern in 1875, which did not continue long in existence. It is peculiar that no manufacturing of this character has succeeded in this city, while nearly all the manufacturing establishments of Jamestown and Rockford originated in this manner.
Excerpted from, The Early History of the Furniture Industry in Grand Rapids, by William Widdicomb. Grand Rapids Historical Society. 1909. Grand Rapids Public Library, Coll #141-20-3