A Visit to Phoenix Furniture Co., 1878
by William A. LeRow
“One morning I sharpened my Faber, left the inviting portals of the “Morton,” wended my way across the Grand River, and entered the great establishment of the Phoenix Furniture Co. Alighting from his buggy at the door just as I arrived, I recognized the stalwart form and kindly face of William A. Berkey, that large hearted gentleman who is the father, so to speak, of furniture manufacturing in Grand Rapids, and President of the Phoenix Furniture Co.
I was received with the courtesy that he extends to members of the “press gang” and was soon domiciled in the pleasant office of the company. I am indebted to Mr. Berkey for a large share of my information concerning the inception and remarkable growth of the furniture and kindred interests of Grand Rapids, and through him I arrived at many of the bottom facts of the business. After a chat with my old friends in the office I was taken under the wing of Mr. Berkey and shown the establishment from top to bottom and on all sides. Mr. Berkey is an older brother of Julius Berkey, president of the Berkey & Gay Furniture Co.
The Phoenix Co. began operations in the fall of 1873 with a cash outlay, for buildings, machinery, and stock, of nearly $200,000. No sooner had it started than the great financial tornado—the panic of 1873—occurred, which for time threatened to throttle the company in its infancy. Thanks to the pluck and the financial ability of its president, it has not only weathered the storm, but has grown to be one of the very largest concerns here, doing an enormous and extended business, and having an enviable reputation for its goods. Mr. Berkey has written a standard work entitled The Money Question, a question that is to most of us a momentous conundrum.
GETTING THE LUMBER
My introduction to the works of this company was at the sawmill. While it is not one of the largest in the country, it is one of the most complete, being 45x112 feet, and two stories high. To see the great circular saws, one above the other, reduce a log eight feet in diameter into boards in a few moments was an interesting spectacle.
The have large logging gangs constantly in the woods getting out their lumber supply, which, including what they purchase, amounts to the enormous figure of a million and a half feet per annum. About one half of this is walnut lumber, and the average stock on hand of all kinds is about two million feet. About 80,000 feet is constantly in their dry kiln. An engine of 300 horsepower, using a 30-inch drive belt, heats and furnishes power for the entire factory. A device is employed by which the sawdust from the mill 200 feet away is fed to the boiler fires automatically.
In the woodworking department is an exceptionally fine array of machinery, some of it being of novel construction. This is in their main building which is 200x75 feet and four stories high. The lumber shed for seasoned stock is 200x30 feet. The works total six acres in all. Everywhere one notices the excellent arrangement of every detail of this vast and complex manufactory. It has the reputation of being one of the best arranged in the United States and employs about 450 men.
The company carries a stock of choice veneers with a value of $12,000 to $15,000. In veneering, marquetry making, carving and finishing, they employ large and skilled forces of men. They are about to go into the manufacture on a large scale of upholstered work, and they have the facilities for this production. They will enter into competition with the best concerns in the country, and if the success of their talented designer, Mr. D.W. Kendall, is as great on parlor work as it has been on other work, the success of the company’s new venture will be immediate and lasting.
In their designing room I was permitted to examine some work of rare beauty, entirely new, and destined as a surprise to the spring trade. The salesrooms of the company are heavily stocked with pleasing and salable varieties of chamber and parlor work, and it is a place where an appreciative soul loves to linger.
Their business shows a marked increase over that of 1877, which was very large. In October 1878 the gross sales of the company amounted to $816,200, and still they are ambitious. Their customers dot the land from Halifax to San Francisco. Mr. A.L. Baldwin is the popular superintendent of their New York branch, at 177 Canal Street, where a heavy stock of their goods, finished and in the wood, is constantly carried. Mr. H.S. Ward is now representing the company among our British cousins, and is opening up a good trade over there. The company has already done an export business of a satisfactory character. Though the youngest of the great manufacturers here, the company ably sustains the high reputation that furniture of this city has achieved.”
Excerpted from, “Our Grand Rapids Letter, Nov. 20, 1878.” The American Cabinet Maker, Upholsterer and Carpet Reporter, December 7, 1878, page 14