Given the dizzying acceleration of change nowadays, people still crave objects made with artistry, with attention to quality and detail and, most importantly, by hand. This is especially true among log-home owners, who cherish wood and craftsmanship.
Where better to find such tradition and pride than in America’s heartland? Here, in Shelbyville, Indiana, the Old Hickory Furniture Company, founded in 1892, flourishes despite the abundance of crude imports and machine-made imitations. And, while other factories also offer their own quality version of handmade furniture, Old Hickory has been the industry standard for more than a century.
Old Hickory furniture is so familiar to log-home owners that some regard it more as a style than a brand. Its familiar rustic look has been linked to log homes since frontier days, when westward-bound pioneers discovered that hickory saplings were ideal for furniture. Small-diameter hickory trees flourished throughout the Midwest, growing straight and tall, although their diameter rarely exceeded a few inches, even at maturity. Settlers experimented with the durable hardwood and found it could be soaked in water and then bent to make hoops, and its inner bark could be woven to make seats and backs. Its use spread, and many villages throughout the East soon had people making hickory furniture, especially in the mountains of western North Carolina, where hickory was plentiful.
No one thought to turn hickory furniture into a full-fledged business, though, until Billy Richardson. Originally from North Carolina, where he learned his craft as a child, he sold his chairs from a horse-drawn wagon in Martinsville, Indiana. The story goes that Richardson and his father years earlier had built chairs for the Hermitage, the Tennessee retreat of President Andrew Jackson, who was known as “Old Hickory.” Eventually, Richardson took on partners and, touting his association with America’s first log-cabin president, established the Old Hickory Chair Company.
In the early 20th century, the company’s reputation spread. Its comfortable and durable chairs, tables and settees furnished most of the new national park lodges, for instance. The Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone National Park still uses Old Hickory dining-room chairs that date to 1906.
It was not unusual in those early years for journalists to wax poetic, often to the point of hyperbole, even about furniture. A turn-of-the-century article from the Martinsville newspaper observed: “The Old Hickory Chair Co., of Martinsville, is not only a benefit to the city which fosters the industry but one to the whole human race, wherever their goods have found an abode. It is perpetuating comfort against the trend of modern idea.”
Poets of the era also found inspiration in the company’s creations. This stanza (out of 11) by a proud Martinsville citizen appeared in the local newspaper:
“We make the best brick, and the best wooden-ware,
We’re the home of the gold-fish, and the ‘Old Hickory Chair.’
We may see our own products, or the fish in the bowl,
And the thought of our city, gives a thrill to the soul.”
For more than a century, the company has reflected changes in America’s style and use of furniture. Take Old Hickory’s 1900 catalog description of the porch: “Far from being a mere entrance to the house and a receptacle for worn-out furniture, (it) has become an indispensable part of the ideal home, the mark of its completeness.” The catalog continues, “For at least four months out of every year, the porch is the living room of the home, and its artistic decorations require as much taste as the interior of the house.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Today’s log-home owners do indeed respect the design of the porch—and now the deck. They enjoy furnishing those two outside areas as much as they do their interior rooms. They understand that the deck and porch are not only their home’s face to the world, but also areas essential to a log-home lifestyle. That need wasn’t—and isn’t—lost on the furniture makers at Old Hickory.
Since 1900, the company has expanded its line to include other types of furniture, changed its name to the Old Hickory Furniture Company and moved from Martinsville to Shelbyville, a good 50 miles from its original site. Otherwise, little is different about the company’s aesthetic. Old Hickory still builds its small log and twig pieces by having each one go through the many hands-on workstations. Also unchanged is the furniture’s durability.
This story ran longer and more photos appeared in the July 2007 issue of Log Homes Illustrated. Call (800) 258-0929 to order this issue and click here to subscribe.