Robert Eller

Coming up Monday night, April 24th, at Patrick Beaver Memorial Library is the debut of my new book, Well-Crafted: The History of Furniture Manufacturing in Western North Carolina. I invite you to come see me. After all the stories about the making of furniture in these columns over the last two years, the final resting place for them and more can be found in this book. Here’s how it all began.

As a kid in high school, my parents believed that I needed a taste of the real world. I suspect now that it was a spur to get me to want to go to college. I did not at the time. The school had a program where after morning classes, you went to a job in the afternoon. I loaded trucks, built pallets and swept up, whatever the warehouse needed.

I saw firsthand what life in a shop was like. The work, the boredom, the practical jokes, it was there everyday. I “grabbed it and grunted” as they said when a truck or a railroad car needed loading, gaining an education about the region’s core industry. I got caught up in shop traffic every afternoon, participated in the mad dash at lunch and break, and learned the politics of adult interaction, the hard way.Well-Crafted: The History of Furniture

After a long and sordid path to college, I was in grad school looking for a thesis subject. Ba-bing. Furniture! Back in those days, researching the topic was primitive by current standards. I wrote about a sixth of what is in the current book, looking for the origins. Why here? How did it get started? Who started it? How did they make a go of it?

Each company had a different birth but collectively, they built an industry that the rest of the nation noticed, and bought.

When I worked in furniture, it was in the 70s, the heyday of the business. Factories were pumping out chairs, tables, beds, chests and dressers. The smell of varnish hung in the air. You couldn’t get around in Hickory every April and October, when the furniture market was in town. Heady days. However, by the time I wrote the thesis, things had changed. Everyone was worried about “offshoring” and they were right to be concerned. It looked like the death of a once dominate industry. For years, I thought that writing the story would be a ‘rise and fall’ tale of a great business, lost in a post-modern world.

The downturn was striking, hard and at times, cruel. Once corporate takeover occurred, peoples lives in Hickory, Morganton and Lenoir changed, and not for the better. One far-off furniture executive said that they were not closing factories fast enough. Back on the production line, folks were bewildered, then bitter, and right to be.

It took a few conversations with furniture icon Leroy Lail to resurrect the idea that a book on the area’s furniture industry could be something more than the story of an industry train wreck. He rightly pointed to the fact that upholstery never really left. Talking to him and legends like John Bray, both excellent historians in their own right, helped me see that this tale had a rebirth angle to it. In terms of employment and pride, the industry is so much better off now than it was fifteen years ago, when all looked bleak. So here we are, the time is right and the book is out.

The event starts at 6:00pm. Bring your questions and your stories. We should all celebrate what our great-grandparents started back in the 19th century, an industry sector that sends its product to the rest of the world, and one that has put a lot of food on a lot of foothills tables. It should be a good conversation. I’ll save you a seat.