Grand Rapids - which proudly calls itself the "Furniture Capital

of America" - is named for the rapids on the Grand River, which

drop the river a distance of 8 feet at that location before sending it

on another 25 miles to Lake Michigan. The point at which it was founded

was the best place to ford the river, first by Indians, then by

pioneers, finally by roads. The river has a wide floodplain, on which

development first occurred. Today's downtown area in the floodplain

is protected by concrete walls that keep the river within its bounds.

The river as transportation and the great forests of Michigan as a

material source, replacing the depleted eastern forests, were all that

was needed to set Grand Rapids on a course that would take it to world

fame as "Furniture City."

The ancient forests of the upper Midwest were ignored until those of

the northern East Coast were almost used up. Then it was discovered that

Grand Rapids lies directly on the dividing line between northern

softwoods and southern hardwoods. Here, furniture makers had great

choice in the woods to use - oak, maple, basswood, walnut, ash, beech,

and pine.

By 1850, there were almost 600 sawmills in the state, and vast

quantities of the cut logs were floated down the Grand River go to Grand

Rapids. Less-than-honest sawmill owners often snatched from the river

logs that weren't theirs, a theft call hogging - very different

from the "hogging" in today's furniture factories. Those

600 sawmills were just the beginning. From 1870 to 1890, timber was cut

at the rate of 33,000 acres a year.

Beds, coffins, and innovation

As was usual in any developing community, infant Grand Rapids had

several cabinetmaking shops. Premier among them, around 1836, was the

shop of William Haldane. More commonly known as Deacon Haldane, he

produced both beds and coffins - two items of equal importance in a

frontier community. Haldane and other newcomers hailed from New England,

especially the Boston area, where furniture-making was in full flourish.

In Michigan, they found themselves surrounded by great forests, with a

convenient power source in the river's falls and a ready market in

their growing community.

Although their firms did not last, David Wooster, Zephaniah Adams,

and John L. Smith were pioneers in using the river. Their chair-making

shop was powered by the falls on the adjacent river.

Making the assumption that an industry cannot be founded until the

company, or companies, comprising it sell beyond their local community,

the founding business in what became the Grand Rapids furniture industry

was a partnership of William Powers with E. M. Ball. Ball was a

schoolteacher from New Hampshire who showed up in 1849 with money to

start a business, just as Powers was in serious need of funds to expand.

Within only a few months, their lumber and furniture-making business was

supplying a large order for chairs to be delivered to Chicago. They also

opened a showroom-retail store in downtown Grand Rapids.

The Powers and Ball factory was powered by steam power straight from the source and had a

belt-driven circular saw. It employed more than 30 men. Ball, fascinated

by the whole process, wrote home that the factory was so efficient at

making Windsor chairs that, "We can, almost as it were, throw whole

trees into the hopper and go now grind out chairs ready for use."

As entrepreneurs saw the success of Powers and Ball, they, too, began

small furniture-making companies. In 1854, William Haldane took on a

partner from New Hampshire, E. W. Winchester. But apparently the

relationship was just a holding pattern for Winchester because when his

brother arrived the following year, the two formed Winchester Brothers.

Haldane later took on another parmer named Abbott.

The Winchesters failed to survive the recession of 1857 and their

assets went into the hands of C. C. Comstock, a lumber merchant. He

didn't succeed in selling the company, and so had to make the

company succeed instead. One move responsible for his success was the

opening of Grand Rapids' first distant showroom, located at Peoria,

Illinois, in 1861, followed quickly by one at St. Louis, Missouri.

Comstock's enterprise eventually turned into the Nelson-Matter Co.

In 1856, George Widdicomb arrived from England, with four eager sons.

George worked in the Winchester Brothers factory for a year and then

opened his own firm, with his sons supplying the labor. Soon thereafter,

William A. Berkey also arrived in town with his brother, Julius.

Although William opened a millwork shop, brother Julius used a corner of

the shop to make tables and start the furniture enterprise that soon

became Berkey and Gay, a major player on the national furniture scene

for the next 80 years.

Grand Rapids was not just making furniture. It was also making the

machinery to make furniture - an important factor in the city's

becoming a vital location in furniture history. Grand Rapids Iron Works and the Valley City Foundry Co. were important sources of machinery. And

when a railroad - the Detroit, Grand Haven and Milwaukee, later called

the Grand Trunk - finally found its way to Grand Rapids in 1858,

industry finally had reliable, year-round transportation. In addition,

after false starts by other people, Grand Rapids residents A. D. Linn and Z. Clark Thwing developed the first successful kiln-drying

apparatus. The city was beginning to grow as a furniture center,

prepared to distribute its products to the entire Midwest.

Many other furniture companies were started. Not all succeeded,

however. Some were brought down by inadequate financing, which made them

fail during the Depression of 1873. One company that struggled for the

first few years but finally lived up to its prospectus was the Grand

Rapids Chair Co., founded by C. C. Comstock and his colleagues to

produce nothing but chairs.

"Furniture City"

In 1876, three major companies sent special star products to the

Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Berkey and Gay, Nelson, Matter,

and Phoenix Furniture Company all won medals for their spectacular

entries. Nelson, Matter's three-piece suite consisted of an

incredible 6,000 pieces of six different kinds of wood.

Proudly, the Centennial Exposition medallists opened showrooms in New

York City. The name "Grand Rapids" began to be synonymous with


Drawn by the national recognition the city was receiving, buyers

began making the trip to Grand Rapids to select their purchases on site.

Although annual sales events may have started earlier, the first

recognized furniture market was opened in December of 1878. At that

time, Berkey and Gay held a widely advertised auction of its goods,

drawing buyers from all over. Other manufacturers, recognizing the

opportunity, held their own sales.

Within a few short years, manufacturers from other parts of the

country began to take advantage of the Grand Rapids market and rented

exhibit space of their own. Eventually the market became a semi-annual

routine lasting several weeks each January and July. When rental space

ran out, the Waters-Klingman Building, with 8 acres of floor space, was

built specifically for furniture showrooms.

Starting about 1880, when Stow-Davis opened its doors, the production

of office furniture developed side by side with home furniture. Many of

the classic metal-legged classroom desks with wood tops that generations

of children etched their initials in came from the factory of the Grand

Rapids School Furniture Co., known today as American Seating Co. Today,

Grand Rapids is still the headquarters of the institutional and office

furniture business.

In 1883, after heavy rains, the flooding Grand River let loose its

vast load of logs. They smashed into the growing city's read here downtown

area, crushing buildings, tearing apart three bridges and generally

wreaking havoc. The damage did not last long, however, and by 1890,

Grand Rapids had 31 functioning furniture companies employing more than

4,000 people and selling more than $6 million a year.

The wood supply still appeared to be endless. In 1889, Michigan led

all the states in the production of lumber, mainly white pine. In that

year, Michigan produced 4.3 million feet, compared with Wisconsin's

2.9 million and Pennsylvania's 2.1 million feet. But the end of

easy access to timber was just around the corner.

By the time that Wood & Wood Products' forerunner was

started in 1896, Grand Rapids furniture makers had weathered a

three-year depression and were having to buy their wood from distant

sources. In some ways, North Carolina, with its unexploited timber

supplies, was about to gain prominence. Even so, the heyday of Grand

Rapids was just beginning.


In 1922, a small pamphlet called Reflections Commemorating Fifty

Years' Progress in the Making of Fine Furniture by the Grand Rapids

Chair Co. related the history of furniture to the history of human

aspiration and pride. It concluded with the philosophy of E. H. Foote,

its general manager for more than forty years. He said that the company,

"... has made about all the mistakes that any human organization

could possibly make in the course of 50 years, but they were honest

mistakes for which it has paid in experience and cost. It has

overestimated and under-estimated public demands, it has over-sold and

under-sold its products, but down through the years it has learned that

quality furniture produced to meet average means, furniture that will

perform what is expected of it, that will give comfort to the user and

lend enchantment to the home, cannot be compromised. Wherever it goes,

furniture is either a credit or a discredit to its maker. It is its own

best salesman, and the problem before the modern manufacturer of good

furniture is how best he can live up to and, if possible, improve upon,

that which he has already produced."


An early issue of Popular Mechanics magazine pictured an attractive

baby crib made from a wooden barrel. The barrel was cut in half

lengthwise to a point just below the second hoop, leaving a canopy over

the baby's head. Staves were painted white and the hoops black, and

the barrel was bolted to a wooden frame.


In 1900, Thonet Brothers in Austria, producer of Thonet bentwood

chairs, was producing 15,000 pieces a day, mostly chairs. The simplest

Thonet bentwood design chair sold 50 million copies between 1859 and

1930, many of them as ready-to-assemble kits. The Thonet patent ran out

in 1869.