By William Widdicomb.

The Pioneer Cabinet Maker—Williaim Haldane—Other Early Workmen—History of the Development—Progress By Years.

The furniture industry of Grand Rapids had its birth in the system prevailing eighty or more years ago in the smaller towns throughout the country.

The cabinet maker produced by hand the simple pieces of furniture required, offering them for sale in his own workshop, or, when the business was sufficiently advanced, a small salesroom adjoining.

Usually the cabinet maker was both workman and merchant.

All of the earlier efforts at furniture making in our city were of this character.

The first cabinet maker to appear in our valley was William Haldane, so long and pleasantly known as "Deacon" Haldane.

His home and little cabinet shop were located where now stands the Michigan Trust Building.

Archibald Salmon came at about the same time and had a shop near Deacon Haldane's. Samuel F. Butler appeared not long after, locating on Bond Avenue, near the present Reid Auto Company's garage.

Several years later Abraham Snively established a little furniture store in a building where the Morton House now stands.

Deacon Haldane only of these men remained permanently in the business, passing away at a good old age not many years ago.

At about the time of Deacon Haldane's arrival David Wooster, Zephaniah Adams and John L. Smith had a chair shop about where the present gas works are located, for which power was afforded by the small stream running down from Division Street; and here was the first furniture produced with the aid of power.

There is little evidence now that a stream sufficiently large to furnish power existed at that spot, yet I can clearly recall the brook which entered Grand River just below the lower boat landing, after meandering through the lowland.

The dam had entirely disappeared, but some of the timbers and other evidences of the water power were there in my earlier days.

It may surprise you to know that a stream of this magnitude existed where now there is not the slightest trace of such stream, nor even the valley through which it flowed.

In this little water power shop chairs were made to be peddled around the country among the few settlers.

It is said this power was used as early as 1834 by Smith, yet further enquiry which I have made does not confirm this fact. Deacon Haldane always claimed he was the pioneer cabinet maker of the valley.

These earlier settlers were followed by Loren W. Page, James T. Finney and Nehemiah White and, later on, by William T. Powers, Albert Baxter and Cyrus C. Bemis.

Baxter's History of Grand Rapids states that Powers and Haldane introduced working by machinery about 1847.

This first use of power was on the canal in a portion of the sash and blind shop which Deacon Haldane's brother was then operating, and was simply the use of the machines the brother had in the sash and blind business.

About 1853 the Deacon set up a small steam engine on the bank of the river, where his cabinet shop had been located for several years, at the place now occupied by the central portion of the Pantlind Hotel Building.

The first furniture manufacturing of any magnitude with the aid of power was established by William T. Powers on the canal bank at Erie street.

E. Morris Ball became a partner of Mr. Powers jn 1851, with a store on Pearl Street where now is the Rood block.

Mr. Powers retired from the firm in 1855 and the business was continued by Ball, Noyes & Colby.

It is well known that at about this time one or two of the Pullman Brothers appeared and conducted a small furniture establishment upon old Canal Street, opposite Crescent Street.

E. W. and S. A. Winchester built a factory at the foot of Lyon Street, where the excavation had been made for a lock at the time the canal was built, the original intent of the canal being an improvement in navigation, rather than a factor for producing water power.

The Winchester Brothers' store was upon old Canal Street where the present Heyman Company's store is located.

The severe panic of 1857 compelled the Winchester Brothers to transfer their business to C. C. Comstock, which date represents Mr. Comstock's connection with furniture manufacturing.

Mr. Comstock succeeded in keeping the business alive during the strenuous times and conditions prevailing after the 1857 panic until the greater activity appeared resulting from the war, and in 1863 formed a partnership with Messrs. James and Ezra Nelson, the name becoming Comstock, Nelson & Company.

In 1865 T. A. Comstock, Mr. Comstock's son, was taken into the firm, also Manly G. Colson and James A. Pugh, who were foremen in the manufacturing departments, the firm name changing again to Nelson, Comstock & Co.

In 1857 George Widdicomb rented a room in the pail factory, south of Bridge Street Bridge then operated by David Caswell, having his store on old Canal Street directly opposite Bronson Street, now Crescent street.

The present Godfrey residence, east of Fulton Street Park, was occupied during the early war days by Henry Wilson as a cabinet shop.

He was the first cabinet maker to produce furniture of the finer quality.

No doubt there are yet in Grand Rapids pieces of the furniture which he made.

Prior to that time any expensive furniture was shipped from the East by way of the Lakes and Grand River to the city.

I recall some very sumptuous furniture brought here by Dr. Shepard about 1858, it having been seriously injured in transit, and my father was called upon to make the necessary repairs.

While my father had shipped furniture to Milwaukee prior to the war, the manufacturing business, as we understand it today, was established by Julius Berkey in 1860, with Alphonso Hamm as a partner, in a small shop on Erie street, Chicago being the market for what they produced.

The partnership was soon dissolved, for Mr. Hamm was an exceedingly visionary man and there could be no accord between him and a man of Julius Berkey's energetic and prudent character.

Later Julius Berkey occupied a small portion of the second floor in a factory building built by William A. Berkey in the Fall of 1857, where the present Berkey & Gay Company's factory now stands.

It was a great barnlike structure of two floors, 50 by 100 feet in dimension, used as a planing mill and sash, door and blind factory.

William A. Berkey was a very hopeful man and felt confident the day was not far distant when he could develop sufficient business to occupy these great premises.

The times were very stringent and this hope was not realized until in the years following the war.

Julius Berkey's small part of the second floor was enclosed from the remainder of the open lofty building, and there he engaged in making a walnut table which was soon known as the "Berkey table," a little, inexpensive affair and the origin of the widely known and magnificent Berkey & Gay business.

Mr. Berkey continued the business with a fair degree of success and in 1862 formed a partnership with Elias Matter, Mr. Berkey, perhaps, having the experience and Mr. Matter a very small sum of money as capital.

Let me say a word of my personal recollection of each of these two men.

I came to Grand Rapids, Oct. 1, 1856, and found employment immediately with the Winchester Brothers, boarding at a small place on Bond street, where stands the Bertsch Building.

My mechanical instincts led me down to the sawmills on the canal in the evening after the work of the day.

There, in a planing mill on the south side of Erie street where now stands the Bissell Company's office, I saw a fine looking, stalwart young man feeding pine strips into a flooring planer.

As I watched the work with much interest the young man greeted me pleasantly, and I remarked that I had worked some in a planing mill at Havana, N. Y. I made other visits to him during the Fall, and thus my acquaintance with Julius Berkey began.

From that day to his death our acquaintance was intimate and pleasant, Mr. Berkey's courtesy and ability always commanding my respect and esteem.

Before the war days Elias Matter was working as a chair maker in the Winchester shop where I had found employment, and during the winter months, when business was dull, he took up the occupation of school teaching—was a successful country district school teacher and, as I clearly recollect, a man of exceptional energy.

I recall when he was teaching district’ school at what is now known as Ravenna, then Crockery Creek.

He taught school for $18 a month and five evenings out of the seven gave writing lessons in several district schools from two to six miles distant from his own school, at $1 per term of twelve lessons.

Mr. Matter would walk this distance each evening after his own school was closed, teach the writing school until 9 o'clock and walk back to where he happened to be boarding under the old system of "boarding 'round" for the teacher.

Mr. Matter accumulated a modest sum in this manner, and this was the money which enabled him to become Julius Berkey's partner, his capital being about the same as the value of Mr. Berkey's machinery, which had been made almost entirely by his own hands.

I will have a word or two more to say later on regarding Mr. Berkey's vigorous personality and the manner in which he so successfully developed his business.

Buddington & Turnham made an effort at manufacturing some time in 1862.

The early residents yet living will recall the Commodore who conducted an auction store on Monroe Street in a little building adjoining the Rathbun House.

As I was in the war I have no knowledge of what persuaded the Commodore to enter into a business of which he was totally ignorant, unless it were Mr. Turnham's persuasions.

They were an illy assorted pair and did not continue long in existence, but did produce two of the capable furniture manufacturers of our city, E. fl. Foote and John Widdicomb, who, when they came from the army, took their earlier lessons there.

The first directory of Grand Rapids was published in 1865.

It shows William Widdicomb the only additional name to those which 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 our progress to a city of then about 10,000 inhabitants; yet in all of 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 next directory, issued in 1867, 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's.

They were not successful and made an assignment, in 1870, to William A. Berkey.

Mr. Berkey continued the business for a time, eventually organizing out of it the Phoenix Furniture Company as manufacturer of parlor furniture, which was the origin of the present Phoenix Furniture Company.

Several changes occurred at 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 & Company.

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 & Company also appear, composed of More, Richards, DeLand, Foote and Baars, doing business at the corner of old 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 Company.

The Grand Rapids Chair Company was incorporated in October of 1872 and the buildings were 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 Monroe 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.

I must now take time for historical mention of the new concerns or additions and changes to those already established for each year to 1918, as follows:

  • 1876—No additions; strenuous times.
  • 1877—Win. A. Wight, Erie street.
  • 1878—E. A. Roberts, 28 Mill street.
  • 1879—Folger & Ginley, 28 Mill street; George W. & Hiram Gay, 434 Canal street; Roberts Brothers succeed E. A. Roberts.
  • 1880—Wolverine Furniture & Chair Co., Pearl street; Kent Furniture Co., North Front street, L. H. Randall president, J. H. Wonderly vice-president, C. W. Watkins treasurer, E. C. Allen secretary; McCord & Bradfield, R. C. Luce president, T. M. McCord vice-president; New England Furniture Co., succeeding Ward, Skinner & Brooks, sash and door manufacturers; Sligh Furniture Co., L. H. Randall president, Chas. R. Sligh secretary; Stockwell, Bryne & Co.; John Waddell & Co.; Stow & Haight.
  • 1881—Wm. A. Berkey & Koskul, Lyon street; F. L. Furbish; Oriel Cabinet Co., North Front street.
  • 1882—The Folding Chair & Table Co.; Ford Furniture Co., Wm. Winegar president, J. L. Shaw vice-president, Chas. H. Hooker secretary and treasurer; The Luther & Sumner Co.; Worden Furniture Co., Henry Fralick president, A. E. Worden secretary and manager; Winchester & Moulton.
  • 1883—Stockwell & Darragh Furniture Co.; Nathan Strahn; The Union Furniture Co.; Fogg & Higgins.
  • 1884—Stephen Cool & Co., Fourth street; S. E. Allen, 44 Mill street; Peninsular Furniture Co.
  • 1885—West Michigan Furniture Co., Third street; Wm. A. Berkey Furniture Co., succeeding Berkey & Koskul.
  • 1886-—Stow & Davis; Strahn & Long, composed of Harry W. Long, John E. Moore, Nathan Strahn; Union Furniture Co., Grand Trunk Junction, successors of S. Luther & Company, with A. S. Richards, E. G. D. Holden and Cyrus E. Perkins as officers; Grand Rapids School Furniture Co.; E. F. Winchester & Co., 34 Mill street.
  • 1887—Wm. T. Powers again enters the furniture business; I. C. Smith, J. C. Darragh and Jos. Penny doing business as the American Dressing Case Co, Canal street; Empire Furniture Co., 32 Mill street; S. L. King, Pearl and Front streets; Welch Folding Bed Co.
  • 1888—Clark & Hodges Furniture Co., North Canal street.
  • 1889—Valley City Rattan Works; J. H. White, T. Bedell and H. Bedell, doing business as the Crescent Cabinet Co.; Grand Rapids Cabinet Co., M. C. Burch and B. DeGraff, officers; Grand Rapids Parlor Furniture Co.; Grand Rapids Table Co.; Martin L. Sweet.
  • 1890—Klingman & Limbert Chair Co.; Birge & Shattuck; Grand Rapids Enamel Furniture Co.; Universal Tripod Co., the original of the Royal Furniture Co.; Michigan Chair Co.
  • 1891—C. E. Amsden; Richmond & Lyman Co.; Standard Table Co.; Valley City Table Co.
  • 1892—Stickley Bros. Co.; Central Furniture Co.; Mueller & Slack Co.; Royal Furniture Co.; McGraw Manufacturing Co.
  • 1893—C. A. Berge Upholstering Co.; Grand Rapids Church Furniture So.
  • 1894—C. P. Limbert & Co.; Valley City Desk Co.; Grand Rapids Wood Carving Co.; Ryan Rattan Chair Co.; Grand Rapids Carved Moulding Co.
  • 1895—J. A. Anderson & Co.; Grand Rapids Seating Co.; H. N. Hall Cabinet Co.; Grand Rapids Standard Bed Co.; Hansen Bros.; Retting & Sweet.
  • 1896—Hake Manufacturing Co.; Arlington Cabinet Co.; Grand Rapids Bookcase Co.; Grand Rapids Fancy Furniture Co.; Luce Furniture Co., succeeding McCord & Bradfield; Fred Macey Co.; Michigan Art Carving Co.; Grand Rapids Wood Carving Co.
  • 1897—Reuben H. Smith; John Widdicomb Co.
  • 1898—Novelty Wood Works; Boyns-Morley Co.; Gunn Furniture Co.; Wernicke Furniture Co.
  • 1900—Chase Chair Co.; Raymond Manche Co.; Chas. F. Powers Co.; Wagemaker Furniture Co.
  • 1901—Furniture City Cabinet Co.; C. S. Paine Co.; Standard Cabinet Co.; Van Kuiken Bros.
  • 1902—Century Furniture Co.; Grand Rapids Show Case Co.; Grand Rapids Table Co.; Nachtegall & Veit; G. S. Smith.
  • 1903—Burnett & Van Overan; Ideal Furniture Co.; Imperial Furniture Co.; Linn-Murray Furniture Co.
  • 1901—Grand Rapids Cabinet Co.; Greenway Furniture Co.; Hetterschied Manufacturing Works; Michigan Order Work Furniture Co.
  • 1905—Cabinetmakers Co.; C. A. Greenman Co.; Michigan Desk Co.; Retting Furniture Co., succeeding Retting & Sweet; Shelton & Snyder Co.
  • 1906—Veit Manufacturing Co.; Grand Rapids Cabinet Furniture Co.; Grand Rapids Parlor Furniture Co.; Kelley & Extrom; Luxury Chair Co.; John D. Raab Chair Co.; RaabWinter Table Co.; Sweet & Biggs Furniture Co.
  • 1907—Grand Rapids Upholstery Co.
  • 1908—Criswell Keppler Co.; Dolphin Desk Co.; Michigan Seating Co.; Rex Manufacturing Co.
  • 1909—Adjustable Table Co.; O. G. Burch; Fritz Mfg. Co. succeeds Fritz & Goeldel Mfg. Co.; Johnson Furniture Co.; Kelly, Extrom & Co. succeeds Kelly & Extrom; Charles P. Limbert Co.; Marvel Manufacturing Co.; Snyder & Fuller; Sterling Desk Company; Welch Manufacturing Co.; Wilmarth Show Case Co.
  • 1910—Bungalow Furniture Co.; Colonial Furniture Co.; Criswell Furniture Co. succeeds Criswell-Keppler Co.; Grand Ledge Chair Co.; Grand Rapids Art Furniture Co.; Grand Rapids Wood Carving Co.; Heyman Co.; KeilAnway Co.; W. A. Kelley succeeds Kelley, Extrom & Co.; C. B. Robinson & Sons succeed Robinson Furniture Co.; Snyder Furniture Co.; Steel Furniture Co.; White-Steel Sanitary Furniture Co.
  • 1911— Grand Rapids Bungalow Furniture Co.; Michigan Cabinet Co.; Practical Sewing Cabinet. 1912—The Ainway Co.; Davies-Putnam Co.; Gilpin Furniture Co.; Kindel Bed Co.; Metal Office Furniture Co.; Valley City Chair Co.; Welch Mfg. Co. 1913—Binghampton Chair Co.; W. H. Chase; Fisher Show Case Co.; Grand Rapids Sheraton Furniture Co.; Kelley Chair Co.; Peter Lindquist; Lundeen & Bengtson; National Seating Co.; Practical Sewing Cabinet Co.; Charles Vander Laan.
  • 1914—Alt & Batsche Mfg. Co.; American Mfg. Co.; Grand Rapids Studio Furniture Co.; Lindquist Furniture Co. succeeds Peter Lindquist; Quality Furniture Co.; Rockford Chair & Furniture Co.
  • 1915—Boyce Brothers; Grand Rapids Book Case & Chair Co.; Lanzon Furniture Co.; Lindquist Furniture Mnfrs. succeed Lindquist Furniture Co.; Lundeen & Bengston Co. succeeds Lundeen & Bengtson; Nowaczyk Handcraft Furniture Co.; Wallace Furniture Co.
  • 1916—Grand Rapids School Equipment Co.; Paalman Furniture Co.
  • 1917—Brower Co.; Asa U. Chase; Grand Rapids Fibre Furniture Co.; Kelley Furniture Co.; L. H. D. Fibre Furniture Co.; McLeod Furniture Co.; Special Furniture Co.; Welch Furniture Co.; Windsor Upholstering Co. Total 1917—64.

The surprising number of manufacturing efforts with the moderate number that have survived is, perhaps, a true indication of the vicissitudes which attend the furniture manufacturing business.

I might mention further that not more than three or four new institutions for the manufacture of fine grades in furniture have been successfully established in the United States within the past ten years.

There is no business demanding such unremitting personal attention as our industry, and it may well be asked, "Why was the business so successfully established in Grand Rapids?

What peculiar condition or circumstance has given this town its prominent position?"

We had no natural advantages originally.

Lumber was abundant, but it was equally abundant anywhere and everywhere in the Northern country.

Water power was as free as the lumber, yet water power was to be found also all over the Northern States.

Not only did we have no special natural advantages, but we were placed at an exceedingly inconvenient location for manufacturing furniture, with but one railroad and that terminating at the lake upon one side and Detroit upon the other, with no connections whatever to other portions of the United States, the river and lake our only practicable method of transportation to the then growing West.

When, eventually, we did have a connecting railroad with the Michigan Central and Lake Shore & Michigan Southern our whole product was freighted through towns where many well-established competitors were located.

Upon the Michigan Central were Buchanan and New Buffalo, both manufacturing upon a larger scale than ourselves.

Upon the Lake Shore were to be found Laporte, Mishawaka and South Bend, each having one or more successful furniture factories.

Chicago was the distributing point, and there were, as at present, other and stronger competitors, yet the city of Grand Rapids rapidly passed all of them.

During these same days Boston was the Eastern manufacturing point for all fine chamber furniture, and Cincinnati was equally prominent.

Several large and eminently successful concerns were in operation in both cities which eventually passed out of existence, the Boston people maintaining that this was due to the ruinous competition of Grand Rapids and one or two other Western towns—competition they could not meet; yet they had all the advantage in prior possession of the field, abundant capital, fine factories and a near location to the market.

In the face of all this, Grand Rapids steadily developed, both in the character of its product and the magnitude of its works.

It is one of my theories that it is not so much location or natural advantage that secures exceptional business success, but, rather, the personality of the men who happen to originate and develop it, and to this very feature do I ascribe the importance which Grand Rapids achieved in furniture manufacturing.

Fortunately for Grand Rapids, its "pioneer furniture manufacturers were the happy possessors of those important characteristics required for success in their own industry, and among them no one man displayed such pre-eminence in energy, industry, originality and business prudence—all the factors that are demanded for our business—as Julius Berkey.

Mr. Berkey had all of these to a marked degree, and I doubt whether he knew the meaning of the word "discouragement."

George W. Gay was equally capable.

While Mr. Gay may have had at first but indifferent technical knowledge in manufacturing, he did possess the talents which make men prominent among their fellows.

He had shown energy and earnest zeal in business affairs up to the time he entered the Berkey & Gay Company, and the years immediately following Mr. Gay's entry were epoch making for the industry which was to render Grand Rapids so famous.

Within a short time, from 1866 to 1873, Berkey Brothers & Gay developed into an institution of such magnitude as to warrant capitalization at a very large figure.

When I glance back over those days—days that cover the early struggles of our industry—I cannot refrain from amazement that such work could be accomplished so rapidly.

I see them occupying the original factory on the canal, then occupying the upper floors of the buildings at 116-118 Monroe avenue; from there to several buildings on old Canal street opposite Crescent, receiving first premium at the State Fair, opening a branch in New York City, taking a high position in the Eastern trade, and all this prior to 1875.

Mr. Berkey possessed the instincts of the manufacturer to a marked degree and Mr. Gay gave evidence of equally keen insight into the mercantile portion of the business while rapidly acquiring skill and exceptional judgment in the artistic designs for which they were widely known.

They also had that quality of human nature which enabled them, to employ men successfully, securing their good will, their earnest co-operation; in fact, they were indefatigable in their attention to all the details of the business; nothing too large to grasp, nothing so small but it received attention.

For those early stages both Mr. Berkey and Mr. Gay developed exceptional originality and enterprise.

They were the first to introduce expensive improvements in machinery, the first to display originality in design, the first to employ skilled designers and the first to bring skilled mechanics from other sections of our country, and even from foreign lands; no difficulty ever deterred them when they had once decided their business required improvement and skill beyond which our own workmen could furnish.

Their ability and progress were a stimulus to every other manufacturing concern in Grand Rapids; their competition of that straightforward business character every fair-minded man is willing to meet.

I give especial credit to that firm for our development in those early days.

Very soon equally capable men appeared, organizing and conducting other concerns, which added to the strength and individuality of our business and our progress was steadily promoted until the position of Grand Rapids before the United States was assured.