Over the years, Athens has been the location of various manufacturing operations and long time residents often not only recall these but often remember how they, or family or friends worked at these factories.
Many of these facilities produced consumer needs for the home, from the home itself to home electronics as well as furniture. One of these was the Campbell Chair Company and as they produced their chairs they used a craft technique that remains popular and useful.
According to the Progress Edition of the Athens Review from September 24, 1956 the Campbell Chair Company was described as being “One of Newer Industries.” The reporter related that the company “….is one of Athens’ younger industries, but it has been here since about 1948 and in a new building on the Corsicana highway for about a year.”
The owner/operators were listed as Mr. and Mrs. James R. Campbell and their products were distributed mostly in Texas but also in Oklahoma and Louisiana. Local outlets included the Morgan Furniture Company, Jones Furniture Company, B.D. Clark Hardware and Furniture Company and Athens Furniture Company.
The company produced chairs of course but of various types – straight chairs, rocking chairs, high back rockers as well as stools – foot stools and bar stools. “Under average conditions,” wrote the reporter, “about 100 pieces are turned out per day.”
While in business, the Campbells employed about ten local persons and also used at least three trucks, including one large van that transported the stools and chairs. Also, though some of their materials were imported from Indiana and some wood products from Tennessee, local saw mills provided much of their material and in particular a company in Jacksonville.
The Campbell company factory added their $30,000 payroll to the local economy.
The 1956 article was no doubt a summary of the company, but more information came earlier when the company expanded – or as the headline read in the Athens Weekly Review of November 8, 1951 “Local Chair Manufacturer Plans to Double Capacity.”
The reporter here related that owner-operator James Campbell, described at that date as having operated the factory for two years, announced that he was planning to erect a new building on a tract of land just east of their present location. The ground had already been prepared and new equipment was to be installed. Also, according to Campbell, the new expansion would double the current output of 500 chairs a day.
The reporter provided details: “At present, when the plant is running at full capacity, 15 employees are required for the operations, and there are always at least 10 employees working.” Also, Campbell related that most of his business is wholesale, and that “he is always running behind schedule on chair orders and has not been able to catch up since he started the business.”
According to the owner, his factory turns out children’s rockers, straight chairs, other children’s chairs and fiber bottom chairs. The chairs are produced using various woods, including some oak, and as the later article related, much of this material comes from a saw mill in Jacksonville.
One method of manufacturing that the Campbells and others used for their rockers as well as their straight chairs involved the use of “caning” or using pliable rattan strips to weave chair seats. Usually the word “cane” applied to these strips that came from any plant with a long thin stem, but gradually it came to generally refer to the rattan plant that grew in Southeast Asia. Some of these vines grew up to 300 feet in length, and were processed by being cut to all one lengths and then the bark removed. However, strips of sugar cane or bamboo were often used in making furniture.
Sometimes the caning of chairs is confused with wickerwork but there is a difference. One source stated that chair caning is defined as a craft that applies rattan cane or peel to a piece of furniture forming the backs or seats. On the other hand wickerwork or wicker refers to making furniture by weaving strips made of willow or even manmade materials.
The craft of caning chairs has remained popular and continues to be of interest to crafters, and there are various Internet entries about the practice.