Grand Ledge Chair Company

The most renowned factory was the Grand Ledge Chair Company founded in 1883. Three young carpenters from Grand Rapids, Thomas Garrett, Harry Jordan, and Edward Crawford opened a shop on South Bridge and River Streets to produce chairs. The enterprise was first conducted in a modest way, its factory consisting of an old sawmill next to the bridge. The capital stock was about $250 and the employees consisted of Garratt, Crawford and Jordan. They manufactured chairs of medium grade and their output for the first year was less than ten thousand dollars.

The business grew rapidly; but their ability to handle the books was dismal; they could not meet payroll. George N. Berry, a local banker, advised them to contact local business man Edward Turnbull to help them set up an accounting system. Mr. Turnbull agreed to help the partners. When he went to the small factory, he found that records of sales and shipment were simply kept on a spindle until they paid. Under his supervision of the accounts the buiness prospered. A new larger three story building was built next to the bridge below the Opera House. water power was installed, and more carpenters were employed

In 1890 they opened a second factory in Grand Rapids and operated both factories for a time. In 1892, Garrett, Jordan, and Crawford decided to sell the Grand Ledge factory and returned permanently to Grand Rapids. The three men kept the Grand Rapids plant, establishing the The Michigan Chair Co. David Brown would follow the men to Grand Rapids and later operate his own furniture factory there. Selling his grocery store, E. A. Turnbull along with George Fletcher bought the Grand Ledge plant from the three founders. After a short time, Turnbull purchased the interest of Fletcher to become the sole owner of the business.

In 1902—along with David Bell and George Coryell— Turnbull founded the Grand Ledge Table Company and constructed a three-storey wooden factory building, a power house, and a one-storey mill building on Perry Street. Between 1902 and 1905, both the Coryell and Bell interests were purchased by Turnbull. The Chair Company did well, eventually outgrowing the old factory on Bridge Street. Turnbull expanded operations in 1906 by constructing a large three-storey brick building adjacent to the his Table Company, connecting them at the third floor and moved all his operations to Perry Street.

An account at the time noted:

“E. A. Turnbull, the proprietor of this concern, assumed control about a dozen years ago, and at the same time added several improvements and installed new machinery which doubled the capacity of the business.  The reputation of this institution extends all over the United States, and its product has the reputation of being the finest grade of chair furniture in the market.  The factory makes a specialty of high grade chairs, dining room, library, office, parlor and also den furniture.  This concern is equipped with all the latest and improved wood working machinery; the management is all that could be desired; only the best of skilled labor is employed, and the highest wages are paid.  The plant is so located that a perfect water power system is in force and it is also equipped with steam power, having installed two one hundred-horse power boilers and a seventy-five-horse power engine.  The fire protection in this institution is of the best, having several feet of hose on each floor, besides all the best class of fire extinguishers.  Each floor is furnished with two toilet rooms, and the whole is lighted by electricity.  Four dry kilns having a capacity of one car-load each are in use.  The firm employs two hundred and twenty-five men the full year, and the books show a pay roll of $8,000 a month.  The employees of this concern are well protected, having organized what is known as the employees’ insurance association.  Each man is assessed one per cent of his wages until the treasury contains $100.  The firm has built a stone foundation for a new brick building six hundred feet by sixty and three stories high above the basement.  Its completion will enable the firm to employ an additional force of over four hundred men.  It is said to be the largest manufactory of box seat chairs in the world.”

Turnbull made regular trips to the furniture market in Grand Rapids with his salesmen to show his large line of samples which included dining room, bedroom, and desk chairs in various woods— mahogany and oak being his best sellers—and furniture styles. Grand Ledge Chair is acknowledged as one of the mission style furniture designer/manufacturer in the United States.

The Grand Ledge Chair Company was a success, and Turnbull turned his attention to other ventures, such as the Grand Ledge Clay Products Company and the Reo Motor Company in Lansing. He died in 1916, leaving the Chair Company in the hands of his wife, Emma. She headed up the company, with assistance from manager C.M. Maris, through the Depression years and unionization in 1941. When she died in 1944, the company passed to her sister and brother-in- law, Zella and Raymond Hull. They saw the company through the long strike and incorporation during the late 1940’s. Mrs. Hull died in 1950, but the company remained with her family and was managed by Mr. Hull until 1966. Their grandsons managed the Chair Company for seven years until 1973, when it became a division of the Holabird Corporation. Finally in 1982 the company
closed, due to falling sales, foreign competition, and outdated facilities.

The old factory building on Perry Street is still standing and has been renovated into an apartment building, incorporating many of the architectural features of the old factory into the modern apartments.

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