Business Issues  

Mighty Oaks From Little Acorns Grow

The growth of High Point, furniture capital of the world, began with the persimm on tree and William Henry Snow, a Captain in the Union Army during the Civil War (1861-1865) who moved to Greensboro in search of timber for his manufacturing business.

By Joe Carroll

Here is how furniture comes in to the story. While on a business trip north to find buyers for his lumber, Snow noticed a substantial difference in price between raw lumber and the finished product.

For me, living in North Carolina, the month of October portends two important events: the changing of the leaves to their beautiful autumn colors and the Furniture market in High Point.

Chances are, if you are a major buyer, manufacturer or supplier you have probably made a pilgrimage to High Point at least once in your lifetime . High Point calls itself “The Furniture Capital of the World”. There are certainly other giant markets, like Cologne and Shanghai, but depending on whether you judge High Point in terms of size, number of exhibitors or total amount of business transacted, few would dispute that it is an impressive event. What you may not know is how this small town of around 100,000 people became such a world center for furniture. It all started with the persimmon tree.

Persimmons grow in several places around the world, including the U.S. and China. As a child growing up on the Virginia coast I and my friends would climb the fence of an elderly woman’s home on our way home from school to take a few persimmons from her tree. We eased our consciences by telling ourselves she would not miss two or three. I remember how my mouth puckered up from their sour, bitter taste. I did not know they could not be eaten green. The word “persimmon” is derived from an American Indian word meaning “a dry fruit”. It belongs to a species of trees in the genus Diospryos. This word comes from Greek meaning more or less “divine fruit”. The species Diospryos kaki is native to China. It is deciduous, with broad, stiff leaves, and is known as the shizi (柿子).

Whether or not he was aware that persimmon trees were plentiful in North Carolina, William Henry Snow, who had served as a Captain in the Union Army during the Civil War (1861-1865) moved his family from Vermont to Greensboro in 1867 seeking both a warmer climate and the availability of timber for his manufacturing business.

Snow made wood shuttle blocks and bobbins used in weaving by textile mills. Shuttle blocks required a hard wood to withstand the contact running back and forth across the loom in the weaving process. In those days the apple tree was the wood preferred by most textile manufacturers. Snow, however, chose the wood of the persimmon tree, which he found to be less expensive and readily available in North Carolina. His shuttle blocks were an immediate success. In a very short time he became the world’s largest producer. Eventually, some local businessmen asked him to set up his factory in High Point. Snow expanded his business to making wagon spokes, ax and hammer handles – primarily for his cotton mill customers. He later sold his factory to his son-in-law who went on to produce 90% of all the shuttle blocks in the world. By 1887 five hundred workers were employed by the companies started by “Capt. Snow,” as he was called.

Here is how furniture comes in to the story. While on a business trip north to find buyers for his lumber, Snow noticed a substantial difference in price between raw lumber and the finished product. When he came home he met with John H. Tate and Thomas F. Wrenn, who were prosperous grocers at the time. They each invested $3000 and the High Point Furniture Company was born. Snow furnished the lumber and Wrenn made the furniture. The factory opened in 1869 with a work force of 25 men. The first piece they are reported to have made was a desk for their office. If you have been to the High Point market I am sure you have visited the showrooms along Wrenn Street or in the Wrenn wing of the Main Building.

High Point Furniture was an immediate success. It sold single beds to retailers for 75 cents and three-piece bedroom suites for $7.50. By their second year they employed 85 people and made 20 different styles of bedroom furniture.

There’s another name that bears recognition in High Point’s furniture history. Mordecai Collins was the area’s earliest-known cabinet maker. He taught his apprentices the art of making furniture at his shop in Abbot’s Creek, a small community near High Point. Collins moved to Indiana in 1817, leaving John Swisegood, his best apprentice, to continue his business. Peter Thurston, a carpenter’s son, moved from New York to Deep River, another small community, nearby and became High Point’s best-known furniture maker for nearly 40 years. Gatewood Avenue in High Point used to be called Thurston Street until the early 20th century.

Just as the furniture industry transitioned from the high labor costs and dwindling resources of the Northeast United States to Grand Rapids and Chicago in the Midwest, manufacturers began to see the advantages of relocating to High Point, attracted by its cheap labor and abundance of raw materials.

Once the tobacco industry shifted to the eastern part of North Carolina, High Point used the displaced farm workers as a labor pool and became a formidable competitor for national business. However, lumber prices began to rise after 1900 and just as we see today, factory owners had to compete for workers and meet higher production costs.

A Grand Rapids (Michigan) furniture man observed, “Down in High Point, if a dealer gets a dresser that he can sell for $3.50, another will try to find one that he can sell for $3.25 – and he generally finds it. As a result, the trade runs to cheapness, and the manufacturers have to make stuff to meet that kind of trade.”

That’s a statement Chinese manufacturers can certainly relate to.

Joseph F Carroll is the former publisher of Furniture/Today and one of the original founders of the IAFP (International Alliance of Furnishing Publications). He is an international marketing consultant.