Back to the Future
Business was a rough-and-tumble affair in the largely unregulated 19th-century America. Fortunes were made, lost and, sometimes, made again. Early Republic businesses staggered from one bankruptcy to the next but a few left lasting imprints on American society, even as their fortunes waxed and waned.
Primary among these in Northwest Connecticut are the recently re-launched Holley Knife Company in Lakeville and the phoenix-like Hitchcock Chair Company which has repeatedly risen from financial ruin over its 200-year history. Both are still associated with the villages in which they were founded and both are proud, under their current ownership, to continue a tradition of American craftsmanship.
Hitchcock Furniture’s long and checkered career has included several bankruptcies and at least two breaks in manufacturing since Lambert Hitchcock founded his innovative chair company in Riverton in 1818. But it is hard to dismiss quality craftsmanship and four years after the firm closed its doors for the second time in 2006, Rick Swenson, who owns and operates Still River Antiques, and Gary Hath of Canton, purchased the Hitchcock name, plans, and artwork.
Despite the sharp downturn in the economy in the early 2000s, they continue the Hitchcock legacy, bringing Hitchcock furniture into the 21st century while maintaining the quality and integrity of Lambert Hitchcock's original dream.
Swenson and Hath have resurrected the classic furniture line, using the same plans and finishes to produce a wide variety of tables, cupboards, chairs, beds and the like which they market from a 19th-century building in Riverton.
In re-opening the business, the partners revisited a concept born at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Lambert Hitchcock learned his woodcraft under the tutelage of a master craftsman, Silas Cheney of Litchfield, but while apprenticed he also observed the mass production techniques employed by clockmaker Eli Terry in Terryville, whose assembly line production of clocks made them affordable for the masses.
Why not apply similar techniques to furniture production? Hitchcock asked himself. “Back then, only wealthy families had nice furniture,” explained Swenson in an earlier interview. “Regular folks might have a local carpenter make them some furniture—or if they couldn’t afford that, they would make benches or stools themselves. Chairs were made one at a time and were very expensive. But after he came to Riverton, Hitchcock began to put that concept forward into making chairs.”
Hitchcock soon invented knock-down chairs to be sold in unassembled kits that could be economically shipped and then reassembled for, or by, the purchasers. To save expenses on costly handpainting or carving, he took advantage of a new British technique called stenciling, by which multi-colored metallic powders were applied to still tacky varnish.
Other innovations included his trademark black paint that formed the ground for his stenciled designs. This allowed the young entrepreneur to mix and match his hardwoods, using whatever color and grain of wood came to hand. Chairs were marketed for as little as 49 cents and orders came from as far away as Chicago and Charleston SC.
By 1821, he was phenomenally successful, constructing a three-story brick factory with waterwheel powered machinery and turning out 300 “Sheraton” style chairs a week.
Hitchcock was a good craftsman and an innovative entrepreneur but no businessman. By the late 1820s, the Hitchcock Chair Company was producing more than 15,000 chairs a year, but in 1832, his brother-in-law, Arba Alford, had to join him as a partner to save the firm from bankruptcy. Hitchcock died insolvent in 1852.
Hitchcock was out of business for almost a century, until, in 1946, John Tarrant Kenney came upon the abandoned factory while fishing in the Farmington River. He started the company afresh in the same location and it stumbled forward through several financial incarnations until 2006 when, it was forced to close because of low-cost overseas furniture manufacturers.
But Hitchcock Chair will not die. Swenson, a furniture maker and restorer, had been lured to Riverton by the former Hitchcock Company to restore older pieces before its demise. When the firm closed in 2006, he and his partner acted to purchase the “brand assets,” the plans for the furniture, designs and archives dating back into the 1830s.
At first, the new owners concentrated on restoration of original pieces. Gradually, however, they have shifted to new production. Today, the manufacturers have three collections, the classic black-painted and stenciled chairs, a Shaker line in cherry, and the Country Heritage look, made with soft maple. They market their wares from their flagship store in Riverton as well as from other outlets throughout New England.
The showroom, located at 13 River Road in Riverton. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday 10:00 – 4:00. For more information, call at 860-738-9958 or click here at www.hitchcockchair.com.
The Holley Knife Company in Lakeville is a second Victorian-era firm hoping for a rebirth in the 21st Century. V.J. Maury has reached an agreement with Theodore Rudd O’Neill, holder of the historic business name, to revitalize the firm, which went out of business in 1946.
“He is a descendant of the original business owners and is a Wall Street Financial Analyst who wanted to see the business extended to this kind of product,” Maury said.
Holley Knives was originally founded by Alexander Hamilton Holley, son of ironmaster John Holley. He established the Holley Manufacturing Company in 1843 on the site of the former Salisbury Furnace, which had been operated by Holley and Coffing until 1832. The Holley Manufacturing Company building exists today at the end of Furnace Pond, having been home to a number of other businesses since the knife company closed its doors.
The company claimed to be the oldest manufacturer of pocket cutlery in the United States, an assertion continued today by Maury. It sold its high-quality pocketknives to customers throughout New England, Pennsylvania and upper New York State, with total annual sales of about $50,000.
“There is a museum in Salisbury that I went to over the years and it had a big display case of Holley Knives that was at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876,” said Maury. “In middle of it is a giant display pocketknife with 22 blades—you’re looking at this thing from 25years before the Swiss guys. I thought, I want to re-launch Holley Knives. Our business is manufacturing and selling a customized, personalized pocket knife for the 21st-century customer,” Maury said.
The firm uses an e-commerce platform combined with “just-in-time” manufacturing technology. “Because of our ability to build just-in-time we can customize any knife for any customer. People often ask what our minimum run is. It’s one! I’ve done knives as business gifts, I did 10 knives for a Boy Scout troop, I’ve done knives for a veteran’s group. It’s really fun.”
Maury said he did not have a manufacturing or pocketknife background when he began to pursue his dream. He has increased his knowledge by researching the industry while refining his business plan. Once a deal had been reached with O’Neill for use of the Holley name, O’Neill offered further technical guidance.
Holley products are focused on customers who “like to travel and who prefer individualized gear,” Maury says. Customers create their own knives on the website, selecting the “scales”—the side covers of the knife—the text, and the individual tools and knives.
Maury said Holley has teamed up with Charles Peterson Signature Flooring, another Connecticut company, to provide high-quality wood scales in black walnut, white oak, black cherry and maple. Other scales can be provided in hard plastic in various colors. “So far, wood has been the favorite material for scales,” Maury said. “I have gained a new appreciation for it as a material to work with.”
The firm’s website specifies each Holley knife is guaranteed to be made of carbon stainless steel heat-treated for durability and long-lasting sharpness, with high-quality components and precise tolerances. Different functions that can be included are large and small blades, a corkscrew and toothpick, a can opener, bottle opener, screwdriver pliers, fish scaler and the like. Customers can also choose to have text of their choice on the scales.
Locally, the knives can be seen at Stadium Systems in Canaan and at Herrington outlets. They can also be ordered through the website or on Amazon. For more information go to www.holleyknives.co.