Tell City Chair Co. History

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Tell City Chair Company History

Closely identified with the history of Tell City is the Tell City Chair Company, still in operation, started business in November 1865, seven years after Tell City was founded.

            The original name was “Chair Makers’ Union,” a name retained until April 1, 1924 when the “Tell City Chair Company” title was adopted.  The company was organized as a cooperative concern, with most of the stockholders being employees.  It was said that in the beginning these employees made the chairs during the day, carried them home in the evening, and with the assistance of their families wove the double can seat, and then brought the chairs back the next morning.

            This business first occupied a small frame structure located in the 400 block of Seventh Street.  This building was destroyed by a fire in 1881, and two months later was replaced by a one-story brick building which was part of Factory # 1, on Seventh Street between Humboldt and Pestazozzi Streets.

            In 1885, reorganization concentrated the business into a partnership consistent of A. P. Fenn, J. Wiesenberger and G. Walter.  This reorganization was immediately followed by a marked improvement in every detail of the concern, and old machinery was replaced with new and improved machinery.  After this reorganization A.P. Fenn took charge of the business management of the firm and was active in the company until his sudden death in June 1920.

            In March 1900, A.P. Fenn purchased the interest of his partners and the next month formed a new partnership with his brother-in-law Jacob Zoercher.  Mr. Fenn was President and General Manager, and Mr. Zoercher was Secretary and Superintendent.  .

            After this reorganization in 1900, new buildings were erected, more machinery added, and production capacity was materially increased.  Again in 1903, there was further expansion when the machinery of the Oakland City Chair Company was purchased and Factory #2 was started in the buildings of the old Indiana Manufacturing Company just north of the old Tell City Spoke Company.  This plant produced Double Cane Seat Chairs also.

            A saw mill was operated at both Plant #2 and Plant #1.  Every year thousands of logs were rafted down the river to be made into chairs.  Each saw mill had tracks loading into the river, and logs were pulled out of the river into the saw mill, and then directly into the factory.  So well was the production planned, and so rapid was the method of working up the material, twenty-four to forty-eight hours after the logs were taken from the river, they were fabricated into chairs.  This method of handling logs in the company had a “river crew” and operated a boat named the “Sailor Boy.”

            Very early in the 1900’s the company declared itself “The largest manufacturers of double cane chairs in the world with an output 1,000 dozen per week.”  A familiar sight on the street of Tell City was the “chair wagons” which hauled chair frames to homes in all parts of town where cane seats were hand-woven onto them by women and picked up later and returned to the factory.  This practice continued until the early 1930’s when work –in-the-tome was banned by NRA legislation.  In its time this form of work was very popular with the women, giving them an opportunity to earn extra income while still caring for their children at home.  Strangers would invariably inquire about the chairs that were stacked on porches in the many homes about town. This work was always paid for in Silver Dollars and because the exchange of money took place outdoors; in those days, Silver Dollars commonly circulated about town.

            Very early correspondence records refer to “Captain’s Chairs” and “Boston Rockers” as well as “Splint Chairs”; however, no more definite information remains as to the kinds of chairs which this firm manufactured in its early days.  By 1906, the production was confined to Double Cane Seat Chairs, and at this time the partners decided to expand their business by manufacturing wood seat chairs and rockers, or, in other words, a more complete line of chairs.

            It was at this time that the U.S. Hame Company built their new plant in the south end of the city, and the Chair Makers’ Union purchased the factory building which they vacated.  These buildings were located just north of Factory #2.  Alterations were made and some new buildings erected.  In March 1906, the machinery and equipment of the Weiss Chair Company of Rockport, Indiana was purchased and moved into this new factory which was called Factory #3 and a more diversified line of chairs was begun.

            In 1908, manufacturing was discontinued at Factory #2 and these buildings were used as a warehouse for Factory #3.  During all this period, production continued at Factory #1. 

            In 1913 the property of the Cabinet Makers’ Union was purchased at a Receiver’s Sale.  A powerhouse was erected, two dry kilns built, and a large warehouse added.  These buildings were equipped with a Sprinkler System and early in 1914 Factory #3 was relocated in this remodeled plant.  This factory still expanded further and was known as Factory #3.

            Double Cane Seat Chairs continued to be manufactured at Factory #1 until 1943 when cane was no longer available due to the war.  For some years prior to this, and up until early 1945, these types of chairs and rockers were manufactured with flat-fiber and wood-slant seats; however, in 1945 this general type of chair and rocker was discontinued and Factory #1 was converted to produce the better, more stylish chairs that had for years been made at Factory #3.  In 1954, Factory #1 was closed as a manufacturing plant and has since then been used as a warehouse, in connection with leasing buildings of the former Tell City Woolen Mills.

            Immediately after the opening of Factory #3, and especially after the relocation of this plant in 1914, the company expanded its line into all sorts of wooden chairs.  Household chairs included Windsor chairs, Ladderback Chairs with hand-woven fibre seats, Duncan Phyfe chairs with upholstered seats, Kneehole Desk chairs, and a great variety of Rocking chairs, including Boston Rockers.  There was a line of Wood Seat Office chairs, and School chairs, including Table Arm, Kindergarten, Teachers, and Pupils chairs. The Tell City Chair Company became know as the largest chair factory in the world, with the longest line of chairs in the industry. 

            In 1911, Christian F. Fenn, son of A.P. Fenn, was taken into the partnership.  In June 1920, following the death of A.P. Fenn, the company was incorporated and C.F. Fenn became General Manager, a position he held until his death in 1944.  Roy N. Fenn, a brother who had become affiliated with the company in 1927, took over the General Management of the firm at this time. 

            In 1922, Karl J. Zoercher joined the firm, working with his father Jacob Zoercher who was in charge of manufacturing.  Upon the death of Jacob Zoercher in 1944, Karl Zoercher took over his duties and was placed in charge of manufacturing. 

            Bert R. Fenn, son of C.F. Fenn, joined the organization in 1940 and in 1954 was appointed Sales Manager.  Paul J. Fenn, also a son of C.F. Fenn, was the production Engineer for the company.

            In the early days of the company, the market was confined almost entirely to the Mississippi River Basin.  Until 1889, when the railroad first came to Tell City, the river was the only means of transportation.  At this time, sales were principally to jobbers who in turn distributed the chairs to the furniture dealers.  Gradually over the years, the market had expanded and developed so that today more than 95% of sales were direct to furniture retailers in all of the 50 states.  Shipments were made annually to more than 8,000 such retail furniture stores.

            The country was divided into 27 sales territories, each headed by a commission sales representative.  Altogether, there were at one time forty-four salesmen regularly selling Tell City Chairs to furniture stores.  The company maintained permanent showrooms at one time in the Market Centers in Chicago, New York, High Point, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas and Seattle.  In addition, semi-annual showing are made at Minneapolis, Boston and Kansas City.  A vigorous advertising campaign was carried on with advertisements in leading home magazines.  The name “Tell City Chairs” or “The Tell City Line” was and is still one of the best known and most respected in the industry.

            For more than 80 years, the Tell City Chair Company manufactured nothing but chairs.  For a few years prior to the Second World War, they sold a line of drop-leaf dining room tables which were manufactured by the Tell City Furniture Company; however, this line of tables was discontinued during the war.  In 1947, a similar line was again put on the market, these made by a factory at Shoals, Indiana.  Subsequently, tables and buffets were made by other factories, including the Tell City Desk Company.

            Finally, in November 1953 the Tell City Chair Company purchased the buildings and machinery of the Tell City Desk Company so they could manufacture and distribute complete dining room suites.  Because of many changes and a shift of emphasis within the industry, the company felt there was more future stability in being able to offer complete suites rather than chairs alone.

            The property of the Tell City Desk Company was completely remodeled, and much new machinery added.  Production started at this plant; known as Factory #2 in mid-1954.  This factory manufactured dining room tables and cases, living room tables, and bedroom furniture.  Ladderback chairs with hand-woven fibre seats are also made at Factory #2.

            The chair plant, Factory #3, produced a great variety of household chairs, Windsor, Mates and Captains chairs, Knee-hole Desk chairs, Duncan Phyfe, Chippendale, Roseback and Modern chairs, Telephone Benches, Settles, and a great variety of rockers including Boston Rockers Sewing Rockers, and Children’s Rocker.  The company also manufactured a line of modern living room Pull-Up Chairs with both upholstered and foam-rubber-cushion seats and back.

            The most popular line that was produced by the company was the “Young Republic Group” of Solid Hard Maple dining room, bedroom and living room furniture. 

            In 1957 the executive staff and office force at work in Tell City numbered 60 persons.  Factory workers and foremen total 500.  In addition, there was a designer on the staff who maintained an office in Virginia, and Assistant Sales Manager who worked out of Chicago, and forty-four salesmen.

            Altogether, there were 300,000 square feet under roof in addition to other working areas such as lumber yards.  The two factory buildings were modern and efficient.  Both factories had conveyor mill rooms and finishing rooms.  Over the years, new machinery and numerous other improvements occurred, elevators were added to both plants, a new power plant was built at Factory #3, and three new buildings were erected.  At the general office, much mechanical equipment was added, including an IBM system of record keeping in 1956.

            The officers of the Tell City Chair Company in 1957 were Roy N. Fenn, Secretary/ Treasurer, and General Manager of the company; Karl J. Zoercher, President, was in charge of manufacturing and purchasing; Bert R. Fenn, Vice President, was in charge of Sales.  Paul J. Fenn was the production engineer.

            Bert Fenn, a son of Christian Fenn, joined the organization in 1940.  Upon the retirement of Karl Zoercher, his cousin, Bert Fenn became president.  Bert was the President of the Tell City Chair Co. during some of its finest years.  Paul Fenn, also a son of Christian Fenn, entered the business in 1946.  Paul became Vice President and in charge of the factories on Karl Zoercher’s retirement.

            On April 2 1957, the company added two new 10,000 foot capacity dry kilns.  The buildings housing the two kilns were located on Humboldt Street between Sixth and Seventh Streets.  In December 1962, the Tell City Chair Co. added 117,800 square feet of manufacturing.  In July 1967, the company added two stories to their shipping warehouse building.  The addition was part of a planned company expansion program which began in 1963.  Next on the building schedule was a conveyor bridge 350 feet long which connected the company’s case goods plant, known as Factory No. 2, with the shipping and warehouse building.   On August 7, 1969, the Tell City Chair Co. announced in a letter to their employees that they were in the beginning stage of branching the factory into another section of the country.  It was later that the company built another facility in Leitchfied, Kentucky.

            In 1962, the Tell City Chair Co. was contacted by the White House Commission of Fine Arts after seeing a chair manufactured by the company at Saks Fifth Avenue, in New York City.  John F. Kennedy’s wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, was restoring the White House and assigned The White House Commission of Fine Arts, to place an order for 425 chairs which were similar to the ones at Saks Fifth Avenue.  The traditional ballroom, or so called fancy chairs, was finished in gold and had woven cane seats.

            The Young Republic group which was introduced in the mid 1950’s was listed as the best selling dining room furniture in the nation for four straight years in the mid 1970’s, a full 20 years after its first introduction. 

            The fourth generation of the ancestry of the company began another chapter in the continuing story of the Tell City Chair Co. Doug Fenn, son of Paul Fenn, was elected president of the company in April 1989 upon the retirement of Bert Fenn.  It was only appropriate that on the 125th anniversary of the Tell City Chair Co. they saluted the company’s “Heritage of Craftsmanship.” The company at one time covered between 750,000 and 900,000 square feet on 30 acres of land.

            After a long labor dispute on July 29, 1996, the company ceased operation.  Doug Fenn said he started working for the company when he was 15, becoming the fourth generation of his family to be there.  He became a permanent worker in 1972 and later a manager.  However, he never believed his company would unravel because of a contract dispute.  The downfall of the company began in 1985 when the workers’ union went on strike.  Workers would return, but the next nine years would be spent trying to become competitive again.   In February 1994, workers went on strike and after eight months they went back to work without a contract, affecting the productivity and quality of the plant as well as the morale of the workers.  Fenn borrowed money to stay in business, but it would not help. Memorial Day 1996, workers went on strike after contract negotiations between the workers union and the company fell through again; consequently, the factory closed, but only for a few years until it reopened.

In 2003 Factories No. 1, 3, 4 were demolished leaving only a small proportion of factory 1 office. The buildings were purchased by the city of Tell City at an auction several years ago. In 2009 a proportion of factory No. 2 was demolished.

As of September 2011, Doug Fenn is President of the Tell City Chair Company closed the factory after 146 years.  Although the Tell City Chair Company is no longer making furniture.  The Young Republic Group has become very collectable.  Some pieces, such as a Lingerie Chest, can bring up to $3000.00.  Even the smaller decorative accessories made at Factory #4 have bright high prices at auctions. Recently, a Fish originally selling for $6.50 brought $1100.00 and a Duck, originally selling for $7.50, brought $1300.00.  The reason for these high prices is because of the craftsmanship and quality that were immersed into each piece.


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