bert r. fenn; tell city chair
AMERICAN FURNITURE HALL OF FAME
ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW
AUGUST 16, 1991
TELL CITY, INDIANA
TELL CITY CHAIR COMPANY
Dr. Arnita Jones, Interviewer
INTERVIEWER: Mr. Fenn, I would like to focus this morning on the early history of the company, from its beginnings in the middle of the 19th century. For the record, what was your position with the company?
FENN: I held many positions in the company. I was with the firm for 49 years. I ended as president and chief executive officer.
INTERVIEWER: Let’s look at the beginnings of the Tell City Chair Company. The company, it seems to me, is almost as old as the town itself. I think it might be helpful if you could talk a little bit about the origins of Tell City and how it was founded.
FENN: Tell City was a planned community. There were a bunch of Swiss people, immigrants, in Cincinnati. This was in the mid-1850s, and there was a national depression going on. It was very severe, and many of these people didn’t have work. They got together in a grocery store and a wine shop in Cincinnati, and decided that if they had a community of their own that everybody would have a job. All trades would have work. So they formed an organization called The Swiss Colonization Society and sold memberships in this thing. They were very ambitious. They set up branch offices along the river and up the Mississippi River. These were German-speaking Swiss. Some of the Germans from southern Germany became interested in the project, and they took those Germans in with them also. They raised quite a bit of money, and sent out committees to look for a location. They tried out in Missouri, where there are a number of German settlements, and all around, but they finally settled on this location here in southern Indiana, where they could get as much land as they wanted. They sent a surveyor in, and they surveyed, laid out a community — a community that would take care of a lot more people than we have today. Great wide streets and everything.
In 1858, the first settlers started coming to Tell City. They had a drawing, and every member was given a building site and a garden site. They came to Tell City when this was just a wilderness and made a community. Within six months, they had 1,500 people here. They didn’t all stay, but they had a lot of people coming and going. These people were craftsmen of all sorts. There was a lot of heritage in woodworking, and this area was a hardwoods area. There were plenty of hardwoods around here, and one of the first businesses that started in Tell City was a furniture factory, not the one that we’re talking about but a Tell City furniture factory. It started in 1859. At one time, this was quite a furniture center.
INTERVIEWER: Did they start out looking for a particular area that would be good for furniture making, do you think?
FENN: I don’t think so. I think it just worked out that way. These were Swiss people and Germans from southern Germany, and it was not exactly level ground; it didn’t disturb them that this is a hilly area. Other people would never have settled here. They spent a good deal of their early days in grading and filling and all sorts of work — without the equipment that we have today.
INTERVIEWER: How did the company come to be founded?
FENN: This company was first called a Chair Makers Union. It was organized in 1865 by 11 men. It was a cooperative. They were equal owners in the business, and their constitution declares that every member shall work. There were no silent members.
INTERVIEWER: Were these people who already lived in the city?
FENN: Yeah, these were people that were citizens of Tell City. It’s interesting that a little later there was another company organized in somewhat the same fashion in Tell City called the Cabinet Makers Union. That seemed to have been a popular concept at that time.
It started out in that fashion, with equal ownership and everything, but by 1880, in 15 years, it had deteriorated into a regular partnership with four people. They actually, more or less, disbanded the company, except for two of the partners, and took in two new partners and continued the operation, but it was at that time, then, just a straight partnership with four partners.
INTERVIEWER: In the beginning, what sort of furniture did they make?
FENN: They made what they called splint-bottom chairs. These were a ladder-back type of chair with a woven seat. I think what they used were slivers of oak wood, splints as they called them, that were woven to make the seats. Most of the production was that sort of thing. In later years, they used cane from the Far East for the woven seats. But at the beginning, it was mostly splints, which were a local product.
INTERVIEWER: Where were the chairs sold? What was the marketing process?
FENN: It was a rather small beginning and a lot of the market was local and everything, but in those days, it was 30 years before a railroad came to Tell City. Then it was a branch line. We were right on the Ohio River and, of course, everything came in and went out on the river. So, the markets that developed away from this community were naturally on the river and downstream. Upstream there was more competition. There were other chair plants upstream. There weren’t too many downstream.
INTERVIEWER: About how many people were involved with the company in those first couple of decades?
FENN: At the beginning, there were only 11 people. These people were the workers. They were the owners and the workers. The tradition is that these people made the chairs during the day and they carried them home and seated them at night. Their families seated them at night and brought them back the next morning. I think by the time, you know, that maybe 10 or 15 years had passed, they may have had as many as 25 workers or something, but it was a small company. They made rockers, rocking chairs, and regular chairs, but practically all of them in the early days were these seated chairs, splint-bottom chairs, as they called them.
INTERVIEWER: And usually sold down the river?
FENN: Yes. And that market, of course, continued for many years, the southern market.
INTERVIEWER: Other than simply the division between producing the chairs in the day and taking them home at night for putting the seats on, do you know anything else about the production during those early days? How they did the manufacturing?
FENN: Well, it was a traditional manufacture ...
INTERVIEWER: Would it have been largely handcrafted at that time?
FENN: Yes, it was. They had some machinery ...
INTERVIEWER: Very little.
FENN: … but it was more or less turning with hand lathes and that sort of thing. You can’t make a proper chair without steam bending. One of the traditions of that type of chair was carried on for many years, and I suppose it goes all the way back to the beginning. You know, wood, when it is green and unprocessed, has a lot of moisture in it, and as it dries, it shrinks. What they did was for the posts of the chairs — the two front legs and the two back posts — they used a fairly green, a fairly wet, lumber to make these. The stretchers that went across and connected these legs and the back posts, they dried those severely so that they were very dry. They put them in a dry kiln and forced the moisture out of them. Then they put the chair together in a tight joint. What happened, then, after they were in use, was that the posts started shrinking, and the stretchers started swelling, and it locked that joint in. It was tighter than anything you could possibly make with glue or anything else. It was a natural situation, and these chairs were extremely durable.
INTERVIEWER: You say the families were involved in production too. Was anyone other than the families involved?
FENN: At the beginning, the families did the seating and everything. They apparently did some of that for some time. I have a chair that one of the partners, the son of one of the partners from 1881, gave me. He said that this chair was made in 1881, and the reason that he knew it was made in 1881 was that that was the year that the first factory burned.
It was a wooden building. His father had brought some chairs home to be seated, and the fire burned that night, and the chairs were never taken back to the factory. They kept those chairs in the family, and he gave me one of them years ago that was made in 1881. The family was still doing that at that time. They may have done it sometime later, but at any rate, in later years, as the production increased and there was greater volume, they developed a system of taking these chairs out into town and leaving them at the homes with the women to seat. They had chair wagons, and they’d load the chair frames on the wagons and go out around town. They had seaters developed, and they’d leave a dozen here and two dozen there, with the cane. Then they’d come back a week later, or at a designated time, and pick up the chairs after they’d been seated, and pay them at that time.
INTERVIEWER: Were the families paid separately, do you think, for doing the seating, or was it just in the early days when a member of the cooperative would take the chairs home, that a part of his job extended to his family?
FENN: I suppose it was at the beginning, but after they started this other business, I’m sure ...
INTERVIEWER: That would have been a separate labor.
FENN: They would have paid them for that. This continued clear up into the 1930s. I remember it well when I was a boy, and people would come into town, and they’d see all these chairs stacked on porches and everything and ask questions about all that.
The first step in seating the chair was what they called webbing, and that was simply to wrap the cane around between the two stretchers. This was a very simple job, and a lot of times the children did that. The mothers had children do that. I know when I was a boy, sometimes there’d be a question; Johnny couldn’t come out and play or anything until he’d finished webbing so many chairs or something like that.
Then the more complicated process they had was a chair iron that they put the other strands across.
INTERVIEWER: And that more likely would be an older child.
FENN: That’s right. The children helped on that, and of course the women liked this. It was for some extra money. Of course, in those days in the last century, there weren’t that many jobs for women available. Most of these women were homemakers and taking care of their home and their children, and they could do this in off moments, and it didn’t interfere with their normal home life.
INTERVIEWER: How did this method of manufacturing furniture compare with other companies that might have been producing furniture, say, in the 1860s or ’70s? I know that this company is one of the oldest ones in the country. What else was around in the United States then?
FENN: This type of chair was a rather specialized operation. There was another plant here in Tell City. There was another plant in Troy, which is just a few miles away that made this type of chair. There were other companies down in Kentucky that did this. So it was rather specialized, and this was really, at the beginning, the only thing this company did. These other furniture companies, and there were others in Tell City as well as around, they didn’t make this type of chair. The furniture business was rather specialized in those days. One plant would make tables and cases, buffets and bedroom stuff, and another plant would make chairs. They didn’t necessarily make the whole suite, the whole group and everything. But the manufacturing processes other than that were very similar.
INTERVIEWER: Was this furniture that was affordable by the ordinary person, or was this more expensive?
FENN: No, these were very reasonable chairs. Some of the early figures that we have were that they were selling for as little as $7.50 a dozen. I mean, you’re talking about less than a dollar each. A lot of the market for this was down South. A lot of these chairs went south to the sharecroppers down in the South, and also some of the blacks in those areas. They were common chairs. In fact, they sometimes were referred to as common
INTERVIEWER: Maybe we could talk a little bit about the reorganization of the company. You mentioned that a few moments ago when you said it became a partnership rather than a cooperative.
FENN: Yeah, it became a partnership apparently around 1880. There were four partners. My grandfather, Albert P. Fenn, was a furniture man. He worked on a bench. He was a craftsman. He worked in one of the local furniture factories, not the chair company.
INTERVIEWER: So he was not one of the original members?
FENN: He wasn’t. In 1881, he was 20 years old. He had saved enough money that he went away to school, to a business school. He came back, and there were no opportunities for him at that time, and he went back on the bench. He was a cabinetmaker.
In 1885, apparently an opportunity came along and he bought out — by that time there were three partners instead of four in the Chair Makers Union — he bought out one of the partners and became one of three partners.
INTERVIEWER: Was he working at the chair company when he bought out that partner or was he working elsewhere?
FENN: He was working at another plant as a cabinetmaker. When he became the partner in the Chair Makers Union, he also became the agent. That was the business manager. They called it the agent. I guess it’s the equivalent of … well, he was in charge of the business.
INTERVIEWER: So he began to use his business school training.
FENN: His business experience. He was by then … Let’s see, he was born in 1861, in ’85 he’d be 24 years old. So it continued. They started increasing their production and in 1900, why, there was a little difference of opinion as to which way they should go, and so forth. My grandfather was a very aggressive person. He was very ambitious. He could see that things weren’t going the way he wanted them to, and so he approached his two partners and said that he would sell his interest to them for a certain amount, or he would give each of them that same amount for their interest. So the two partners sold to him. He became the sole owner of the company.
INTERVIEWER: Where were the Fenns from?
FENN: They’re from Germany, from southern Bavaria. Schweinfurt was where my great-great-grandfather came from in Bavaria. He came to this country and he was over around St. Louis and in different areas, and he came here... I don’t know, he wasn’t one of the first settlers but he was an early, early, settler, maybe by 1859 or something like that. Nick, they called him. Nicholas was his name. My great-great-grandfather. My grandfather was born in Tell City in 1861.
INTERVIEWER: Well, how did A.P. Fenn change the company? What did he want to do that was different?
FENN: By that time, he was married, and his brother-in-law was in the furniture business. He was a production man. He had been in Michigan, and he was at that time, down in Memphis as a superintendent in charge of production at a furniture plant there. His name was Jacob Zoercher. My grandfather decided that he needed some help in running the business, and he brought his brother-in-law back to Tell City and gave him an eighth interest in the company. He then took charge of all the production and manufacturing. My grandfather was general manager, and he generated all of the sales and so forth. He was very aggressive, and he started enlarging the plant right away.
INTERVIEWER: Do you have some idea of how large it would have been, say, by 1900?
FENN: No, I have no idea how large it was by then.
INTERVIEWER: But well beyond the dozen or so that started out in the cooperative.
FENN: Yeah, there’d be two or three dozen people working there or something like that, but he started enlarging the business right away. They started talking about making a thousand dozen of chairs a week, and then later on, say fifteen hundred dozen a week. That’s a lot of chairs.
INTERVIEWER: That would be difficult.
FENN: I don’t know whether they actually ever made that many, but they talked about that. There is no question that it was, in the early 1900s, the largest chair company in the country. But, of course, they were still making these very simple and inexpensive chairs.
INTERVIEWER: Maybe you could talk a little bit about how production or distribution might have changed in those years.
FENN: Their sales were largely to jobbers, not directly to the retailers. My grandfather, A.P. Fenn, was the only salesman. He didn’t have any sales force other than himself.
INTERVIEWER: So he would travel?
FENN: He was traveling a great deal, and he traveled all through the South and contacted jobbers. They were all along the river. He had customers in Paducah, Kentucky, and on down the river in Memphis, Baton Rouge and New Orleans, and over in St. Louis, Missouri.
They sold chairs. The railroad had come to Tell City in the last few days of 1889-1890. So, most of the shipments were by carloads, and he sold carloads of chairs to these jobbers.
INTERVIEWER: Now, before that, they had shipped the chairs down the river?
FENN: Yeah, well, they had to. Up until 1890, there was no other way to ship them.
INTERVIEWER: Now, after 1890, was the river still important?
FENN: Yeah, they still used it some, but they apparently used the railroad more frequently than the river.
INTERVIEWER: That opened up wider markets, then.
FENN: That’s right, except the market stayed in the South for many, many years. As I say, these went into the sharecroppers’ cabins.
INTERVIEWER: How long would one of those chairs last?
FENN: Oh, it would last an awful long time. I explained that joint to you. Sometimes the seat would wear out after a lot of use, but they could be reseated, and people did that.
INTERVIEWER: So there might still be a number of those early chairs around.
FENN: I am sure there are, but it’s hard to identify whether it was made by Chair Makers Union or one of these other companies that made the same type of chairs.
INTERVIEWER: They had no distinctive signature?
FENN: They were all very similar.
INTERVIEWER: They didn’t change from year to year very much in one company?
FENN: Apparently. The first chair they ever made they called the Number One. Clear up into the 1930s we were still making the Number One. I’m not sure it was exactly the same as the Number One that was made back in 1880, but it was that same general type of chair.
INTERVIEWER: Now, you mentioned that there had been a fire in the factory.
FENN: There was a fire in 1881. The original building faced the river over here in this block, and it was this frame building. It shows up on a lithographic view of Tell City that was made in 1878 or something like that. They immediately rebuilt the building, but this time they built a brick building. This was later added onto, and they built an office and a warehouse. That was about the time my grandfather got into the business.
INTERVIEWER: Are any of these buildings still in place?
FENN: Yes, those buildings are still standing.
INTERVIEWER: Are they still used?
FENN: The office building is used, and in fact, the area in the warehouse that was next to it is now part of the office. Part of the production area that was in the back of the old office is part of the office, but that’s all in use. What was the original building is a warehouse area now. It’s not used in production, but it’s still standing.
INTERVIEWER: What about the materials for producing the chairs? How were they obtained?
FENN: It was all local lumber. They bought logs. They had their own saw mill at the factory.
INTERVIEWER: Was that owned as a part of the company or owned by the family?
FENN: No, that was part of the business, and the logs were rafted on the river. That’s quite a story in itself. These logs were fastened together with pins and so forth, and they brought them in and they had a little track, a little narrow-gauge railroad track that went down into the river, and little cars on a cable that went down. They were heavy enough that they’d submerge. They’d follow the track under the water. They’d float the logs onto these little cars and then winch them up the hill where the saw mill was, and they sawed them into lumber there.
INTERVIEWER: Now was that an unusual way of getting the logs to the saw mill, or was that something developed here?
FENN: Not especially. I don’t think it was too unusual for those days. They had block and tackle and A-frames and that sort of thing to handle heavy items. They were ingenious enough to do that sort of thing, but I doubt if it was that unusual.
INTERVIEWER: So it would have been typical of other manufacturers, perhaps, here in town.
FENN: I wouldn’t be surprised with some manufacturers. This is true today of my component parts; we call them dimension stock. They’d buy squares. We still buy some like this. You buy lumber that’s 2 inches by 2 inches by 20 inches long, and that’ll make a front leg for a chair. So some of the manufacturers would have their lumber brought in that way. It’d be sawed up in the woods where the logs were and then brought in that way.
INTERVIEWER: Was the saw mill close by the factory here, or was it up the river?
FENN: No, it was adjacent to the factory. It was just outside of the factory and on the side of the building. Now this track is no longer in use, but I remember it as a boy.
INTERVIEWER: You remember seeing it?
FENN: I remember seeing the track and understanding what it was. The railroad went in between the factory and the river, and there had to be a little switch there for that track to cross the railroad track. Some of these logs were bought from other people that cut them, but the company also bought timber tracts, and we did our own logging.
INTERVIEWER: Was that unusual for a furniture company?
FENN: Everybody doesn’t do it, and certainly not today. It’s not unheard of, but it’s not that common today. At that time we had lumbermen on our crew, and we also had a crew of river men. Not many, but they handled these logs. These tracts that they’d buy had to be upstream and close to the river so they could be handled the way we handled them.
INTERVIEWER: Was there ever a shortage?
FENN: No, and one of the things about making these common chairs is, they used a lot of different species of wood.
INTERVIEWER: I see, hardwood, but different kinds.
FENN: They’d mix the species so they could use a pretty good part of the lumber that was in the woods. It could be that maybe some of the better grades of lumber like walnut or what have you, they may have sold to someone else.
INTERVIEWER: (Someone else) making a different kind of furniture. In town, maybe?
FENN: Probably. This practice of buying timber tracts lasted until World War I. There was quite an inflation in prices, and they bought some timber at an inflated price. After the war, all of a sudden, there was a drop in prices, and they took a terrible beating on it. They’d paid too much for this timber before they actually used it. It was also at this time that my grandfather died. He died in 1920. By that time my father, Chris Fenn, took charge, and he was the one that decided to get out of the timber business. He decided that we had enough problems manufacturing chairs without being in the timber business.
INTERVIEWER: What did the company usually do with the land once they had cut the timber? Did they replant, or did they sell the land or dispose of it some other way?
FENN: They probably sold a lot of it, but in the early 1900s my grandfather bought what amounted to practically all of the land between Tell City and Cannelton, which is several miles of property, a rather narrow strip along the river. Up close to Cannelton, there gets to be bottomland, and there was no timber. This is the hilly land, and there was a lot of timber there. He bought this property and cut the timber out, but he kept the property. Most of it he made into a farm, and he farmed on the side, then he had employees farm the property, but he managed it.
There was one particular grove adjacent to Tell City that had a natural clearing in the ground, in the woods, and this had been used by the city as a picnic grove for many years. He didn’t cut that section there. There were about 30 acres or so in that area — that one hill — that he kept. He built a summer home there. I think it was 1904 or thereabouts. After World War II, we dismantled that home, but my brother and I built our own homes up in that area. That is a little piece of virgin forest that has never been cut. My grandfather was sentimental about it because, for many years, the city used it for all kinds of picnics — school picnics, Sunday school picnics and that sort of thing — so he saved that one section of timber between Tell City and Cannelton. I know he was involved in other property up the river, and he probably sold it after he cut the timber. He may have just bought the timber rights; that’s a very common thing. You don’t necessarily buy the ground; you just buy the right to cut the timber on it.
INTERVIEWER: Did your grandfather have other business interests besides the farm and the furniture company?
FENN: Yes. As he progressed, he got involved in a number of projects. He was involved in a hub factory at DePauw, Indiana, and later that moved to Marengo, Indiana. He was one of the stockholders of the Huntingburg Wagon Works in Huntingburg, Indiana. He had a friend from Louisville named Billy Rice, and he was involved with him in a number of different projects, I think even including some livestock projects away from Tell City. He was also active in politics. He started out as a Republican but changed to Democrat, and he is credited with making Perry County a Democratic county, which it still is.
INTERVIEWER: Do you have any idea why he made that change?
FENN: No, I have no idea, but I found references to it in some of the old newspapers. He was on the City Council, and I don’t understand why, but this was in the 1890s, and whoever was mayor, I forget his name now, whoever was mayor for some reason resigned, and so the Council elected from among themselves and appointed a mayor to fill the term, and my grandfather was appointed. He was clerk of the council at that time. He was appointed mayor and a year or so later, after he completed that term, ran for mayor in an election. It was during this period that he switched politics, because I’ve seen the newspaper articles where the Republicans were really out after A.P. Fenn because he had deserted them, and here he was running in opposition to them.
He was active in local politics, and he was the mayor who built our City Hall down here, which is a story in itself. He was also auditor of the county. He became a Democratic Chairman. He became a District Chairman, which included all of the counties along the Ohio River, and he attended several of the Democratic National Conventions as an Assistant Sergeant of Arms. That’s an interesting story. They were meeting to elect a delegate to the National Convention. My grandfather was one of the candidates. He and another person tied in the vote, so they were going to have to have another election. He suggested that they cut cards, and the winner would be the delegate, and the other fellow said, “Well, that’s ok with him, they’d do that.” So they cut cards and A.P. won, and the other fellow just couldn’t stand it. A.P. said, “Well, if it means that much to you, why, you go ahead and be the delegate.”
Tom Taggart was one of the big Democrats in the state at that time — he was from over in French Lick — and was president of this thing, and it impressed him. He told A.P., “That’s a great thing you did. I’ll see that you get some recognition for it.” Tom Taggart was named the Sergeant of Arms of that convention, so he made my grandfather an Assistant Sergeant of Arms. He attended two or three Democratic conventions in that capacity after that. He was active in politics, and I suppose he would have continued. He was involved in other things, but of course the Chair Makers Union was his main thing, and he was the guiding light of the company. He generated all of the sales. He was the push behind the growth and everything in the company.
INTERVIEWER: I’ve seen some photographs of the large chair that was taken to the World’s Fair. Could you tell us about that?
FENN: Yeah, when the World’s Fair was coming along ...
INTERVIEWER: This was in St. Louis?
FENN: It was in St. Louis in 1903-04. He decided that he would make the world’s greatest chair, the biggest chair. It was just copied off our regular cane-seat chair. He went to a lot of trouble to see that the back posts were all one piece of wood, and they amounted to practically a whole tree, 12 feet or so. They put this chair together and the women had to get up on ladders to seat it. When they tried to load it into a railcar for St. Louis, they couldn’t get it in the doorway of the car. It was just too big and clumsy. After all of that work, they had to cut the back posts in two and make arrangements to splice them after they got over there. This was in what was called the Furniture Manufacturers Exposition Building. It wasn’t actually on the fairgrounds. It was in downtown St. Louis somewhere, where the furniture manufacturers exhibited their furniture. So it was there during the fair.
INTERVIEWER: And afterwards they gave the chair to a furniture company?
FENN: After the fair, when that building was closed, they gave the chair to the Lammert Furniture Company, and they in turn put it on their roof, and it stayed there for many years.
INTERVIEWER: In St. Louis?
FENN: In St. Louis, on the roof of their store in downtown St. Louis. The weather finally got to it, but they started advertising as the place with the giant chair. Even up into modern times, they had a giant chair that wasn’t nearly as large as the chair down in their lobby in the store. This is a photo of that chair. It is painted on here. It says, “Office of the Chair Makers Union, Tell City, Indiana. Buy your chairs under the chair. Output: one thousand dozen per week.” It shows a little desk and my grandfather and his brother-in-law, Jake Zoercher, sitting in the chair at that time.
There’s an interesting story, I think. When the family went to St. Louis to the fair, they visited the Lammert Furniture Company while they were there, and Mr. Lammert showed them around his store, especially my grandmother. When they got to one floor in the store, he said that he’d like to make a gift to her, and he’d like for her to select any piece of furniture on that floor as a gift from him. She selected a solid mahogany rocking chair with an inlaid design on the back. I didn’t know my grandfather — I was only 2 years old when he died — but my grandmother I knew very well. I heard her tell this story. She said, “Albert couldn’t wait until we got out of the store because I picked the most expensive piece on the floor!” It embarrassed him, but she said, “I still like this rocker.” Well, my Uncle Roy inherited that rocker. Years later, I think it was in the 1960s, he kept talking about that rocker, how everybody said it was the most comfortable rocker they’d ever sat in. None of us who were developing the new patterns thought it was a very attractive rocker, but we did agree that it was very comfortable, so we took some of the dimensions and the stance, and made a Colonial style rocker. The original wasn’t Colonial, but we made a Colonial one. We called it “Roy’s Rocker.” We should have called it “Anna’s Rocker,” I think. At any rate, it was very popular for a number of years.
INTERVIEWER: Was a furniture exposition a typical way of showing furniture, or was it unique to the fair in St. Louis?
FENN: I don’t know much about that, whether that furniture exposition building was just in use during the fair or whether it was there at other times. Chicago was where we held what the industry calls the markets, really the furniture shows. There was a building on Michigan Avenue that started out as a showroom for the furniture manufacturers, where the retailers went. This started back in my grandfather’s day. We had an area, a space, in that building, and he went to these shows, the markets, in Chicago.
INTERVIEWER: About when did that start? Do you have any idea?
FENN: No, I can’t really tell you, but he died in 1920, so it was going on before then, because I know he was active in that. Then, in the ’20s sometime, the American Furniture Mart opened in Chicago. This was a huge building, and then all this showing shifted over to there. We were one of the original tenants in that building, the American Furniture Mart. That was at 666 Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. We were there when they celebrated their 50th anniversary. We were there almost until the very end. They were beginning to shift some of the floors into different uses — as offices rather than furniture showrooms. The market had shifted away from Chicago by that time. We were there practically that whole time. It’s now offices and condominiums and all sorts of things. It’s no longer a furniture building.
INTERVIEWER: During your grandfather’s era, then, there was a shift in marketing from calling on up and down the river to a more national kind of distribution?
FENN: Yeah, but I can’t tell you much about it. I’m sure they still continued with jobbers because you can’t live off of market business. You’ve still got to go out and knock on doors.
INTERVIEWER: It sounds as if he liked that part.
FENN: I’m sure he did. I ran into a fellow in Troy. I’m interested in the river history, and I hunted up this old-timer many years ago because I understood that he did some photography back early. He still had some of his negatives and some of his prints, and I got acquainted with him and got some photographs from him. He grew up in Troy then he went to Chicago when he was a young man and worked for the telephone company up there. When he retired and got older, he moved back to Troy. That’s when I got acquainted with him. I was talking to him one day, and he said, “Albert Fenn, what relation was he to you?” “He was my grandfather.” “Oh, yeah?” He remembered one time in Chicago that he ran into Albert Fenn, and he was with John L. Louis, the famous prizefighter. And that’s true, he knew John L. Louis. John L. Louis came to Tell City one time after his fighting days were over, on the Vaudeville circuit, put on an exhibition of some kind and let people see him and shake hands with him. A.P. got acquainted with him at that time, and apparently bumped into him a few other times. But anyway, the old-timer says, “I tagged along after those two guys. That was quite a night.” I said, “Well, tell me about it.” Well, he kind of hemmed and hawed and stumbled around and he said, “I don’t think I better.” “Look,” I said, “I’ve always admired that man, and I didn’t know him because I was too young to ever know him,” and I said, “I like to hear stories about him.” No, he thought he better not, so I lost an opportunity to find out some of the things he might have been doing in Chicago at one of these furniture markets.
INTERVIEWER: Let’s talk a little bit about the competition in the furniture business and some of the other companies during the era of A.P. Fenn. What was his method for dealing with that usually?
FENN: He bought out several chair plants after he owned the business, and I’m not so sure that he necessarily bought them out for competitive reasons, as he may have wanted the machinery to get into a different type of chair, because this was at the time that they started getting into different types of chairs. There was a friendly competition between these local chair plants. There were two in Tell City and one in Troy. There was another plant in Cannelton. He bought that plant, and that may have been a chance to get rid of part of the competition. But about that time he had been making nothing but these splint-bottom chairs using cane which came from China. They were wanting to get into wood-seat chairs and this took a little different equipment. He opened up another plant on the southern edge of town on the river and started getting into wood-seat chairs.
INTERVIEWER: That would have been about when?
FENN: That was in the early 1900s, shortly after he took over the business. In fact, he even opened up a second plant up there. He bought out the Oakland City Chair Company — that was in 1903 — and moved all that machinery and equipment into the new buildings. In 1906, I noticed he bought an embossing machine. This was a machine where, under pressure, they press the design into the slat of a chair. That was very popular at that time. In fact, there has been a resurgence of it in recent years. These pressed-back chairs are very popular antiques, and any number of manufacturers are making those embossed-back chairs today. But he was getting into a different type of situation.
He’d increased his production so much. In advertisements, he talks about a thousand dozen chairs a week, and I did find a notice where in 1904 he shipped 488 carloads of chairs, plus the small shipments that went out by boat and local freight. Now I should have, and maybe I have somewhere, figured out how many dozen chairs you get in a carload.
INTERVIEWER: Quite a few, I would imagine.
FENN: Yeah, that’s quite a few, because the chairs were not cartoned or anything like that. They were made so that they would stack.
INTERVIEWER: They didn’t have arms?
FENN: No, they were side chairs. They had rockers that had arms, but most of these would be side chairs that just stacked. You see, these were very reasonable chairs, and there wasn’t a finish like we have today on fine furniture. They just dipped them in a tank of varnish and let the varnish drain off of them, and they’d maybe take a little brush to smooth out where there were some runs on it or something. They load very well. He talked about a thousand dozen of chairs a week, and even in one place advertised fifteen hundred dozen of chairs a week. I have no idea whether he ever made that many, whether that was his capacity or whether he was just blowing his horn.
I have run into some notices. They bought a generator in 1890, and they had the first electric lights in Tell City, and they were actually doing some work after dark. I don’t think it was a second shift; I think these people just worked maybe 12 hours or something. At any rate, all of this created some problems with the seating, and I think that’s one of the reasons why he wanted to get into other types of chairs. There were a lot of advertisements in the papers that they needed seaters and everything. And they were taking chairs up to Cannelton and down to Troy, and I even ran into one notice where they ran a warehouse at Lewisport and were going to take frames over there, ship them over there by boat, and have the people in Lewisport seat them and then they’d ship them out from there.
I think they pretty much reached capacity there or something. At any rate, he was able to generate new markets by getting into these different types of chairs. So he had these two other plants on the south end of town, and he was getting into other types of chairs. Then there was this company, the Cabinet Makers Union, in Tell City that ran into problems. Somewhere along about 1909 or ’10 or ’11, somewhere in there, they finally stopped production. They just weren’t successful, and that factory just sat there. In 1913, there was an auction, and he bought the Cabinet Makers Union.
INTERVIEWER: The Cabinet Makers Union had at that point long ceased to be a cooperative too?
FENN: Oh, yes. They went into a partnership in a regular stock company. They ran into problems, so he bought that plant in 1913. And by that time, one of the other plants had burned, and he consolidated that into that other business. He opened up the plant in the block adjacent to the present one, what we now call our Factory Number Three, which is greatly enlarged. They completely reworked that plant, and that’s where they moved their better chairs. Then they closed this other plant that was on the edge of town. But here they went into the wood seat chairs and a better class of chairs, these embossed-back chairs and all that sort of thing. They were even making some office chairs.
INTERVIEWER: School chairs at that time? I’ve seen some photographs of those.
FENN: No, that came later, but we made school chairs. In 1909, they were making 54 different patterns of chairs. When they opened up the factory, the Cabinet Makers Union factory, as our Factory Number Three in 1914, a newspaper account says that they had 275 employees.
INTERVIEWER: Can you tell us something about those employees? What sort of people worked in the factory then?
FENN: They were furniture craftsmen. They were people that grew up in woodworking. There was quite a tradition in the community for that sort of thing.
INTERVIEWER: Would they have considered themselves craftsmen or day laborers? Wage workers?
FENN: I imagine they considered themselves craftsmen and were proud of what they were accomplishing.
INTERVIEWER: Was there any unionization at that point?
FENN: No, there wasn’t. There was one movement back at that time, but nothing ever really came of it. It wasn’t until into the 1950s that that situation came up.
There are a couple of stories of A.P. that I’d like to relate. One of them, I think, is a good example of A.P.’s salesmanship. He was down in Texas. He had a lot of customers there. He was down there one time and he got word that there would be a big Bible conference in a neighboring town. They would bring the people in from all over, and they were having a problem with their seating arrangements. So he went over there, and this was going to be in a tent, a huge circus tent. They hadn’t made arrangements for the seats because they didn’t know what to do. They had a conflict. They had two days after their convention was over to have the field cleared and everything. So they had to have seats for hundreds of people, but then they had to have some way of getting rid of them. So he told these people, he said he realized that he was talking about a number of carloads of chairs, and he said, “I’ll give you a real special price of $9 a dozen.” And he said, “You bring these chairs in” — these would be the cane-seat chairs — “bring these chairs in and charge everybody an extra 75 cents on their registration fee. That’ll buy the chair. On the last day of the conference, you tell the people that they’ve been such good attendees and everything that, to show your appreciation, everybody can pick up the chair that they’re sitting in and take it home with them.” So he made the sale.
He was quite a promoter. I’d love to have a photograph of this, but he had posters made with a sign that said, “Another carload of Tell City Chairs,” and he tacked that on every car, on each side of every car ...
INTERVIEWER: Of the railroad cars?
FENN: … of the railroad cars that went out. When they unloaded these cars, nobody bothered to take those signs off the car, so they’d go along for quite a while. You can’t do that today. The railroads won’t allow it. I remember my father telling me about a man from down South in Texas or somewhere who was going through Tell City, and he stopped. He’d seen so many — he was a salesman and traveled a lot — he’d seen so many of these signs, “Another carload of Tell City Chairs,” that he wanted to know where they came from.
In 1912, there was a rumor going around that my grandfather was broke. He pretty well had extended himself quite a bit at that time, but he couldn’t stand to have this rumor going around. He had an interest in a herd of cattle down in Kentucky, and he sold those. Nobody knew about that. He sold those and bought a Cadillac, and he put his daughter in that and had her driving around town, and that scotched the rumor that the…
INTERVIEWER: That the company was failing?
FENN: That he was broke. One of the old-timers told me one day that he was working in the shipping department in A.P.’s days, and this customer down in Texas, every time they shipped a carload of chairs to this guy, they had to ship several barrels of repair parts to him. And these were pretty heavy. He couldn’t understand why this was the only customer that got these repair parts. He didn’t know what was going on down there. One day the foreman said to a fellow loading the barrels, “Now, you be careful with those barrels.” He was handling them too rough, and he said, “Why?” The foreman said, “Don’t you know what’s in there?” “No.” He said, “That’s beer. There are bottles of beer packed in sawdust.” It was a dry county down in Texas, and A.P. was taking care of him by sending some beer along with his chairs marked “repair parts.”
INTERVIEWER: So he was very innovative in keeping good customers.
FENN: He had some little gold chairs made, and this was at the time of the World’s Fair. In this photo of the World’s Fair, you can actually see a couple of little chairs. They were watch fobs, solid gold chairs. He passed those around to his good customers, and A.P. always used one on his watch chain.
INTERVIEWER: Are any of those still around?
FENN: Yeah, I have one of them. My father had trouble. A lot of us have pretty prominent stomachs, and he used to have trouble bumping into things with that gold chair, and he mashed up several of them, so he gradually quit wearing them. My Uncle Roy wore one most of his life, and I have one of those little gold chairs. It says, “Chair Makers Union” on it. My grandfather was a great promoter.
INTERVIEWER: What about World War I? How did that affect the company?
FENN: I’m not so sure that it had a great deal of effect on the company. I mentioned the business with the lumber, that they made a bad purchase of timber. After that, they bought only lumber and dimension stock.
INTERVIEWER: Were there shortages of supplies or new markets?
FENN: I have no idea about that. I just don’t know. My Uncle Roy was in the war. That was before he came into the business.
INTERVIEWER: What about people who worked in the plant? Was there a shortage of laborers?
FENN: There were obviously some of our workers that went away to war, but I have no idea what happened. There’s no tradition or anything that I know of about that.
INTERVIEWER: Did Tell City or this community in general feel the impact of some of the concerns about German-speaking people?
FENN: Oh, yeah. There was quite a bit of that that came along. A lot of these people changed some of the pictures they had hanging on the wall — Bismarck or somebody. Somebody got put in front of him in the picture frame, and they stopped the German church services every Sunday and started switching around (to English). This was really a German community. There were more Germans than Swiss in Tell City, but of course even the Swiss spoke German. The city records are all in German, up until about 1890 or something, and then they wrote German on one page and English on the opposite page. It wasn’t until later that they dropped the German altogether. We had a German newspaper here, and it was the only newspaper for years. I mean, there was no English. Even in my parents’ days, they had some German in school, but my parents spoke German. When I was a child, if they wanted to say something that they didn’t want us to understand, they spoke in German. You’d pick up a few words that way. I used to know more German than I do today because you never hear it around here anymore.
INTERVIEWER: Would German have been used in the factory?
FENN: In the early days, I’m sure. They had a lot of problems with the county government. Really more that the county government had problems with Tell City. That was at Cannelton. These are Germans that would come up there with deeds and all that, and those (deeds) are in German.
INTERVIEWER: And Cannelton was not a German community?
FENN: No, it wasn’t a German community at all. There were a lot of Irish up there, and I suppose there were a few Germans, but it definitely wasn’t a German community, and there were problems with that. Now, the company’s original constitution was recorded in 1865. We have a copy of that from the records at the courthouse. I’m sure it was written in German and somebody translated it into English because there’s a few places where it’s a little ...
INTERVIEWER: Not quite translated from German?
FENN: … that’s what happened.
INTERVIEWER: Probably by the time the war came along, there wouldn’t necessarily have been German used in the factory, though.
FENN: No, but there was a lot of German used, and some of these people were more German than they were English. I was talking to a fellow the other day, a native here in Tell City, who has lived all his life here. I suppose he’s in his mid-80s or something. And I was surprised … He told me that when he went to school he was 6 years old and he’d never talked English. He knew nothing but German. That late (in his life). He was talking about how grateful he was to his first teacher who helped him with English because nobody at home was doing that. I just can’t imagine that it went on that late, but that’s so.
INTERVIEWER: Was there much immigration into the community during the late 19th and early 20th centuries?
FENN: No, I don’t think so. Of course, all the original settlers were immigrants. Well, not all of them; I mean, their parents may have been immigrants, but they were no more than a second generation. Some of them were born in this country and brought here, but they were all Germans, and there were a few people who would bring some relatives over a little later. But our population settled down early and didn’t change a lot.
INTERVIEWER: So that culture and language went on for several generations before it died out.
FENN: Oh, yeah, and there were a lot of German customs and recipes and all that sort of thing that hung on for years.
INTERVIEWER: What about the transition, then, in 1920 after your grandfather died?
FENN: Well, my father, Chris Fenn, C.F. Fenn, Christian Frederick Fenn, started working in the office when he was 14 years old making payroll, after school hours and on Saturday and things like that.
INTERVIEWER: When would he have been born?
FENN: He was born in 1890. He had an older brother who had a lot of promise, and he went away to college at Valparaiso and died. He was 18 years old. My father then was second in line. He started working in the office. There’s a story that Roy tells about that. Dad was 14, 15 years old, and they paid in cash, and so he was figuring out the payroll, and then they’d tell the bank how many quarters and how many half-dollars and all that sort of thing. Then my father would go over to the bank and get the money and bring it back.
INTERVIEWER: Payroll would have been in cash during those days?
FENN: And put it in an envelope, and he was $10 short. He checked it and checked it, and he was $10 short. So he told his dad. Dad called the bank and said they were $10 short on this payroll money. The banker made some remarks that he shouldn’t trust a boy as young as that with that much cash. A.P. got very mad about that. The next Saturday, when it came time to collect the payroll money, he stopped at a baseball game and sent my Uncle Roy, his youngest son, over for the payroll cash. Roy said that every Saturday for a year he had to go over and pick up that payroll cash; that A.P. wanted that banker to know that he trusted all of his sons.
INTERVIEWER: And how old was Roy?
FENN: He was only about 11 years old or something like that. I think within a year or so after he was able to do it, my grandfather switched banks. But anyway, my dad started working there. He went away to a business school for a short time and had a business course, but he didn’t have a university degree or anything. They took him into the partnership in 1911. At that time, it had been A.P. and his brother-in-law, Jake Zoercher, and now my father was a third partner, but it was a very … I gather it wasn’t a very large interest.
INTERVIEWER: A junior partner.
FENN: A.P. died in 1920, and at that time my dad was 30 years old. He took over the management of the firm, the general management of the firm. Uncle Jake, as everybody called him, was still in charge of the production and all the facilities and everything, but my dad took over the management of the firm.
INTERVIEWER: And how long was Jake Zoercher around?
FENN: Jake Zoercher stayed until 1944.
INTERVIEWER: Can you tell us a little bit about him? He was there for quite some time.
FENN: Yeah, he was the brother-in-law of A.P., and he’d been in the furniture business. I suppose he started out in Tell City, but I know that he was in Saginaw, Michigan, and also in Memphis, and may have been other places, I don’t know. But he was always a production man. On two different occasions, he was mayor of Tell City. He was a very precise person. In the summertime, he always had a rosebud in his lapel. I remember … he had a tie on, he had a stick pin that was a cluster of Ohio River pearls that came out of the mussels in the river. They’re just as nice as the … They’re natural pearls, but at any rate, that was one of his trademarks.
INTERVIEWER: And where did the Zoerchers come from? Were they German also?
FENN: They were German also. Christian Zoercher was the father and Anna Zoercher was the mother, and they came from Germany, not from the same community, but from Bavaria.
INTERVIEWER: Were they original settlers in Tell City?
FENN: Her parents came from Germany, but she was born in Cincinnati, and he met her in Cincinnati. He was from Germany himself. They came from Cincinnati over here to Tell City. They had a few children that were born in Cincinnati, and then the rest of the family was born here in Tell City, which included my grandmother, Anna Zoercher, and Jake Zoercher, who was the one that we’re talking about in the Chair Makers Union.
INTERVIEWER: So, Jake Zoercher is your grandmother’s brother.
FENN: My grandmother’s brother, yeah. And there were other brothers. One of them started the Tell City News in 1891. He was an attorney who founded and then edited the Tell City News for a number of years. That was an English newspaper. He went to Indianapolis and ended up as chairman of the state tax commission and a bunch of stuff. And there was Louie Zoercher, Chris Zoercher and Henry Zoercher. It was a big family.
INTERVIEWER: One sees that name driving into town on various things.
FENN: Karl Zoercher, who was Jake’s son, came into the business in his day, and he followed his dad in charge of production.
INTERVIEWER: What changes came along in 1920?
FENN: Well, Chris, my dad, decided that he couldn’t handle all the sales work like A.P. had done. By this time, the business was getting larger. It was too much for one person to handle, so he brought in J.H. O’Toole, Jack O’Toole, as sales manager in 1920. I have no idea how he made contact with Jack O’Toole, but he did. He kept his office in Chicago. He was here often, but he was never a resident of Tell City. He is the one that started building a sales organization of salesmen with territories. He continued to handle all of the business with the jobbers, but he started to develop business with retailers, and he started to build up an organization of sales reps.
INTERVIEWER: Now, this would have been in the 1920s?
FENN: Yeah, he came on board in 1920, and as far as I know he almost immediately started building a sales organization. Through the ’20s and ’30s, he started upgrading the line into more quality products and more refined designs and so forth, still always chairs. During the ’30s, there was a major thing that took place that affected the Number One plant, the original factory that made these cane-seat chairs. When Franklin Roosevelt became president, he started the New Deal, with all sorts of changes in the business laws during the Great Depression. They passed a law that stopped all of the seating being done out in the homes. Of course, there was actually no room and there was no chance for increasing the price of the chairs during those days to bring these people into the factory, to do the seating. There was some of it done, but it changed the whole complexion. Of course, that was only part of the line by that time. We started getting into different types of seating materials and wooden slats for the seats instead of this cane and fiber, which was cardboard that was pressed. Some of it was flat and some of it was round. But we still used some cane. It was mostly for rocking chairs, porch rockers and stuff, and these were seated in the factory but no longer out in the homes. That, of course, made a big change. By the time we got into the ’30s and ’40s, 18th century, the traditional styles, were very popular, Chippendale, Sheraton and Duncan Phyfe. The Duncan Phyfe chairs became a very, very important segment of our business. These were slip-seat chairs, and they were more refined. We started getting into Early American and Colonial styles.
INTERVIEWER: This was before World War II?
FENN: Yeah, this was before World War II.
INTERVIEWER: What impact did the Depression have on business?
FENN: Well, it had a very serious impact. The plant managed to keep going. I know a lot of the factories shut down for several years or so, and then sometimes they started up again and sometimes they didn’t. We managed to keep going, but it wasn’t at as fast a pace; the volume wasn’t there. But we still managed to keep going.
INTERVIEWER: You’ve just described diversification of product. Is that a result of the Depression or just a happy accident?
FENN: The Depression helped a lot, and there’s another thing that came about. I don’t know whether I’m getting ahead of the story, but when you got into World War II days, there were a lot of controls on materials purchased. You couldn’t buy more than you did before. I was in service at the time, spent three-and-a-half years in the Army. What happened here was that the lumber (that went into these cheaper chairs, these porch rockers and these chairs that had been in this one plant, the original factory and everything) they utilized that lumber for making the better chairs. We were able to increase our dollar volume with the same amount of material, by shifting that lumber and the materials and so forth into these better products.
INTERVIEWER: Now, that changed production, though. You needed new machinery and a more highly trained labor force.
FENN: Yeah, well, we pretty much had the machinery. There was a lot of machinery that was available during the war. Some of this we had the capacity and the ability to make, but we just hadn’t developed the business.
INTERVIEWER: Did you need to develop the skills of the labor force?
FENN: That’s right.
INTERVIEWER: How did that happen? Sort of on-the-job learning?
FENN: We’ve always trained people. There’s a certain amount of tradition in a woodworking community, and sometimes you get people that have skills from one factory to join your organization, but a lot of times you just have to take people off the street and train them. We’ve always done that. Today, of course, there aren’t any trained woodworkers in this area. You have to train them. During the war there were a lot of people away in service and everything. We’ve always — I can’t say always, but for many years — there have been women employees, and we had more women employees during the war and since then.
I think I should mention a couple of things here. We became very heavy through the ’30s and ’40s in 18th century, especially Duncan Phyfe chairs. At this time in the industry, there was still a tradition of factories that made nothing but chairs. There were other factories that made nothing but tables, and other factories that made nothing but cases with buffets for the bedroom and what have you. It was very common for the retailers to make up their own suites. When you’re dealing with traditional furniture, this was possible because these are all take-offs of traditional designs, museum pieces, or what have you. So you can find a table that is in the Duncan Phyfe style from this manufacturer, and you could find a case that’ll match it and chairs that’ll match it and make up your own suite. There was a uniformity of finish that made this possible. But there was another thing too.
INTERVIEWER: Would you go back just a moment? What do you mean, uniformity of finish?
FENN: It was just more or less a standard mahogany finish. I mean, it was pretty much the same.
INTERVIEWER: It’s not that different from one manufacturer to another.
FENN: No, not that different.
INTERVIEWER: What was the process for getting that finish?
FENN: In those days, it was almost all a lacquer finish.
INTERVIEWER: You were talking about the earlier chairs simply being dipped. This is a much finer means of production.
FENN: You’re talking now about a better grade of furniture entirely. This would be a more refined finish. There would be a number of steps with stains, fillers, sealers and lacquers, and it might be hand rubbed or what have you. There was enough uniformity in a standard finish, let’s say, that you could choose pieces from different manufacturers that looked pretty much the same. Of course, there were manufacturers that would try to promote their own complete suites and everything. They might have different finishes that would be hard to match, and then you couldn’t use those interchangeably. But there was enough uniformity that people could do this.
Another thing was that a lot of these case good manufacturers were not chair people. Some of them didn’t make chairs at all. They bought chairs from someone or didn’t even have any, or if they did make some, they weren’t that efficient and they weren’t that competitive, price-wise. So you take a company that was … Well, for example, Drexel had quite a name in those days as high-quality furniture. A retailer could buy a Drexel suite, say a dining room suite with a table, buffet and a set of chairs, and he would put a certain price on it, a pretty high price. This customer would come in and, gee, he likes that, but it’s just a little too high priced. “I’m going to have to look around over here,” he’d say. Well, wait a minute. Suppose we take this chair over here that’s manufactured by the Tell City Chair Company and bring it over and substitute that for these Drexel chairs that are here. Now that’ll make quite a difference in the price of this suite. There was a lot of that going on because of the uniformity of finish and so forth. And this was true in the Early American styles too. There was pretty much a standard maple finish at that time. I’m talking about back in the ’30s and ’40s, you understand. That didn’t continue forever, but it was true then.
INTERVIEWER: When did the practice begin of selling a whole suite of furniture together from the same company, say, the Drexel company? When did that come about?
FENN: This had been going on for some time, but in those days it wasn’t as common as it is today by any means. We’ve always — I can’t say always, but for many years — there have been women employees, and we had more women employees during the war and since then. What happened was that we hit a peak in our sales — we’re talking about chairs now — in 1950. We started to level off at that time. This is a point of transition that we’ll have to get into but I want to go back because we missed one thing here. This company was called the Chair Makers Union from the beginning, and when A.P. died in 1920, it was still the Chair Makers Union. In 1924, four years later, the company was incorporated. It had been a partnership up until then. It was incorporated in 1924, and at that time the name was changed to the Tell City Chair Company. There was no change in ownership. It was simply a transfer from a partnership into a stock company, the same people.
INTERVIEWER: But still privately held.
FENN: Yeah, my grandmother and my father and, well, some of the other children had gotten some of A.P.’s interest and Jake Zoercher’s interest. The company continued to operate. As far as I know, there has been continued operation of the company since 1865. Now, I don’t know whether … I’m not saying we operated the company every single day, but I mean there was never any period of months or years or anything like that when the company wasn’t operating.
INTERVIEWER: So that makes it one of the oldest furniture companies in the country.
FENN: Yeah, I suppose so. It’s a shame some of the older firms have gone out of business in recent years. There’s one furniture firm that calls themselves older, but they haven’t been making furniture as long as we have.
INTERVIEWER: Let’s go back and talk about a couple of things from that period leading up to World War II, particularly the flood, and then maybe some of the expansion of different styles of merchandise.
FENN: Of course, the 1937 flood was a great tragedy for the whole Ohio Valley as far as that goes, but it was a very serious situation for the city of Tell City and the Tell City Chair Company. It was the biggest flood in history, much larger than any other flood. We’d been through a number of floods before in the organization. We have some letters that were sent out in 1883 to our customers, explaining why there was a little delay in filling their orders. We have some photos from back in 1883 and ’84, and in 1907-08 there was a flood, and this affected the company as well as the community.
The 1937 flood was much worse than anything before. There was little warning. My father was adamant about this thing. He was really worked up about the flood because there wasn’t enough warning from the government, the weather service. He maintained that they knew there was a flood coming but were afraid that they’d scare the people if they told them how much was coming, and he didn’t think that was right. I don’t know. I was away at school at that time. I missed the 1937 flood. My family had to move away from the flood area. I had a break between semesters during the flood, and my dad got word to me, “Whatever you do, don’t come down here. We can’t take care of you.” And I spent a week with one of my friends at his home during that time.
There were six or seven feet of water in our factory buildings and our office, and the lumber started floating away. They made booms, they stretched wires across the street to catch the lumber before it floated away. It was a terrible mess. This was in the winter in January, and the whole water system got contaminated with this river water (the wells and the whole pipe system and everything). Everybody had to boil water that was brought in, and food supplies were brought in, and those things were taken care of, but when the floodwater went down, there were several inches of gooey-goo mud all over everything. They wouldn’t turn the water on because it was contaminated; they were afraid that people would drink it and use it for cooking and there’d be a lot of illness. They had to clean this up without water. My dad has some movies that he showed where people were raking out mud from the floors and what have you.
INTERVIEWER: What did that do to the machinery?
FENN: Oh, it was terrible. Every machine on the first floor of the factory had to be dismantled and cleaned up. All the electric motors had to be rewound and everything. It was a real tragedy; there was lumber that was in the factory in process, and there was the lumber and dimension stock that they caught in jams that they set up in the street. After the water went down and they started the operation — they started on a small scale at the beginning — they tried to make use of that lumber, because they figured it would be too expensive to just dispose of it, just destroy it. My father told me later that that was one of the worst mistakes they ever made. It cost them more to try to utilize that lumber than if they would have just destroyed it, because it got discolored and it affected the finish and all sorts of things. After the flood, we were able to keep our head above water and continue operation and absorb the loss, although it was a terrible loss.
INTERVIEWER: That would have all been without insurance, wouldn’t it?
FENN: There was no flood insurance, no. There hadn’t been any flood insurance until the government ... The federal government’s underwriting flood insurance today, but your community and the section where you are has to be declared in a flood plain, and your community has to prepare itself to qualify for the flood insurance.
The community got busy and we got a flood wall around the community, which is three feet higher than the ’37 flood level. I think it’s interesting that this was built in 1940, and World War II came along before this thing was all completed. There are certain gates through the flood wall, and these have aluminum sections that fit in there to close the water off at the gate. You have to fit these sections of aluminum in there. Aluminum was declared a vital material by the war people, and they froze those aluminum gates. The flood wall was all done except for the gates, and we couldn’t get the gates. So, after waiting about a year or so, they gave us the gates and then they dedicated the flood wall. The reason they gave us the gates was that they had been fabricated but not shipped at the time they froze the aluminum. It’s a good thing that they were turned loose because in 1945, during the war, there was another flood that would’ve gotten in our factory again. But, of course, we’re completely protected from the water today.
INTERVIEWER: You might just describe where the factories are in relation to the river and the flood wall and so forth.
FENN: All of the factories are right along the river. They face the river and are on the first street along the river. This was fairly common in those days for ...
INTERVIEWER: For easy access.
FENN: Yeah, and of course one of the reasons they were located on the river was to raft these logs into it. In fact, at one time we had a pipe running into the river and used the river water in our boilers.
INTERVIEWER: Then you were going to talk about some of the other products.
FENN: We made all types of chairs, but one of the things that hasn’t been mentioned — and I suppose this came along by the early ’30s; at least we were well into it by then, and I don’t know exactly when we first got into it — but we had a line of school chairs and office chairs that we made.
At that time, there were a lot of tablet arm chairs in use in schools, and regular classroom chairs. Today, a lot of that’s metal and everything, but we were prominent in that sort of thing. That was, of course, another market, another set of customers. That was another way that the company built up some business.
INTERVIEWER: Did you make left-handed as well as right-handed ones?
FENN: Yes, we did. We made some left-handed tablet arm chairs.
INTERVIEWER: You can never make enough of those.
FENN: I don’t think they ever ordered very many of them. They probably didn’t order as many as they had to have. I see you’re left handed. There’s an interesting story that I like about those school chairs. This must’ve happened around 1930 or thereabouts. Purdue University put out a notice for bids on tablet arm chairs for the school, and it was quite a nice order. There was a rider attached to it that whoever got the bid would maintain that price for the following year, whatever number of chairs they had, so we sharpened our pencil and put in a bid. Then we didn’t hear from them, and we finally found out that our chair and another chair by a competitor was a penny apart, and they couldn’t decide who to give the order to, and both of the firms were Indiana firms. They were meeting one day, and one fellow said, “Well, there’s one way to decide it.” They were on the second floor, and it was in the summertime and the windows were open, and he just took a chair and threw it out the window, and then he threw the other one right after it, our chair and the other one. They landed on a concrete parking lot below the window, and our competitor’s chair landed on its side and broke. Our chair landed on its four legs and bounced around a little bit and wasn’t hurt at all, and we got the order.
INTERVIEWER: That’s a wonderful story.
FENN: Sometimes you never know what’s going to happen. That doesn’t say at all that our chair was any better, any stronger than the other one, but we got the order.
INTERVIEWER: That was probably a fairly lucrative market, though, for school chairs in the 1930s.
FENN: Oh, yeah. We haven’t been in that business for many years because it shifted over to metal.
INTERVIEWER: When did that happen?
FENN: I have no idea. I can’t remember. I doubt if we were making … I know we weren’t making any school chairs after World War II, so it was sometime around World War II that we gradually got out of that. We made a few office chairs, a few little swivel chairs and some things like that, but we were always wood people. We didn’t make upholstered things. That came later.
Leading up to that, I should mention that all the way up into the ’50s, we made nothing but chairs. Back before World War II, we had some tables made for us. We didn’t make them ourselves. We didn’t have the equipment to make tables, or we weren’t laid out to make tables. But we had tables made for us in another factory here in Tell City that we sold under our own name. These were Duncan Phyfe tables to go along with these Duncan Phyfe chairs that we were so prominent in. This worked out very well, and then we were selling a few buffets and china cabinets. We also had those made for us. Then World War II came along and we lost that source, so we were back to just chairs. After the war, we found another source and started going back into business. (During World War II we closed down the original factory, the Factory Number One.) I mentioned that we shifted over … used (limited supplies of) lumber for making a better and more expensive chair so that we could increase our dollar volume. So we shifted some operations in the original factory over into the finer chairs, but right after World War II, we closed that factory and concentrated … We enlarged the other chair plant. In the block adjacent to that Factory Number Three was the Tell City Desk Company that had been operating for many years. They made desks of all sorts; that was their specialty. They ran into financial problems and were about to go out of business, so in November of 1953, we bought the assets of the Tell City Desk Company, the building and all the machinery. This was quite a decision, but we could see the handwriting on the wall. Our chair sales had peaked and were more leveled off. By this time, when we got into 1950-1953, there weren’t so many opportunities and there wasn’t so much of this situation of a retailer buying chairs from one person and tables from another person and cases from another person. Standardization of finishes wasn’t as great, and we could see that if we were going to continue to grow, we were going to have to have complete suites rather than just specialize in chairs. So we bought this desk company so we could manufacture dining tables and buffets, cases and things. And we reworked the plant. We bought different machinery, some of it, and re-laid out the plant and started production in mid-1954.
INTERVIEWER: Could we go back just a moment and talk a little bit about who was running the company. You had a basic transition in 1944, it seems to me, in terms of people at the helm.
FENN: Yes, my father had been general manager of the firm from 1920, when my grandfather died. Uncle Jake Zoercher had been in charge of production since back in 1900. As a senior member in the organization, he was the president of the company. He was head of production but he wasn’t the chief executive officer.
My father had a serious heart condition and this was developing all through the ’30s, and in 1944, during the war, he died. A week later, Jake Zoercher died. This represented quite a change, the two head people in the business passed away at the same time.
INTERVIEWER: Were you in the Army at that time?
FENN: I was in the Army at that time, so Roy Fenn took over as general manager. He came into the business, I think it was, in 1927. I guess I didn’t mention this. He had been out on the farm. He had an agriculture degree from Purdue and had taken over his father’s farm, even before he died. He had a big dairy operation and orchard and there wasn’t a lot of low, level land. It was a rather hilly thing. He told me one time that his dad recommended that he plant the thing in walnut trees, and he said, “I guess that would’ve been a good thing, and he was right, but I would’ve had to wait till I was an old man before I could’ve cashed in on it, and I didn’t want to do that.” At any rate, he came into the business in 1927, and he was in charge of the accounting and a lot of the general office work and everything. So when Chris Fenn, my dad, died, he took over the general management.
By 1944, Uncle Jake was well along in years. Although he was still at the plant every day, his son, Karl Zoercher, was really very active in the production end of the factory. So he fit in immediately and took over with the production. We were involved in all sorts of new things, so he fit in very well with that. He had taken the lead in a lot of that rather than his dad, in some of these changes that had taken place. O’Toole was still with us in charge of sales. I came back from the service at the end of 1945 and went to work immediately in the office. My brother, Paul, who had a degree in mechanical engineering from Purdue, came back about a year later. I graduated from IU in 1940 and immediately started to work, but then as soon as the war started I was in the service and came back in ’45. Paul, my brother, graduated during the war, and there was a lot of demand for mechanical engineers. He ended up immediately from college at the Pratt Whitney Engine Plant. They made airplane engines over in Hartford, Connecticut. So he was there during the war. He came back after the war and went into production. As I say, O’Toole was in charge of the sales. He had already built up a sales organization of sales reps, and we had quite a number of retail accounts scattered pretty well all over the country. With these, especially with these Duncan Phyfe chairs, we were into a lot of retailers, thousands of them, and we were selling to department stores and a lot of the major retailers. I haven’t mentioned it yet — it just occurred to me — that way back there somewhere we started doing some business with Sears, Roebuck. It started out with these common chairs and porch rockers and went way back; I can’t tell you when it started. Sears gave out numbers as they started lining up manufacturers, and we had a low number, something like manufacturer number 133 or something. I don’t know; it was a pretty low number. That business with Sears, Roebuck, although it wasn’t really big, wasn’t a big percentage of our business, it continued into the ’50s, and by that time we were selling them some of these mahogany chairs, some of these Duncan Phyfe-type chairs and things. Some of these were in their mail-order catalogs and some were in their retail stores. At that time, Sears was the largest furniture retailer in the industry.
INTERVIEWER: Was that a significant part of your business?
FENN: No, it never was, but it was one of the things O’Toole was involved in. It was quite a transition to go from chairs, a specialist in chairs, to now all of a sudden we’re going to sell dining room suites.
INTERVIEWER: Whose idea was it to make that transition?
FENN: It was a joint decision of the directors, but it was something that we almost had to do, because we could see no way that we were going to increase our volume just as a chair manufacturer. We’d already reached a point where we had several years where our sales had leveled off. As I say, there were all sorts of things happening then. This business of a standard finish that we talked about was beginning to change. There was no such thing as a standard finish. Some of that old finish that had been hanging in was still being sold, but it didn’t represent the majority of sales. And 18th century styling was beginning to fade. We could see that it was probably going to start declining. Early American and some of these styles were beginning to come on a little stronger. All in all, we decided that with things like Italian Provincial and French Provincial and a lot of modern stuff coming in, we didn’t see how we were going to be able to keep up with the same pattern, how many finishes it would take to come up with to match all these things, and how many styles and all that sort of thing. It just didn’t seem practical. To us, it seemed that the only answer would be to diversify, so that we could sell complete units, complete suites. And this was a problem because it had to be an entirely new sales effort. Even though we were selling to retailers, a lot of them, thousands of them, they wouldn’t necessarily just turn around and start buying our dining room suites. In the first place, they knew we didn’t have a lot of experience in making them. Our sales organization wasn’t particularly used to selling suites, and everything had to be changed.
INTERVIEWER: What was your role with the company then? You were in sales; what was your position?
FENN: When I was in school, I worked in the shop, over there in rip sawing, and in the shipping department, and all sorts of things like that. After I graduated from college, I was in accounting for a while. After I got back from the war, I did some traffic work, and I was handling customer relations and complaints and things for a while, and I was working in sales. You’ve got to understand that it was kind of an awkward situation because our sales manager’s office was in Chicago, but things were taking place at Tell City in our offices. So I had to do some of the sales work from our office at Tell City. It reached a point where Jack O’Toole was dragging his heels. He was having some problems with this transition and everything. We were having some problems with some of our reps in taking hold with this thing.
INTERVIEWER: It must’ve been a difficult change for them.
FENN: It was an extremely difficult change, so O'Toole retired in 1954. He was involved in setting up some of our first product lines for these dining room suites. He had practically no part in really getting them started. He resigned, and I was made sales manager. That was in 1954, right when we first came out with our first complete groups.
I had been involved in sales. At that time in 1952, there were no statistics or anything that talked about the furniture volume by cities or states or counties. (Information) just wasn’t available. Even the furniture manufacturers associations didn’t have any figures. About all you could do was work on population or something like that, which is not a very reliable thing.
So I was a graduate from IU, and I went up to IU and made a date with the dean up there. I talked to him and asked whether there was any way the school could help us in determining how to analyze and read our sales territories. He put me in touch with one of the marketing men on their staff, and so I made an agreement with him, put him on a retainer to develop some figures for us. This was in 1952. It took several years before we got everything all lined up. We had those figures, finally, when we really needed them.
Incidentally, it wasn’t until some years later that the furniture manufacturers associations — there were two of them, the national or the Northern one and the Southern one — got some figures of their own up and distributed them only to the members. The Northern group came up with their’s first; it was much longer before the Southern association came up with some figures. At any rate, it took a lot of scrambling. I had inherited a good sales force, basically. There were some very good, strong men in there, some of them that I kept on for many years. We had to make some changes because everybody wasn’t hopping on the wagon.
There was a lot of opportunity for growth. We were beginning to have a lot of price competition on some of these mahogany chairs. I think our whole sales organization, as well as we, realized that if they wanted to increase their income, it was going to have to be through selling complete suites.
We started out with our strength in 18th century dining groups. It wasn’t just a suite; we had a number of tables and a number of chinas (cabinets) and a number of ...
INTERVIEWER: A lot of similar styles.
FENN: … that could be intermixed with each other.
INTERVIEWER: Was it primarily dining room?
FENN: It was all dining room at that time. Then we brought out a line. The Early American style was strong at that time, so we brought out a line of solid maple, the Early American dining room. The 18th century group was veneered as far as the cases and the tables, but in our Early American, it was solid. Over a period of time, we started building up some sales. We experimented with all sorts of things. We had some modern dining room in oak. We had an Italian Provincial group. We went into a solid cherry group. Our maple business was growing more than anything, so we looked ahead and decided that this was a pretty strong market and there was a pretty good likelihood that this would continue for some time, and so we decided to specialize in maple. We dropped all of our other styling as far as complete dining room groups were concerned, and concentrated on the maple.
I should mention, too, that shortly after this, in 1956, we put in an IBM system, a data processing system, which was rather early in the furniture industry. One big emphasis, at the beginning, was sales analysis; which tied in with these figures we were generating with Dr. Otteson from Indiana University. That was before he was a doctor, and he eventually became Dean of the IU Business School. Then we started using the IBM system, of course, for all sorts of things like writing orders and invoicing and accounts receivable. Today we have one of the more elaborate systems in the industry. All our production is on data processing.
At any rate, maple, Early American was very strong in the industry. It reached a point where it accounted for roughly a third of all of the furniture that was sold, and it was a very strong market, quite a potential there.
In order to diversify and increase our chair business, in 1957, we introduced Danish chairs. That was a style that came on strong about that time. They had been importing a few of these things from Denmark, and it was a type of pull-up chair, modern and very attractive. This was an opportunity to get into a little something different without going into fully upholstered things, because these chairs had loose cushions for the seats. So we did very well with the Danish chairs that we introduced. We had some very nice styles that had a little more work in them than some of the other people could put into the things.
After we got into these cushions, we broadened our rocker line by making rockers with loose cushions for seats and back panels, and that broadened our market for the chairs. Now, we have never to this day gone into fully upholstered things, but cushioned chairs are important to our company.
INTERVIEWER: Do the cushions just come from another supplier?
FENN: No, no. We made them ourselves.
INTERVIEWER: They’re made here?
FENN: At the beginning, when we first introduced them, we kind of got ahead of ourselves. We weren’t quite prepared to make them, so we had some cushions made for us. But all the time, we were getting ready to do it ourselves, and it was a very short time that we were buying the cushions. We made them ourselves, and we’re still making them.
Early American, and maple especially, was going so great that in 1957 we introduced bedroom to broaden that maple line. Now we had dining room and bedroom, and then a year or so later, we introduced occasional tables. By this time, we had reached a point where we were a major source for Early American maple furniture. We had a complete package of dining room, bedroom, occasional tables. In 1964, we even introduced a line of accessories and lamps. These were in demand.
There was a little factory in Tell City that made toilet seats, wooden toilet seats, and they’d been successful for a number of years. But plastic seats, molded seats and plastic seats, were coming on strong, and they were having problems keeping up with it and meeting the prices of these things, and so they were about to give up the ghost. So we made an offer to them for their plant. We determined that these small accessories could not be made efficiently along with our larger furniture pieces, and that if we were going to make them, they had to be made in a specialized atmosphere. We bought this little plant, reworked it and set it up as an accessory operation. I forget the date, but we even ended up with a line of braided rugs that we had made for us, and I mean by that time we really had a complete package. We had one of the longest lines, it was all one finish and all one style and it could be interchanged. A retailer that knew how to handle the situation, he could have a number of tables on his floor and a number of chair styles and another number of china cabinets, and he could custom make a dining room suite for anybody for whatever size room they had or whatever style or price range they were interested in. And, of course, there was a selection of bedroom pieces too, and occasional tables.
With all these new patterns and all these new products that we were introducing, we had some opportunity for increasing our sales, and we were able to go through some of the recessions and dips in the economy with either an increase in volume or only a leveling off. We had some very successful years through those times.
This continued for some time, the popularity of the maple and our prominence in the industry. In fact, at some time in the ’70s, Bill Peterson, who was then working for Home Furnishings Daily, a prominent industry trade paper, decided that the industry needed some figures about what styles, what price ranges and things were popular, because there were no figures generated on that. The closest you could come to it was figures being generated as to how many mahogany suites there were and how many maple suites there were, but it didn’t relate to volume. So he started a survey among the manufacturers to find out what was the greatest volume in dining room suites and bedroom and what have you. Everybody didn’t get into this thing, but we did. I am kind of sorry we did, but at any rate, on that first survey that came out, we had the biggest-selling dining room group in the industry, of any style, in any price range, because we had such a large group and were specialists in maple.
Bill later moved over and started Furniture/Today magazine. He continued this survey for a number of years, and we continued for a number of years to lead the pack. That survey wasn’t a reliable thing because it was really based on the figures that the manufacturers gave him. It started to become evident that some of these figures weren’t exactly kosher. They weren’t reliable, and people started leaving the survey. In fact, we eventually did. This, of course, focused a lot of attention on our company. I don’t think it ever really meant that much to us sales-wise. It should have. Let’s say that we didn’t capitalize on it or for some reason, it didn’t really help us sales-wise, but it did focus a lot of attention. Our competitors, all of a sudden, were focusing on us. A lot of the Southern case goods plants didn’t realize that we were selling as much junior dining room as we were.
INTERVIEWER: What do you mean by junior dining room?
FENN: Smaller sizes of tables and chairs. A lot of those people were making full-size dining room groups. And they were losing business because they weren’t sized right for the market.
INTERVIEWER: Modern homes?
FENN: This had nothing to do with style. It had to do with size. All of a sudden, you started hearing people talking about junior dining rooms, and all the opportunity there. Part of that came from this survey and our figures. When the importers started to come in, they focused on the biggest chunk of the market, which was Early American. In those days, that amounted to something like at least 30 percent of the market, the total furniture market. While they did not have solid wood, solid maple furniture, they had furniture with a maple finish and they had prices that we couldn’t compete against.
INTERVIEWER: Why did Tell City value staying with solid wood? Did you just think you wanted to make a higher-quality product as opposed to a veneer? What are the trade-offs in producing that?
FENN: The industry and the public accept the fact that in Early American, solid maple means something, and solid cherry means something. There have always been solid maple and solid cherry manufacturers. The public accepts it as a quality situation. At one time, there used to be solid mahogany, but it reached a point where there wasn’t enough mahogany wood for everybody. It was too expensive to make anything in solid mahogany, and so you no longer find any solid mahogany pieces, but that was the epitome at one time, a solid mahogany piece. The Southern manufacturers were coming on strong during all this period ...
INTERVIEWER: Post World War II?
FENN: Yeah. I mean, they were really feeling their oats, and they were capturing a bigger and bigger share of the total market. None of them made solid-wood furniture, and so it was a competitive situation. Some of those people tried to get into the market without being solid, because they didn’t have the equipment and they weren’t set up to make solid wood. It takes a lot more wood and it takes different equipment to make solid-wood furniture.
I remember back no later than the early ’60s, Drexel — quite a name in the furniture industry, but they couldn’t make any solid-wood furniture. They weren’t set up for it. Cherry was very strong at that time in certain areas of the country, so they decided to come out with a cherry group. When they got to analyzing the situation, they were afraid to come out with a veneered group but, on the other hand, they could not make solid wood. They made a veneered cherry group, but they used cherry wood for the core. Ordinarily, in those days, you would have used poplar for the core. Today, you use a chipboard of some kind, a synthetic thing, but they used the cherry wood core. They could utilize a lower grade of lumber in the core and there was nothing but cherry wood in this suite. The Interstate Commerce Commission or the Justice Department or whoever it was, slapped their hand and said, “You cannot call that solid wood.” So they weren’t able to come out with it. That’s one of the things that you plug. That was one of the pluses we had, and we were pushing the solid.
Now, these importers, exporters or whatever you call them, a lot of that was over in the Far East in Taiwan and Hong Kong. They started out selling chairs and tables, and they sold them in parts. They would make the parts for the chair and, of course, in Early American that’s a wood seat, and then these parts fit into the seat. They’d finish the parts, and they’d send them over to this country and they had to be assembled over here. The tables, practically all tables — not all of them but a big percentage of them — are shipped separately anyway in this country. I mean, you have a tabletop and then you have the legs. It’s not together as one thing. You put the legs on after you get it, after the store gets it. There’s a lot of difference in taking a table like this and all the space it takes in a trailer or at a furniture warehouse or what have you, and one that’s this thick, because the legs are folded up in the thing and fastened later. They could not make buffets. They didn’t have the technique for making drawers and exporting those. In fact, they started out without any china cabinets, and then when they found out that they had to have china cabinets, they made cabinets, but they didn’t have drawers, they had doors instead of drawers. The buffets didn’t have any drawers in them; they had doors on them. These were sent in pieces and assembled in this country. So they were able to knock off, as far as price, especially the smaller units, what amounted to the dinette sets for kitchens and that sort of thing, and a lot of the junior and dining room groups. And since dining room was a big part of our business, why, that had an effect.
INTERVIEWER: How did the method of sales change? I mean, what were you doing differently, say, in 1965 versus ’45?
FENN: When we went into the case goods business, we were still selling some jobbers and Sears, although I suppose it probably wasn’t more than 10, 15 percent of our business or something. We determined that we would not sell these dining groups, these complete groups, to our wholesalers, the jobbers, because that way we didn’t have any control over their distribution. They could sell them to anybody. We were willing to scrap that jobbers business, even if some of them weren’t very happy about it.
INTERVIEWER: You simply made a decision.
FENN: We were willing to scrap that business in order to be able to control the distribution of our groups. But other than that, it made little difference.
INTERVIEWER: You still had a sales office in Chicago, didn’t you, and a sales manager there?
FENN: No, he retired in 1954.
INTERVIEWER: That’s right. So you didn’t replace him?
FENN: No, the sales management office came to Tell City when I took over. I had an assistant sales manager, Bill Green, who had been the assistant to Jack O’Toole for a year or two. He’d been on the road, and then we brought him in as an assistant sales manager, and he maintained an office in Chicago, but I directed his travels and everything from Tell City here.
You asked how sales had changed. We finally got out of the jobber business entirely. We knew that was inevitable anyway. But it didn’t change things other than that. We had always been selling a great many retailers. I think at one time we sold as many as 5,000 different retailers. Obviously, some of them didn’t have very much volume. Especially when we went into the case goods business for the first time, there was little hope … We tried, of course, to get into the major retailers, but they weren’t willing to listen to somebody that was just getting started. The only way we could really peddle our dining groups, our complete package, was to the independent retailer and the small dealer that we had already been working with, and so we were able to get in a suite there.
INTERVIEWER: You had to convince them you made other things besides chairs.
FENN: That’s right. We had, fortunately, a good name for quality with our chairs. We had always maintained a good customer relations program. We were always very liberal in handling, settling complaints and that sort of thing.
INTERVIEWER: Did you advertise?
FENN: Oh, yes.
INTERVIEWER: How did that change?
FENN: Well, let’s see. We started an advertising program shortly after I came from the service, and I was the advertising manager.
INTERVIEWER: Among other things.
FENN: That was in, I don’t know, the late ’40s, when we started an advertising program. It was based on our volume, our advertising budget was, and we started some magazine advertising.
INTERVIEWER: In trade magazines?
FENN: No, we actually had some consumer magazines. We had started a trade program. After I became sales manager — not immediately but later on in the ’60s, I guess it was — we got an advertising manager. We had a strong advertising program. We had a lot of dealer aids. We did a lot of ad materials.
INTERVIEWER: Provided brochures and that sort of thing to dealers?
FENN: All sorts of things for them, and mats and advertising.
INTERVIEWER: That’s a big change from signs on boxcars.
FENN: Yeah. We had a strong advertising program. Another thing that kind of made a name for ourselves happened in Kennedy’s term in office. Jackie (Kennedy) decided that she was going to completely redo the White House. She got some decorators in, and they were able to borrow a quantity of ballroom chairs — they’re very delicate chairs — to use, and instead of the big tables that they had for their state dining room, they started a series of smaller tables, smaller groups. They had ballroom chairs that were around those tables, and then they could also set them up and make a kind of theater-type arrangement in the ballroom there. These were borrowed chairs. I have no idea where they were borrowed from, but they had them. All of a sudden, they had to give them up, so they were in the market to replace those chairs. At that time, we were one of the few people in the industry that were making some ballroom chairs, those little, delicate chairs. They were just a little accent piece; you’d use them at a desk or at a dressing table or just as an accent and so forth. There was quite a bit of work involved in them, and there wasn’t a big market for them, but we had several patterns, and were successful with them. There are several stories of how it happened, but it was because they knew we were making those things that the White House got in touch with us. They wanted 425 chairs, so we were delighted to furnish them with 425 chairs. Little gilt chairs, and we got quite a lot of publicity about that.
INTERVIEWER: Do you know if any of those chairs are still around the White House?
FENN: Yeah, well, sure they are. Yeah. I might as well tell the story. They sent this chair in and said (what) they wanted. They contacted us and we said we’d be delighted to talk to them. They said, “We’ll send one of the chairs in” to us, which they did. So we inspected it, and there was quite a weakness in the back post, the way it was made. It could have been improved upon. We sent our designer over. He got an appointment with them, and he went to Washington to the White House and explained to them that we’d be glad to duplicate this chair exactly, but that we recommended they make this change in the chair, that it would strengthen it and keep them from having some problems with the chair. Well, they said they’d consider it, and then they came back and said, “No,” they wanted an exact copy of the chair and they didn’t want any changes to it. So we said, “OK”, and that’s what we did. We copied the chair.
It wasn’t long before they’re using these chairs pretty heavily, and some of the people like Henry Kissinger and some of these larger persons are leaning back in them and what have you, and the next thing you know there were a few chairs being broken. We had a letter from the chief usher of the White House complaining about this situation. I sat down and wrote him a letter. I told him we’d do what he wanted us to, however he wanted to resolve this situation. I reminded him that we had suggested that they change the back post. The failure he was getting was exactly where we had said it should be changed. I offered to do whatever he wanted to do, but I never heard any more from him.
INTERVIEWER: That’s a good story.
FENN: They replaced some of the chairs later, and they made some modifications to it.
INTERVIEWER: We haven’t talked that much today about design, but maybe you could talk a little bit about how that aspect of the company has developed and changed.
FENN: Well, we have never especially been design leaders. That’s a little different market than ours. In some respects, there are a lot of limitations to that. But in our own niche, we’ve been innovative. When we were specializing in maple, in Early American, we were able to introduce a number of design elements, chair patterns and features on tables and buffets and what have you that were much copied in the industry. So they must have been very successful.
INTERVIEWER: Who were the people making those decisions? How did those design ideas come about?
FENN: We had a design committee. We’ve always worked a little differently in the industry. We have a staff designer, not necessarily on site here in Tell City, but somebody who’s working exclusively for us. In some cases, we’ve had designers that worked for nobody else but us, and in some cases, designers that have worked for ...
FENN: ... somebody that wasn’t a competitor, that was in a different area of the industry. They worked on a salary basis. Most of the designing is done on a royalty or a commission basis. I mean, they get so much of the sales of that thing. It has worked out for us. A lot of these suites that are brought out, or groups or designs, they don’t expect them to last more than a year or two. We’ve got patterns in our line that have been in there for 20 years or longer, which is unique in the industry. I don’t know how much of the fact that that pattern is there for 20 years is because it’s such a distinctive design, or because it just fits the picture right. Our success in selling that group has had a lot to do with it being in there for that long. (I don’t know whether somebody that designs a group and expects to get his compensation from it in a couple of years can still continue to do that for 20 years.) At any rate, we’ve had design committees, and we’ve spent a lot of time developing some of our products, and it takes a lot of effort throughout the whole organization. You have to be cost-conscious, you have to be style-conscious, and you have to look ahead. You can make errors by being too soon with something as easily as being too late with something.
INTERVIEWER: You talked about the White House story, and I’m sure that must have been one of the high points of your career. Are there some others that you’d like to share, particularly rewarding aspects of your work with the company?
FENN: Not especially. I found the work to be very challenging. I enjoyed working, building on the sales organization that we started with and building it, and increasing it and making it more effective. We had some extremely loyal salesmen that were very good, and they made a good income. They contributed a lot to the success of the company and the products that we had.
I don’t think I mentioned that we built a new plant in 1974 in Leitchfield, Kentucky. We had reached a plateau. We were selling more than we could produce at that time. We had previously looked ahead and talked about building another plant. We had problems here in Tell City, whether there was enough of a labor pool here for expanding here. There was no room in the immediate vicinity of our factories to expand, and we would have had to, if we expanded in Tell City, go out on the edge of town or something. Once you start trucking things, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a mile or whether it’s 50 miles.
So, we went into a new labor market and opened up a new plant in Leitchfield, Kentucky. This was a rough mill, basically, where we made dimension or rough stock and then brought it in to Tell City. That way, we could control the quality of the goods and all the finishing that was done here. When we took our rough mills out of Tell City, we readjusted our plants to use that space for more finish machining, and we enlarged our finishing rooms here. We’ve had a number of expansion programs in Tell City.
Karl Zoercher retired in 1967, and at that time my brother Paul took over in charge of operations. He’d been very active down there prior to that time. He was a very good production man. He was recognized as a good production man in the industry. He was active in furniture associations, in their production meetings. Up until then, I’d been vice president of the company. In 1967, I was made president. Roy retired in 1972. He was in the office every day, but he wasn’t as strongly involved and didn’t have his fingers in everything as he did prior to that time. I retired myself in 1989. I wonder sometimes why I waited so long. They seem to be getting along very well without me.
INTERVIEWER: That’s the difficult thing to face, isn’t it? No one’s indispensable.
FENN: No, it’s not difficult to face. I’ve enjoyed my retirement.
INTERVIEWER: It sounds like you are.
FENN: Doug Fenn, who is Paul’s son, had been very active in the manufacturing. He was in charge of the Number Two Plant, the case goods plant, and very active in the Leitchfield plant. He took over as president and general manager. I have a son, John, who is in Joliet, Illinois, and he has a sales territory up there in northern Illinois. Paul has two other sons in the business, in production.
INTERVIEWER: In production. Are there any other Zoerchers still involved?
INTERVIEWER: Just Fenns?
FENN: No, none of the Zoerchers. There are some Zoercher stockholders, but nobody in the business. They didn’t have any … Karl didn’t have any sons. He had a daughter, but ...
INTERVIEWER: OK, one last question. You’ve talked about this a little bit, but you might want to just sum up as to how you’ve seen the furniture industry change during your years in it.
FENN: I was in the industry long enough that I saw some changes.
INTERVIEWER: I’m sure you did.
FENN: Back in the ’50s, I guess it was, Saul Polk came along as a retailer up in Chicago. It was a big discount furniture operation, and that kind of shook up the industry. Everybody said, “Well, gee, there just aren’t going to be any more mom-and-pop stores. There’s just going to be discounters like that.” He generated a lot of business, and there were a few people that followed in his footsteps, but most of the independent dealers still managed to hang in there.
There was another big thing when Levitz came along. That was a warehouse furniture operation. Are you acquainted with that?
FENN: I mean, you walked through a warehouse to get into the showroom, and you saw all of this stuff there. With a lot of retailers, if you don’t see something on the floor, you’ve got to wait six months or a year till they get it in for you, and Levitz had all the stuff right there; you could see it right there. There was again a lot of noise, and that was going to be the end of independents and everything, and there were a number of chains that came along emulating Levitz. There has been some difference.
There is a tendency for the retailers to get bigger and fewer, and there are not as many little retailers as there once were. To be successful (as a manufacturer), you have to target the major, bigger ones. They have a tendency to work with names that are familiar to them and to other dealers of their type.
There was a time, when we first went into the case goods business, that we faced the problem of getting this thing off the ground and really generating some volume and some success with it. We were having so much trouble being recognized by the major dealers that we actually targeted the small dealers. I’m going back now to the ’50s and ’60s. We were so successful in doing that that we hung onto that practice for quite a while. Today that’s not a good target. I will say this, that it is a very stable market. They are the ones that hang in there with you. They have a tendency to be more loyal than the majors. You’re in great with a major this year, but next year you can’t do a penny with them. A lot of these independents are a lot more loyal than that.
The manufacturing segment is going the same route. There are not as many small manufacturers as there once were. The manufacturers are getting bigger.
INTERVIEWER: And the market is now more complicated because of the foreign manufacturers.
FENN: That’s right. It’s a world market today, and for some reason, this country hasn’t been that great in developing some of the foreign markets. American manufacturers just didn’t try to compete in the foreign markets. I suppose that some of it is due to the fact that, in our case, when we were specializing in Early American, there wasn’t really a market for that anywhere in the world to speak of. I know there were plenty of times when we weren’t interested in going after a foreign market, because we were occupied with the market that we had in this country. So I don’t know why, but it has just been that way.
Let me tell you one of Jack O’Toole’s favorite stories.
FENN: This goes back to the ’20s, I guess, the late ’20s or somewhere along in there, when we were still selling a lot of jobbers, and we were selling a lot of these common chairs, these cane-seat chairs. We had a big jobber down in Memphis. Jack was taking care of servicing all these jobbers, so he was traveling around. He made his call down in Memphis, and being the good salesman that he was, he, instead of going in the front door, went around the back. He was going to see what the stock looked like before he talked to the buyer. He got around to the back of the store, and his heart sank because they had so many chairs; they even had them stacked up on the loading platform. They didn’t even have room inside for them. They stacked up on the loading platform outside. He thought, “Boy, I’m not going to get any order today.” But he was there, so he was going to call on the buyer. So he goes in and calls on the guy and, gee, things were just right, things were going great and the crops were good and everything was shaping up, and he gave Jack an order for a car a day until further notice. Sixty days later, we had a telegram saying stop shipment. We shipped 60 cars of chairs to them, one day after another.
INTERVIEWER: Do you know what they were doing with the chairs?
FENN: They were selling them.
INTERVIEWER: So that shows you never know.
FENN: That’s right. You never know. But he loved to tell that story.
There’s another story. We’ve always been proud of our quality, and sometimes I don’t know whether you deserve it or not, but this story happened in my time. In fact, it hasn’t been that long ago, maybe 10, 15 years ago or something. We had a letter from a woman down in Texas, saying that she and her husband had gone over for Christmas to her mother’s, who lived in a neighboring town, and her mother had given her one of our Boston rockers for a Christmas present. They were driving a pickup truck and they put it in the back of their pickup truck when they were ready to go home. They were whizzing down the highway at 60 miles an hour on their way home from her mother’s, and they heard this noise. They looked around and the rocker wasn’t in the back of the truck anymore, so they turned around and went back. And sure enough, there was the rocker lying beside the road. She said in her letter, so help me, she says, “Imagine my surprise when I saw that rocker and there wasn’t a scratch on it.” I mean, sometimes you get lucky, I guess.
INTERVIEWER: That’s right.