Charles O. Gordon, sr.; gordon furniture
AMERICAN FURNITURE HALL OF FAME
ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEWS
JUNE 6, 1989
JOHNSON CITY, TENNESSEE
JOHN TOBIN, Interviewer
INTERVIEWER: Start, if you wish, with your childhood, what your family was like, how you grew up, where you went to school, when you married and your immediate family, your children – everything that affected your life or your perception of the industry. When your factory was getting started, there were other factories in Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina, and, doubtless, you knew a great deal about the growth of those factories and the growth of the furniture industry in general. For instance, when was Gordon’s founded?
INTERVIEWER: 1947. Had you worked with other furniture people before then?
GORDON: I had worked with my father out at Empire Furniture Corporation but only for two years.
INTERVIEWER: Only two years. Did your father come over with you into Gordon’s?
GORDON: Not until several years after we had the factory built, equipped and started. Then he came over about four or five years later, in the early 50s.
INTERVIEWER: The Furniture Hall of Fame would like to know about your activities with the Gordon clan in the United States and your activities in aviation. You were a pilot, and I think you got some medals in the Air Force. Tell us briefly about your military career. Anything that applies to your life. Weren’t you in the Lions Club?
GORDON: I helped charter and organize the Lions Club here, and many years later, I was also a member of the Rotary Club.
INTERVIEWER: I know, too, that you were very active in the Southern Furniture Manufacturers Association. At one time you were president. You won the James T. Ryan Award. We just want to get your life down on tape.
GORDON: Do you want me to start back when I was born?
INTERVIEWER: Yes, sure. That’s a good place to start.
GORDON: I was born in Marion, Virginia, in 1920. At that time, my father occupied a house that was next door to the Virginia Table Company factory, which was operated by Mr. C. C. Lincoln. I was named for him. My first name is Charles; his first name was Charles. My father was the plant superintendent. That company later became Virginia-Lincoln Furniture Industries, and then it evolved into being the Lincoln Industries over at Damascus.
INTERVIEWER: What did they make? Just tables?
GORDON: In the beginning, yes. They were just moving from making occasional tables into making a full line of furniture. The name changed to become the Virginia-Lincoln Furniture Company. They made a full line of case goods and also occasional furniture. A lot of work in oak. I’m proud to say I still have a few pieces of furniture made in those early days. I grew up there.
INTERVIEWER: Where was their market in the 20s?
GORDON: I assume mostly in the Eastern states because they did go to New York and Grand Rapids (Michigan) to show their merchandise — and Chicago. I don’t recall any comments about the West Coast, but it could have been.
I grew up playing in the factory — after school and all. I loved to go in the factory. The foremen were all so good to me. I frankly think they had a tremendous influence on my desire to develop knowledge of furniture making. They taught me many things in every department as I grew up. It was a pleasure working with them later when I was in high school and was older and could understand things. I always wanted to be in the furniture business.
When I went off to Virginia Tech, I studied industrial engineering for that purpose: to develop a knowledge that would help me in operating a furniture plant. As it turned out, the knowledge I gained from my work at Virginia Tech enabled me to completely build my plant when I started.
INTERVIEWER: You served as your own engineer?
GORDON: I did. I did not have an outside engineer on the job. We did everything from pouring the foundations, to erecting the buildings, to installing the electrical, heating and conveyor systems in the finishing department. Everything that we needed, we did ourselves. I always told Dad that I felt like the expense of my education had been paid back many, many times.
At the same time, I needed good people to help me in starting my furniture manufacturing. I knew a lot of capable, young, skilled craftsmen in furniture who were from either Empire in Johnson City (Tennessee) or Marion, Virginia. When I called to ask them to come to work for me, they accepted. That gave me a nucleus of knowledge right at the outset that was invaluable. They’re a tremendous asset.
We started very small, and frankly, in the beginning, I did not think that I wanted my plant to grow much beyond 100 employees. I wanted to be able to know individuals by name and know something about them and work with them. We’ve always had good employee relationships. We’ve never been unionized. Of course, we’ve grown much beyond what I expected — to about 340 employees. But we’ve always had good relations with our employees and tried to take care of them as best as we could.
INTERVIEWER: Most of them were local people within this area?
GORDON: Local, except for a few that came from Marion, Virginia, in the early days. My father was quite an inspiration. They always said that he’d forgotten more about making furniture than I would ever know, and I’m sure that was true. But I enjoyed it. I was able, when starting, to handle all the lumber buying, and I’d grade and measure the lumber.
I operated the dry kilns to dry the lumber until I could train someone to take over that responsibility. I used to spend time out in the yard, working late into the evenings. I’d spend time in the office trying to get some administrative work done, and then time in the plant.
We started off inlaying leather. I was fortunate that Jason Branch over at Heritage in High Point taught me a few tricks about the inlay of leather. I used to cut the hides and do the leather inlay work along with Fulton Moore, who had come with me. Between the two of us, we did all the leather inlay work. Then we developed our own finish for leather, which was very good.
INTERVIEWER: When did you start that plant?
GORDON: In 1947, we started construction, and in the winter of 1949, we started our first production.
INTERVIEWER: What are the major changes in the manufacture and the distribution of furniture since you started in 1949?
GORDON: During the intervening years, many improvements were made in the machinery, in the equipment used to produce furniture — more automation and so forth — which made a great deal of difference in the volume of production and in lowering costs. And conveyorized systems. There were many changes made on the production side.
Back when I started, there were thousands of small furniture retailers all over the country. We often refer to them as mom-and-pop type operations, and many of these were handling good furniture. They welcomed the opportunity to buy well-made furniture from the South. We specialized in solid mahogany and genuine leather inlay using 18th century designs.
My designer at that time was Marie Kirkpatrick from Grand Rapids. She was very good. She also designed for the Empire Furniture Corporation in their case goods. She was an excellent designer in 18th century. Later, another good designer in 18th century was Bill Hoffman of White Furniture Company. I got to know Bill and the White Furniture Company people early in my furniture life and had a very good relationship with them. Sometimes, we’d correlate our table designs to fit in with their case goods. Through the years, we evolved to where most of the salesmen for White also carried the Gordon line. It was a very good arrangement. Steve Millender, who was vice president in charge of sales for White Furniture, and I became very good friends in the early years, and that friendship has lasted till today. We did a lot of work together.
One thing I should mention: in the beginning, when we got our production underway, the availability of show space at the major Markets was a real problem. But the fact that my father had so many friends in the business opened doors that were very helpful to me. In Chicago, I was able to obtain a little space, really not much bigger than this conference table we’re seated at, from the Vaughan-Bassett Company. They let me show my line of tables in their space.
Then in New York, the White Furniture Company had a beautiful space on the first floor, and they let me put my tables in a circle around a large column right in the entrance, the main reception area of the space. That worked beautifully to help introduce the line in the New York area. Then in High Point, Vaughan-Bassett again let me show a few tables at the front of their space. This helped me get our line introduced to dealers that were visiting those Markets. Of course, I’m very grateful for this help.
Then I recall Roland Holton, who was president of Continental, called me one day and said that he understood I was going to make a very high-quality line of occasional tables, and did I need some good salesmen? If so, I should come see him. So I went over to High Point, sat down with Roland, and we discussed territories and who was representing Continental in each one. He wrote them letters and introduced me. Several of the Continental salesmen ended up representing my line in various parts of the country.
INTERVIEWER: They were one of the top companies at that time, too.
GORDON: Yes, they were. I really appreciated that help. Between the Continental salesmen and the White Furniture Company salesmen, I ended up with a fine group of sales representatives. That’s a big secret in this business for success.
INTERVIEWER: Yes. Yet this industry has always been a friendly industry. It’s almost like a family.
GORDON: Oh, yes. That’s one fact that we miss today; I look back 40 years to the way it was. They were all family businesses, highly competitive. But when they got together at meetings — at the manufacturers’ meeting or other occasions — they were all good friends. They’d pick up their golf clubs and play golf together or just sit around and swap stories.
INTERVIEWER: Yes. Many of the retailers were that way, too. They were all privately owned in those days.
GORDON: Yes. Of course, that’s the big change today. We’re having so many mergers that conglomerates have such a stronghold in our furniture industry today. We see the same thing happening on the retail side – fewer and fewer small stores and more large ones. The marketing aspect is changing. I think Thomasville sets a good example for that with their gallery concept, which other companies are also doing. Ethan Allen was a forerunner in this concept.
INTERVIEWER: Do you feel that the gallery concept is the future of the industry?
GORDON: Yes. I can see it that way, or at least it certainly has an important niche in the industry. I think you’ll always have the private store that is carrying other lines and in competition to the gallery, but it has an important part.
We had a sales and marketing meeting in 1966 at Hound Ears (a resort in the North Carolina Mountains). Smith Young was president of the Southern Furniture Manufacturers Association at that time, and I was vice president. These were all sales representatives from the furniture industry. They broke us up into teams and gave us a problem: what would be our marketing approach if we represented a large company and had a billion dollars in sales? Well, a billion dollars in sales back in that time would blow your mind. It was purely hypothetical.
I represented our group, and I asked Smith and the others to let us be the last to present our answer. When we did, our answer was to do what you see today — what happened with Ethan Allen. When I finished that presentation, all of them were sitting there looking at me in amazement that the furniture industry could go national and more direct to the consumer through its own galleries by opening in the 40 major marketing centers at that time with another backup of 40. When the meeting was over, various sales managers from other companies like Drexel and Thomasville cornered me and wanted to know how I came up with such an idea. They wanted to know more about it. I didn’t have a great deal of detail on it. I hadn’t thought a heck of a lot about it. But when the problem was laid on the table with that kind of volume, to me, that was the only answer.
INTERVIEWER: You were talking about company-owned stores?
GORDON: Yes, eventually, you’re going to see this. Ethan Allen has done it, and I think in time, you’re going to see more and more manufacturers going in that direction.
INTERVIEWER: Broyhill tried it briefly.
GORDON: I’m not too knowledgeable on that. It’s been interesting to watch how this has changed. You have to work with established, good retailers, and the Thomasville approach has proven to be a very good one.
INTERVIEWER: You look for that to be continued and expanded in the industry, then?
GORDON: It’s going to have to be your larger manufacturers. It takes a lot of financing and staff work.
INTERVIEWER: A lot of supportive effort, a lot of manufacturing help.
GORDON: It certainly does. Today we cut on the TV, and we see the Thomasville ads about their galleries on national networks. That’s bringing us a long way.
INTERVIEWER: Since the factory is assuming some of the functions previously performed by retailers, do you think some of the margin will have to shift to the factory to pay for this?
GORDON: On the TV side?
INTERVIEWER: Yes. TV ads are expensive.
GORDON: Oh, yes.
INTERVIEWER: Will the retailer have to operate on a lesser margin with the manufacturing part of it?
GORDON: No, I wouldn’t think too much less, but it’s a cooperative effort.
INTERVIEWER: Like the automobile industry does. Automobile dealers don’t have the margin that the furniture dealers do. They have many things furnished to them by the factory.
GORDON: There’ll probably be a lot of that done. It’s going to have to be a cooperative effort: the retailer giving a little and the manufacturer giving a little in order to reach that ultimate goal.
INTERVIEWER: While we’re brainstorming and looking at the future, what about factory production? We have one school of thought that says we’re going to be mass producing uniform items, many more of them, larger cuttings on small SKUs. At the same time, we have these magnificent machines coming along that, instead of a five-hour set-up time, have a three-minute set-up time, which would enable the factory to profitably make smaller runs. Now, which way will it go, do you think?
GORDON: I would say that’s going to be based on the quality — the styling of the furniture and the quality of the work that goes into making that furniture — and the pricing. If it’s on the high side, that’s going to dictate your smaller cuttings. If you’re going to a more simplified design, utility-type furniture that can help the consumer in the lower-income brackets and so forth, then that’s got to be mass produced. That capability exists today.
I recently saw a film by Armstrong Furniture. I was amazed at the production techniques in that factory and the use of automation and robots and so forth. To my mind, it was unreal — the rate at which they were turning furniture out. But this is furniture that will be acceptable to the middle- and low-income consumer. It can fill their need, and that’s very important. Looking at traditional ways of making furniture, I couldn’t believe the rate at which they were bringing that furniture off the conveyor line.
INTERVIEWER: I didn’t know they made a film on it. They’ve been rather sparing of the number of people they admitted to look at it.
GORDON: That’s probably true. They probably have very good reasons for being conservative with it. It certainly does revolutionize the making of furniture.
INTERVIEWER: You feel that it’s going both directions. Primarily for the higher quality, it will go in the direction of more choice and smaller runs.
GORDON: Right. There’s always going to be that demand for real, fine, hand-crafted furniture. To make those designs, you have to have a lot of hand crafting. It cannot all be machine done; it takes some skill.
INTERVIEWER: If you hand craft, you can adapt to different designs more easily.
We came all the way up to today’s factories, but we started back in 1947 when you started your plant construction. We have most of your factory experience up to then?
GORDON: One of the important things in the start and success of our company was to keep an open mind on design work — to be as creative as possible and to develop some new ideas in furniture. That’s really what attracted so much attention to our company. We moved to working in some modern, unusual designs, but the most unusual part of it was the finishing. We were able to develop finishes that the other manufacturers just didn’t try to compete with. These were finishes that had names like Chinchilla, and the Chinchilla Association featured it in their fur magazine. Then we had Cherry highlights and beautiful finishes in extreme high gloss.
INTERVIEWER: Who was your major finishing supplier?
GORDON: In the early days, it was Lindeman from Indianapolis. They made, at that time, probably the finest lacquer in the business. The other companies, DuPont and others, would acknowledge that they had the finest lacquer. That’s what we were interested in. It was a lacquer that would resist cold check to a very high extreme.
INTERVIEWER: How many steps were there in your finishes usually?
GORDON: Probably around 14. That would depend on whether it was a traditional mahogany finish or one of the modern highlight finishes.
I once worked as a carpenter’s helper. I worked for a carpenter-contractor named Bill Cook and his son. I didn’t realize then that, years later, I would call upon Bill Cook to come to Johnson City to help me build my factory. His son’s name was Grant. On the property where I built my plant there was an old home of a prominent family in Johnson City. I took that home ad had Bill renovate the interior a little so it made three apartments. Bill and Grant stayed in one apartment, which was right next door to where we had broken ground, and he was my contractor, you might say, to help me build the plant. I was always grateful for his help, and we had a long association.
INTERVIEWER: While you were building your plant and developing one of the finest table lines in the industry, many changes took place in the industry. I wonder if you could think back over some of them, perhaps not even just beginning with your plant in 1949, but you were knowledgeable about the industry even when you were a boy. There were many changes in furniture in the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s. Could you run over some of the changes in production and distribution and some of the outstanding people that you knew who were contributing to the industry?
GORDON: One of the early acquaintances I made in the furniture industry was in my senior year at Virginia Tech. I had to write a production thesis. I elected to go down to the Lane Company, which manufactured cedar chests, at Altavista, Virginia. I met Mr. Ed Lane, Sr., and as it turned out, he was a Virginia Tech graduate and a great supporter of the institution. He welcomed me to spend all the time I needed there at the Lane Company to write my paper, which I did. I felt some close association there.
Years later, after I’d gotten my business started, the Lane people made a decision to go into occasional furniture making. I’ll never forget: a couple of years after they were in business, Ed Lane called to ask me if I was coming to New York. I said, “Yes, I’ll be there at the Market.” He said, “I want to take you to lunch. I need to talk to you.” So we met in New York and had lunch. He began to tell me that he wasn’t exactly happy with the way their table business was going. Since we were friends and all, would I mind giving him some ideas or my viewpoint of where they were wrong or what they needed to do? Well, that was a very interesting lunch, as it lasted almost three hours, and I was very frank with him in expressing my opinion. He seemed very grateful, and he told me later that things had turned around for them. He was very thankful, appreciated my input to him. That was one of my early experiences. Mr. Lane and I remained friends for the rest of his life.
INTERVIEWER: That’s the kind of thing I meant when I said that the furniture industry was a family.
GORDON: Yes. If I asked a manufacturer if I could visit his plant, I was always welcome. He would turn me over to his plant superintendent to take me through and show me anything I wanted to see and discuss any ideas that I needed to discuss. That was a wonderful relationship that we had in our industry.
INTERVIEWER: You saw the quality level in Southern furniture manufacturing upgrade considerably, didn’t you? You were one of the early ones to produce quality furniture in the South.
GORDON: Heritage was the first to start making truly quality occasional furniture. I recognized that, and I felt like there was room for two of us to serve in this business. At the same time, Empire, which my father was operating, was making a very quality line of maple and solid mahogany bedroom and dining room furniture, along with Continental in High Point. They were recognized as being the forerunners of very quality furniture from the South. It began to evolve into the White Furniture Company, one of the oldest makers of furniture in the South, which styled their line-up and started making very high-quality pieces.
INTERVIEWER: Thomasville was medium- to low-priced at one time.
GORDON: Yes, and Drexel. But they all began to move up because they realized that we did have the know-how, that we could design and make quality furniture, and there were no secrets held in Grand Rapids as to how to do that.
INTERVIEWER: You also saw big changes in the marketing of furniture. You mentioned the New York Market and the Chicago Market. They both disappeared as important Furniture Market centers.
GORDON: Yes, the Markets began to open in other parts of the country. High Point began to get stronger.
INTERVIEWER: Did you play a role in the luring of the Market to High Point?
GORDON: No, I don’t think so, other than the fact that our company along with several others in the South by then were making stylish furniture that was very much in demand. Here we were down in the South: North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia. It was kind of natural for the marketing phase of it to turn their attention to the South. High Point was the logical place for it.
When we got started in Texas, the first furniture shows in Dallas, believe it or not, were held at the Dallas Fairgrounds during the fair in an exhibition building. I had a space there, and there weren’t more than about five or six manufacturers that took that challenge to show their line out there. But I had a young, aggressive salesperson by the name of Bill Jackson. We showed there with great success. That lasted about two years.
Then Bill asked me if I would come out and meet a man named Trammell Crow. I did. I sat down and talked with Trammell. He told me of his ideas to put in a furniture mart building. If he did, he asked me if I would commit myself as he was going to ask other manufacturers to commit to taking space. I said, “Trammell, if you do that, I’ll sign the space lease right now.” And I did. I signed the first lease that went in that building when he was ready. Trammell and I were good friends there, and I served on his first board. Through the years, I looked upon Trammell with a great deal of amazement for how much this man did in building all over the country. Amazing person.
INTERVIEWER: What do you predict for the Dallas Market in the future? The Dallas Market Center, specifically.
GORDON: We have a great deal of growth in the Southwest and the West. I feel that the Market there will always have some importance. It’ll vary, as we’ve seen Chicago and New York vary. But there’s always a need. A great deal is going to depend on what happens in the retail side of the business, how much more of it is consolidated into conglomerate operations. The more and more retailers that drop out, of course, the fewer markets that are needed. That’ll have a bearing on it. We’re seeing some changes in retailing. Considerable.
INTERVIEWER: I’ve read some minutes of meetings that indicate that they were arguing about how many markets a year we would have and where they would be held long before either you or I got into the industry.
GORDON: That’s true. I’ve always been an advocate that one Market a year is enough. Otherwise, we’re always in a rat race, changing designs, and the dealer no more gets a line started than he’s being told that it’s going to be discontinued. It’s a little unfair. It puts quite an imposition on the factories and designers to constantly be changing.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think it will ever happen?
GORDON: I wouldn’t be surprised to see it happen. I think it makes sense that one style change a year is adequate.
INTERVIEWER: I think everyone agrees on that, but then they start arguing about when it’s supposed to be.
GORDON: The best time of year? Well, that’s true. I think if you have a well-trained sales organization that is presenting your line in a professional way out on the road with the techniques that we have today, one major Market for showing furniture is adequate. The rest of the work is done in the field.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think this trend toward bigness in the factories will speed that trend a little bit?
GORDON: Yes, I think that’ll definitely have an influence.
INTERVIEWER: Perhaps you could give us something about what’s in your papers.
GORDON: Just looking back at the growth of the company, there’s one phase that I was always very proud of. When I realized that I had to build more, get more production and expand the company, I had to seek out a banking source to accommodate our needs that was larger than what we had here in Johnson City. I was referred to the Wachovia Bank & Trust Company in North Carolina. I established a relationship with them that I’m very proud of. They handled all of my financial needs from that point forward.
One good friendship developed out of that was with Mr. Archie Davis, who was president at that time and later became chairman of the board. We went through — from the period of the early 50s into the early 80s — several little recessional periods. I was always proud of the fact (and Wachovia always kept pointing this out to me) that we were very unusual in the industry in that we would sustain our volume during these periods and keep moving up. They often wondered how we did it when other companies were operating slow and maybe having a dip in their sales curve. We did it by innovative new ideas in furniture that had appeal.
INTERVIEWER: Your style leadership and your quality were two things then?
GORDON: Yes. Quality and styling. This country does represent a big marketing area. Give credit there to the quality of the salesmen on the road. I always felt that we had a superior group of salesmen. They were very diligent in their efforts to present our line and sell it.
INTERVIEWER: There’s one thing that we haven’t talked about. I know that you have been highly regarded by your peers in the industry. You have been elected to many offices and have accepted some special assignments, all of which meant personal work without pay to benefit the industry. Would you tell me about some of those?
GORDON: I was flattered when I was first asked to serve on the board of directors of the Southern Furniture Manufacturers Association (SFMA). I had gotten to know Jim Ryan, and I had a great deal of respect for him. The industry leaders that worked with the SFMA made quite an impression upon me, and when they called upon me for various assignments, I was always glad to do my part. Eventually I did receive the honor of being president of the association and later served as chairman of the board. I felt that the association did a great deal to develop the industry and to give it a great deal of prestige.
INTERVIEWER: When the Chicago Market was running, you were named Man of the Year. Is that true?
GORDON: That was a great surprise to me and a great honor. Sometimes I look back and wonder, “Why me?” The only thing I can think of is that we were making good progress, and we were being talked about a great deal in regards to our unusual styles in finishing and quality and so forth. But that was a surprise and an honor.
INTERVIEWER: The Southern Furniture Manufacturers Association awarded you the James T. Ryan Award, which goes annually to an outstanding leader in the manufacturing industry.
GORDON: Again, that was a surprise and a great honor. The fact that I knew and worked closely with Jim Ryan made it very important to me, but also to be recognized for my efforts on behalf of the industry was indeed an honor.
INTERVIEWER: Well now, I’ve had to drag those out of you.
GORDON: Oh, I don’t know. I received an honor from Virginia Tech that somewhat parallels the James T. Ryan Award. It’s called the William Ruffner Award for distinguished service. That was in recognition of approximately 40 years of alumni work in various categories associated with the university and the fact that I had served as director of the board of visitors, the governing body. Those were all great honors, and I appreciated them.
INTERVIEWER: They were all very well deserved, too. Anyone in the furniture industry knows that. Perhaps we should now take up your family. Tell me first about the family in which you grew up, your brothers and sisters, and then your family after you married. Can we do that?
GORDON: Yes. I had one sister named Marie and one brother named Lawrence Jr., after my father. My sister is now deceased, and my brother is a practicing physician here in Johnson City and still loves his work. I was the youngest. Marie graduated from Randolph-Macon in Lynchburg, Virginia. My brother (we call him Jack as a nickname) attended the University of Virginia in pre-med and then graduated from Duke University with his degree in medicine.
INTERVIEWER: That is your early family. You’ve had another family, which also came to mean a great deal to you.
GORDON: I was fortunate to meet a young lady in Marion, Virginia, in high school, named Evelyn Anderson, and we carried our courtship through four years of collegiate study. She went to Hollins, and is a graduate of Hollins, at the same time that I went to Virginia Tech.
INTERVIEWER: That made it convenient.
GORDON: Yes, indeed. We had a lot of fun, and after graduation, immediately after graduation, we were married because I had to report for duty in the Coast Guard artillery as a second lieutenant. So we married and reported to Uncle Sam.
INTERVIEWER: Where did you report?
GORDON: At Fort Eustis, Virginia. Oddly enough, I had started flying while I was at Virginia Tech under the C.P.T. Program, the Civilian Pilot’s Training Program. I had obtained a private pilot’s license. While I was at Fort Eustis getting settled into artillery work, I received orders transferring me into the Air Force to be a glider pilot. It seems that they couldn’t get enough volunteers, so they had gone to Washington, looked up the records of every private pilot, and wherever they were, they were ordered to report for duty.
INTERVIEWER: I can understand people not volunteering for that duty.
GORDON: There were quite a few of them upset over that. I looked upon it as I always wanted to be in the Air Corps, but I could not pass the physical because of my eyesight. So here, all of a sudden, I’m in the Air Corps anyway. I looked upon it as we were in on the ground floor of this new phase of aviation, and nobody knew anything about it. They didn’t even know what a combat glider looked like; it was still on the drawing board. But it looked like a good challenge and perhaps a good opportunity, so I took it. I never regretted it. We were in a hazardous duty, but when I looked around me at the fellows operating tanks, I wouldn’t have swapped with them. We were your front-line infantrymen, which is what we became when we got on the ground. There wasn’t all that much difference when you got in combat.
INTERVIEWER: Except your method of delivery to the front lines was a little more hazardous than theirs was.
GORDON: We look back on it and laugh now at some of the circumstances that we’d be involved in, but at the time it looked kind of serious. The Germans used every tactic they could to mess up our landings and destroy them.
INTERVIEWER: And succeeded occasionally, didn’t they?
GORDON: In part, they did, but we always came out on top in the long run. We worked very closely with the 82nd Airborne, the 101st and the 17th Airborne. They all had quite a record in Europe for their accomplishments.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, they did. No question about it. Looking back at it, do you think that was a tactical success then? The glider operation?
GORDON: Yes. We had a debacle in the airborne raid on Sicily because that was the first. There was a lot to be learned as they took off from Africa to go into Sicily. That was a nighttime operation, and they decided that it was not good. It’s better to take the risk of going in more daylight.
The Normandy invasion, again, was at night. Although it was in June and darkness did not come until late, it still presented problems. You’re trying to put down a heavily loaded glider, establish your glide path and the place you wanted to land, as well as deal with the problems of the paratroopers. So after Normandy, all our operations were in broad daylight. We just decided that we’d confront the opposition as best as we could and go in broad daylight. All operations from that point on were daylight.
INTERVIEWER: You came out of the service with the rank of major, I believe.
GORDON: Yes, I was Group Glider Operations Officer for the 435th Troop Carrier Group. That was around 1967.
There were three commission seats vacant on our City Commission. They prevailed on three businessmen here in Johnson City to run, and I was one of them. The objective was to put some influence into the City Commission and get Johnson City rolling. There were many things that we needed to do dealing with our water, our sewage, our schools and various programs. It was my privilege to serve two years as vice mayor and to serve one year as mayor. During that four-year period, we accomplished all our objectives. I feel like that launched Johnson City into the future because it has continued to grow with a great deal of vigor ever since. It’s well known; we’ve been attractive to industry. We have a very diversified economy.
INTERVIEWER: You also have been active in civic clubs quite a bit, too, haven’t you?
GORDON: Yes. I was privileged to work with a few friends to organize and charter the Lions Club here in Johnson City and to serve as its president. I enjoyed that work very much.
INTERVIEWER: I understand you’ve been active with the Salvation Army.
GORDON: Yes, in about 1953, I was asked to serve on the advisory board of the Salvation Army. That was a very enlightening experience. I’ve continued to serve the advisory board ever since. I’ve been involved with several of their building projects and expansions, and I’m currently involved as chairman of a major campaign to build a new social services center here in Johnson City.
INTERVIEWER: I believe you told me you were going to go solicit a $25,000 donation as soon as we terminate this interview.
GORDON: I hope to accomplish that because our goal is $750,000, and we’re just about to fulfill it, which I hope to do this week.
GORDON: I hope we’ll have this new facility in operation by next summer.
INTERVIEWER: Tell me about your family background.
GORDON: As I grew up, my mother impressed me with the fact that I was of Scottish descent, and Gordon was a well-known name in Scottish history.
When I went overseas in 1943, one of my first desires was to pay a visit to Scotland to learn something about it. I was able to do this, and that whetted my appetite to learn more about the Scottish heritage and my family in Scotland. Everywhere I went in Scotland, I was treated with a great deal of respect, extended hospitality and friendliness, and it impressed me.
Since the war, I’ve had the privilege of going back to retrace my steps to learn more about the Gordon family. This has developed into some very good friends in Scotland in the Gordon family. The House of Gordon was established in Scotland and the chief, the Marquis of Huntley, asked me if I would organize and be the head of the House of Gordon in the United States, which I have done. I now have about 12 state divisions functioning, and the primary purpose is to maintain the headquarters tent at the Highland Games that are conducted in various states. We have a rather active program. It’s been a great deal of pleasure.
I’ve also had the privilege of taking members of my family to Scotland to educate them on their heritage and to make them acquainted with the Gordon families in Scotland. They have enjoyed this very much. On the 25th of this month, Evelyn and I will fly back to Scotland with three of our family members to give them the tour, which takes about two weeks.
I’ve been able to trace our family here in the United States back to Delaware, where the original immigrant from Scotland landed about 1640. We’ve been in this country for a long time.
In Scotland, I have documents that trace our family to the year 1052. To go beyond that, I’m going to have to go over to France and the ancient Gaul; I just haven’t had the time to do that yet.
These documents you see here, I picked up from a nice lady in Wilkesboro (North Carolina) yesterday. This is work relating to the Gordon’s of Wilkesboro and the original Gordon that came into that valley. He had a grant of 55,000 acres, and that is where Wilkesboro today stands. He gave all the land to build and develop Wilkesboro.
That branch of the Gordon family came out of Virginia, whereas my branch of the Gordon family is from Guilford County, North Carolina. They came from Delaware down to Guilford County. I don’t think it was called Guilford County at that time. It was 1720. So we’re basically a Carolina family. That’s where my father was born — in Guilford County.
INTERVIEWER: I heard that you had very liberal wage policies in terms of pay scale and employee benefits. Could you tell me something about them?
GORDON: When I first started my business and really began hiring personnel — about late 1948 and early ‘49 — I had worked enough in the industry to establish in my mind certain policies that I would exercise in my own company. So in hiring my people, I promised them as good a wage as possible, which as a rule was a little above the local rate. I also decided that when I gave raises, I would give it in increments of 5 and 10 cents rather than half cents, as was common in the industry. I also provided a week’s vacation with pay and hospital benefits. These provisions prevailed locally, and some of the local businessmen were a little put out with me. They thought I was a revolutionary. But I’ve always recognized that one of the most important assets in your business is the people that work in the business and have the responsibility of making the product.
I wanted to take care of them. So I, fortunately, never had a union. One of the best things that I did in my planning was to have a rank-and-file employee committee that represented every department, and they met only with me. We discussed ways and means to improve our working conditions and our work. This made the rank-and-file employees feel that they had a voice directly to me. They appreciated that.
INTERVIEWER: In those days, that was not the usual thing in this country.
GORDON: No, not at all. As a matter of fact, I remember Fons Bean of White Furniture Company talking to me when White faced its first union problems. He told me then, “Charles, if I had had the foresight to form an employee committee like you’ve done, I would have avoided all these problems. We’ll get rid of the union, but it’s going to take us some time now. And it really wasn’t necessary to ever have it.”
INTERVIEWER: You also had another attraction for employees in that your plant, over the years, ran a lot steadier hours than most of them, didn’t it?
GORDON: Yes. We were fortunate to work during the recession periods. We were fortunate to keep working and keep our men busy. I give a great deal of credit for our production accomplishments to our vice president of production, John Shanks. I think John is probably one of, if not the finest, plant superintendent or production manager in the furniture business.
INTERVIEWER: You told me earlier that you felt that you continued to run steadily largely because of your styling and your quality.
GORDON: Styling, quality and our prices were reasonable. The company operated profitably, but we still had an attractive price that made the dealer feel that he could buy and resell our product profitably.
INTERVIEWER: You worked hard and furniture was your life. Then there came a time when you had an offer to sell the plant, and you sold Gordon’s. Can you tell me how you arrived at that decision and the thinking that went into it?
GORDON: You’re referring to the merger of Gordon’s Inc. into the Thomasville Furniture operation.
INTERVIEWER: Yes. Perhaps merger is a better word.
GORDON: For many years, Gordon’s Inc. had competed with Thomasville on the retail floor, and we’d always been successful in competing with them or against them because of our styling and the quality of the product. Last year, Mr. Fred Starr, president of Thomasville, approached our company and talked to my son Chuck, who is president, about the possibility of the two companies joining together. Chuck called me and we met with Mr. Fred Starr in his office at Thomasville. I told Fred that the future of Gordon’s Inc. rested with my son Chuck as president, and I would leave the decision entirely up to him and his brother Jack as to whether we should merge our business into Thomasville to produce their occasional furniture or not.
I felt that Chuck had his thumb on the pulse of the business. He had a bright view of the future of furniture retailing and merchandising, as well as production. I felt confident that he’d make the right decision. We are pleased with the merger of our company into Thomasville, because we find that their management very much emulates that of Gordon’s in relation to employees, their benefits and how they are treated. I feel that our employees and our production management are together the biggest asset that Thomasville obtained.
INTERVIEWER: I believe you told them that.
GORDON: Yes, I expressed that to both the Armstrong personnel, as well as Mr. Starr. They agreed that they are very impressed with our personnel.
INTERVIEWER: I think you could say that furniture has always been your first love, but in the course of your business career, you have developed an interest in and own several other businesses. Could you tell me about some of those?
GORDON: Yes. My first business experience was the start of a bottling operation to enter the beverage business. This is called the Tri-City Beverage Corporation. I did that prior to the start of the furniture business. We have the honor today to be recognized as one of about three independent bottlers left in the United States in the Southeast.
INTERVIEWER: You started that business at night, didn’t you?
GORDON: I started the business, the building of it and the first production of our product, in 1946. At that time, I was operating the bottling equipment at 2 o'clock in the morning. Then we worked on until daylight to produce enough to load the trucks and start them out on their first day’s operation. It’s been quite a varied experience. In later years, we developed a product that is nationally known today as Mountain Dew.
INTERVIEWER: That was first made in your bottling plant?
GORDON: Yes. It was conceived, and I helped design the unique bottle that we had at that time. We produced Mountain Dew and distributed it in East Tennessee until it caught the attention of the Pepsi-Cola people. Then a few years later, the Pepsi-Cola people took it over and made a national product out of it.
INTERVIEWER: You’re still in the bottling business?
GORDON: We produce another unique product called Dr. Enuf. It’s unique in that it’s the only soft drink produced in the United States enriched with vitamins and trace minerals, which makes it a health food item you might say. It’s a delicious beverage, very refreshing. Of course, it’s unique in that the only place you can buy it is here in East Tennessee. It’s been that way for over 30 years.
INTERVIEWER: However, this is only one of several other businesses in which you have been actively engaged. Tell me about the others.
GORDON: We just recently closed a business called Gordon Marine, which I operated for over 30 years. The Outboard Marine Corporation advised me this past November, when we gave up the franchise on Johnson Seahorse Motors, that we were then the oldest dealer that they had in the United States. I enjoyed the marine business. I enjoy the outdoors and boating, so it was kind of natural.
INTERVIEWER: This tied in with your strong interest in fishing, too, didn’t it?
GORDON: Yes. We were also building TVA lakes in this area back in the 1950s, and there was a need for a good marine business. So I started one, selling boats and motors and service. We maintained that business and decided to close it out this past November.
INTERVIEWER: And what else have you done?
GORDON: I was in the cattle business, farming, up in Virginia, where I still retain the old home place where I grew up as a boy.
INTERVIEWER: What city in Virginia?
GORDON: Smith County, Marion, Virginia. What I did was to continue my father’s interest in cattle. I took it over from him, raising registered Hereford cattle. Then many years ago, while I was in Scotland, I became interested in Scottish Highland cattle, which are the oldest known breed of cattle. They’re noted for their ability to survive the rugged Highland winters with their thick coats of hair and all. I bought a fine bull and two bred heifers and brought them to the United States to my farm.
INTERVIEWER: Are they beef cattle?
INTERVIEWER: What color are they?
GORDON: Well, you’ll find them in red; you’ll find them in cream color; you’ll even find them in black. Nobody really knows the actual origin — whether the settlers 2,000 years ago brought them over from Norway or just where they came from to end up in North Scotland. But they’re of great interest in this country today for cross breeding because they’re the ideal breed to survive here in the Appalachian Mountains in the winters. They calve in the roughest part of the winter and take care of their calves. They don’t need shelter like so many cattle need. They can browse and get along on roughage, whereas cattle like Angus are pretty picky about what they eat. So it’s attracting a great deal of attention for cross breeding.
INTERVIEWER: They’re like the people in Scotland.
GORDON: Yes. Very rugged.
INTERVIEWER: They should do well out in the Western states, also.
GORDON: Well, there’s quite a cross-breeding program going on right now experimentally in Texas, as well as out in Colorado. There’s been extensive research done on it up in New England. It’s getting very good results. It’s also been found that the Scottish cattle have less cholesterol, less than any other beef.
INTERVIEWER: They should be very popular in the years ahead.
GORDON: Yes, they should.
INTERVIEWER: Well, talking about the cold winters makes us think about another one of your investments. I believe you have been active in the citrus business in Florida?
GORDON: I’ve been working with citrus in Florida for over 30 years, starting as a small grove owner in a co-operative program. Then I branched out to acquire land, cultivate and plant it in citrus. We have a unique product that is registered and copyrighted called Homli. It is a cross between a Duncan grapefruit and a King orange and produces a grapefruit-sized product with a very unusual flavor — and very delicious. We’re the only growers of this citrus product in Florida.
In addition, we produce about six other varieties of citrus. We now have expanded until we have approximately 800 acres under cultivation, and we will reach a total of approximately 100,000 trees by the end of this year.
INTERVIEWER: That should make you one of the larger operators in Florida, I think.
GORDON: Oh, no. There are many more down there that have larger plantings than what I’m involved in.
INTERVIEWER: Did you choose the Duncan grapefruit because of its Scottish name?
GORDON: Well, that’s a good point, but no. No, we didn’t do that. A friend of mine, a former business associate, was responsible for developing this cross, this new fruit.
My father was a member of the Free Masonry. While we were in Marion, he was commander of the Knights Templar. Of course, they wore those beautiful uniforms and carried the sword of the Knights Templar and wore the hat that had a big white ostrich plume. It was very impressive. As a kid, I was really impressed.
So I was pleased, too, that while Dad was living I could enter Free Masonry and that he’d be able to attend the initiations when I became a Master Mason. Then from Master Mason, I preceded from the York Rite to become a Knights Templar, such as he had. I also joined the Shrine, which he had done, too. This past year, I had the privilege of going to Knoxville to go through all the initiation and rites of the Scottish Rite Temple, which was most impressive. I feel privileged and honored to have been able to do that. I know, somewhere, Dad is smiling down on that, too. That was another interest that I could share with him.
INTERVIEWER: You mentioned your father smiling down upon you, and like most of us, you obviously have a belief in the hereafter. That brings up the subject of your church activities. Would you describe those?
GORDON: As a youngster growing up in Marion, Virginia, my family was affiliated with the Methodist Church. I was in regular attendance, and during my high school days, I was privileged to serve as president of the Methodist Youth Fellowship, which meant a great deal to me. Then, when Evelyn and I were married in 1942, we were married in the same church, the Methodist church, by Reverend Paul Worley.
When I came back from service, from overseas in 1945, Paul Worley was still in Marion, but he advised me that he’d been asked to come to Johnson City in the immediate future to help build a new Methodist church. He hoped that I would be coming to Johnson City, too. So I did come to Johnson City, and I ended up working with the building committee of the Munsey Memorial Methodist Church. We did, in the next few years, build a very fine new sanctuary. Paul Worley was quite proud of his accomplishments.
I served on the board and was also finance chairman at that time and prepared the first new budget for the new church. I remember I had an awfully hard time making my older friends on the board understand the need for a reserve for depreciation. They seemed to think that it inflated the budget and was going to make it harder. I kept trying to tell them how badly it was going to be needed. But it was a tough sell.
INTERVIEWER: We had started talking about you meeting and marrying your wife. We were going to talk about your family, but then we talked about your going away to World War II. So we need to get back to that, for you to tell me about your family life (I presume most of it took place in Johnson City) and your children. Just tell me about your family.
GORDON: My first daughter, Mary Alice, was born on June 4, 1944, and that was the original date set for the invasion of Normandy, but it was delayed two days because of the bad weather. But Mary Alice arrived on time, and it was 14 months before I ever got to see her other than in pictures.
INTERVIEWER: Did you get word immediately?
GORDON: I got word soon thereafter, and, of course, it seemed ages before I ever got to see her. There was a great deal of excitement when I got home to see her for the first time. In fact, she didn’t start walking until I got home, and then she started walking rather quickly thereafter.
My second child was Chuck, Charles Gordon Jr., who was born in December ‘46. He has come along like me in the furniture business and so forth. He also attended Virginia Tech and graduated in industrial engineering. Later, he picked up a graduate degree from the University of North Carolina.
INTERVIEWER: I believe, like you, he’s also a pilot. Isn’t that true?
GORDON: Yes. He’s an excellent pilot. In fact, he has an interest in an aviation company selling airplanes, corporate aircraft, and he has been very successful at it. But that’s a sideline to his full-time job as president of Gordon’s Inc.
INTERVIEWER: We didn’t talk about your aviation activities, but I understand that you have been a pilot much of your life, and that’s how he got involved in it. Is that true?
GORDON: Yes. I started flying a 40-horsepower Piper Cub out of a hay field back around 1939.
INTERVIEWER: Was that the one with the square wing or the rounded-off wing?
GORDON: It had a rounded wing.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, that was the Piper.
GORDON: Piper Cub. Recently Chuck presented me with an accurate scale model of that same Piper plane with the same license number on it that I learned to fly in. I appreciate that very much.
I went from that to flying old biplanes for Warner Fleets with a radial engine. They were real tricky, but I think it was good experience in learning the technique of flying. Then, when I went into the service, I was more or less drafted because of my previous flight experience into the Air Corps to learn to fly combat gliders. That in itself was a real experience. We had some exciting work ahead of us, working with the Airborne.
INTERVIEWER: Then when you came out of the service, you continued to fly for your own purposes, didn’t you?
GORDON: I continued flying privately up until about10 years ago. I stopped flying actively about 10 years ago.
INTERVIEWER: What else do you wish to tell me about your family activities?
GORDON: My third child was a daughter, Lucretia. She is now living in Williamsburg, Virginia, where she works for the Williamsburg Foundation in archaeological work. She has her master’s degree in archaeological work from William and Mary. She’s been on three trips to Israel, to the Holy Land, doing archaeological diggings on ancient churches, which has been a great experience for her.
Then my next child was Jack C. Gordon, named after my brother. Since his graduation from Virginia Tech in industrial engineering, he has also gotten his MBA from Tech. He came to Gordon’s Inc. as vice president and comptroller. Today he serves as president of the Bydand Corporation. That’s a Scottish-Gaelic word that means “standing fast” and comes from the family crest, from the coat of arms.
INTERVIEWER: Bydand is the holding company for all of your businesses, except Gordon’s is no longer, of course, a part of it.
GORDON: That’s right. In slowing down, of course, we no longer have Gordon’s under Bydand, and I’ve closed out my cattle operation in Virginia. I’ve closed Gordon Marine as an active operation. Right now we’re concentrating primarily on the citrus industry in Florida.
INTERVIEWER: It sounds like your children are all well-launched in their own careers.
GORDON: Yes. I have a son Bobby, Robert Preston, and he’s a graduate of North Carolina State University with a degree in furniture production and management. He’s married and living with his wife and two children in Charlotte, where he’s associated with his father-in-law in the building of custom homes. They build very fine residences.
INTERVIEWER: And that is all of your family?
GORDON: Well, I have one other daughter named Evelyn Sexton.
INTERVIEWER: Did I cover them all? I’ve got Chuck, Jack, Bobby, Mary Alice, Lu, and Evelyn. Did we have Lu in there?
GORDON: She’s the archeologist.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, yes. Lucretia.
GORDON: Yeah, we call her Lu.
INTERVIEWER: Thank you very much, Charlie. I think we have an excellent interview.