Edwin j. shoemaker; la-z-boy, inc.
AMERICAN FURNITURE HALL OF FAME
ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW
SEPTEMBER 10, 1986
LA-Z-BOY CHAIR COMPANY
Judy Carr, Interviewer
INTERVIEWER: This is an interview with Mr. Edwin J. Shoemaker and Mr. Herman Gertz who have been with this company since its beginning. This is Judy Carr. Mr. Gertz, if you would like to start.
GERTZ: Judy, you surely selected an appropriate place for this interview; it is what is called memory lane of La-Z-Boy history. You might say it is the La-Z-Boy museum.
This interview with Mr. Shoemaker and me, as I understand it, is to cover the last 60 years, including when two entrepreneurs, Mr. Shoemaker and Mr. E. M. Knabusch, first thought of starting a business.
In 1925 Mr. Knabusch was working for the Weis Manufacturing Company. He was single at the time. In 1925, his age was 25 years (he was born in 1900), and during his spare hours away from Weis Manufacturing Company, he lived at his folks’ home on the banks of the historic River Raisin on West Front Street at the corner of Roessler Street.
He would take orders from his friends for various types of wood furniture and build that in his father’s garage. Orders came very steadily to the point where Mr. Knabusch was working long hours at the Weis Manufacturing Company. His job there was in the wood room. They made office desks out of wood and cardboard indexing for the files. He also was spending long hours in his own business making customized furniture for his friends. It got to a point where he had to make a decision to give up one job or the other. His decision was to quit his job at the Weis Manufacturing Company, resign and go into more full-time work. He wished to expand the business.
A little human interest tidbit was that E. M. Knabusch had a gasoline motor in the garage area to run the machines and the noise was a little too great for the neighbors. I believe they called his attention to that. Mr. Knabusch minimized the noise by tying that motor into the sewer system but the solders weren’t the greatest.
SHOEMAKER: He directed the exhaust into the city sewers and that filtered through all of the sewer lines and got into the neighbors’ basements.
GERTZ: That is the way I heard it. I wasn’t here at the time but Mr. Shoemaker confirmed the fact that all the exhaust was tied into the sewer system.
His orders were coming too steadily and he would need some help along the way. He thought of his cousin, Mr. Shoemaker, who was very handy with tools and machines. What he lacked in machines, he would get the job done on a piece of wood or some other way without using the proper machine. Mr. Shoemaker was very, very handy at woodwork and even making some of the machinery. At that point a partnership was put together – on March 24, 1927. Mr. Knabusch was 27 years old when the partnership was signed and you were 19.
There were the two entrepreneurs. When we review the history of La-Z-Boy, it certainly is worth noting that a big company was started by one person; then Mr. Shoemaker made two people. If we were to look at the records today, we may have as many as 5,000 people, but that will come out later in the interview.
Eddie and I are about on target about how you (Mr. Shoemaker) and Eddie got together. At that time, you lived with your folks on the farm and in 1925; you were already putting together a crystal-type radio. Is that what you noted the other day? That you were putting together some kind of radio about 1925? That there was some kind of a tester that you needed? Didn’t your mom step over to the radio when it wasn’t performing just right and she happened to touch it at the right place? Then all of the sudden, you got WWJ of Detroit in just very perfect and clear of noise. Is that about right?
SHOEMAKER: Yes, that’s right.
INTERVIEWER: I’m curious, Mr. Shoemaker: did you and Mr. Knabusch pal around a bit as boys?
SHOEMAKER: Not too very much – there was quite an age difference.
INTERVIEWER: There was enough difference when you were younger to make it awkward to enjoy each other’s company?
SHOEMAKER: Yes, that was not such a convenient age. I got acquainted with him in 1925 or ’24 better than before. Of course, we were cousins all our lives.
He first had a job at the Monroe Auto Equipment Company. He was walking along the street one day and Auto Equipment needed help pretty badly the way he tells the story. He got to talking with his friend, Max Ferman and he said they needed help. Ed said, “I’m not working right now.” He said, “Come right now and start working.”
He did start working there. He only worked a short time when he cut his right forefinger off at about the first joint on a punch press operation. Of course that relieved him a little while. I met him on a street once in front of the old Steiner Hardware, which later was Stadleman’s Furniture Store. He had his hand all bandaged up and was holding it up high, elevated. I said, “What happened to you?” He was telling me about it. After he went back to work, he never went back to the Monroe Auto Equipment Company.
Instead, he went to the Weis plant and got started there. It was only a short time before he got handy with the machines and all the woodworking machinery they had. He worked on about all of them and he liked woodworking better than metalworking.
He kept his job there. In about 1925, he wanted to earn some more money. He bought a 1925 Chevrolet pickup and built the body by himself. He got the chassis and put the body on. He peddled ice for maybe two or three years in the summertime to help his cousin, Howard Calkins. I went to Flint with him on a streetcar from Monroe to help him drive the truck home from Flint. At that time, you could do that. Then we got talking about a band saw guide. He had worked on a band saw at the Weis plant and had some ideas about how they could band saw stock without marking it so much.
INTERVIEWER: Is that the piece of equipment we have in our display case?
INTERVIEWER: That goes back to the very beginning.
SHOEMAKER: We are using that principle today. There was a little finger on each side of the saw that a pattern or a template could run against, and then it would copy or it would band saw the piece out to a curvature of any kind practically without marking. You didn’t have to follow a line and it speeded up the operation considerably.
He wanted to get one of those made. He took me in on that and I made the band saw guide with these cutting fingers, as well as the rip gauge and a circle cutting device. I made this band saw guide entirely with practically no tools. Previous to that, I had made myself a small lathe. I got it up into the tool shed at home, where I lived with her folks. I was able to do a little work other than ordinary handwork.
INTERVIEWER: Was this, at that point, kind of a hobby do you think? Did you just enjoy tinkering?
SHOEMAKER: Oh yes. I didn’t like farming.
INTERVIEWER: But at that point, you didn’t think of it as really being an occupation?
SHOEMAKER: No, it was just a secondary job.
INTERVIEWER: You definitely did not want to go into farming.
SHOEMAKER: No. The thing that bothered me the most was that the corn harvest was too slow. It would start about Labor Day and end about Thanksgiving Day and we’d only probably harvested 12 acres of corn.
INTERVIEWER: We all know there’s a lot of work in farming.
SHOEMAKER: Yes. That was the worst. I didn’t mind the rest of the farm work so much. Of course, pitching manure wasn’t very pleasant either.
INTERVIEWER: What was Mr. Knabusch’s father’s occupation?
SHOEMAKER: He was a farmer until he moved to town on West Front Street. They were supposed to retire, but I guess like a lot of people, they probably underestimated their ability to retire, so he got a job with the PM (Pere Marquette Railroad) people in freightage, I believe.
Getting back to the band saw guide, we got the thing all made and we filed an application for a patent on it on October 10, 1925. He had set up his machines on West Front Street in a newer building.
He started out in his father’s garage but they needed a garage pretty badly so he wasn’t welcome there very long. Then he built a smaller building on the bank of the river in the back end of the lot. He was only in that a short time before he moved that east and used it as a finishing room while he built a bigger building where the smaller one had stood.
He had all line-given machinery. He had a variety saw, which is known as a table saw. He had a corner locker which he made himself for locking the corners of trays or boxes that they made at the Weis plant, and he had a joiner, a belt sander and a wood-turning lathe. Did I mention the thickness cleaner? There were maybe a few other items and he had that all run off of a line shaft that was powered by a 10-horsepower electric motor, which we still have today running our elevator here at this plant.
I was in there in the fall of that year; we went out to look at the shop. He said, “I’m having trouble getting this table saw to cut off squares.” He just couldn’t make a square cut with it.
I said, “Show me how you do it. Maybe I can figure out what the trouble is.” He did and I saw right away that the saw was not in line with the table. In other words, the table slides were pushing in one direction slightly while the table saw was going a different way. As the saw cut through the panel, it would move the panel. That’s how it cut crooked. We looked the machine over. We could adjust the table but we couldn’t get enough adjustment. So we said, “We’ll have to revamp its appearance and line the shaft up properly.”
I came in here just shortly after Christmas and we chiseled the babbitt out of the bearings, realigned the shaft and poured the bearings. He had seen babbitt-pouring over at the Weis plant.
INTERVIEWER: He learned quite a bit at the Weis plant by seeing the way the equipment worked there and everything.
SHOEMAKER: Yes, he did. That’s why they said when he quit that he would be back again. He never did go back.
INTERVIEWER: He worked year-round in this garage, even in the wintertime?
SHOEMAKER: Oh yes. He had a little oil-burning stove made out of a 55-gallon barrel. It could heat the place up. It was far from desirable but that was the best you could do at the time.
INTERVIEWER: I’m surprised to know that he had that many different pieces of equipment to work with at such an early time.
SHOEMAKER: We moved that equipment all over to this room here after this one was built.
INTERVIEWER: The equipment that you each contributed to the company – we have in our archives an inventory of what those items were and we’re glad to have that. We have a detailed list of the tools, equipment and supplies that you both had when you formed the company.
SHOEMAKER: He was buying hardwood lumber in the local area here. He would get some logs sawed and he’d dry the lumber. A time or two, he might have had some dried at the Weis plant but I’m not quite sure. Anyway, he had a stock of lumber that he could use and if we didn’t have what we wanted, we would have to buy it out of Detroit from the hardwood dealers. That was expensive so we didn’t do that very much.
INTERVIEWER: Did you learn of the availability of these things as you went along – where you could obtain these different items?
SHOEMAKER: Yes, when we got started the salesmen began calling on us, and naturally, if you didn’t shoot the mouth, you could learn a lot by talking to them because they knew where to get certain things. If we liked it, we’d buy it and if we didn’t, we’d pass it up.
INTERVIEWER: You built a network of people in information as you went along?
SHOEMAKER: That’s right.
INTERVIEWER: Which is what we’re still doing today?
SHOEMAKER: Oh yes, that’s why one of the most valuable things we have is the salesmen that call on us; we know how to treat them. That hasn’t been true with all businesses because they regard them as trash trying to lead the country, trying to sell something. All that might be true in a very few cases but as a rule they are trying to make an honest living too. They try to do us right so they can call again.
INTERVIEWER: We have found many times, right to this day, that the vendors do contribute a lot, help us a lot if we give them an opportunity to do that.
SHOEMAKER: Oh yes.
So, we finally filed the patent application.
INTERVIEWER: Was that the very first patent application?
SHOEMAKER: Yes. Then in 1926, we got figuring on having a larger building some place that was out of the city limits so we wouldn’t have to be governed by permits and that sort of thing. The neighbors were further apart so we didn’t offend them too much.
INTERVIEWER: A little breathing room, so to speak.
SHOEMAKER: Telegraph Road was only about two years old at that time, maybe three, and it was very sparsely traveled in the earlier days. There wasn’t as much travel anyplace. It was considered a very adequate road, a good place to be, so he got acquainted with George Krell out here. This was a cornfield at the time.
INTERVIEWER: We heard that said many times and I wondered if that was technically true.
SHOEMAKER: Mr. Krell laid this out as a subdivision and we were one of the early people that he had buy land here. He kept 2 ¼ acres in this area, which was bounded on the west by Telegraph Road, on the north by Greenfield Avenue, on the east by lots that faced Huber Drive and on the south by the ditch for Mason Run Creek. That was around 2 ¼ acres that we bought.
We were going to start building in the fall of the year but my mother passed away very quickly so we delayed the operation until March 24, 1927. He had his brother, who was a farmer, come out with a team of horses. He stayed a day or two and dug the basement with a board scraper. That was quite a job. Now they dig them with a back hoe and modern equipment.
INTERVIEWER: Did you have a plan on how you wanted the building to look when it was finished? Did you design your own building plan for the original building?
SHOEMAKER: Yes, it was patterned a little bit after the Weis plant, which was an older type of construction that dated back to 1906. It is still standing, though at the time that we were building this building, he was building a house on the corner lot in front of the building.
He had the basement being worked on by Paul Vanhoe and other masons here. All at once they didn’t come to work one morning. He wondered why. He found out that they thought these two jobs were tied together and work was scarce. We were working on this building, trying to build it up; that must have been the latter part of April or so. This building was just nicely out of the ground so he convinced them they were two separate jobs. They wanted that job done in more of a masterful way and this job didn’t matter too much. In other words, as long as it would stand, that was all we were concerned about. If you look at the masonry real close, it doesn’t show the finest of skill.
INTERVIEWER: I notice you commented on that a little bit. That it wasn’t exactly how you would have liked to have had it. A house to live in and a building to work in would have been judged a little bit differently.
SHOEMAKER: They said that the building would fall down in a few years so it didn’t matter very much. He got his house and the mason work done on it. He had Paul Carl do the carpenter work and I did a lot of the electrical work. That’s how he got his house built.
He (Mr. Knabusch) was married on August 11, 1927, and a week or so after the honeymoon, they started living here. Maybe he wouldn’t like me to say this, but he had to borrow some money at that time to finish the house. A fellow out by Scofield (Michigan) who was the moneylender looked at this house and said, “You mean to say that two people living here would heat this whole house just for two people?” And he said, “Yes, you can’t do much different because the furnace system was designed as one unit. You can’t heat half of it.”
He did take a mortgage out on the place then; it was paid off correct to schedule. On August 10, we just got the roof finished and then we were out of money too. We had the building up and ready to use but no money, so we had to start looking around for some more funds so that we could finish the operation and install all the machinery.
We contacted people around Carleton (Michigan) and other people. Finally we learned the reason that no one was interested. He said, “I don’t want a building on my hands so I wouldn’t want to loan any money on that job. What would I do with a building like that if something were to happen to it or me?”
That was understandable, but we finally did find a fellow by the name of Mr. Diroff. I believe it was Stanley Diroff’s father or some relative of his who loaned us the $3,000 so that we could finish the building.
It got close to Christmas. We wanted to do a little business so we could have a little income and little publicity by Christmas time. We were repairing furniture; we’d take a set of oak dining room chairs, take off the seats, strip the finish and reupholster the seats for $27.50 for six chairs, but we couldn’t make much on that.
INTERVIEWER: You did a lot of refinishing and upholstery work besides building things from scratch?
SHOEMAKER: Yes, repair as well. We made a few items right from scratch as new pieces. Ed had a dining room suite that was liked pretty well and the customer in town had wanted one just like it, but he couldn’t find one so we said we’d make it. That was made out of solid walnut.
INTERVIEWER: Can you imagine what that would be worth today? What was the company called at this point? Floral City or Kna-Shoe?
GERTZ: No, Kna-Shoe Manufacturing Company was when the partnership papers were drawn up. It was called the Kna-Shoe Manufacturing Company but that didn’t last very long. Mr. Knabusch went down to the freight office because we had gotten a notice that freight had come in. But when he got down there with the truck to pick it up, they said, “There’s no freight for Kna-Shoe Manufacturing Company; it’s for the ‘New Shoe Company’ out on Telegraph.”
He had a time convincing them that it was the same people, but after he did and came home, he was fuming. We got to thinking about another name and sometime in June of that year following this incident we decided on using Floral City Furniture Company as the name. That name then was changed with the county clerk so that it became official and that took care of that situation. It was Floral City Furniture Company until the end of their days here in 1974.
Am I right, Eddie, that Floral City Furniture Company was set up on April 3, 1929, which was when the corporation came into being? At that point you carried on activities such as: repairing, reupholstering, taking orders from customers and reupholstering their furniture.
In about 1928 you invented the La-Z-Boy chair. You noted that the wood slat chair was the very earliest La-Z-Boy item invented. Did you not also make La-Z-Boy chairs? It seems like with the early ones, some were sold at a retail store in Monroe. After you incorporated, you started making upholstered furniture and you did not know much about how to upholster furniture. Did you get someone from Fort Recovery, Ohio? Reverend Daniker’s dad?
SHOEMAKER: From Fort Wayne, Indiana.
GERTZ: Fort Wayne, Indiana. Mr. Welker, was it?
SHOEMAKER: George Welker.
GERTZ: George Welker knew a lot about upholstering. Did he move to Monroe for a while?
GERTZ: He just came and counseled with you.
SHOEMAKER: Until George Welker came, we didn’t know very much about upholstering. He worked at the mattress company there in Fort Wayne but he was a skilled upholsterer. He could take fine quality antiques and reupholster them just like they used to do in those days – using horsehair. That was the main thing then. The next filler was Spanish moss and the cheapest filler was flax straw which is called tow. That was just about what all of your cheaper furniture was stuffed with. He (Mr. Welker) was very good and he spent the Christmas holidays with us. He had to get back to work after New Years.
We managed to get two chairs built. One was a heavy, striped material and the other one was a jacquard velour chair that burned in our fire in 1943. We hardly can find a picture of it. It just seems like we were unlucky in that respect.
We kept working on the chairs and we were convinced more and more that it was a good salable item in January and February. We got to the point where we had to file an application for a patent for the chair and that was done in January 1929. Following that was the incorporation of the company on April 3, 1929 to get more money into the business, but we didn’t even have enough money to file an application; I borrowed $146. It was from my dad to pay for the patent application.
INTERVIEWER: Was it that expensive? That seems like a lot of money.
SHOEMAKER: It’s much more now, of course, but it was a lot at that time.
INTERVIEWER: I never did know exactly how the idea of reclining chairs began? Were you just tinkering around with things or what?
SHOEMAKER: Back in May 1928, we made some wood-slat folding chairs. Then a traveling salesman came along here from Toledo and said that he had seen a chair up in the Thumb District someplace. (That’s one of the offices that he called on. I believe it was a coal dealer.) He said this chair was a folding chair and it reclined. He arranged to bring it down here for us to look at and we made some of them to sell.
We must have made about 12 or 25 and that’s when Ed, in May 1928, loaded a few of them into his car and took them to Toledo to the Lion Store. He found out that Mr. Richardson, Sr. was the buyer. He induced him some way to come to look at the chair. After he did, he kind of smiled and he said, “I don’t know if you know this or not, but we bought all of our summer furniture last October and we’re buying winter furniture now.”
INTERVIEWER: Did this gentleman suggest an upholstered version?
SHOEMAKER: He told us the best thing we could do was to go home and make an upholstered chair for the living room and come back. We did. It took us a little while, but after we showed him the chair, he probably was one of the very first customers. His son, Everett, who was just getting out of college, became our first salesman that we ever had.
INTERVIEWER: Was he a Toledo man?
SHOEMAKER: Yes, he was the son of the buyer. We fixed up a trailer with a waterproof canvas and he hauled the chair around to about 64 dealers and sold 62 of them.
INTERVIEWER: He was a pretty good salesman.
SHOEMAKER: That gave us more courage, so we kept it up.
What brought us into the retail business largely was the profit that was made in retail compared to manufacturing. We sold a local furniture dealer here the chair at $66.75 and the next day we saw an ad in the paper for a La-Z-Boy chair for $139.95. I told Ed right away, “We’re in the wrong business.” That’s what started us later on in the retail business.
In August 1929, we were getting cramped again for money. We needed more capital to operate the business after having taken in $10,000 in capital from Mr. Golden and Mr. Comstock. Together they became two of the four people involved with the company and they became directors. We didn’t know whether to go out for more capital again or to rent it out on a fee. After thinking it over and a lot of discussion, we decided to leave it on royalty with the idea that we keep Monroe County for ourselves. We always kept in touch with the chair; we wouldn’t let go of it.
Then on the 5th of October 1929, we got a contract with Michigan Chair Company in Grand Rapids. I went up there for two weeks to get started. Our fixture was a very poor-looking contraption compared to what it should have been because we had no metal-working tools to make metal parts. It just seems we were always intent on doing all we could ourselves before we asked for help. They got nicely started making the chair. Gordon Candle was president of Michigan Chair Company and was really enthused about it.
INTERVIEWER: Grand Rapids was still quite a furniture center at this time, wasn’t it?
SHOEMAKER: Oh yes. If you missed the Chicago Market at that time, you missed practically everything.
GERTZ: Did you know at one time that Mr. E. M. Knabusch loaded the La-Z-Boy chairs on an old Chevrolet truck and took off for Grand Rapids?
SHOEMAKER: Oh yes, that was probably in April or May of 1929. Yes, I think we have that picture in there and that truck that you see there is the one that he bought.
The framed stock rack on there is the one that he built. I was one of those that had to stay home and keep the home fires burning while he went out. A remark was made by someone up there that they had never seen this happen before, where the president of the company would set up and arrange his own space at the Waters-Klingman building. That was the main building at that time.
GERTZ: I have often heard it said that even though there was a lack of money, you two gentlemen made up for it by your abilities, your energy, your anxiety to move ahead, and it seemed that you looked ahead in the right direction. You had the reputation of being very honest and you could do just about anything with wood.
One order stands out in my mind: one day a car drove up from Telegraph Road. A gentleman got out, had a solid mahogany side chair in his hand, walked up to you or Mr. Knabusch, and asked if we would make 12 of those chairs. Price was no object because he had already checked your reputation and knew that you were honest and had the capabilities of replacing that chair. Low and behold, the gentleman’s name was Mr. Newton, a representative of Henry Ford, Sr., who invented the Ford automobiles. Mr. Newton was no relative of Mr. Newton that was on our board of directors at a later date, but it was amusing to me to see this gentleman come in and note that price was no object.
He only wanted to know when to pick up the order of chairs. You noted it would take a month or two. He came back for the order. He looked over the chairs. You were to design also two arm chairs to go with them and he couldn’t distinguish the one he brought down from the ones that you had made up and carved.
That’s why I know their abilities complemented one another. If there was a little lack on one side, the two gentlemen’s abilities complemented beautifully. That is my observation from a later date when I came out here on Telegraph Road. That is a little incident that I can remember so very well.
Also, if we may back up, when you built this building, you designed the elevator and graphs that made part of the pulleys, part of the machinery, and the break systems of the elevator? You designed it.
SHOEMAKER: Oh yes. We knew when we had a building with more than one floor we would need an elevator. We didn’t even bother to price a ready-made elevator; we made our own. It wasn’t too far away from carpentry work, as far as the elevator and the shaft were concerned, but when it came to getting the drive, we made the drive ourselves. I made the pattern for the castings, had these castings made. I left room for David in the bearings so I had no machining to do on them. We put divided bearings in the things and the elevator is still working today.
INTERVIEWER: The inspector says he has never seen another one like it.
GERTZ: My comment was that each year the state elevator inspector would come in, look at the elevator, write up his report on it and he’d say, “Well, I cannot compare this with anything. I’ve never seen another elevator like this. I’ll give you an OK on it; you just make this little change this year.”
The next year it was done and he said: “Same elevator. I’ll say this: we will give you a renewal to continue to use it, but make a little change over here.” That was the kind of elevator it was; it was safe. We did put a sign on it however that people were not to ride on it, and if any employee saw someone else riding on it, there would be a little reward of $20 or so because we were insistent that folks not ride on it even though it was a safe elevator and considered safe at that point.
I’m pleased to have you say just how that elevator was designed and who built some of the parts because you couldn’t buy them. Funds were not available to go out and buy on the open market so what you lacked in funds you just had the abilities to bridge over the fund shortage and get the job done.
INTERVIEWER: Where was the retail aspect going on at this point in time? Was a portion of this building used?
GERTZ: I could touch base a bit on that unless you would like to. Let’s have you start in where early furniture was purchased and displayed for your retail store in this building.
SHOEMAKER: When we got to going back to repair work again like we had been doing, we spaced off an area up here on the second floor, which was nearly half of it.
INTERVIEWER: What were some of the interesting aspects of that retail era?
GERTZ: I know that Henrietta Knabusch, Ed’s wife, was an awfully hard worker.
We got some orders from the Electric Auto-Lite Company in Toledo, Ohio, to make wood clock cases that would be used on top of the mantels. The Electric Auto-Lite Company then made the clock works. Their buyer came over and said: “We understand you can make clock cases. We would like you to bid on those. We also want to design the clock cases.” Mr. Shoemaker designed some very beautiful, appropriate cases.
The gentleman promised us big orders of 1,000 or 5,000 but when the orders came they were for maybe 100 to 300 clock cases. Then he would take the beautiful design that we were making to a competitor down in Ohio and he’d get the price broken down. It was competition and the price was lower so he’d leave the big order over there. Then first thing you know, we would cut the price and we were caught in a whiplash.
INTERVIEWER: He was a little unethical.
GERTZ: Yes, and I won’t note what his background was but that was specific.
Mrs. Knabusch would sand the clock cases after Mr. Knabusch would spray them with lacquer. I would have my certain detail to do, also – to cut out that center hole in the clock case. It was too slow to use a band saw so Mr. Shoemaker promptly designed something else. What did you call it, Eddie?
SHOEMAKER: An adjustable drill that you could use in a larger drill press.
GERTZ: That cut the price and helped us a bit. We had I don’t know how many bushel baskets of little round wood blocks that we didn’t know what to do with.
Mrs. Knabusch worked shoulder to shoulder with us and if she wasn’t doing that, she was out in the garden helping to keep the weeds out, etc. They both were hard workers.
Mr. Shoemaker, of course, fit right in; he was just as hard a worker. By necessity, they needed some grocery money at the end of the week and with the shortage of funds, they took a little bit of money to run their homes. I took a little bit of money too, and I believe I took IOUs happily. I was single and I learned how to work longer hours happily. I found that demonstrating the La-Z-Boy chair was still my bag. I loved that.
INTERVIEWER: Where were you living at the time, Mr. Shoemaker?
SHOEMAKER: My father sold the farm around 1930 and I lived with my brother in Carleton for a while until he got married. Then I boarded over here at Albert Finzel’s, right at the end of Huber Drive. That’s where they called me when I had to come over to help hold the ropes on the tents during a storm. I stayed over there until I was married in June 1935 and I kept the car over here in the garage. I would walk home at night.
GERTZ: I might note that our early “Furniture Shows” brought so many people out from the Detroit and Toledo area. This Telegraph Road was a through highway. We did not have I-75 expressway in those days. It was bloody Telegraph and that’s why they eventually had to consider the I-75.
However, I noted earlier that our customers came from Buffalo, New York, from Cleveland, from Chicago, from way out, because they were on their way through as tourists. One family went into Detroit to pick up their new special order Cadillac car but when they got to Detroit, it was the wrong color. They remembered this store out in the country, drove out here the next day, and placed a beautiful order, including a leather La-Z-Boy chair. I think that order had to go to Texas. That shows how that customer got acquainted with the store. Then they went back to Detroit and their car was ready for them in the right color.
INTERVIEWER: Were you advertising outside of the Monroe area at that time?
GERTZ: Not at all. No, we did not advertise. It was getting people acquainted with something they’d never seen before out in the country on a main highway. That’s where those customers came from.
However, management here recognized that we better shift gears. We couldn’t depend on those orders way out to support us. We had to start advertising. We concentrated on customers in a 40-mile radius of this location, meaning down river Detroit, Toledo and so forth. Then we began to advertise by radio.
We did things not by having sales. Our “Furniture Show” was so different. This was what led up to Mr. E. M. Knabusch going to the two nurseries to buy flowering shrubs to give to our customers and people who came into this location. It was another first for what we were doing, which other stores were not doing.
INTERVIEWER: He had an original marketing strategy and ideas.
GERTZ: Yes. We had two fine gentlemen working for us in the reupholstery business in the basement. They were Mr. Herb Longance and Mr. Eric Gears by name. Eric Gears was the upholsterer and Herb Longance was the repairman. Gears and I would go out to homes to make the estimates of how much material was needed to upholster and labor. We would give the customer the price on reupholstering. That was another one of my responsibilities.
However, during our “Furniture Show”, Herb Longance, who is of German descent and has a German accent, would take a question from a lady. She would say, “What kind of a shrub is that?” Mr. Longance would say, “Dis is a continester.” He had a German accent with most of the flowering shrubs that were given away. For years some of those customers would come back and say, “Oh, that flowering shrub you gave me is doing beautifully.” We heard that comment over and over. Later on I’ll also note a similar story on our fish pool that was put in, but I’ll leave that until a little later in the interview.
In addition to selling furniture, you asked where we got some of our furniture. There was a very fine company by the name of Scott Shuptrine in Detroit that manufactured the finest of furniture. They used China cotton for comfort; the styling was terrific, the quality was A+, and they were on the verge of selling out. Mr. E. M. Knabusch went to Detroit and purchased up to 20 sofas. We added that to our “Furniture Show” inventory. Would you believe that at 2:00 in the morning, (Mr. E. M. Knabusch and I had stayed here), we had our last customer. At 2:00 in the morning they purchased Scott Shuptrine and also, as a side note, our mouse circus. I don’t know of anyone in the country who would put together a mouse circus. We had it in our furniture store. People would go away from here and they would tell their friends.
INTERVIEWER: Who put it together?
GERTZ: Mr. Shoemaker made the stage where we had a teeter-totter, a Ferris wheel and a merry-go-round. Training the mice was my job, in a jesting manner. Mr. E. M. Knabusch said to his relative Howard Calkins, “Would you bring us in some mice?” And Mr. Calkins would bring back the mice to put onto this stage.
INTERVIEWER: It was a glass box thing?
SHOEMAKER: It was plywood.
GERTZ: How long did it take to train the mice? I would say within a couple of hours, they got to running like mad. They would get on there and seem to love it. They would stretch themselves out and run like mad on the Ferris wheel and especially on the teeter-totter and the merry-go-round and all.
INTERVIEWER: These sales were going on and this was really during the Depression years?
SHOEMAKER: Oh yes, the Depression started in October 1929. I think it was the 26th or the 29th.
GERTZ: We purchased the oldest furniture store in the city of Monroe and looked at one another and said: “are we doing the right thing in the depth of the Depression?”
INTERVIEWER: This is what strikes me now that I look at my American history; all this was going on at a rather risky time in economics.
GERTZ: That is right. Mr. Knabusch got the phone call and I am sure he talked to Mr. Shoemaker and me, but even with inventories out, the deal was closed very promptly because they wanted to sell out so badly. They got discouraged. We were at an age where we didn’t know what discouragement meant. These two gentlemen – entrepreneurs – just didn’t know what discouragement meant. It was always a challenge every hour of the day to move ahead and never look back.
INTERVIEWER: You really didn’t have anything to lose at that point in time, did you?
SHOEMAKER: No. It was always the best – that’s the way we looked at it.
INTERVIEWER: Everybody was busy and they were happy that they were busy.
SHOEMAKER: At least we were keeping away from the wolf.
GERTZ: Another point I want to make is that our “Furniture Shows” grew and the company grew. As we grew, how did we advertise our “Furniture Shows”? We used some newspaper advertising, but we were very careful in spending our money. There was a wonderful sign company in Monroe, the Quixley Sign Company. Prior to our “Furniture Show”, they put up a very beautiful sign in front and we started putting up road signs. Progressively, we found that those were advantageous.
INTERVIEWER: We have pictures of some of those billboards.
GERTZ: We would have them repainted once a year because if a road sign is repainted once a year, you get many more people looking at it continually than if you painted it every three or four years. We were told that very early on.
INTERVIEWER: This was an era when billboards were a big point of advertising.
GERTZ: They were. We also put small signs up. The “Furniture Shows” were so very successful and they grew. They made us almost make decisions to feel larger.
In the fall of the year, to kick off the Christmas season, we would put together a lamp show and again we did things differently. Whoever thought of putting on a lamp show? We placed larger orders for lamps. Mr. Knabusch and Mr. Shoemaker designed a lamp for out in the front of our buildings.
INTERVIEWER: Is that that giant one that I’ve seen pictures of?
GERTZ: Yes, it was colorful. Mr. Shoemaker, you purchased it from the Edison or it got donated from the Edison? An Edison pole or telephone pole?
SHOEMAKER: Yes, it’s an Edison pole.
GERTZ: On which you put up a beautiful shade that you made 8 feet in diameter?
SHOEMAKER: It was at least 12 feet.
GERTZ: With three or four colors of soft shade in lightweight material that the lighting would show through beautifully. People would go up and down and salesmen would call on us. They’d take the store all over the United States.
INTERVIEWER: This thing was electrified?
GERTZ: Oh yes. One line of communication that was terrific for this store was the salesmen who were our friends. We would drain them of information as Mr. Shoemaker noted earlier. A lot of our education and information came from the salesmen who called on us. Then they gave the pitch to the next store as they went to other states. “Why, those men out there are growing and this is what we saw…”
We had a show and we drew 2,500 people on Saturday and Sunday. Now that is a lot of people. The city stores wondered how in the world a little outfit in the country grew into a tent. That was something different! Everything that the gentlemen did here was say: “We don’t know any better. We’ll do it that way. Go get ‘em! We made a little mistake this time but the next time around, it wasn’t a mistake.”
INTERVIEWER: Aside from Mr. Knabusch’s house, Mr. Shoemaker, what came after this original three-story building? Wasn’t there a warehouse or some other building?
SHOEMAKER: Yes. You see the first expansion here was with the intent to get on Telegraph Road. Then we built a building – 140 by 80 – and it faced Telegraph, which it does still today.
INTERVIEWER: South of the original three-story building? A separate building, not connected?
SHOEMAKER: Yes, we built it in close passageway between this building and that building so the steam pipes and utilities were over there. It was also good for traveling back and forth because after the store started over there, we used this more for a warehouse and we had a lot of traffic between them. As time went on we built on the north side of that store. We built on the south side and then the back. In 1938, we built a warehouse in the back of this building that went almost to Mason Run Creek. It was built adjacent to the passageway into the back of the store building. There was a building in the back of this that was 24 feet wide and 80 feet long. In 1943, that caught fire.
INTERVIEWER: Was that in December? Did you ever find out the origin of that fire?
SHOEMAKER: Nothing more than it must have been a spark from the boiler or something.
INTERVIEWER: What kinds of things were lost in that fire?
GERTZ: Bedding, inventory of any kind.
SHOEMAKER: Some Christmas layaway items were burned.
INTERVIEWER: And one of the old La-Z-Boy chairs.
SHOEMAKER: That building was built while we purchased from the school system the Boyd School building in Monroe; we took it down and brought it out here. Gratton Construction Company put up the building that was burned.
INTERVIEWER: When was the Floral City Retail added on? Was that in the ’30s?
SHOEMAKER: That was in 1935. That was a building where we used the used lumber. We had it all used up by the time we got that building done. We built the building in the back with all new lumber. One thing I remember was the wood floor with a crawl space underneath. We never used the crawl space, but it was a fire hazard.
GERTZ: Is it worth noting that the Knabusch home, this building and Floral City Furniture were about the only buildings between here and the River Raisin? Mr. Chandler had a used car lot just adjoining and we were concerned. You and Mr. Knabusch made the decision to purchase it from Mr. Chandler, tear it out and clean up the junk that was over there. It was as we built the new Floral City Building. That building was next to the Mason Run Drain.
One day as the contractor, Mr. Jack Gratton, Mr. Knabusch and Mr. Shoemaker were standing there making decisions, one of them said, “Gee, wouldn’t it be great if we put a fish pool right here because it could drain right into the Mason Run Drain underneath?” So that thought was born. Mr. Shoemaker designed it. For generations, young folks, 4 and 5 years old would come in with their folks to buy furniture and they would look at the fish. For three or four generations, they would say, “We want to come in and see the fish; we saw them when we were 5 years old.”
I was store manager for a number of years, along with being connected with La-Z-Boy. My office was next to the Mason Run Drain with a large window. I could see the water right outside my window. Mr. Knabusch raised so many chickens and the mink would get his chickens. At noon I looked out into the creek and there was a mink at the bottom of the creek. I called Mr. Knabusch. Within two or three minutes, he was over with his gun and that mink became extinct very promptly. Mr. E. M. Knabusch killed the mink.
I don’t know if there is a point, Eddie, where you wish to note when you discontinued the very early La-Z-Boy fixture that was hard to manufacture and control. You could not make a wider La-Z-Boy, a deeper La-Z-Boy. It was not a production item.
SHOEMAKER: That was in 1938.
GERTZ: All right, maybe I’m getting a little further ahead. We don’t want to overlook that in 1938, Mr. Knabusch and Mr. Shoemaker made the decision to discontinue the first fixture that they were limited on; it took too much work to make it. They had the slides and rollers in there and there were two metal swings underneath. That fixture couldn’t be made wider or deeper.
SHOEMAKER: Getting back into when Michigan Chair Company had contracted us in October 5, 1929. It was the 29th of October that this terrible Depression started and the crash took place. We were still making chairs and we just weren’t jarred too badly about it because we had nothing to lose. Everything we had was gain if we put any effort at all in it.
By Christmas week of 1929, Mr. Knabusch got a call at the house. I know it didn’t come into the office here. It was over the weekend of Christmas week and the voice on the other end of the line said, “I know that you don’t know me, but I’m Peter Kroehler from Chicago from the Kroehler Manufacturing Company. I understand that Michigan Chair Company of Grand Rapids is making your La-Z-Boy on a royalty contract.” Ed said “yes” and Kroehler said, “I want you to know that I don’t pay royalties. We either buy the patent or throw it out.”
GERTZ: He had purchased the Michigan Chair Company?
SHOEMAKER: He had purchased the Michigan Chair Company sometime in between there. Anyway there was nothing said about being owned by Kroehler when we left him the contract on October 5th, but it was then necessary for him to go to Chicago to see what kind of deal he could get. Mr. Kroehler’s office was in the American Furniture Mart building because he was very instrumental in getting that building built. It came online during this critical time when we had all this financial trouble.
So he went. It was the forepart of January or maybe the middle of January, and the visit wasn’t very successful. He came back and was kind of gloomy. I had to pick some of the information out of him. He wasn’t too willing to talk but he was really upset about it. The best offer he got was $10,000. He said that that patent is certainly worth more than that. After some discussion on the phone, a meeting was arranged for some time in February of that year and the four of us – Ed, Oliver Golden, Howard Comstock and I – motored to Chicago in Comstock’s brand new Graham-Paige car. It was in the winter and it was slippery in places. It wasn’t the best of driving, but we had a meeting on this particular morning in his office. We settled down to a good discussion and we finally arrived at a price of $50,000 but then it was brought up that we had nothing to sell. It was only an application and if the patent was not allowed, we’d have nothing to sell.
INTERVIEWER: The patent was applied for?
SHOEMAKER: It was applied for on the 25th of January.
INTERVIEWER: But it wasn’t complete yet.
SHOEMAKER: Yes, and of course after we agreed on a price, he could take it on an optional 90 days, which would then come due on the 7th of May. It was mentioned, “What do we get down?” A little discussion followed. Finally we went into a huddle into a private room. We discussed it and Oliver Golden said, “I trust that man to the hilt. I know he’ll keep his word.” But I said, “We can’t be fooled around for 90 days here without something down.” We settled for $5,000 down, went back into his office and had a discussion. He said: “What is the result? What have you decided on?” Nobody wanted to speak up, so he said, “Would $1,000 be all right?” Oliver said, “Oh sure.” So $1,000 was taken and nobody else said anything. He said: “I’ll just write you my personal check. I won’t even bother the company.” So he gave us a check for $1,000. We arranged the whole deal with the building escrow at the Continental Illinois National Bank and that was it.
We left and went out to have some lunch. We didn’t know what to do with the evening so we said, “Let’s go to the theatre.” We spent $20 apiece for tickets for us to go to the Illinois Theatre. It was a good show but vaudeville was part of it. Eddie Cantor led a steer out on the stage and said that’s all he had left of the stock market.
INTERVIEWER: How appropriate for the time.
SHOEMAKER: We motored back to Monroe the next day and we had a deal. We kept making chairs for Monroe County and Michigan Chair Company but they wanted to phase out later on. The 7th of May came. We got a telephone call and Kroehler wanted us to come to Chicago again. Ed said: “There is no reason to come to Chicago since everything is wrapped up. All you have to do is pay the other $49,000 and that’s it.” We wouldn’t listen to him anymore, so we never went to Chicago the second time. He let the thing slip; he lost his $1,000 and gave up on it. He (Mr. Kroehler) was having trouble too, financially. He had 15 plants throughout the United States at that time and he was losing them one by one.
INTERVIEWER: That’s how close we came to losing our patent of the famous La-Z-Boy chair.
SHOEMAKER: Yes. We had dealings with them after. I guess it made him so mad that he started infringing on our patent and we reduced the royalty. I guess we cut it in half, something like that, to get it away from the exclusive arrangement so that we could go out to get other manufacturers in the United States. In one of the statements he made after we cautioned him about infringing, he said, “I’ll break you somehow.” Just what words were used, I couldn’t say but I know Ed heard them. Of course that made us more determined – as an act of revenge. Then we got working with the E. Weiner Company, which was started by a father and his sons who grew up with him. I don’t know how many of them there were but Harry was one of them.
INTERVIEWER: Where were they located?
SHOEMAKER: Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We had to make one trip there to get them started. By that time we were making a better fixture that looked more saleable. The boy, Harry Weiner, made a trip to Europe and was going to buy some real nice tapestries for the chair. He came back with a wool tapestry that must have been about ? of an inch thick, never giving any thought as to how they would have to get it on the chair. So when we came to assemble it, we couldn’t even get it together.
INTERVIEWER: Beautiful material, but useless for upholstery.
SHOEMAKER: Of all the covers that they bought over there, a lot they couldn’t use. They must have forgotten about having to pay duty on them, so it made them pretty expensive by the time they got here. They got over that hurdle.
They were making chairs for quite a while and in order to get the permit to make the chairs, we entered a contractor royalty agreement. They paid us $10,000 for the exclusive rights to make the chair. That was payable over a two-year period at $416.66 a month. When that happened, Eleanor Golden put the clamps on us and said, “That money is not going to go into the business; they’re going to keep that in a separate account.”
That meant that we had to go into receivership, so for about a nine-month period, the business was operated as Knabusch and Shoemaker. We were still making chairs. We had to keep separate accounts until after that money was paid. Weiner started to go out of business because they were going under; the business just wasn’t run like it should have been.
INTERVIEWER: They had some management problems?
SHOEMAKER: Yes and the business was getting worse. I don’t know when the depth of the Depression was but it was about 1933 or ’34. In 1933, the banks closed. Roosevelt just got in. He was inaugurated on March 4, 1933, and the next morning the banks closed. We heard that.
Ed and I were working down in the basement. Ed’s father ran out here and said, “You’d better go down and draw your money out of the bank while you can; they’re standing in line.” Ed said, “What money?” We didn’t have any so we never got excited at all. That’s when we had to start doing business here with script almost because if we had something to sell, we couldn’t get the money. If we wanted to buy something, we had to really figure very closely whether we could buy it or not.
INTERVIEWER: I suspect a lot of businesses were going through the same thing.
SHOEMAKER: Yes, it was really tough. I know we were in the retail business…that might have been in 1934 when Bill Woodward came in here and wanted to buy a refrigerator and said, “I don’t have any money.” Ed asked, “What have you got?” He said, “I’ve got a cow,” and he mentioned a few other things. Ed said, “I’ll go out and look at the cow and maybe we can sell you the refrigerator for the cow.” He bought the refrigerator and Ed had the cow here for a while, a nice Jersey cow.
INTERVIEWER: When doing business, bartering was better.
SHOEMAKER: That’s the only way we could do business. The banks were closed so the post office started doing a little banking then too. You could buy postal savings notes. What little money I had, I’d saved – about $200. That way when I was married in June of 1935, I cashed a $50 certificate to make a trip to Buffalo, New York.
INTERVIEWER: You picked a very interesting period in time to be starting a business and getting married.
SHOEMAKER: Yes. I know a guy who worked at the Monroe State Savings Bank for six years. Then the first bank closed. Two banks in Monroe closed but the third bank was liquid enough to remain open. There was a wave of closings across the country. The weak ones closed and the strong ones stayed. Then a few years thereafter, Roosevelt closed all the banks.
However by that time, our bank, Monroe State Savings Bank, was turned over to a receiver by the name of J. D. Cook. He did such a magnificent job of liquidating that bank and getting it turned around. I’d like to note how he did it. I owed the bank money. Someone over here had a savings account and I would offer that party – who couldn’t get their savings out – cash for maybe 80 cents on the dollar. I’d take that money over to my loan department and pay off my loan. So the receiver, who got to be president of the bank, had the most liquid bank in the United States when Roosevelt closed all the banks. Our bank remained open because we were just as liquid as water. We had phone calls from Detroit and Toledo. We might have owed this firm a few bucks and that firm a few bucks and they’d say, “Could you send us $5? We need lunch money.” “Could you send us $10? We need stamps and postage and things.” Considering what we did go through those days, we often wonder how in the name of thunder we met the challenge that hit us every year, and every year, and every year, from 1925 on.
INTERVIEWER: Where did the Aulsbrook Company come in? Was that during the ’30s?
SHOEMAKER: We heard about the Aulsbrook Company here. It was rather successful and they were expressing interest.
INTERVIEWER: They were in the Detroit area?
SHOEMAKER: In Detroit, yes. It wasn’t a very large company but I think in the early days, the people that made large upholstered items were smaller companies. Kroehler was one of the biggest companies. He had about 15 plants to work on but they only had the one up here. They had a frame company in connection with them that made the frames so they started to make the chair on a straight royalty basis. I don’t think we ever got an exclusive right to them. That’s how we got Joe Keith. Didn’t he come from Aulsbrook?
GERTZ: Yes, he came from Aulsbrook.
SHOEMAKER: Joe Keith then became a salesman for us too.
INTERVIEWER: He’s probably one of the most famous La-Z-Boy salesmen, historically.
SHOEMAKER: You probably heard his name. I also did a little tryout with Scott Shuptrine but very early they bowed out; they didn’t want to get involved in manufacturing, I guess.
INTERVIEWER: But we were still making some La-Z-Boys from the Monroe area?
SHOEMAKER: Did we make La-Z-Boys here in Monroe?
GERTZ: Not as I recall.
SHOEMAKER: I believe that’s about when we were better at making the fixtures.
GERTZ: By that time, you had invented a production fixture that satisfied you and Mr. Knabusch. I believe you had Aulsbrook as an early company to use the new type of fixture.
SHOEMAKER: Let’s see. No, they didn’t. They said, “We can make the old fixture.” They never did get the new fixture. We said that was for ourselves. Then Ed got a hold of Art Hinkle of North Manchester, Indiana, and he wasn’t very good at it or enthusiastic but he was in a business that worked on price a lot. He had to get something that he could retail for $39.50 or $49.50. So I don’t think Aulsbrook ever made the new fixture. I think that’s when we split. Aulsbrook made the chair before that but they were getting a better fixture from us because we had spent more money on dies. We bought a punch press that was sitting right straight down from here in the basement for $670. It was built near them and now that same size press with all of the accessories would cost you about $20,000.
INTERVIEWER: Were we making mechanisms at this point?
INTERVIEWER: Did we always make the mechanism? Then the company, like Weiner or Aulsbrook, made the upholstered chair to put it on?
GERTZ: Yes, to keep the control of the type of fixture that we made, we put a guarantee on the warranty. That was almost unbelievable – and still is. Mr. Knabusch and Mr. Shoemaker kept their finger on the quality by making it themselves and they had the confidence to make that kind of a guarantee.
INTERVIEWER: That lifetime warranty started right at the beginning, didn’t it?
SHOEMAKER: Yes. It started at the time that we started making them in production.
INTERVIEWER: Did the new mechanism enter the picture in about 1938? Was that the first big change in the mechanism?
SHOEMAKER: Yes, that was October 8, 1938. It was the 16th of June when we started figuring on it and we changed it drastically during that time. We were not governed by widths of the chair anymore; we could flair the chair and not cause any problems in operating or whatever. Before that we were always handicapped. Then the back had a different action too, where you couldn’t build the back over the arm with the older fixture.
After it fizzled out with Art Hinkle, we came back. We incorporated in 1941 as La-Z-Boy Chair Company. We came back and said we’re going to make the chair ourselves and nobody is going to get it away from us in this country.
INTERVIEWER: When did you decide enough of all this royalty?
SHOEMAKER: It was in early 1941 because some day in May we incorporated La-Z-Boy Chair Company. After that, we were making the chair.
GERTZ: Prior to that, it didn’t look quite right for the Floral City Furniture Company to be a leader in retailing, make chairs and sell them to our competitors, the department stores, at the same time.
INTERVIEWER: A little conflict of interest there.
GERTZ: The La-Z-Boy Chair Company was put together to make chairs to concentrate on the manufacturing and get the volume and everything to where the earnings and everything came out right. It let the retail store stand on its own, which it did. They made money; that’s another story. A decision was made by both ownerships to close the retail store. We’ll get to that later.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, we’ll get to that as we go down the road but at this point we’ve got about three big things happening here: the decision was made to make the chairs ourselves; the decision was made to make two separate companies out of Floral City Furniture and the La-Z-Boy Chair Company; and the La-Z-Boy Chair Company begins at this point. The building of the office building to house it starts right around this time also, doesn’t it?
SHOEMAKER: We started June 16, 1941. Modern Furniture Company came in during the very early part of 1929 before we had incorporated. We had the chairs made over there for about a month, but we weren’t too satisfied.
INTERVIEWER: They were in Toledo, did you say?
SHOEMAKER: Yes, they were in Toledo. Then we went over to Oakwood Upholstering Company where they had the Toledo factories building. Then after we incorporated, we decided that we would make the chairs ourselves. We got a lot of the help from Oakwood Upholstering Company. They came over to work for us. They drove it every day. There was Eric Gears, Paul Stone, Paul Merskey, Henry Sortor and there was another, Sam. I can’t think of his last name.
INTERVIEWER: These were Toledo men that were coming in?
SHOEMAKER: Yes. Paul Merskey’s wife came over to do the sewing, and that led to Letta Fallman and quite a few of the people that stuck with us even after we got into the new building after the war.
INTERVIEWER: How did we get from the depths of the Depression to a point where we were able to get some new machinery, hire some people and start building chairs again? Things were kind of tough for awhile, but then we got to a point in 1941 where we were stable. We could hire some people and start to make the product. How did we get through that difficult period? Did we do some investing? Did we save some money?
GERTZ: The new factory building was built and we were ready to get into production when the war came on. We leased that. We had bids in on war work. We couldn’t make chairs. They wouldn’t allow us to use metal on bedding. You couldn’t have innerspring mattresses. You couldn’t have upholstered furniture with springs in, so we needed orders from the Monroe Auto Equipment Company where we bid and bid and didn’t get the orders back.
Mr. Shoemaker helped in designing tanks seats. When they had the tank plans ready to go, they didn’t allow enough height for the driver to sit in. They needed a flatter seat so Mr. Shoemaker designed what is equivalent to a metal tractor seat – very flat – and maybe threw on a pad?
SHOEMAKER: It had about a 3 ½-inch depression where the man sits.
INTERVIEWER: Mr. Shoemaker, before we get into the World War II era, somewhere along the line there were some things like an auto seat made. Where did those enter the picture?
SHOEMAKER: We missed that completely. In 1932, we perfected a car seat that had a shock absorber, as well as a reclining mechanism, a bed position and a forward position so you could tip the car seat up.
INTERVIEWER: Is that something we were making here in Monroe?
SHOEMAKER: We never made any in production but we have the design.
INTERVIEWER: It never really went past the drawing board?
SHOEMAKER: Not too much, no.
INTERVIEWER: I’ve seen an article on the patent application for it and I wondered.
GERTZ: One of the early car seats was put into Mr. Knabusch’s Chevrolet car. I rode with Mr. Knabusch to Milwaukee to Chicago and various businesses. I know Mr. Shoemaker did too, and it was exceedingly comfortable. You would think that when you wanted to put the brakes on your automobile, maybe that a recliner would be a retardant, but it was a safety factor really. But we never produced it.
SHOEMAKER: I guess about all we ever made were experimental models.
INTERVIEWER: You dropped it at that?
SHOEMAKER: We tried interesting the car companies, but of course, it was too expensive during those years when they were looking for something simple.
INTERVIEWER: We’ve made it to 1941 so the company has survived somehow and then Floral City became a separate entity as retail. La-Z-Boy Chair Company became a separate manufacturing firm. Then you had the idea to build the building to house the La-Z-Boy Chair Company about this time.
GERTZ: When the building was completed, we were bidding on the war work. We got no orders, but we had an offer from the Woodall Industries down here, which had a large contract to make parts for war planes. It was a large contract and they needed a building. We leased it to them. Within two weeks the orders came to the La-Z-Boy Chair Company from the Auto Equipment for tank seats. We had orders sticking out of our ears and we had no plant. Did that stop us? No.
The first thing that Mr. Knabusch and Mr. Shoemaker did was to rent the Kohler Garage Building that was taken down just a few weeks ago just north of this location. The two brothers had a commercial garage building going to be built – a hamburger joint. That was one place we rented and got into production just like that. We also went up on Third Street and rented the Beaubien Auto Garage and started production in that building. We went out on South Monroe Street and rented the large, empty vocational building; we got into production just like that. There may have been a fourth location.
It didn’t stop us when we got the orders and didn’t know where to manufacture them. We were all set regardless. We had the punch presses going here and we just put our upholstery in the area.
INTERVIEWER: Is that when you were using equipment in the basement?
GERTZ: Yes, that’s about right. We retained that but we sold the woodworking machinery as I noted earlier.
INTERVIEWER: Did we have to move the equipment back into that area or was there some already there?
SHOEMAKER: The metal equipment was mostly used in war work and that was there.
INTERVIEWER: The lathes and equipment that we’ve seen in some of the old photos were there.
GERTZ: You can imagine the orders coming in from the Monroe Auto Equipment for war work. We had not a foot of space to allocate but that didn’t stop the two entrepreneurs.
INTERVIEWER: I understand that steel and springs and that sort of thing were rationed at that time or were completely unavailable, right?
SHOEMAKER: Right, mostly unavailable. But if you could get it, you could only get it if you had an MRO rating, which was an authorization from the government.
GERTZ: Steel was allowed to factories making patented mattresses, which was all you could purchase during that period of time. All the new upholstered furniture had just plain filling in the seats but no springs at all. This is what Floral City Furniture Company did very promptly, believe it or not. We advertised for used upholstered furniture and we reupholstered. We had hundreds of spring-filled sofas and chairs that no other store had. In the retail angle, we kept some of our people employed. We had something that Detroit, Toledo and other stores did not have – spring-filled upholstered furniture.
INTERVIEWER: They were secondhand springs?
GERTZ: Yes, we advertised them that way. Who wanted a tight seat that wasn’t comfortable if from Floral City Furniture Company, they could get upholstered furniture with springs? One day we suggested to Mr. Lloyd White at the store, “Lloyd you go out; we need more upholstered furniture.” He found two barns where they had stored many upholstered chairs and sofas. We bought the whole works and we kept going with upholstered furniture. Again, Floral City did things differently because we were guided that way. If one didn’t come up with an idea, someone else did. In our total organization, it was teamwork among Mr. E. M. Knabusch, Mr. Shoemaker and our people.
INTERVIEWER: I think we could use the word “resourceful”. I think the group was very resourceful.
GERTZ: Mr. Knabusch was just as comfortable to walk through our plant, as talking to the custodians and maybe having a chew with them – maybe more comfortable than with top folks. He was just comfortable with all people and that’s where good information was channeled in from as Mr. Shoemaker noted earlier.
INTERVIEWER: Mr. Shoemaker, was Woodall making their products in our brand new factory building?
GERTZ: Were they making wings, planes or what was it?
SHOEMAKER: I thought it was Corsair tail section.
INTERVIEWER: Aircraft related. Did they pay us rent to use our building?
SHOEMAKER: Oh, yes.
INTERVIEWER: Did they bring their own machinery over or did they use the machinery we already had?
SHOEMAKER: We didn’t have much machinery there at that time.
INTERVIEWER: So they moved their own machinery in to do this work?
SHOEMAKER: Yes, whatever they needed. They took over on August 12, 1942. Before that we were dealing with Republic Aviation and if we had to take them as a renter, they would have just about destroyed our building. We were so glad to have Woodall in there because they didn’t disturb a thing.
INTERVIEWER: It was a clean operation.
SHOEMAKER: Yes, we were lucky to have them.
INTERVIEWER: It was a very comfortable agreement apparently, considering the times and what was going on. We made some small parts also. You’ve given me some samples of a few little things. Nothing was a really big production-type job, but there were some small items that we were contracted to make that were related to the war effort, weren’t there?
I, being a gardener, am particularly fond of the story about the Victory Gardens and Mr. Knabusch using his adjacent land here, even educating his employees on the Victory Garden aspect so that they could save some money and contribute to the war effort. Was that right here?
SHOEMAKER: It was way over in the southeast corner of the Wieman property. After we bought the first two lots, which were about half of that on the north, it wasn’t long before we had the lot that Mrs. Bitz owned. Then the car dealer started the junkyard there, which we weren’t very happy about.
GERTZ: Where does the name Chandler fit in?
SHOEMAKER: Kayhill was the man we talked to. Was there a Chandler in Kayhill or what?
GERTZ: I guess it was Chandler Auto Parts outfit. All right, we’ll settle for one name or the other. It was a junk pile anyhow.
SHOEMAKER: I remember Kayhill. He was from the South.
INTERVIEWER: Mr. Knabusch must have gotten the idea to have a company newsletter because we have been fortunate to have them from before and during World War II. There are a series of newsletters that were done by Floral City a little bit after the war. There was La-Z-News and Floral Views; it covered what was going on at both the retail Floral City Company and what was happening at the La-Z-Boy Chair Company. Did Mr. Knabusch edit this newsletter?
SHOEMAKER: I think mostly Otto Uecker saw to that, didn’t he?
GERTZ: Yes, until he passed away.
INTERVIEWER: It was beautifully done. We’re very proud that we have the collection that we do. It was a very well done newsletter and there are a lot of very important tidbits of our history hiding in that, as well as some photographs of some of our employees as they went off to World War II. Jake Kohler stands out in my mind as one of the young men. There were a couple of sad articles when some of these gentlemen didn’t return from the war.
SHOEMAKER: Yes, John Forbes was one and there were certainly more than that.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think that Mr. Uecker was the editor of this newsletter with Mr. Knabusch in collaboration? There were some very interesting things and it tells a bit about what was going on in World War II in these letters. Some of the era of the Deluxe Upholstery Company is even covered. That’s another thing, Mr. Shoemaker, the licensee aspect. Deluxe Upholstery in Canada was the first one, I understand?
SHOEMAKER: Yes, the first one that ever had a license. I don’t know whether they had the name of Deluxe Upholstery Company in the very beginning or not, but it seems to me they had the name of Schrider.
GERTZ: There was Ralph Connor in there somewhere, unless I’m missing my mark.
SHOEMAKER: There was a funeral home and furniture store.
INTERVIEWER: It may not have been called Deluxe in the very beginning.
SHOEMAKER: I think when they took us on they changed their name to Deluxe. If it operated by any other name, it was a short time after we got to know them.
INTERVIEWER: The mechanism that Deluxe used, did we make it and send it to them? Were these parts partially assembled? Did they put some of it together when they got it there?
SHOEMAKER: Yes, they were partially assembled.
INTERVIEWER: They designed their own upholstered chair but they put our mechanism on it.
SHOEMAKER: We had a little difficulty with them at times because they always wanted to make things just a little different. That was maybe because they were Canadian and had their own ways of doing things.
INTERVIEWER: I noticed that their designs were a little different than what was being sold in the United States at the time. That’s something else that interests a lot of us, Mr. Shoemaker and Mr. Gertz – the design of the product, the hook of the La-Z-Boy, the parts that the customer picks out and sees and that the lady of the house particularly gets excited about. Who was doing this designing in these early years? Who was keeping up on that?
SHOEMAKER: It was me until we had Mr. Kirkpatrick for awhile. And Mrs. Kirkpatrick. They were both involved. She took care of the covers for awhile toward the last. But I did the designing.
INTERVIEWER: You did the sketches of the way the finished product would look?
SHOEMAKER: We didn’t have sketches. We got the thing made and then we took photographs. I didn’t draw anything outright like we do now.
INTERVIEWER: You just made a version of one, took some pictures of it and started to make the product?
SHOEMAKER: If we liked it, we made it, and if not, we changed it and made another one and sold the other.
INTERVIEWER: I imagine you kept up on what the current fashions were, Mr. Gertz.
GERTZ: Yes, we did progressively. Our retail store had the furniture to look at to give ideas as to design changes. By the same token, as new employees were hired by the La-Z-Boy Chair Company, progressively some key folks spent moonlighting time interviewing and waiting on customers at the store and that gave them the retail flavor of where our product would be used.
INTERVIEWER: Mr. Knabusch went to the Markets also and kept in touch with what was going on?
GERTZ: He went to the Markets and he remembered one day someone said, “Oh, a factory is going to open up someplace making motion chairs and over here someone already is.” Mr. Knabusch said, “We welcome competition because if there is more on a team letting the people know about motion chairs, the quicker the market will expand.” That is a comment as I recall it from Mr. E. M. Knabusch. “We welcome competition for sure.” I thought that was a quite nice, broad statement.
SHOEMAKER: It was not detrimental by any means.
We had trouble selling these kinds of chairs in the early days. The decorators wouldn’t even look at them.
GERTZ: Progressively, you asked about designing and a number of our designs were very pleasing and terrific and very comfortable. I purchased one within three weeks after I joined the company here. I owned another chair through another company.
In the early years, motion chairs were considered nothing for style at all. You just couldn’t hang your hat on the word “style” in a retail store. They were crude but in the last years in the motion chair business, designing and styling has come right up in high C; the decorators in general will recommend motion chairs. You can’t beat a motion chair for design. If it’s wing style, if it’s colonial, modern, whatever, then it’s right up in high C when it comes to being in a retail store.
INTERVIEWER: Concerning World War II, we were talking about how hard it was to get the parts, Mr. Shoemaker. Do you remember more about that particular period of time?
SHOEMAKER: I know that December 7, 1945, was the bombing of Pearl Harbor and after that we really got into the war full-swing. Before that it seems like we were dangling there. We were following the war effort but I don’t think anybody put real pressure on until that time; that really started it off. Of course we were making chairs here, not yet in the new building, and we were in that building until August 12, 1942, when we had to vacate. Then we went to the other places in town that have been mentioned – Beaubien’s Garage, Kohler’s Building, Conventional School.
INTERVIEWER: We retained a number of employees right on through the war, didn’t we? We were able to keep some people working.
GERTZ: We purchased used upholstered furniture and reupholstered in a larger volume. The story got out that we would buy used springs but we weren’t getting enough. We said to Mr. White that maybe he could go out and take that detail and he found a couple barns where they had a lot of upholstered furniture.
INTERVIEWER: Mr. White, who you mentioned, he’s been affiliated with...
GERTZ: Floral City Furniture for many years.
INTERVIEWER: Was he a salesperson?
GERTZ: Yes, he was supervisor in sales and display across the board on the team.
INTERVIEWER: He goes back to quite an early time at Floral City?
GERTZ: Yes. We touched base in response to your question of designing. Before we had key designers from elsewhere, we were a retail store in the retail field. Mr. Knabusch and Mr. Shoemaker trained some of the La-Z-Boy folks who were perhaps teachers or others who wanted to get close to furniture retail and manufacturing. That dates back to the first retail display over there. That’s how it expanded, how it turned out to be a big advantage for La-Z-Boy Chair Company in keeping up on styling, tending the markets, and knowing what was going on. The advantage to La-Z-Boy was that those key people could moonlight, if you will. There were folks who worked Sunday afternoons, evenings, on Saturdays and holidays. In that way, they got an education.
INTERVIEWER: How did you pick out the fabrics? We have today a complete department that purchases our fabrics for us. It’s really a large part of our operation. At an earlier time, did you deal directly with a couple of mills to buy your upholstery fabrics?
SHOEMAKER: Yes, we had a few of the main salesmen come in to call on us and they would bring us the new things from time to time. I’d say that we were looking at fabrics about twice a year, Herman?
GERTZ: Yes, we were. I would say that in the earlier years, Mr. Knabusch was one of the key people. He didn’t have a team of folks around him to select covers. As I remember, Mr. Knabusch would quite frequently go over blue colors.
INTERVIEWER: He would reveal what was available and make the selections?
GERTZ: Yes, I can note later what happened in 1960 with our corporation, but we’re not into that era as of yet.
At that point, our sales volume was so very on the low side – $1.5 million up to about 1960 or 1958. The La-Z-Rocker came along in 1954. Irene and I got married in 1956. Mr. E. M. Knabusch gave us a La-Z-Rocker and he made it a point to have the woodwork solid cherry for our wedding present. That’s the La-Z-Rocker that did not recline but the footrest came up. That was the predecessor that came just ahead of the Reclina-Rocker.
Eddie, you can fill us in on the step from the La-Z-Rocker to the Reclina-Rocker. My comment was that the activity wasn’t fabulous in our production up to 1960 and we had an awful time keeping ahead of the demand for the Reclina-Rocker.
SHOEMAKER: I’d say we started in about 1954.
INTERVIEWER: What mechanism were we using then, Mr. Shoemaker?
SHOEMAKER: That was a little different mechanism.
INTERVIEWER: Where did the number 3 mechanism come in? Was that after the war?
SHOEMAKER: That must have been the La-Z-Boy mechanism. We had the 100, 200 and 300 series fixtures. The 100 was the plain simple chair that required an ottoman; the 200 was one with an ottoman, and the 300 was with an ottoman and a Hi-Lo back. We didn’t get the 300 until about 1956. After the war, we started in the new building in March of 1946 getting it cleaned out.
INTERVIEWER: It took that long after the war to get back in the building?
SHOEMAKER: To get back in the swing of things again. We had in mind a Hi-Lo back chair but the consensus was that it wouldn’t work in our chairs. Finally in the middle of November 1956, Mac called my office one day and said, “I’ve got an idea.” When I say Mac, I mean William McLeod, who was our chief upholsterer at that time. He said he had an idea that he thought would work. I went home and we got one of the old models that we had been working on. We started working on it, and we had that to show for the Market with a Hi-Lo back. It was a nice chair, a very good looking chair.
INTERVIEWER: This was still when there was an ottoman with the chair, not a footrest?
SHOEMAKER: That had a footrest with it. It had the 300 series fixture. That sold quite well, and I think we developed more styles using that fixture – 331, 332 and 333, I believe. We already had the rocking chair, which was a derivative of one made by Luxury Furniture Company in Grand Rapids, and we had to do some improving on that. We had to get the footrest out further and we had to get down to one control instead of two controls.
INTERVIEWER: As I understand from looking at some of the early pictures, there was an extra.
SHOEMAKER: There was an extra knob that you had to use to unlock it so you could rock. After that, in deer hunting season of 1959, or…when was the big strike here?
INTERVIEWER: Was it in the early ’50s that the United Furniture Workers’ Union was organized?
SHOEMAKER: Yes, it was 1954 that they organized the plant. It shouldn’t have happened but it did.
INTERVIEWER: It was happening in other places too. It was kind of a sign of the times, wasn’t it? Then everything went OK until that big strike.
SHOEMAKER: We had the strike from about the middle of July until almost the first of December. It was just the last few days of December and of course, we had to make a lot of adjustments. We kept a lot of the important people on but production had to be curtailed, stopped in fact. We managed to settle it some way. It was almost the first of December. It was about a day or two after Thanksgiving that Ed and I said we were going to take a trip to the South to see where our frames were built. We weren’t making our frames then.
INTERVIEWER: That’s something I forgot to ask you about. I didn’t realize that.
SHOEMAKER: We went to Bocaloosa, Louisiana, and after we saw the construction of the buildings they had to work with, we decided all the more that we had to make our own frames because of the humidity and drying conditions of the lumber. They said it was kiln-dried lumber but it sure was far from our requirements. While they might have gotten along really well with drying in their climate, it wouldn’t work up here because we had one particular part – a side rail of a chair that was supposed to measure 6 ¼ inches wide. It probably measured that in Louisiana but when it got up here and was stored for weeks in the dry climate we have here, it was down to 6 1/16 inches. It had shrunk 3/16 of an inch. We couldn’t put up with that either; the parts usually buckled or warped.
INTERVIEWER: Were all of our frames previous to this time made in southern states?
SHOEMAKER: Yes, we never made frames here in production until then. We built the wood room in about 1948, I guess. We weren’t making all our frames at that time because we couldn’t make them all. So we built an addition to our La-Z-Boy property that included a machine room, metal room, and the wood room. Then we built two dry kilns and that started us out making our frames.
INTERVIEWER: We’re into the ’50s. What would you say the sales were?
GERTZ: I would say up to about 1960, it was $1.5 million, which means there was nominal activity here. Our first plant away from Monroe was in Newton, Mississippi, and I always comment to people who say, “Why did you start a plant away from Monroe?” In the first place, we studied the market of the total United States, and due to high freight and the bulky, heavy item, we felt it advantageous to add smaller plants across the country. I did not relay the point that due to the labor situation in Michigan, we had located elsewhere. I felt public relations-wise it was good to inject the thought that due to bulky shipments and in the interest of giving these stores better service, we started our first plant away from Monroe instead of saying, “We had a situation with Floral City with labor.” We had a situation here and in today’s era, when we rub shoulders with so many folks, some are labor-oriented and some are not, and for that reason, I just put out there in the first place that due to high pay rates and demanded better service, we felt it was in order.
INTERVIEWER: Newton has turned out to be a great asset to us. Right around this time we also expanded in Monroe when we procured the Weis Manufacturing Company. We were expanding here around that time, weren’t we? Where does the Weis Manufacturing building enter the scene?
SHOEMAKER: Weis came in about 1963, the day President Kennedy was shot. We heard that about noon. We just had closed the deal and we wondered, “Oh boy, did we do something wrong?”
INTERVIEWER: Before our expansions, both here by procuring Weis Manufacturing and of our first out-of-state plant in Newton, Mississippi, the Reclina-Rocker had been designed and was on its way. Wasn’t that about 1961?
SHOEMAKER: Yes, the drawings of the first frame for the Reclina-Rocker were completed on December 8, 1960, after we came back from a deer hunting season. Naturally we had had some off-limits conversation (or whatever you want to call it). We had no way to make the special fixtures so we had to use our dies in a makeshift way in order to get what we wanted. But we were able to make enough parts to make some chairs that we could take into Market.
One of the things that caused us the most trouble was the slip-stick material that we had to use for an even-reclining movement. Any material we would use would either go by grunts or jerks, but this material, which was Teflon at the time but was later changed to linear high-density poly. We are using that to the present day. It gives the smoothest reclining action of any material that we could use.
INTERVIEWER: Was the Reclina-Rocker the first chair that rocked? When did the platform rocker come into the picture?
SHOEMAKER: The platform rocker was here before; it came in 1954, but we didn’t make it recline. When it was first mentioned that we ought to make the chair recline and rock, too, we wondered what would happen: would you be rocking or would you be reclining? It happened that there was enough friction or holding power in the mechanism to hold it from reclining when you were rocking.
INTERVIEWER: How did the Reclina-Rocker go over when it first went to market?
GERTZ: On a Friday of that year we invited civic leaders from Monroe, perhaps a hundred of them, for lunch at Floral City Furniture; we were the first location to show the Reclina-Rocker to the public and the civic leaders said, “This is terrific; you have a winner.” The next day we opened the sale to the public and there were chairs sold. Within a few days the uncles and aunts and relatives who tried the chairs in the homes where they were delivered came in and the sales multiplied very steadily.
I give Mr. Knabusch and Mr. Shoemaker a terrific amount of credit for striving to keep ahead of the demand by opening up a factory here, and at the right time, opening a factory there and encouraging another factory to be opened. All those factories were copied after plans. Mr. Knabusch and Mr. Shoemaker talked about it and set the plans for the Newton plant. They found out from the Monroe plant: how much footage was needed for the punch press metal area; how much area might be needed for the upholstery sewing area; and how much for the wood room. They followed that format for Newton, Mississippi and for the next plants. They were all on one floor, never a second floor building. The two of them felt that so much room was needed for the metal department, the upholstery department, the wood room department; isn’t that the way you talked?
SHOEMAKER: Yes, that’s right.
GERTZ: A pattern for all the succeeding plants and our early plants were all started by the La-Z-Boy Chair Company. We did not buy a plant until recently; we got into purchasing two and considering a third. Beyond that, all were guided by the headquarters here.
INTERVIEWER: You and Mr. Knabusch planned the assembly layout and production runs in those early years didn’t you, Mr. Shoemaker? Didn’t you lay out the flow of work through the plant?
INTERVIEWER: I understand we had a conveyer-type of situation at an early time.
GERTZ: Yes, the conveyer came through under the floor but I think it was abandoned after using it for quite a while. Mac McLeod was one of our key fine people, along with Mr. Shoemaker and others, that got together and got ideas to work. That was one that after a period of time was abandoned.
SHOEMAKER: It was found out that it wasn’t quite as flexible. The best thing that we have found yet is the present line system that moves on bucks but the man does this at his own rate. When we were all out on one chain or line everybody had to work at about the same speed, whether it was fast or slow, and one employee might interfere with the other. I think the way we have it now is the best because he works just off the line and when his job is done, he pushes another line and that’s the way it goes. A man that’s not quite as swift or adept can get his work done. Of course he doesn’t get paid as much but then he shouldn’t. On the other system we had quite a few people sitting watching the line go by until their turn came. That was one of the big drawbacks on that as I understood it.
GERTZ: When the Newton plant was first thought of, Mr. Knabusch and Mr. Shoemaker made the decision that perhaps only three or four experienced people from Monroe would go down there, get that building built and all the blueprints and get the plant in production. One day before the plant was started down there, Mac McLeod, Dewey Turner and you – the three of you went down to Newton, Mississippi, and got the contractors going, got the building started. The two of them, Mr. Dewey Turner and Mac McLeod, stayed there and hired all folks from the Newton area, farm folks and others. One of the three things about Mississippi at that time was that the Mississippi area was for farming cotton. The politician said, “In addition to cotton and farming, we want industry,” and at that point they offered industry a fine lease rental.
SHOEMAKER: There were a lot of people that moved away from that town because there was no work there anymore. The cotton ginning had dwindled way down and the last industry that was there was Newton Oil Company that pressed cottonseed oil and processed cotton or seed pulp.
INTERVIEWER: They needed employment in the end.
SHOEMAKER: I know that when we first got there, we barely got our feet wet before they wanted jobs. I took care of a few of them but the only thing I could do was give them a stall until we got ready to talk business. We ran into a building that was on this particular 7 acres of land that we had agreed to get.
INTERVIEWER: There was an existing building there?
SHOEMAKER: There was an existing building and another bigger building that had been torn down because of termites; that I never did see. The building that we used was the one that we were going to incorporate in the new building, and we designed it in an L-shape so that we could take it in but we had so much trouble with the roof leaking and everything. Ed was down here one day when they had a heavy rain and he bargained with the contractor to take the building down. He said he would give him the building if he would give us another newer building to put our lacquer and finishing materials in. That’s how we got rid of that building and then instead of making it an L-shape we made it rectangular. About every year for seven or eight years we were putting on an addition.
INTERVIEWER: Once the Reclina-Rocker took off, we really would have been hard-pressed to handle production had it not been for Newton.
GERTZ: Approving the next factory at the right time and then the next factory, building up to a million seating a year takes square footage, ingenuity and foresight. It required us to project ahead from the comments the customers noted about the chairs they had in their homes. They liked them. The marketplace was expanding for us very beautifully and it was an observation of mine that we were always able to keep ahead and give good service for doing it. “Quality” certainly has been the watchword of this company from the go.
SHOEMAKER: After we started the building in May of 1960, we had the vindication there; we had the governor, all of our people and a lot of the townspeople. It was not quite a year later before we got the Reclina-Rocker down there and it really took off.
There was a little spell there that made the local people wonder whether we were going to have any work for them. I came down there once in August and as I got to the motel where I was going to stay, I got a note left in the mailbox stating that I was to go to Lawrence’s for dinner that night. After dinner, he very gently approached the problem. He said he wondered when we were going to hire some help.
INTERVIEWER: When were you going to get things going?
SHOEMAKER: The only thing that I could say is that we were more or less fitting out the plans and had no chance yet to really turn on the speed so that took a little more patience. When this other chair came along, that was an answer to our prayers. We never wanted for work after that.
INTERVIEWER: Would you say, gentlemen, those of us that haven’t been here as long as you have, often associate the Reclina-Rocker as being kind of a major turning point in the company’s product history?
SHOEMAKER: Yes, it was.
GERTZ: In my mind that was the highlight and when the Reclina-Rocker came out, it rocked the world. The terminology of advertising promotion and all.
INTERVIEWER: Mr. Knabusch really got into some serious advertising and marketing right around this period. Didn’t he get publicity on a more professional scale right around this point, hiring some people and taking things a little further afield? I’ve seen some old brochures and items that indicate that we were approaching a new level of sales promotion in other things right about this time too. Was that the chair that Mr. Knabusch and the company entered in a Michigan Week contest?
GERTZ: I believe we were, yes.
INTERVIEWER: We started winning some awards around that time for the product here and there. Weren’t there a few product awards and honors right along the time the Reclina-Rocker was going?
GERTZ: I believe so but prior to that we did not enter the Product of the Year in Michigan Week for some reasons including that it involved a lot of extra time to get the proper photography and presentation for getting the Product of the Year approved and cleared through the county. From there it went up to the district and state level. All the companies that had been in business for years just had all the time and expertise to supply the information on their product whereas we felt that we didn’t want to enter until the Reclina-Rocker came along. I don’t think that we even got up to the Product of the Year on that.
INTERVIEWER: I remember seeing the application for it. It was in a beautifully preserved scrapbook that was prepared to show what we were doing at that point in time.
GERTZ: Great effort was necessary to put the presentation together to satisfy on the county, district and state levels. At the state level you had all the big companies and small companies entering.
INTERVIEWER: In those early photographs of our product and promotional items that we prepared for our dealers, I noticed we have some very nicely done pictures and promotional pieces on our assorted chair styles even back as early as the 1940s. Who did that kind of work for us? Was that done locally? Did somebody photograph and pick those up or were they sent out somewhere?
SHOEMAKER: We had work done in different places. Mary Hodd was our advertising manager.
GERTZ: She had her own small agency in Birmingham, the Bloomfield Hills area, and was able to give us personalized attention. As we grew larger, we moved over into other advertising agencies.
INTERVIEWER: We have price lists and there were several things that were printed obviously on an annual or semi-annual basis to promote our product.
GERTZ: Perhaps locally we used Krause and Company in Monroe.
INTERVIEWER: The office staff was pretty slim at an early time, wasn’t it, Mr. Shoemaker? A lot of people wore a lot of different hats, I assume. We didn’t have whole departments to take care of things.
SHOEMAKER: Our whole office was practically in the one building that we had in the center, which was 100 feet long and 30 feet wide. That was just about the whole office except for maybe a supervisor or foreman’s office.
GERTZ: My wife Irene came on with the company about 1940. We didn’t have desks for all the people but Mr. Knabusch and Eddie devised a plan for putting one very long shelf along the wall and covering it with imitation linoleum so that chairs every three feet for 20 or 30 feet accommodated quite a few office people.
SHOEMAKER: The little building we had built on this building right out here went from the front out a little ways then across and it came back about here. It was the first additional office we had to the one upstairs.
GERTZ: Progressively the watchmen moved in. Homer was our watchman and he had that as his home. But you’re so right and I suppose that if you went back to the office, back to perhaps the 1929-era, Leo Boudinet was the man who took care of the books; he was the accountant. I came with the company in 1931. Leo had other activities and I stepped in and took over the bookkeeping area.
The staff was so small that I bet there were times when there was only one person. Where did this Mrs. Krug fit in? Her name was Wickman before she married Elmer Krug. Was she one of the early people that you had employed in the office?
SHOEMAKER: Yes. We had a Doris Perdent too for awhile. That was before her I believe. There was Agnes Whitman also at the time, I think.
GERTZ: Irene had so very few people in the office; she had a cousin, Kathryn Bernan by name, and beyond the two, they might have had another person or two, but that’s how small the office was in 1941.
INTERVIEWER: Was Mr. Knabusch personnel manager at the time? He was probably sales manager; he was probably wearing quite a few hats. When did we start branching out a little bit to get some special positions like a sales manager like Mr. Marder? Was that in the 1950s?
SHOEMAKER: Mr. Marder came with us in 1954 and he was with us until he was killed in an airplane crash.
INTERVIEWER: An unfortunate thing. That was 1963, I believe, when we saw that happen. We started to expand during the l950s and hire some people.
SHOEMAKER: He might have been taken out of Uecker’s place. After Marder, we had Thurmond Hill didn’t we?
GERTZ: Yes, we had Thurmond Hill for a period of time and he was nominally successful.
SHOEMAKER: Then we had George Nadeau and Gary Schroeder. The office was pretty small in the beginning. Right where Kathy Galloway is, that used to be the engineering office.
INTERVIEWER: Right up toward that part of the building.
SHOEMAKER: The other sections weren’t built on until after 1963.
INTERVIEWER: You started out with the original “Yellow Building” as we call it and it grew on each end and out towards the back; both on an office-space level and on a factory level, we kept building on. When were we using the sawmill? When were we cutting our own lumber?
SHOEMAKER: That was right after the war. You couldn’t buy good hardwood lumber; it was very scarce. The inventories were all down and we had trouble getting lumber for awhile; that’s what got us into sawing our own. We bought a lot of standing timber around here, cut it and made it into lumber.
GERTZ: In the same vein, Mr. E. M. Knabusch was exceedingly comfortable walking through a forest or large acreage of trees and was able, just by walking through, to put together an offer to the farmer to purchase out just the land; we would cut the trees down and the land would remain in the farmer’s name. Mr. Knabusch was very comfortable with that detail and we purchased a lot of acreage from the Enrico Fermi Atomic (Power Plant) area. There was quite a bit of timber purchased out there and we had our own sawmill for a number of years. However we found that the insurance premium on sawing lumber was so very high for not only the people at the sawmill, but the rate carried over into our wood room. We looked at the total insurance premiums, said, “That isn’t for us,” and immediately the process of timber handling and sawing was done by independent contractors.
INTERVIEWER: I understand that Mr. Knabusch from a very early age was very knowledgeable about lumber. He knows his woods and he knows a lot about lumber. He appreciates it; he really enjoys the woods just for the sake of the woods. He just really does like trees.
GERTZ: That was a very large step – going from the enjoyment from being out in the open to assigning himself to a desk for a good portion of this time.
SHOEMAKER: I don’t think he enjoyed that too much.
INTERVIEWER: No, he liked being where the action was. I understand that he spent as much time as he could in the manufacturing environment where things were going on. I heard a lot of stories about how he came through the plant to visit and see how different machines were running, how people were doing. He would pass out apples from his orchard or share some other produce he might have grown. He enjoyed gardening. I have heard some stories about how knowledgeable he was about the quality of wood.
GERTZ: I’d like to add that he never liked a long pencil. He always had a very short pencil and whenever something came to mind, he would make his memo. I’ve never seen him with a long pencil because it was always in the way. He always had little pencils and paper to write down ideas as they came to him. Now what are some of the things you want to touch base on?
INTERVIEWER: OK. So we started really rolling with the Reclina-Rocker. After Newton came Redlands and Florence, our California and South Carolina plants. Things must have been going pretty well since we expanded again in the early or mid ’60s.
SHOEMAKER: Yes, that was 1965 when we were negotiating it but in 1966, Redlands was dedicated.
INTERVIEWER: I understand the two were quite close together.
SHOEMAKER: Only a day apart, I think.
INTERVIEWER: We built the Redlands plant from scratch. Our Florence, South Carolina plant was a previous facility.
SHOEMAKER: Yes, Furniture Industries.
INTERVIEWER: I assume we remodeled that building and started making La-Z-Boy chairs there.
SHOEMAKER: We had to do some repair work on the present building but what we did was build the main building in two different stages. I think one was 150 by 210. There were 150,000 feet in the first addition and that included the wood room and finishing room. The upholstery room came along too, and was moved out of the old building into the new building that was 210 feet wide by around 550 feet in length, something on the order of 210,000 square feet. We’ve built many additions since.
INTERVIEWER: I think every plant has been added onto, hasn’t it? Then we moved down to Neosho, Missouri.
SHOEMAKER: Yes, that was a new location.
INTERVIEWER: It has turned out to be one of our largest locations space-wise, hasn’t it?
SHOEMAKER: I believe so.
INTERVIEWER: And Dayton, Tennessee?
SHOEMAKER: That was a brand new location too.
INTERVIEWER: Siloam Springs, Arkansas. That was interesting because of the old Pet Milk plant. Tremonton, Utah was a brand new facility. It’s been quite a continuous expansion from the time the Reclina-Rocker came into the picture, wouldn’t you say?
SHOEMAKER: Yes, ever since then.
INTERVIEWER: When did our interest in the office seating begin? It was the early ’70s, wasn’t it?
SHOEMAKER: I think it was about 1973 or ’74 when we first started making office chairs. We had been doing some work in the line of healthcare chairs too.
GERTZ: Those were the dialysis chairs. People with serious kidney situations would go to a clinic and we would furnish chairs. Those patients would be there maybe two or three hours and they would need great comfort and that product fit in very beautifully.
INTERVIEWER: About when, Mr. Shoemaker, did we go from the automatic front type of footrest operation, to the back type, to the side-to-side operation? Was it in the ’60s that we went from the rod running from front to back to the more modern one – the automatic one that you had to hit your heel on to close the thing? Was that in the ’50s era?
SHOEMAKER: No, that was always on the Reclina-Rocker.
INTERVIEWER: When did the handle-activated footrest come into the picture?
SHOEMAKER: That came with the Reclina-Rocker. What we did was refine the La-Z-Rocker and the later versions of it did have a handle. We modified the fixture in such a way that we could get a greater extension in front on the footrest and we made it recline. That was the secret of the success of the chair because you could rock back and lock it part-way; you could recline the rest of the way and that gave you a combination of two actions that no other chair had. You could lie down almost perfectly flat with that.
INTERVIEWER: The fact that it continues to sell well says a lot for the success of that particular product. Then the Sofette was like having a dual feature.
SHOEMAKER: One was made right-handed and the other left. We’ve even had a few requests for someone who was left-handed and wanted to operate the Reclina-Rocker with his left hand, so we put a handle on the left.
INTERVIEWER: That could be done by special request. Of course the La-Z-Sleeper came into the picture, which was another new twist for us. I remember going through some of the buying for the products and components that we needed for that.
SHOEMAKER: We had a nice fixture that we developed of our own make but for some reason it became too expensive to build in comparison to what we could buy. The fixture we’re using now is made by Leggett & Platt.
INTERVIEWER: Was it easier to make a lot of our own parts in the early years than it is in more recent times?
SHOEMAKER: I think it was.
INTERVIEWER: It’s no longer cost effective sometimes to make our own things, even though we would like to.
GERTZ: My little comment there was that “quality” was the watchword, and in some cases in past years, you could not depend on other suppliers to make the fixture to where we could guarantee it. Leggett & Platt is an exception on the sleeper as you noted. It was so important that you and Eddie would make every effort to control the quality by making it here – under our own wings, under our surveillance at all times – and not depend on someone else flubbing it up for us.
INTERVIEWER: That was one reason we made the decision to go into the case good lines in our Leland, Mississippi plant so that we could control the quality of the desks and credenzas that we wished to make. When you’re not manufacturing something yourself, you’re depending upon another vendor to be as high quality as you are.
SHOEMAKER: I guess that’s where we learned a lesson again, as we never could depend on quality until we made it ourselves. That’s what took place when we started making the desks ourselves. It was a new venture for us because there wasn’t any of our help that was familiar with case goods as compared to upholstery finishes.
INTERVIEWER: That’s a whole new ball game for most of our people after dealing with upholstered products. It’s been quite an education. Like anything else that we’ve been through, it’s been a learn-as-you-go process.
SHOEMAKER: It’s something that we acquire and it’s not easily parted with; it’s something that you remember for a long time. You’ve got to keep up with the times – whether it’s computers or whatever it is. We have had experiences with different kinds of spray finishing systems: we’ve had air sprayers, we’ve had the airless and we have had the Ransburg principle, where the finish flies off the edge of a disk. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that or not.
INTERVIEWER: I’ve heard about it but I don’t think I’ve seen it.
SHOEMAKER: Now we’re going to another finish that they call Breako. I think that’s spraying too, but I don’t think there’s any air used for that.
INTERVIEWER: I understand, Mr. Shoemaker, that some of the machinery that we used at an early time was not always brand new; it was equipment that you and Mr. Knabusch could pick up and get a good deal on to run some of our earlier operations. Which piece of equipment was it that once fell off the truck?
SHOEMAKER: That was the first piece of equipment the partnership ever bought and that was that Walcott lathe. It’s still down here.
INTERVIEWER: Is it the one that we just resurrected and put back in its original position downstairs?
SHOEMAKER: Yes. That was shortly after we had formed a partnership. Eddie and I went over to Toledo one rainy afternoon to pick up the lathe. It was bought from a machinery dealer over there, Ransburg principle, and it was one that we had liked. On the way home there was a short stretch of road between the old Dixie Highway and the Telegraph Road. The connector there was real rough gravel full of potholes and the rear wheel dropped in one of those holes. The lathe tipped right upside down in the center of the road. It never hurt anybody; a car wasn’t passing us at the time or anything and that was really lucky. It didn’t hurt the lathe except that it broke a couple of the handles off.
INTERVIEWER: How did you get it back on the truck?
SHOEMAKER: We had to call a wrecker from Toledo to get it for us. I think we laid it down on its side for the rest of the trip. A lathe is quite a top-heavy machine; all the weight is up high and it sits on two large legs. We had a chain and everything, but when it went over, it took the side of the truck rack right off.
INTERVIEWER: I understand that we’ve used some of our equipment right until it couldn’t be used anymore. We’ve been pretty careful about getting all the use we can out of our equipment, not being too hasty to jump into new equipment until we’ve checked it over or checked out the price on it or made some adaptations to some of the equipment to suit our unique needs.
GERTZ: That was an education that the original gentlemen got into by respecting the shortage of funds. We wanted to get more use out of the items we had because we didn’t have the funds to put in new ones right away. You get that sort of training from the word “go” as the two entrepreneurs got in the earlier years.
INTERVIEWER: Somebody must have been doing some pretty good money managing during this time.
SHOEMAKER: We were always pretty careful. We’d decide whether we could make it cheaper than we could buy it and if we had the time to make it. If we needed it in short order, we’d probably have to buy it. In the very early days, of course, we made quite a bit of our equipment, revised it.
INTERVIEWER: We’ve always been pretty careful not to overextend ourselves in our financial dealings, which is the downfall of many businesses.
GERTZ: It appears to me, we always had very experienced people trained here at Monroe and when a new plant was thought of, we would send perhaps three or four folks from Monroe to get that plant going. Beyond that, folks were all hired from the vicinity. We had a strong training program here at Monroe and we could always point out two or three people to take on that plant operation.
We were very fortunate at the time that we had Mac McLeod as one of our key early people and he, Mr. Shoemaker and Dewey Turner went down to Newton, Mississippi and got the building built. Dewey stayed there and got the production and everything put together. For the next plant that was considered, Mac McLeod again was selected to go and get the factory plant built. After it was functioning, Charles Knabusch was out there for quite a period of time. He got his feet wet and each plant would seem to be very successful in that way with just three folks or so looking over it.
INTERVIEWER: Mr. Gertz was telling me that you used to set up mock mechanisms made out of cardboard or something to see how the things were developed before you tried them in a metal version.
SHOEMAKER: It was much easier to study the action in a more or less temporary way than to make one up and find it didn’t work or need to be changed.
GERTZ: It was interesting to me to observe that. It seemed like it was August – very warm out here on the blacktop area ahead of the chicken coops – when you set up a 4 by 8 sheet of plywood and your cardboard templates. You’d say, “If we put these two points together here,” and Mr. Knabusch would say, “Yes but that’ll affect this point.” You agreed that maybe you had to have a point in between – something of that nature.
INTERVIEWER: I think that’s fascinating.
GERTZ: I thought it was.
INTERVIEWER: I don’t know how we did it without computer design, do you?
SHOEMAKER: I don’t know but it seems like after you did it for awhile it really grew on you too. You could really predict some of those.
INTERVIEWER: What did you do with these things? You’d go back indoors and cut out a model, make up one to see if it worked?
SHOEMAKER: That’s right. Then we’d make a rough drawing; I probably had to make it myself too, out of metal. We’d get it in a chair and test it out to see whether we liked the action.
INTERVIEWER: Fortunately, most of the ideas were successful. Did you have any projects you worked on that you think were real lemons?
SHOEMAKER: We didn’t save them.
INTERVIEWER: We had a couple of chair styles that design-wise looked like they were of dubious value. They’ve turned out to be some of the more interesting ones for our collection. I know we did have several models over the years that were huge successes and were carried on for a long period of time. They were very popular with the public. Some of the styles were old favorites. We have some here in the museum that were apparently really good sellers.
SHOEMAKER: We used to try to introduce a new model or two or three every six months when we had the fall and spring Markets, but in a way, sometimes we didn’t really get a chance to have a fair show because some of them had to be in a year, a year and a half, before they begin to circulate. By the time a salesman presents and sells the chair and they wait for the order and finally get it, six months or a good part of them, are gone.
INTERVIEWER: Where does the Floral City retail operation end? Was it for the need for space for the La-Z-Boy Chair Company? We know about when it ends but it appeared to be a successful operation right up until its end. Did we need the space?
GERTZ: Yes, I believe I could explain it this way: La-Z-Boy grew so very steadily and rapidly starting in 1960 and Mr. E. M. Knabusch always felt that we’d never build second and third floors on our buildings. But we don’t have the room to expand this office out to take care of that substantial increase in volume. The ownership of both Floral City Furniture Company and La-Z-Boy Chair Company was quite similar. The 2 acres of floor space were needed so seriously by La-Z-Boy at that point that a decision was made to discontinue the retail operation and close out the Floral City Furniture Company.
Ahead of that, I was going to point out that in the previous years, Floral City always reviewed their figures with our accountant until Mr. Stanley Newton, who was on our boards, came. He always compared our earnings over there with other furniture stores and our earnings were always up there with the top third of furniture stores. Our earnings were going along; our volume was moving upward steadily. I believe we hit $2.3 million in volume. That doesn’t sound great but our earnings were very satisfactory. The only reason was that La-Z-Boy needed the space more.
The two boards met at noon and decided that they would liquidate the Floral City Furniture Company. The stockholders came out smelling like a rose because no one lost a dime; our employees were given a fair shake in pay for quite a period of time. We didn’t give them notice that next week – “You’re out and no more money.” They each received serious consideration monetarily and otherwise. It just happened that I was a member of La-Z-Boy. It was about in 1974 that we finally wrapped it all up over there.
INTERVIEWER: That’s quite a few years for that retail operation. It might have saved the company in those early years.
SHOEMAKER: I think it did.
INTERVIEWER: It carried things through at one point.
GERTZ: Expertise-wise, Mr. Knabusch, Mr. Shoemaker and I got an education. Our early designers here at La-Z-Boy would come over and visit those 2 acres of furniture and they provided a lot of input that assisted us.
INTERVIEWER: Plus it was a great showplace for our latest La-Z-Boy designs.
GERTZ: Also I noted to you informally when I walked down the hallway that I’d like to think that Floral City, having gotten up to selling 2,500 La-Z-Boy chairs a year at one location out in the country, was due to our great team of people coming forth with ideas. An example was we had what was called the “La-Z-Boy Room” over there, a sizeable area that we put the sign on. We must have had over 100 chairs for the customers to see. There were around 125 chairs that the customers could see and in the warehouse we had perhaps an inventory of a couple hundred chairs. That was perhaps the forerunner of the La-Z-Boy Showcase Shoppes. In the “La-Z-Boy Room” the chairs were all arranged quite close together in lines against the wall. On coming into that room, we put displays together; there was a certain name for it. In about a 4-foot, 6-inch square we put a chair in a certain color and the carpeting had to blend with it; the drapery in the back of it had to be proper. The chair had a table next to it if it was an early American; that was precisely part of the display. Our decorators would put together a modern display and everything in that display was modern, so consequently we had about three of those beauty spots by the decorators. They were down-to-earth and brought in a lot of business for 40 miles around.