A few men changed the shape of Martinsville-Henry County forever. On the heels of the Civil War and with the decline of the planter class, they had the dream of making furniture. It was through their ingenuity and perseverance that the area’s furniture industry was founded over 100 years ago. Here is the story—the highs and the lows—of how Martinsville-Henry County furnished a nation and still does.
The Story of Furniture Making in Martinsville-Henry County
In 1901, J.D. Bassett, Sr., at the age of 35, saw the nearly unlimited future in Southern furniture manufacturing. He and his brother and brother-in-law pooled their entire resources, totaling $27,500, and converted their sawmill business into a furniture factory. From this small beginning, the Bassett Furniture Industries grew over the next 100 years into a publicly traded company with 2008 sales topping $288 million.
Five years later in 1906, American Furniture Company was founded by two Martinsville tobacco men, Ancil Witten and Charles Keesee. With 12 other local business leaders, these men raised an original capitalization of $30,000. The company has grown substantially and first surpassed $100 million in sales in 1989. Today, the company specializes in producing furniture for the hotel and healthcare industries, and operates under the name American of Martinsville. Open a dresser drawer the next time you stay in a hotel and, chances are, you'll see an American of Martinsville logo.
In 1924, Thomas B. Stanley, a Bassett Furniture executive and family member by marriage, left the company and moved down the Smith River a few miles and started his own company. Stock securities totaling $300,000 were quickly sold to local interests to finance the new factory. By 1929, the company was free of debt. After struggling through a financial crisis in the early 1930s, Stanley Furniture emerged as one of the leaders in the furniture industry. In 2008, the company had $226 million in annual sales.
Hooker Furniture Company was started in 1924 on donated land and $28,000 in donations from local townspeople. The money was a direct gift - local people received no stock, not so much as a receipt in return. What they bought was 29-year-old J. Clyde Hooker's promise of jobs and increased payrolls for the citizens of Martinsville. The young man didn't let the city down. Today, Hooker Furniture's payroll exceeds $40 million annually. Company employees own, as a group, in excess of 30% of the company through its Employee Stock Ownership Plan.
When Richard P. Gravely wanted to start Gravely Furniture Company in 1926, people already had seen how successful furniture companies could be. He raised his necessary $100,000 capitalization in 48 hours. By the 1960s, Gravely added to its line of fine quality case goods and began producing wall and floor clocks. Soon they became known as the world's leading producer of grandfather clocks. It was here that Ridgeway Clocks was born.
The rise of these furniture giants sparked a whole host of other companies forming to support the furniture industry - from mirror plants to tool companies that supplied machine tools to the industry. The Martinsville-Henry County furniture legacy continues today offering some serious discount shopping thanks to famous names like American, Bassett, Hooker, Stanley and more.