The Original Rockford Nostalgic Website
Furniture Gallery 1
Rockford's furniture industry developed following the Civil War but earlier individuals made furniture in a small way. Thomas Johnson, an English cabinetmaker who arrived in Rockford in 1837, is the first of whom there is any record engaged in the manufacture of furniture for a livelihood in this city. He occupied a basement room in the old Rockford House hotel but had no machinery and did all of his cabinet work by hand, his specialties were ottomans, chairs and tables. He would later leave Rockford.
In 1853 William Silbe and Abraham Deyo erected a two-story structure between 6th and 7th Streets near 4th Avenue for furniture manufacture. They had little equipment and employed about a dozen men. One of the employees of the firm was Alpheus Crosby Burpee who came to Rockford in 1853 from LeRoy, New York where he learned the trade of a furniture dealer and undertaker prior to coming to Rockford, and was a salesman for Silbe and Deyo who in addition to the factory operated a sales room on South First Street between State and Walnut Streets. The enterprise was not too successful and the firm dissolved in 1856.
After the failure of Silbe and Deyo, Alpheus Burpee would continue in the furniture and undertaking business when he rented a wood frame building at 110 West State Street in 1856. Being an undertaker in those days amounted to selling coffins and driving a horse drawn hearse.
Burpee although not a manufacturer, was a pioneer in the furniture trade. He operated the business alone the first year then took on a partner named William Werner, but after three years that connection was discontinued. Burpee would erect the first brick building along West State Street in 1864 erected especially for the firm at 108 West State Street. The building was 44 feet wide and 200 feet deep and was five stories in height. It equipped with electricity and had passenger and freight elevators and all the appointments of a modern furniture store, by this time it was the largest retail furniture and undertaking establishment in Illinois outside of Chicago. Burpee took on another partner in the firm, Theodore Groneman, and the firm of Burpee & Groneman did business from 1869 until 1871 until Mr. Groneman’s death. Burpee purchased Mr. Groneman’s interest in the business from his widow becoming sole owner of the firm.
Harry B. Burpee became associated with his father as early as 1879. When the state passed a law requiring the registration and licensing of embalmers, the young Mr. Burpee attended the first examination before the state board of health in Chicago and obtained one of the first embalmers licenses issued by the state. Alfred B. Wood became associated with him in 1894, an association that had continued for many years. Upon the death of his father in 1895, Harry Burpee took over and continued the growing furniture and undertaking business.
In March 12, 1910 the building was heavily damaged in a serious fire that started in the front portion of the basement and spread rapidly upwards through the elevator shafts and stairways consuming a large portion of the furniture stock resulting in $75,000 in damage. Due to the quick action of neighbors the horses and hearse were saved from an adjoin garage at the back of the store and some stock was salvaged. After the fire the decision was made to close out the salvage and discontinue the furniture sales and concentrate solely on the funeral business. The building would be rebuilt and a temporary location was secured across the street and occupied during the reconstruction and refitting of the old building.
The furniture manufacturing industry really took off however in 1872 with it's start in a two story frame building across the street from the Chicago, Milwaukee and Saint Paul Railroad freight depot, where at that time Johnson and Anderson were operating a planing mill. At the time of the Great Chicago fire of 1871, Jonas Peters was employed as a traveling salesman by a Chicago furniture factory which was destroyed. Peters suggested to Johnson and Anderson that they make furniture and he would sell it. Out of the planing mill came the Upson and Johnson Furniture Company. Later E. L. Herrick purchased Johnson's interest and it would become Upson and Herrick. They later moved to a new location on Railroad Avenue. A short time later the factory burned down. After the fire it was discovered that the brother of Upson had been murdered, a mystery never solved. The factory was never rebuilt.
Rockford had twelve furniture factories in 1890, mostly started by Swedish settlers who were furniture makers by tradition. By 1893 Rockford had twenty six furniture factories of which twenty one were co-operatives. At that time Rockford was said to be the second largest furniture maker in the world. Rockford used to be known as a major furniture and radio cabinet source back in the 1920's and 1930's, being about a one hour drive from Chicago, home of numerous radio manufacturers.
Many of the factories were short term endeavors while others endured for decades, burned down, merged with other furniture makers, changed owners who in turn would change the name of the company. It would take an entire website to even attempt to list the various situations that have come and gone, some by fire, others by consolidation, bankruptcy, storms and others that just silently closed their doors. On the following pages I have assembled some items that will show you a small portion of Rockford's furniture industry.
Its beginnings date back to 1869 when Andrew C. Johnson and J. P. Anderson established an independent furniture manufacturing business in a building at the comer of Railroad avenue and Seventh Street. In 1874 financier Gilbert Woodruff became interested in this industry, and in that year the Forest City furniture Company was organized. A new four-story brick building was erected on Railroad Avenue and Eighth Street to house the factory. It would become Rockford’s first large scale manufacturing company.
The Forest City Furniture Company were wholesale manufacturers that manufactured sectional bookcases, combination cases, table wash stands, music cabinets, china closets, library cases, upright beds, ladies desks, mantel beds, wardrobes, buffets made by skilled Swedish craftsman.
Gilbert Woodruff was president of the company; Charles Keith was secretary and treasurer and A. C. Johnson superintendent. In December 1877 died and was succeeded as secretary by Lyon P. Ross. Ross is credited with inventing the Ross folding bed, Ross perfection desk and the Ross combination wash-stand, which all proved to be good sellers for the company. A rear view of Forest City Furniture Company with its large piles of lumber, picture taken in 1888.
Forest City Furniture Trade Card from the 1870''s
The business was a combination of Swedish labor and Yankee capital, and it did not work very well for most of its employees. Woodruff being the president of the company controlled the money and would cut wages in order to meet expenses. Worker unrest at Forest City led to the formation of the Union Furniture Company in 1876. Forest City Furniture would close in summer of 1919. In 1920 Forest City Phonograph purchased the Forest City Furniture Company building and equipment and manufactured Brunswick Phonographs there. Pictured above are some employees from the Forest City Furniture Company.
The Rockford Union Furniture Company was founded in 1876, the promoters being Jonas Peters, John Erlander, John Pehrson and James Sundquist. A young Pehr August Peterson, who was then about to graduate from a local business college, was chosen as secretary of the company. It was the first Rockford furniture company on a large scale to be owned and operated entirely by Swedish settlers. A group of Forest City Furniture Company cabinet-makers and machinists had pooled their money together to launch the business, and had invited a few Swedish merchants as investors, while excluding Yankees. Like the old European craft societies, Union was organized on a cooperative plan, in which workers surrendered a portion of their wages each month as a means of paying expenses, and in return the employees received additional stock in the company. The original factory was located in two large four story brick buildings on South Main Street on the water-power by the Illinois Central Railroad’s freight terminal.
Employees of the Rockford Union Furniture Company in the 1880's.
The original factory on South Main Street burned down in 1889, during the fire a number of injuries occurred while fighting the blaze but the most distressing was that of the death of Ralph Emerson, Jr. the only son of Ralph Emerson, Sr. who was president of Emerson, Talcott & Company at the time. Young Emerson was killed when he was knocked from the slippery roof of an adjoining building by the force of a water hose aimed at the furniture company plant. He fell to the ground below, a distance of thirty feet, and struck on the back of his head, and broke his neck, dying instantly The adjoining building was owned by the Emerson Company and young Emerson had gone to the roof to protect it against flaming embers. A new factory was erected at 1221 Eighteenth Avenue at Ninth Street, the factory re-opened for business in 1890. Rockford Union Furniture manufactured library and dining room furniture. Later the company dropped the "Rockford" from its name and was known thereafter as the Union Furniture Company.
Tragedy would strike the Union Furniture Company plant once again on September 14, 1928 when a tornado ripped through Rockford and played havoc on the Union Furniture company plant. The second and third floors collapsed along with its contents and crashed down to the first floor. The large water tank on the roof of the eastern section of the building collapsed when the roof gave way adding its weight to the pile of wreckage below. Several deaths and many injuries were reported at The Union plant. The plant was rebuilt but would cease business around 1933.
When John Nelson's old planning mill in the water power was destroyed by fire, its owners decided to rebuild a much larger structure on the site in the copycat style of the Forest City Furniture Company facility. The Central Furniture Company was organized in 1878 at Mill and Race Streets by 46 Swedes who paid $500 each per share to help finance the construction of the company. This became the third Swedish owned furniture factory in Rockford. S. A. Johnson became president of the firm; L. M. Noling, vice president; August P. Peterson, secretary and A. P. Floberg, treasurer. A. G. Johnson and Andrew Norling were made superintendents. The companies specialties would be furniture made of walnut or fine ash.
One of the traveling salesmen for the Central Furniture Company, Charles Cohoes who covered the territory west from Rockford, and like all salesmen, he wanted something to tell his customers about, and upon his return home demanded that the company turn out a new piece of furniture. Robert Bauch was the wood carver and designer at Central Furniture at that time, he sat down with a pencil in his hand and started sketching something when all at once the idea came to him to combine a bookcase and writing desk; he did a rough sketch and turned out the first model of the famous bookcase-writing desk combination. August P. Peterson as secretary of the firm recognized possibilities of the new piece of furniture and advertised it and pushed it until it won the greatest popularity ever accorded to a piece of furniture. That was the piece of furniture which made Rockford a furniture manufacturing city of note and put Rockford’s furniture industry on the map.
It is a fact that production of the combination case, when first introduced by the Central Furniture Company in the early 1880’s, jumped from a few cases a day to hundreds. Shortly afterwards all the factories devoted a portion of their factories while others their entire plants to practically nothing but making the cases, train carload upon carload were shipped out of the city every day, the combination cases enjoying an unprecedented popularity for more than 20 years. In fact many furniture factories around the country started producing imitation models of the side by side and a vigorous advertising campaign was launched by the Rockford manufacturers and they were able to convince the public that if it wanted the real desk case, it had to be a Rockford product. The Central Furniture Company was hit hard by the Great Depression and never fully recovered ceasing business in 1937 with its assets being auctioned off in March 1938.
The Rockford Burial Case Company was formed in 1881and land was subsequently purchased and a five story brick building erected at the corner of Ogden and Peach Streets. Peach Street would later be renamed Jefferson Street. The building was equipped with the best machinery obtainable at the time for the business. H. J. Bonney was the president of the company and W. H. Gregory was its secretary while E. A. Van Wie was the manager off the works. Clate Wilcox also joined the concern as an experienced workman and foreman. Capacity of the Rockford Burial Case Company was 50,000 caskets a year.
For twenty four years the Rockford Burial Case Company was one of the most prosperous concerns of the Rockford furniture industry and continued the manufacture of its funeral accessories. Eventually increased competition caused business to decline and the decision was made in 1905 to cease operations. The building was sold and soon a new company set up operations in the building, The Rockford Furniture Company.
The Rockford Furniture Company was organized in 1905 by John H. Camlin and C. J. Lundberg after buying the former Rockford Burial Case Company building at 1009 West Jefferson Street by Kent Creek and Fairgrounds Park. The conversion from the burial case company to a furniture factory took about two months, new electrically driven machinery was installed, equipped throughout with of the latest type, the old kiln was tore down and a new one erected, and around one hundred men were hired as employees.
The company was known for its fine line of complete suites for the dining room. The company was quite successful and expanded several times from the original floor space of 35,000 square feet until the plant obtained a total of 264,000 square feet in three buildings. The company produced two grades of furniture at the “A” Line which represented the “Best That’s Made” and the “B” line producing the “Cheapest That’s Good”.
Above is a sketch of the Rockford Furniture Company plant "A" while plant "B" appears below.
The Rockford Furniture Company would quit business in late 1953 and an auction was held in March 1954 to auction off the remaining 400 pieces of machinery. In August 1954 Piggly Wiggly Midwest would take possession of the building and consolidated the many warehouse and office locations that it had in Rockford and consolidated them into this one location.
Illinois School Furniture Company, 1519 Morgan Street. Organized by W. O. Jones who purchased the plant of the Standard Woodworking Company in February 1912. W. O. Jones - President, H. W. Williams - Vice President, C. F. Bollman, Treasurer and T. C. Jacobson, - Secretary. They manufactured a full line of school furniture and in 1915 they added a line of office furniture. In 1920 this factory would be taken over by the Blackhawk Furniture Company.
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