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Hickory Chic

A resurgence of interest in the Arts and Crafts movement in architecture and design has resulted in a renaissance, of sorts, for Indiana hickory furniture. Increasingly showcased in museum exhibitions and interior decorating schemes, the rustic pieces date to Indiana’s pioneer past. Early settlers discovered that the area’s plentiful hickory saplings, which maintained a two- to three-inch diameter while growing extremely straight and tall, were ideal for crafting into furniture. Saplings were soaked and bent into hoops for chairs’ frames and their bark stripped and woven for seats and backs.

By the turn of the century, a Martinsville concern was producing the primitive pieces en masse. With a nod to President Andrew Jackson (fondly known as “Old Hickory”) who had reportedly enjoyed the chair’s early prototypes, the Old Hickory Chair Company was founded in 1892. At the same time, Martinsville was gaining a national reputation for its mineral waters, which spawned a number of luxury spa resorts, often furnished with the unique local furniture. Pioneers in the American branch of the Arts and Crafts movement Gustav Stickley and Charles Limbert both visited Martinsville spas around the turn of the century; the Mission Oak style may have been informed by the natural forms, exposed joinery and clean lines of the hickory pieces.

During the nascence of the national parks movement, Indiana hickory furniture found its way into the lodges and private resorts springing up around the country. The Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone was an early customer, followed by Asheville’s Grove Park Inn, and Crag’s Lodge at Estes Park in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. Vintage photos show a hefty President Taft bearing down on a hickory settee, and a coy Garbo perched on the arm of a similarly rustic chair. The estates of Henry Ford and FDR were appointed with Indiana hickory furniture, as was the presidential retreat Camp David.

Suppliers of the popular furnishings came to include the Rustic Hickory Furniture Company of Laporte, the Indiana Willow Products Company, Columbus Hickory and the Indiana State Farm Prison. Hickory pieces are still made at the state penitentiary, and by several other manufacturers, including the Old Hickory company, which, now in its second century, has moved its headquarters from Martinsville to Shelbyville. Many lodges across the country still use the hickory pieces that were installed a century ago.

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