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Photo courtesy of the Historical Association of Catawba County

Once there was an economic downturn. You may have heard of it. It was called the Great Depression. Nationally, unemployment soared to 25 percent. Those who still had a job endured pay cuts just to keep it. A dark economic sky rolled across our landscape.

But Hickory had a better idea.

There is an old story from the end of the 19th century that the furniture industry began in Hickory when businessman George Hall watched railcar after railcar of cut timber leave the area on its way to other cities to be carved into furniture. Out loud he would say, “It’s foolish to ship lumber up North so they can ship it down South again as furniture.”

Soon, Hall helped to start both the Hickory Furniture Company in 1901 and Martin Furniture Company in 1902. The two companies shared railroad tracks turning Hall’s dream into a reality. A decade later, Hickory Chair opened to complement the other manufacturers, and by the Roaring ’20s, Hickory boasted a substantial furniture industry.

But the Great Depression ended a lot of prosperity. When it hit in the early 1930s, each of the furniture makers faced grave challenges. New furniture was one of the first things consumers gave up as economic times tightened. Each of the companies could have watched sales plummet, close up shop, or maybe try to rob sales (and employees) from each other in a desperate attempt to keep the doors open. But they did not.

Instead, they chose to cooperate. In the spring of 1931, the boards of each company voted to merge into one. Combined, they became Hickory Chair Manufacturing Company. One newspaper’s headline screamed, “Hickory to Get New $1,000,000 Furniture Firm.” While it was actually three existent companies joining forces to reduce expenses to survive, it demonstrated a real commitment to the greater good. Combined, the companies pooled resources, investing in new equipment and survived the Great Depression much better than any of the three could have alone. In fact, the company received a patent in 1938 for a new design in furniture making. It was a “supporting mechanism for upholstered chairs, settees and the like.”

After prosperity returned with the post WWII boom and a new owner from Cincinnati took over, the companies separated again. However, during tough times, the cooperative spirit of Hickory proved that we are much better together — and much more profitable — than when we fail to acknowledge our commonality. Working shoulder to shoulder toward a greater good always has substantial benefits.

Each example from the past reminds us of our identity, our strength. The character of who we are as a community has often been molded before we are born. Previous generations have gifted us with it. Our families instill in us a compassionate and empathetic cooperation as an important part of our raising. The question we must now answer concerns what we will do with what they gave us.

Richard Eller is a professor of History at Catawba Valley Community College and the historian in residence at the Catawba County Museum of History.

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