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DEC. 2007/JAN. 2008

Chatham County Line

7

Bentwood brought national attention to Siler City

Chatham's Historical Heritage

by Fred J. Vatter

Several months ago, while hosting a group of school children on a visit to the Chatham County Historical Association's museum in Pittsboro's Court House, I noticed several of them staring at an object on display. It was an Oval Oak Washboard, which was manufactured in Siler City and sold nationally for many years. I asked them if they knew what it was, and after some contemplation one lad suggested that it might be some sort of musical instrument. They were amazed upon learning what it was and how hard women labored to do the family laundry before the days of automatic washers, dryers and detergents. Most important, I explained, was the washboard's one piece bentwood oval oak frame which required no nails and made it very strong. The manufacture of bentwood equipment and furniture was an important business in Siler City during the early to mid-twentieth century. In 1909 Milton Smith and Fred Hadley were operating a machine shop in Siler City. Perhaps inspired by a few wood bending shops in the area, they designed machinery to make bentwood frames and attach them to corrugated galvanized metal. The one piece oval frame wrapped around the metal, requiring no nails, but used bolts at the bottom to hold it to a crosspiece. Messrs. Smith and Hadley patented this design and commenced operations under the name of Chatham Manufacturing Company. Initially they produced ten dozen washboards daily, but the design was a success and within a year the business had to move to a larger building on West Raleigh Street. By 1911 the output was one hundred dozen boards, produced by 25 employees. In January 1913 the business was incorporated as the Oval Oak Manufacturing Company. In 1917 the controlling interest was acquired by the John C. Lane family. Its business continued to prosper and in 1944 Oval Oak Washboard was bought by the National Washboard Company of Chicago, which closed the Siler City plant. It is significant that the Oval Oak Washboard was conceived and developed in a small machine shop in Siler

City and went on to become wellknown nationally. An even earlier bentwood enterprise started in 1901 when the Siler City Bending Company was organized to manufacture the bowed shafts for horse drawn vehicles, curved mud guards, brake blocks, and curved supports for the fabric tops of carriages and later for automobiles. One investor in the business was "Captain" Malvola Jackson Boling, a Bonsal resident involved in milling, brick making and in setting up the earliest rural telephone system in Chatham County. His "Captain" title resulted from earlier service as a steam locomotive engineer, a position highly regarded in the community. "Mal" Boling decided to become more directly involved in Siler City Bending when it experienced some financial problems in 1904. "Captain" Boling rounded up some new investors, including S. H. Tomlinson of High Point, N.C. and although located in Siler City, the reorganized company was chartered as High Point Bending and Chair Company. The new management team assembled by Boling stressed quality, durability of product, and good relations with employees, suppliers and customers. Originally the company produced bentwood parts for sale to furniture manufacturers, but after a fire in 1907 the rebuilt plant started producing completed bentwood chairs. For the next 25 years High Point Bending and Chair was said to be the only southern manufacturer of bentwood furniture. The company expanded its product lines by purchasing other companies, including Standard School Equipment Company (1928) and B. J. Gregson Manufacturing Company of Liberty, N.C. The Boling lines of furniture for offices, homes and institutions achieved national recognition and in

An Oval Oak Washboard made in the early 1900s in Siler City.

1957 the company's name was changed from High Point Bending and Chair Company to Boling Chair Company and in 1979 the name was shortened to The Boling Company. By that time the company had a full line of furniture, but remained as one of the three major wood benders in the United States. It had some 500 employees, 442,000 sq. feet of operating space at three locations and its President, Jack Boling, the founder's grandson, was active in the Siler City Chamber of Commerce, Rotary Club and Volunteer Fire Department. He also found time to serve on the Board of the Chatham Hospital and the Mayor's Downtown Improvement Committee. Management tried many innovations to expand its product lines and to achieve efficiency. At least one of these had an amazing result. An attempt to use waste lumber from cutting chair backs for one of the bentwood lines, found the scrap lumber being used to make a newly designed experimental chair. Looking at a trial run of 50 chairs, management decided

that they'd never sell and gave them to a dealer in Washington, D.C. to dispose of in any way possible through local retailers. They were stunned to learn that the Secretary of the Navy loved the chairs and wanted 42 more to furnish a conference room. The chair was quickly put back into production and as the chair's reputation spread the factory could barely keep up with the demand. Boling's ugly duckling had turned into a goose that laid a golden egg. Other companies even started copying it. In 1968 the company management built a large new office furniture plant in Mt. Olive, N.C., about 100 miles from its Siler City headquarters. They attributed this decision to a shortage of labor in the Siler City area. The company marked its 75 anniversary in 1979 by commissioning a history book by John Harden. The book, "Boling -- The Story of a Company and of a Family" stressed how the company raised and trained its own management from family members. The company appeared to be doing well, but perhaps the family management succession would soon hit a dead end. By the end of the 20th century the Boling Company was sold to new owners and all the equipment was moved from Siler City to the Mt. Olive plant, ending an unbroken chain of family management. A recent visit to the former Boling cluster of buildings on North Third Street, Siler City, found them largely vacant and forlorn. Hopefully a new occupant for these spacious buildings, with their convenient railroad siding, will be found so that new life will be breathed into the area. Fred J. Vatter is Past President of Chatham County Historical Association and a Board Member.

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