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Built to Last a Lifetime : Brumby Chairs: The Rock of Ages

November 03, 1985|BILL LOHMANN | United Press International

MARIETTA, Ga. — A sturdy rocking chair sits at the store entrance. A sign attached to it reads, "This chair is 110 years old."

No creative marketing mind could come up with a more effective advertisement for Brumby Rockers.

"It's always been said a Brumby Rocker will last a lifetime," said Carole Melson, president of The Rocker Shop, where Brumbys are still made by hand. "Sometimes, they last even longer than that."

It is rare when a piece of furniture commands a place in history, but the Brumby Rocker, an American original, is one of the exceptions.

Presidents and Porches

Today, Brumby Rockers sit in the White House as gifts from former President Jimmy Carter, a great fan of the chairs. They can be found in the Georgia governor's mansion, as well as in hospitals and historic sites across the nation.

They are most often found, however, at the hearths and on the front porches of America.

"A lot of these have very loving memories in them," Melson said. "People have stories about each one.

"One man told me that as a boy, he once took his trusty pocket knife out and carved his initials in his grandfather's Brumby. He said every time he sees the chair now, it reminds him of his grandmother. I said, 'Your grandmother?' He said if it hadn't been for his grandmother, his grandfather would have beaten the hell out of him."

The Brumby Rocker story is the story of two families, one chair and an old-time work ethic that has produced a quality product in the same way for more than a century.

Ten years after the Civil War, the Brumby family of Marietta designed and crafted the first Brumby Jumbo Rocker. Made of solid red oak and cane from Asia, the rocker featured extra-large arms, seat and runners, as well as an extra-high back.

Those were rugged times, as more and more Americans settled on the Western frontier, and the Brumby Rocker was made with durability in mind.

Plain but Durable

Because of that, Brumbys are not particularly fancy or ornate. They are made from a very straightforward design and their functional nature shines through.

"They're made to be sat in," Melson says.

Despite its relatively simple appearance, a Brumby is anything but simple to build.

The perfect red oak can be found only in the forested hills of Appalachia. The wood must be air-dried for two years, so it gains just the right amount of strength. Then the solid wood pieces must be bent into shape gradually, by an age-old process that many furniture manufacturers have abandoned in recent years.

The actual building of each rocker--the crafting of the wood and the hand-woven cane--takes another five weeks.

The Brumby family sold as many rockers as they could produce until 1942 when, because of wartime shortages, materials were so hard to get that the family shut down the business.

Almost 30 years later, Frank Melson, a Marietta man, asked for and obtained the Brumby family's permission to produce the jumbo rockers the same way they had done it. He acquired the machinery and built a small factory, but died suddenly, at the age of 38, before he could begin production.

His wife, Carole, decided to keep her husband's dream alive.

Widow Carries On

"I got into it very rapidly and very blindly," Carole Melson recalls. "My husband very much wanted to build them. The day before he died, he gathered the last machine he needed."

She sought guidance from veteran Brumby craftsmen, found several new ones and put the business in motion. By 1971, production had started and Brumby rockers were back on the market.

Stepping into The Rocker Shop, where the Brumbys are made today, is like taking a step back in time.

Little has changed in the way Brumbys are made.

A staff of a dozen craftsmen work together on the chairs, and it is still a five-week process.

"There's no machine anywhere that can do that," Frank Melson Jr. says of the tightly stretched cane on each chair, which requires weaving by hand and takes considerable time. "I wish there was."

Says his mother, "It would be a lot easier if we could make some changes, but to qualify for the Brumby seal, we have to make them exactly the way Brumby made them. So when people ask us if we can hasten it, we have to say no."

Six-Week Waiting List

The Melsons and their crew produce as many as 75 Brumbys a month, and hand-made chairs in several other styles. Depending on demand, customers must wait 10 days to six weeks for a Brumby.

The Brumby Rocker has been copied many times, but competitors have found out the hard way that there's no easy way to make a Brumby.

"You won't find many people willing to sit and wait for the inventory for two years," Melson said. "I can't say as I blame them. I guess you could say we're doing it the old-fashioned way."

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