By the mid-1800s, Gardner’s major industry was the manufacture of wooden furniture, in particular, chairs. Over the years, Gardner was home to at least 28 furniture companies and at peak production these factories produced over 4 million chairs annually. Gardner soon became known as “Chair City.” Nichols & Stone opened in 1857 and operated in Gardner, MA for 151 years.
As economic forces shifted, many of the larger factories began closing in the 1970’s and 80’s. Nichols & Stone, the last big factory, ceased production in Gardner in 2008. People close to the furniture industry can cite many reasons why good manufacturing jobs have left this country, from cheap furniture flooding the market, to a trend of planned obsolescence in the products we buy, to major investors leaving companies combined with banks unable or unwilling to give out business loans, and the list goes on. These forces came together to create a storm that would be hard for anyone get to through.
WHY THIS PROJECT MATTERS
“The unfortunate part about Nichols & Stone closing is that all these people with all these skills have no place left to go. Nichols & Stone was the last large furniture manufacturer in Gardner, and when I think back 20 years before that there were 40 or 50. It’s kind of shocking. So all these people and all the skills that they had are sort of off in never-never land.” - Mike Pouliot, Plant Manager, Nichols & Stone employee for 25 years
These stories need to be told to honor those who made the things we use everyday, to preserve our history and identity, to help us make connections between who we are now as a community and our past, and to brainstorm what we want for our future. Our identity as a community and as individuals is shaped through the work we do, and when that work is no longer available it can be difficult, confusing and painful to define oneself, to find your place in the community and the world, and do the things that make you feel proud and productive. This loss is taking place across the country. Sharing our stories helps us remember who we are at our core, our values, hopes, skills and strengths. Gardner has an important story to tell, and the process of telling that story is rich with possibility.
“We would have birthday parties. Evelyn’s birthday was in December, Kaeo’s birthday was in December, Henrietta Ares was in December, mine was in January. So between December and January we must have put on about ten to fifteen pounds because every time it was a birthday, we’d bring in a little cake.” -Dale Lucier
People who worked at Nichols & Stone have told me one if the things they miss the most is the factory itself. They miss having a place to go every morning, and they still think about their coworkers but struggle to stay connected. People’s time inside of Nichols & Stone wasn’t just about the production of furniture, it was where they built community, felt pride in their work, and had a sense of purpose. Many people seem to be having similar experiences and feelings; their identities, social lives and sense of community have drastically changed since the closing of Nichols & Stone, but their memories and stories are still very close to their hearts. There is a need for a process-based, hands-on project and space where individuals who were involved in the furniture industry can connect with each other about how the decline of this industry affects them.
MAKE SOMETHING TOGETHER
“It’s hard because I was used to getting up in the morning and going to work and being around people. I need to get out and do something. I don’t feel like I’m being productive.” -Dale Lucier
Making handcrafted books is the vehicle to bring people together around a common purpose. Printmaking & bookmaking involve assembly-line processes that offer comfort and creativity akin to production processes used in furniture manufacturing. The process also provides an opportunity for community members to collaborate and leaves room for people to talk, problem solve, and envision the future.
People who worked in the furniture industry made objects, so it makes sense that the final product is a handmade object.
ARTIST'S POINT OF VIEW
I was privileged to receive degrees from two of the best art schools in this country, and I learned a great deal from both, but it was my summers spent working at Nichols & Stone that really shaped my views around art: I make things people can touch and use, craftsmanship matters, my process is always collaborative, and it’s important to me that people who don’t see themselves as art aficionados can feel a deep connection to my work.
My mom grew up in Gardner and my dad worked at Nichols & Stone for 25 years. My family and most area residents are linked to the manufacture of wooden furniture. “The sawdust is in my blood” is a phrase I commonly heard when asking people about their relationship to furniture.
"THE SAWDUST IS IN MY BLOOD"
“When I was a kid growing up, my uncles all worked at Temple Stuart in Baldwinville, and you had the smell from that place - you can smell it on people. It’s just something that gets in your blood and you never want to get rid of.” - Barbara Suchocki, Supervisor, Finishing Department, Nichols & Stone employee for 19 1/2 years
This region is full of people who know how to make things. They take great pride in the craftsmanship and quality of the things they make. They have found meaning in assembly-line processes that are generally mistaken for banal and mindless. They have high standards that they strive to surpass. They expect that of others as well. People who are impacted by the furniture industry care about where and how things are made. Someone from Gardner will, without thinking twice, flip a chair over in the doctor’s office to see where it was made. She will run her hands across the finish and know immediately whether a piece of furniture is made with care and skill, or not.
Gardner struggles to hold onto its values as it tries to keep up in a fast moving society that has chosen quantity and low price over quality, but if I had to name just one thing I learned while working at Nichols & Stone, it’s that people around here can pick up the pieces and build something meaningful. Most of Gardner’s residents are much more comfortable with heirlooms than throw-aways, they believe in passing something down for generations. This region believes in hard work and helping each other out. People here understand collaboration. All of these qualities and values play a role in Gardner’s character and our capacity to create a productive and hopeful future.
“Heirlooms... Something that you can pass on to your kids, they can pass to their kids. It isn’t something you can throw out in five years because it’s falling apart. No, it’s not meant to fall apart. Oh yeah, that stuff isn’t going anywhere.” - Chuck Thompson, Top-coat and Finish Repair, Nichols & Stone employee for 18 1/2 years
Both the Oral History Series and the Community Art Center are works in progress. If you would like to get involved, learn more, donate equipment, supplies or help fund this project please get in touch. I'd love to hear from you.