THOMASVILLE, N.C. — Few things have dominated a community like making furniture dominated Thomasville in the 20th century.
More than 5,000 people worked at Thomasville Furniture Industries, hundreds more at the companies that supplied them, in a town that had between 10,000 and 15,000 residents in the latter half of the century. To say it was a company town is quite an understatement.
Andrew Clement teaches carpentry at Thomasville High School and says everywhere he travels, someone has Thomasville furniture in their home.
“And I tell them, ‘We don’t make furniture in Thomasville anymore,’ and they’re shocked,” says Clement.
Since the company left town, many of its young people seemed lost – where do they go to work?
According to Joel Leonard, the “work” part is the key.
“We’re going to need a whole bunch of people who can do more than sit on their rear end and push buttons,” says Leonard.
He, along with Clement, have been working to revive the skills of working with your hands for whatever jobs may be next.
“It’s crucial not just for Thomasville, it’s crucial for the whole state of North Carolina and for our nation,” says Mike Fenley, who is US Senator Richard Burr’s field representative. “We’ve had manufacturing jobs that left this country, left North Carolina and went overseas and now they’re coming back but they’re coming back differently.”
But you still have to know how to use basic tools so that you understand the process, according to the folks who are coming to Clement and Leonard’s “Build-a-Chair” events near the big chair in Thomasville – nicknamed “Chair City” for the fact that they produced as many as a thousand chairs a day back at the original iteration of Thomasville Furniture in 1905.
For Patrice Faison, the superintendent of Thomasville City Schools, it’s about more than just learning a skill.
“History is important. So, you want the students to know some history of our city. And then, when you think of Thomasville, you think of furniture – you think of the big chair,” says Faison. “It’s the practical side of education that we’re giving them.”
“If we don’t celebrate and promote craftsmanship and celebrate the trades like we do our athletes on Friday night, we’re in trouble,” says Clement.
See the chairs they put together at the first “Build-a-Chair” event in this edition of the Buckley Report.