The Boneyard

Ed Small is an Evansville businessman whose family has been in the Evansville furniture industry for over a hundred years.
The History of Furniture Making in Evansville, Indiana     -

by Ed Small

The lumber industry was the backbone of the furniture industry of our area tri-state. Within 100 miles of Evansville, we had just about all varieties of woods: ash, oak, elm, poplar, gum, birch, hickory, walnut, cherry, sassafras, hackberry, and others.

Europeans, principally of German heritage came into the Ohio Valley and Evansville. With their trades they worked in the lumber industry: logging, saw mills, cabinet makers, veneering.

Furniture making began in individual cabinet shops since before Indiana became a state (December 11, 1816.) Tables, chairs, bed stands, chests, dressers, wash stands, settees, china cabinets, sideboards, all were made to order by the individual cabinet makers, and upholsterers. Evansville: The Home of Figured Oak

This collection of furniture information referenced data written in June 1919 describing a “fluke” that took place in about 1880. (This is according to J. Wertz of Maley & Wertz Lumber Co., Evansville, Indiana.)

That fluke was called “quarter sawed oak,” and almost became the trade mark for the furniture industry in Evansville. There are several pages which will show you the development of quarter sawed oak and examples.

The Steam Engine

The steam engine had a great deal to do with the development of what we now think of as a “factory.” Furniture, because it was made of wood, was one of the best examples of the development of a “production line,” because from the steam engine a belt usually about 12” to 18” wide and quite long could drive all types of wood working equipment: large diameter mill saws, planers, shapers, joiners, jigsaws, scroll saws, drill presses, band saws, carving machines, lathes for turning bedposts, all could be utilized from the power of the steam engine.

One of Universal Furniture Company’s suppliers was the Don P. Smith Chair Company of Louden, Tennessee. In the early 1960’s, on our way to the High Point Furniture Market in April that year, Herb Fischer, our Sales Manager and I were invited to see one of the last remaining vestiges of the “steam engine driven furniture factories.” We arrived as planned, at 6:00a.m., when the steam engine had its full head of steam, and was ready to begin to drive the belt that would power all of the furniture making machinery in the plant.

The engine looked to be about 25 feet long, it was on a stand and on one side was a drive wheel that was about 48” in diameter and about 24” thick. There was a similar wheel on the opposite side for the balance. The belt was made of leather, and was many feet long, going from the engine to a similar size wheel at the back of the factory which looked to be about a city block and a half away about the length of Karges on Maryland Street. The belt seemed to be rather tight and ran over many sets of what appeared to be like “rolling pins” that turned and supported the belt. All along the path of the belt were other drive shafts that were not engaged at the start. They would be engaged as the engine and the belt would get up to the proper speed.

It took the better part of an hour to get all of the plant operational. Each set of machine’s drive shafts would be made operational in a particular sequence so as not to overload the steam engine. It was amazing to watch. I wish that I would have had a moving picture camera and could have taken pictures of this plant.

The engine was fired with the sawdust and wood chips in a type of a stoker system so as to consume all of the wood waste. When all of the equipment was running, the main drive shafts would continue to run. Each piece of equipment would be turned on when it was needed from its own drive shaft. What I have just described probably was the way that the U. W. Armstrong Furniture and Chair Co. would have been powered in 1860. This would have been the manner in which all production plants would have been energized until the advent of the electric motor, which would have been from about 1925 on to today.

Armstrong Furniture and Chair Co. plant was located in an area known as Greekville, an area which was roughly between Franklin Street on the south, Columbia Street on the north, Harriet Street on the east, and 3rd Avenue on the west. As can be seen from their ad on page 13 in the 1860 Evansville Directory, they made a little bit of everything for the parlor.

The Evansville Furniture Company was incorporated on March 23, 1870, by 15 men. One of these men was my great grandfather, Henry Stolz. They were located in a two-story wood building which now would be the northwest corner of the Lloyd Expressway and 6th Avenue. That building burned and their new four-story brick building was built in 1875, with the Engine Room building as the most west building.

In 1880, building #2 was built, on the west side of the Engine Room. Land was sold to the Illinois Central Railroad for an amount near $3,500 for a spur line, with enough land on either side for box car loading. This building, the Engine Room, and building #1 are what comprise Corporate Center, a four-story office complex.

It is interesting to note that I learned that Illinois Central was selling all of those small parcels to anyone that wanted them in about 1990. I purchased the parcel between the Lloyd Expressway and Indiana Street for exactly the same amount of money ($3,500) that the Evansville Furniture Co. received from Illinois Central. With inflation, etc. that piece of land would have had a value of about $90,000.

In 1890, Building #3 was built on the west side of the Illinois Central tracks. Building #4 was built in 1920. Buildings #3 and 4 were destroyed by a fire in 1975. They stood where the parking lot is for Corporate Center. The Formation of the “Big 6” Car Loading Association

In 1907, before the consolidation of Globe, Bosse, and World Furniture Companies, each company had so much success that they decided to form the “Big 6” Car Loading Association. They would add Karges Furniture Co., located very near Globe, (in its same location where it now is), Bockstege Furniture Co. located at the corner of Franklin Street and 7th Avenue, and Metal Bed Furniture Co., located on 7th Avenue about halfway between the Bockstege and Karges factories.

This Big 6 Car Loading Association had to be a grave challenge to the other furniture manufacturers in Evansville. In 1905 there were 17 furniture factories in production in Evansville. The Consolidation of Globe – Bosse – World Furniture Company

(Much of the text below is from a letter that Jeff Bosse sent to me dated March 20, 2009.)

The Globe Bosse world Furniture Company (GBW) was formed by three furniture manufacturing plants: Globe Furniture Co., Bosse Furniture Co., and World Furniture Co.

The Globe Furniture company was started in 1899 by Albert F. Karges, Fred bockstege, Henry Dubber, and Ben Bosse. Each businessman put up $4, 000 (This amount today would be approximately $93,000, making the total capitalization approximately $372,000.)

Bosse Furniture Co. was founded by seven businessmen in 1905: Ben Bosse, Ed Ploeger, Chas. Diekman, Albert Karges, John Boehne, and Al Riechman.

World Furniture company was founded in 1907 by Albert Karges, John Boehne, Ben Bosse, Henry Bosse, Sr., Chas. Frisse, and Henry Karges. There are no dollar amounts available, but we would have to assume that each factory had similar capitalization as the Globe Furniture Company.

All of these factories were located very near to each other on Maryland Street and had access to the Belt Line Railroad which was on the west side of Pigeon Creek.

All things being near to equal, I believe that it would be safe to assume that the three furniture companies combined had a total capitalization in today’s money of near $1,116.00. It must be remembered that there were literally NO taxes by today’s standards on either the companies or their owners. Also, it was customary for these profitable factories to pay larger dividends to their stockholders.

All shipments in those days were made by box cars since there were no roads or highways. The three factories could combine their shipments, thus making it easier to assemble large shipments to any point (city or town) that had a rail siding. By 1913, the GBW was producing sales of $1,250,000 (converts to about $25,943,000 in 2009), with total employment of 900 men, and showing an increase of 15% from 1912. That same year, the GBW purchased the Evansville Furniture Co. out of receivership, increasing their manufacturing space by 140,000 square feet. The Eight Great Factories Conglomerate

Shortly after the “BIG 6 Car Loading Association” was formed, Crescent Furniture Co. with seven other factories: Schelosky Table Co., United States Furniture Co., Klamer-Goebel Furniture Co., Evansville Desk Co., Wertz-Klamer Furniture Co., Evansville Metal Bed Co., and Specialty Furniture Co. calling their group, “The Eight Great Factories.” They would combine shipments in the same manner as the “BIG 6.” The Furniture Manufacturers Building

On May 7, 1908, Ben Bosse, Albert Karges, Ed Ploeger, (representing the “Big 6”), William Koch, Harry Schu from the Crescent Furniture Co., and John Rusche, from Specialty Furniture Co., (representing the “8 Great Factories” group) incorporated the Furniture Manufacturers Building, which became known as the “Evansville Furniture Exchange.” Later it was simply called “The Furniture Building.” Today it is known as the “Court Building,” at 4th and Vine Streets.

The building was capitalized for $50,000 (in 2009 equates to $1,078,400.) It was built in 1908-09 for $140,000 (in 2009 equates to $1,642,510.) The Evansville Furniture Exchange opened in July 1909. Almost 5,000 people toured the new 60,000 square ft. building. Thirty furniture companies and four stove companies exhibited their wares. The building permitted Evansville to become the originator of the mixed carload buying system. A buyer going to the Evansville Furniture Exchange Building could, for example, purchase 1/3 of a box car of chairs, 1/3 for beds, and the remainder for tables or bedroom suites. The buyer could have all of these items shipped to him in a single box car, in better condition and at a cheaper rate than if he had the same merchandise shipped in separate box cars.

The Furniture Exchange Building in Evansville was the first of its kind, after the Central Market Furniture building in Chicago. There is almost no doubt that Ben Bosse got the idea for the Evansville Furniture Exchange Building in Evansville from Chicago building, because the Big 6 had rented an entire 16,0000 square ft. floor to show their wares. The "Furniture Building" in Evansville had approximately 10,000 sq, ft. per floor.

When the Evansville Furniture Exchange building in Evansville became so successful, the people in Chicago decided to build the American Furniture Mart at 666 Lake Shore Drive. The American Furniture mart featured 20 showroom floors, six elevators for passengers, and one quite large freight elevator for movement of freight (furniture). That building today has been converted to shops and condominiums. To look for furniture today, you would have to go to the Merchandise Mart. The Changing Times for Evansvile’s Furniture Industry

The Furniture Exchange Building brought much success with it for Evansville. In 1910 there were 15 furniture manufacturers showing their merchandise in the Building. On the 4th Street side of the building were rented offices.

In 1916 there were 23 factories; in 1920 there were 25 factories; and, in 1924 Evansville had 34 factories. As near as Jeff Bosse and I can determine, 1925 was the peak for the Evansville furniture factories.

Mayor Ben Bosse died in 1922, he was 48 years old. There is no doubt that he was the “spark plug” for the Evansville Furniture Industry from about 1900 to 1925, even though he passed away in 1922. He had been ther person to form the GBW; he had introduced “Freight Consolidation Services,” and was very instrumental in getting the Furniture Exchange Building built. He was a very progressive “doer.” He got things done!

There were many contributors to the demise. The electric motor and the new furniture factory equipment were beginning to make inroads. By 1929, 14 factories had stopped furniture production.

Managements were getting older; many did not train younger people to take over when the management/owners retired, and many were reluctant to change. Going out of business seemed to be a good alternative.

The Great Depression of the 1930’s took almost all of the factories that had been in operation, and there was a lot of antiquated “belt drive equipment” being sold by the late Victor Puster, of Evansville, and others to under developed countries around the world. In 1940, we had 15 factories making furniture and 12 factories in 1950. Today, we have ONE…Karges Furniture Company

Karges Furniture Company was started in 1886, then incorporated on February 26, 1889 by Albert F. Karges, Fred Bockstege, and John Jourdan, Jr. They are situated at the same location that they started in 123 years ago. When he started, Mr. Karges was 25 years old, and must have been a good cabinet maker, being taught by his father Ferdinand Karges, who was an accomplished cabinet maker.

Albert Karges’ son, Edwin Karges, Sr. was a graduate of the Worton School of Finance; however, because of his desire to design furniture, became the firm’s furniture main designer. From statements and letters from Jeff Bosse, apparently, Karges Furniture Co. had always catered to finer furniture from the very beginning.

Ed Karges, Sr.’s wife, Evelyn was an Interior Designer. Their daughter Joan was married to Jim Hogg, who too was a furniture designer. The Hogg’s lived in Florence, Italy after WWII.

Edwin Karges, Jr., upon his 1952 graduation with a degree in “wood technology” from the University of Michigan’s Business School, went to work for Karges Furniture Co. Ed Karges, Jr. told me that his grandfather was ridiculed his contemporaries for not paying out more dividends and spending that money on better equipment. Both Ed, Sr. and Ed, Jr. followed the same practice, as Ed, Jr’s. daughter, Joan Karges Rogier who is now president of the company. They have several items: factory hand trucks, work benches, etc. that are now 120 years old, and still in every day use. They have new machinery equipment that is computer controlled. Very interesting!

On the back binder insert flap you will find a listing of a few of the customers of note who were sold Karges Furniture through their interior decorators. This list does not show one of their largest customers: The Shaw of Iran who virtually furnished his palace with furniture from Karges during his reigh.

The Hogg’s and the Edwin Sr.’s and Edwin Jr.’s introduced the furniture industry to the concept of furniture importing, in this case, from Italy. The Karges factory had furniture designed by Edwin, Sr., and Jim Hogg manuractured in Italy UNFINISHED, then shipped in containers to Evansville. Many times the furniture had to be taken apart, final sanding and surfacing. It would then be finished to suit the customer’s needs.

Karges’ designs, quality, upgrading of equipment, and training of employees, and of course SALES to the wealthiest people all over the world for 123 years, PROVES that their decisions have had a very high degree of SUCCESS!

Karges is a relatively small company, with a closely knit working group. One could almost say tht “they are a family---All for ONE and ONE for ALL!”

Karges still makes the finest furniture that is produced in the United States. No other furniture manufacturer even comes close. A Few After Thoughts…

Eli Whitney was the father of interchangeable parts, which lead to the manufacturing of rifles for the Union Army in the Civil War. He is considered to the father of America’s Industrial Revolution.

Personally, I believe that Evansville, Indiana, due to the Steam Engine to power the machinery, and with the development of the Furniture Factory, should be considered as the father of the Production Line which really made the Industrial Revolution a Reality for the World. Can you thinks of ANY other raw material except wood, that retains itself, as it goes through the various stages of development, step by step, and comes out at the end of the assembly line as a finished consumer durable? Evansville was the FIRST CITY I

Mr. Small invites your comments

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