Fancher Chair: Little known, 200 years old

Jeff Linville, July 23, 2007

What may be one of the oldest furniture makers in the United States — and one of this country's oldest companies, period — is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year. And you probably don't know much about it.

That's because Fancher Chair, the company's current incarnation, makes dining chairs for other manufacturers, and doesn't toot its own horn.

"We are purposefully invisible," said owner, President and CEO Bruce Erickson. "It's a bit of a marketing dilemma. My customers don't want it widely known that someone else is making their product, yet I have to pursue new customers and markets when the time is right."

Here in this western New York town not far from Jamestown, Fancher remains on the banks of the Chadakoin River, where it began as a sawmill just 14 years after the inauguration of George Washington as president.

Most U.S.-based dining sources import chairs, but Fancher Chair does nearly $10 million a year in OEM business with about 15 clients, including Ethan Allen, office producer Knoll and contract/hospitality manufacturer Agati. Fancher's well-designed chairs have a wholesale value of $100 to $300.

Knoll became Fancher's biggest customer after Erickson convinced them to switch from a source in Slovenia in the mid-1990s. The first style of chair Fancher sold to Knoll is still in the line, with 1,500 shipped each month and a total of over 300,000 so far.

Residential furniture is one of the company's three divisions, along with office and contract. The latter includes custom work such as library seating. Sales are fairly evenly divided among the three divisions.

Fancher's residential product is predominantly high end, in styles such as Queen Anne, Chippendale, Windsor, Hepplewhite, Mackintosh and Mission. For some clients, Fancher supplies components the manufacturer uses to build its own chairs. For others, it makes the chair, boxes it and ships it directly to the retailer.

"There are few parallel surfaces or 90-degree corners on any chair Fancher produces," Erickson said. The machining and drilling of the components is within tolerances that are the most stringent in the industry, down to five one-thousandths of an inch.

Still, many manufacturing steps are done by hand. Italian milling machines run alongside workers gluing and clamping component parts or carefully matching a cherry finish.

Erickson said some employees have been with the company for 40 years, and as a reward for their service Fancher allows them to use company equipment on the weekends for their own woodworking projects.

The company traces its origins to August 1807, when Edward Work, an attorney from Meadville, Pa., and a partner, a Dr. Kennedy, purchased 1,260 acres from the Holland Land Co. on the Chadakoin River. By 1808, sawmills were cutting logs, providing lumber for towns downstream, including Pittsburgh.

The town at the time was named Worksburgh after the Work family. The Falconer family bought the business in 1836, and in 1874 the town changed its name to Falconer. The Falconers expanded the mill's offerings into beehive equipment, sash doors and trimwork. In 1880, the company was named the American Manufacturing Concern and began making small wooden rulers, thermometers, toys and washing devices.

The company explored various furniture categories in the 1900s. Living room tables were manufactured from 1930 to 1977, and bedroom furniture from 1949 to 1960. After 137 years in one family, ownership changed in 1973 to case goods maker Jamestown Sterling. James Tilliotson III served as president until 1975, when the Erickson family bought the business.

Bruce Erickson's father, C. Leonard Erickson, had been in the furniture business since the mid-1930s, Bruce recalled. His brother Brian got started in the industry around 1960 and still is an independent sales representative, and a past president of what is now the American Home Furnishings Alliance.

Bruce Erickson said he went to work for Jamestown Sterling, later bought by would-be furniture mogul Webb Turner and now defunct, right after the family bought American. He learned the ropes at that company before joining the family business in 1978 in a managerial role.

At that time, he recalled, the company had 13 employees and "a mountain of red ink on the books." About the same time, the family changed the company's name to Fancher and began making chairs. The name Fancher was chosen because C. Leonard Erickson earlier had worked at a furniture company of that name, eventually becoming president. The old Fancher went out of business in 1971.

Today, Fancher Chair has about 140 employees and can produce over 300 chairs a day — about 75,000 a year. Located in the heart of the Allegheny forest, it has ready access to black cherry and various oak and maple species.

It's the largest employer in the area, and has donated many a chair to local charity auctions. In 1999, Fancher cleared several acres of company property and donated the land to the county for a recreational park.


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