The Bethel Journals

Public Letters about Chair Manufacturing in Oxford County

July 1886 – The Oxford County Advertiser



The first letter written for publication in the Advertiser was apparently from the newspaper’s correspondent in West Paris. It was printed in the July 9, 1886 edition. The following week, July 16, 1886, Mr. Barrows responded with his perception of how his chair manufacturing had developed in West Paris. I have excerpted and summarized the original letters in both cases.


(Written for the Advertiser.)


History of an Increasing Business


The Past and Present Chair Business


In 1835 at Trapp Corner, Paris, James Swan began the manufacture of basket chairs, so called - basket back and wooden seat. The old froe and wooden mallet with the draw shaver and auger were the principal tools used.


What little turning was done with a foot lathe except some turning was done at South Woodstock.


Mr. Swan continued to manufacture chairs by himself as boss and worker until 1840 when James Dunham of North Paris began the manufacture of the Shaker chair. He improved machinery for chair manufacture and in a short time has assumed all the chair manufacture business - all the time working by himself.


In 1852 Oscar Ellingwood took up manufacturing the chair at South Woodstock. He was skilled in the development of better machinery and soon had a growing business employing more efficient methods and improved chair designs and patterns.


Ellingwood's chair orders grew rapidly forcing him to hire extra help.


In 1862, Ellingwood closed his business to join the Union army and served there for three years. But in 1875 he re-opened his chair business at North Paris. Again he improved his machinery and even constructed his own water wheel and shaft.


Oscar Ellingwood continued his growing Shaker chair business for eight years at North Paris so that he was selling three to five thousand chairs a year. At this point he sold his business to his son-in-law C. E. Washburn. Washburn and George Washburn, son of Oscar, became partners.  About 1884, C.E. Washburn sold his interest in the Shaker chair business to his brother Henry Washburn who continued the partnership with George Ellingwood.


With improved manufacturing equipment and efficiencies, sales continued to expand so much that delivery was often delayed for weeks at a time. Orders came from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine. The next season the partners bought new machinery and expanded their facilities.


About 1878 or 1879, Mr. James H. Barrows of West Paris sent away to a New Hampshire firm for a sample chair and began making Shaker chairs on a small scale while renting the steam mill at West Paris.


In 1879, Hannibal G. Brown returned to West Paris, rented the steam mill and with his son E. H. Brown as a partner began manufacturing bobbins.  The Browns cut wood stock for Barrows that was ready for his chair manufacturing. Barrows Shaker chair business increased to the point that he used the full second floor of the steam mill. Barrows was employing several men in the mill as well he employed a number of men and women in finishing the chairs outside of the mill - giving employment to many poor families.


In 1885, Mr. J. Wayland Kimball an astute businessman and also a chair manufacturer in New York, came to West Paris to test the area as a site for manufacturing his chairs. He found that with such fine wood supply and available labor his operating expenses were far lower than in New York.


Kimball's success encourages him to move his entire manufacturing business to West Paris - a move that would employ 100 to 150 people. West Paris voted to raise funds to build a 100 by 38 foot building three stories high for Mr. Kimball's company. The new building was filled.  Another large building went up beside the steam mill as well as drying houses. Due to the pressure of business, Kimball then built a third building to house his expansion.


In the meantime, H.G. Brown & Son ended their bobbin business in order to operate their mill machinery solely for the production of chair stock for the Kimball chairs. The Kimball chair forced the cessation of Barrow's Shaker chair manufacturing. Kimball supposed offered Barrows the job of finishing the Kimball chairs but Barrows declined - wanting to produce Shaker chairs.


Kimball hired Charles Adams of Fairfield, Maine to come to West Paris as superintendent of the chair finishing department. This move gave Kimball a perfect team with Brown and Adams smoothly running the chair making processes.


            The above letter was signed as “JNO”. (Jno seems to be the regular correspondent for the Advertiser in West Paris. West Paris at this time was not incorporated as a separate town but was a village of the Town of Paris.)




In the Advertiser of July 16, 1886, Mr. Barrows replied to the initial letter about chair manufacturing at West Paris. In this letter he set out to correct statements made about him in the letter of July 9, 1886.



History Corrected


“In the Advertiser of July 9th I find a labored and lengthy article purporting to give a history of the Shaker chair business in this town but really for the sole purpose of throwing mud and in some way injuring me by belittling my business. “


Apparently after some Bethel citizens had invited Barrows to establish a chair manufacturing plant at Bethel, what Barrows described as a malicious letter was sent to parties in Bethel. This letter supposed was a perceived attempt to deter Bethel from further supporting Barrows.


The letter to Bethel and the letter to the Advertiser was seen by Barrows as attempts to prevent Barrows from locating a plant in Bethel. Barrows goes on to point out that the writer of the July 9th letter had on other occasions attempted to injure him in some way.


James Swan made about three dozen chairs with the help of A.L. Pratt in 1838, not 1835. Wood turning machinery was not put in at South Woodstock until 1845 – six years after Swan had gone west. Ellingwood went to New Hampshire to make chairs instead of in South Woodstock. Ellingwood enlisted in the 14th New Hampshire regiment.


Barrows had been making chairs at West Paris since 1873. In 1878 Barrows got out a full entirely new line of chairs from any being made and put them on the market calling them the “Shaker Chair”.  This was the first time the name “Shaker” was applied to chairs in this state or any other so far as I know.


“These chairs have had a very large sale. And the fact that I have made about $10,000 a year, and that they are being used in nearly one-half of the States in the Union as well in Canada and the Provinces, and are being introduced in England with the prospect of a large sale would indicate that the business is not on quite such a small scale as the writer of modern history  would have people believe.


“Coming down to the year 1883 we find the new history has it that the citizens built a new building 38 x 100 for J. Wayland Kimball to accommodate his increasing business. ..the facts are that this building called the new chair factory was built for me and the express agreement and understanding in writing that I should lease the same for ten years, and except for my own personal efforts and means, would never have been built, I being the largest stockholder in the enterprise. “


When the strained imagination of the writer comes down to the time that it was said that the Shaker chair must go there are more facts to consider.


When the writer said that Mr. Kimball not wishing to injure Mr. Barrows offered him ruminative wages to stay and oversee his work. The fact is that Mr. Kimball made me no offer whatsoever. Instead Kimball allegedly owed Barrows $2,000 and had dodged Barrows’ efforts to collect.


“The fact remains that I (Barrows) pay more tax in Paris that all the Kimball’s, Browns and Adams combined.”


“ In conclusion I (Barrows) wish to say that I shall doubtless locate in the town of Bethel, and intend to make a full line of “Shakers”, Antiques and Novelties in chairs, and shall put them on the market at reasonable prices, unless this great historical writer should convince the world that I have gone out of it for good.”


J.H. Barrows.