Furniture Making Leaves Sheboygan, WI

Sheboygan, WI used to be known as “Chair City.” That all changed around 2003 when local factories could no longer afford American wages and still sell an affordable product.

In the mid to late 1990’s imported furniture only claimed about 20% of the U. S. market for wooden furniture. A decade later it was up to 55%. By 2006, 75% to 80% of wooden furniture sold in the United States was manufactured in Asia, said Keith B. Hughes, an industry analyst in Atlanta at SunTrust Robinson Humphrey Capital Markets.

Today most of the imports come from Vietnam, Malaysia and Canada instead of China. With low wages, fewer laws on pollutants, and many people eager to work, Asia has the market cornered today.

Factory worker stacking kitchen chairs
Woman sewing leather pieces

In 2003 the average production worker at Richardson Brothers, in Sheboygan Falls, WI, made $13.30 an hour — not including health insurance, a pension plan and other benefits. And that’s in a county where two out of every five workers are employed at a factory, about three times the national average.

Furniture-factory labor in China, benefits included, runs at 50 cents to 75 cents an hour, according to a September 2002 report by Wachovia Securities. Entry-level woodworkers, who glue and press and mill, start at 25 cents an hour. Most of China is still rural with most people working on their farms. They can work for furniture factories and make more money to send home to their families. One such worker said, he can earn up to 2,000 yuan ($242) every month if he works seven days a week. This is a lot of money to him.

One Sheboygan Falls furniture plant had been losing money for several years. Even worse, customers didn’t care whether the pieces were made overseas as long as prices were low.

Some U.S. furniture-makers are riding the tide, not drowning. And some, such as Wisconsin’s Ashley Furniture Industries Inc. — one of the country’s largest furniture importers — have thrived.

Ashley, the third-largest furniture-maker in the country, is a model for success in blending U.S. and Asian manufacturing.

Based in the small, western Wisconsin town of Arcadia, Ashley has grown from $16 million in sales two decades ago to $1.7 billion this year, and a savvy import strategy has figured in the firm’s rise.

About 40% of Ashley’s volume is imported, and about half of that, by value, comes from China, Chairman Ron Wanek said.

But while it has imported, Ashley also has grown here. It is one of western Wisconsin’s largest employers, with 2,300 workers in the state and more than 6,000 nationwide. That’s a far cry from the 250 to 300 Ashley employed in the early ’80s.

“It has actually helped us become more competitive,” Vice Chairman Chuck Vogel said of the firm’s import strategy, “and obviously increased our employment in the United States a tremendous amount.”

Heavy investment in new technology has helped Ashley be more competitive, said analyst Jerry Epperson of Mann, Armistead & Epperson Ltd., Richmond, Va. Further, Epperson said, Ashley has figured out what furniture can profitably be made here and what should be imported.

Sheboygan, WI Furniture Factory Explosion

In 1982, a big explosion at the Thonet plant, once located at North 10th and Niagara, sparked by sawdust, burned the plant down.

A spark started the blaze catching fire quickly from all the sawdust. Negative back pressure sucked flames into the air system of the building and traveled quickly to all parts of the complex.

Thonet Factory Fire, 1982

Employees said the explosion shook the entire building and the fire was like a tornado, nearly blowing them out the doors. There were reports that the fire could be seen all the way from Sheboygan, Wisconsin to Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

9 workers were injured, 2 severely. 180 people lost their jobs.

Firefighters from many different departments came and put out the blaze. It took 6 million gallons of water to extinguish the fire.

Thonet Factory Fire, 1982

Furniture making in Sheboygan, WI began with Koen Brothers making cane seat embossed maple chairs. By 1909 they were named American Chair. By the 1940’s the European furniture maker, Thonet, bought the company along with two other furniture plants in the United States.

The fire closed the factory. There was hope of rebuilding in Sheboygan, Wisconsin but by the end of 1982 all of its production had been moved to another plant in Pennsylvania. The union was unable to keep the jobs in Sheboygan and the company left.

Today multiple housing units are where American Chair/Thonet Industries once stood.

The factory before it burned down.

Long History of Furniture Manufacturing in Sheboygan, WI

The history of furniture making, specifically chairs, dates back to the immigration of German settlers to Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Many of the German settlers came to Sheboygan, WI in the mid 1800’s. Sawmills were built quickly on the county’s rivers, with Sheboygan Falls having the most reliable water supply; the Sheboygan and Mullet Rivers had the largest drop, necessary to create power. By 1885, Sheboygan factories made so much furniture the city was known as “Chair City.”

First chair made in Sheboygan, WI
First chair made in Sheboygan, WI

Sheboygan, Wisconsin, known for years as “Chair City” has been home to such companies as Phoenix Chair, Northern Furniture Company, Mattoon, Crocker Chair, Bemis-Riddell, Thonet, R-Way and more.

Sheboygan, Wisconsin no longer manufactures furniture, but there are places to shop for furniture.

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