I began to write this piece thinking about the connection to the families about whom I wrote last month. Many of my Bowden and Routh families owned furniture stores, and I believed this would be a topic that might be of interest to my readers. It has turned into much, much more.
I grew up in the furniture business in Stephenville, Texas. My father had Ficke Furniture Store from about a year after the War was over (World WarII) until 1958 when we moved to Mineral Wells. We had a farm between Stephenville and Hico, and on the side of a hill facing Highway 281, he wrote in rocks “Ficke Furniture Store”.
Daddy, who was a cowboy and banker, didn’t mean to be in the furniture business, I don’t think, but my grandfather, Marvin Tilden (Doc) Bowden had been in the furniture business most of his life, and I guess he sold Daddy on the idea.
I have googled Bowden Furniture and have discovered a lot of Bowden stores and Bowden-style furniture all around the country. I remember that when we first moved to Mineral Wells in 1958 there was a Bowden Furniture store in Weatherford, and I believe, when Raf and I moved back here in 1980, it was still there. It’s gone now, and I think the building is, as well. (Someone correct me on this, please!)
I have even found a furniture repair store in Great Bowden in Leicestershire, England, from where some of our Bowden family came! They advertised on Facebook!
In a history book about Missouri, I found the story of Richard N. Bowden who was born in Montreal, Canada, the son of Lorenzo Bowden who was born in Bradford, Yorkshire, England, 1838. In 1865 the Bowden family came to America for better prospects and settled in Brookfield, Missouri, where first Lorenzo was a carpenter and cabinet maker for three years, then opened a furniture store until 1892 when he sold it to his son Richard. Richard married Vina B. Ives, daughter of Homer D. and Mary Eastman Ives. The Bowdens were quite successful, both on business and in society, and Richard became mayor of the city of Brookfield. The Bowdens had three children, Lorenzo Ives, an aviator in World War I, Homer Ives, a graduate of Missouri University in 1916, and Mary Elizabeth. Richard was a Mason, and Vina was a member of the P.E.O. (Philanthropic Educational Organization).
However, before I can talk about local, or family-owned, furniture stores, I want to look at the furniture business in Texas, in general.
When pioneers began to come to Texas, if there were families, they mostly brought their household furnishing, and until about 1870 most furniture purchased in Texas was made by local cabinetmakers.
Censuses, and other records, indicate that there were about 1,000 cabinetmakers making furniture in Texas between 1839 and 1880. The first recorded Texas cabinetmaker was William P. Lang in Houston. By 1880, however locally made furniture was being replaced at a high rate of speed by imported, factory-made furnishing.
In the early years there was at least one cabinet shop in each Texas county, and most towns had several. The areas where most of the cabinet makers worked were the Piney Woods of East Texas, the Blackland Prairie south of the Red River in North Texas, and the German settlements between the Brazos and the Colorado rivers in Central Texas, and the majority of the cabinet makers in Texas were Southerners with a significant minority being of German extraction. In 1860 while only six percent of the state’s population were German Americans, thirty-three percent of the cabinetmakers were German.
Early furniture makers were also trained as builders of houses, cotton gins, wagons, and coffins, and many were, indeed, undertakers. They used hand tools and foot-powered lathes and produced such things as chairs, tables, beds, wardrobes, bureaus, settees, day beds, desks, and cupboards, but little upholstered furniture was made until around 1870 when Will Howe and William Patch of Galveston began making day beds upholstered with horsehair stuffed with Spanish moss.
Wood, of course, was obtained locally from pine forests or from the hardwood forests along rivers and creeks, the primary varieties being pine, cedar, and walnut. Pine furniture was painted with an oil-based paint or grained to imitate the more expensive woods, and it was often finished with glossy varnish made of copal.
Texas furniture copied Plain Grecian or Restoration styles, and the German cabinet makers often worked in the Biedermeier style or in the German peasant form, Brettstuhl. Mexican cabinet makers copied styles developed along the Rio Grande valley. In the 1880s Wenzel Friedrich established a furniture factory in San Antonio where he use animal horns for a rustic style which was popular in Europe and the Far East.
Nineteenth Century Texas cabinet makers were often chair makers who used a turning lathe and a draw knife to make light ladder-backed chairs with rawhide or woven corn shuck bottoms. Anderson Dorris, a Tennessean who immigrated to Lockhart, Texas, along with his son, John, made 450 hide-bottomed chairs and sold them for $1.50 each. There were at least forty other men who, between 1850 and 1880, styled themselves chair makers on the Census.
Another chair maker, Henry Journey, established a cabinet shop in Galveston in 1850. He employed twenty men. Not only did he make chairs, he made case furniture and operated a blacksmith shop, a livery stable, and a lumber yard, and built wooden buildings.
H. H. Ward opened a similar establishment in Austin in 1840, and by the 1860s and 1870s Texas cabinet makers were competing with importers by employing more workers, and, by adding animal and steam powered machines to their shops.
William Sheppard opened at shop in Tyler. He came from Kentucky in the mid-1850s. At first he used hand tools, but by 1860 he was in partnership with J. C. Rogers, and they had a horse powered lathe and three employees who made bedsteads, wardrobes, and bureaus. They also had a retail department, or furniture store. By 1870 they had moved to Mechanicsville, outside Tyler, where they had a fifteen horse powered steam engine, four lathes, two boring machines, a tennoning machine, and ten employees. They retailed $5,500 a year, but by 1880 they had gone out of business.
Other leading East Texas cabinetmakers, and the approximate dates during which they worked, were Abner Stith, Henderson, 1848–52; George W. Blake, San Augustine, 1850–70; J. George Woldert, San Augustine, 1842–55; Ransom Horn, San Augustine, 1850–60; Frederick Wolz, Marshall, 1851–71; W. J. Foster, Crockett, 1860–70; Hugh Hopkins, Huntsville, 1856–68; and Frank Creager, Huntsville, 1860–74. The Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville also manufactured furniture using convict labor.
By 1870 Paris, Texas, in Lamar County, was the cabinet making center of Texas. Willet Babcock’s shop there used horse powered machinery and employed twelve men and three women and made $7,990 a year making furniture that included 400 bedsteads. In 1875 Babcock set up an eighteen horse powered steam engine, and by 1880 he employed thirty-two in Paris, as well as owning a smaller factory in Clarksville. However, he died in 1881, and both factories closed.
James W. Rodgers, also in Paris, had four employees and produced $2,600 worth of furniture in 1870. He added steam power in 1879 and had a lumber planing mill as well as a furniture factory. He died in 1891, but his business continued under the name Rodgers Wade Furniture Company and is still in business today as a manufacturing facility.
Other leading Blackland Prairie cabinetmakers, and the approximate dates during which they worked, were James B. Shanahan, Clarksville, 1844–57; Jasper Longe, Clarksville, 1860–83; W. T. Skinner, Carter (Denton County), 1858–62; H. P. Davis, Fairfield, 1858–62; William W. Smith, White Oak (Hopkins County), 1850–60; W. B. Crawford, Mesquite (Navarro County), 1858–62; Peter Wetsel, McKinney, 1849–70; Isaac Crouch, McKinney, 1866–71; James Foster, Mantua (Collins County), 1868–72; John H. Spading, Waxahachie, 1860–78; Moses Mock, Hillsboro, 1868–72; James R. Manning, Sulphur Springs, 1868–72; and William Anderson, Waco, 1860–82.
Leading cabinetmakers in the Brazos-Colorado region, and the approximate dates during which they worked, were Heinrich Umland, Bellville, 1850–69; Johann Umland, Chappell Hill, 1854–81; Helmut Conrad Kroll, Chappell Hill, 1858–60; Caspar Witteborg, Chappell Hill, 1854–66, and Brenham, 1866–77; Charles Blank, Brenham, 1858–82; Joseph Massanari, Brenham, 1868–72; Heinrich Harigel, La Grange, 1851–92; Frederick Buntzel, Cat Spring, 1854–72; Gottfried Buescher, Industry, 1859–76; and H. Spencer Huby, Hempstead, 1855–62.
Galveston was a prosperous cabinetmaking center between 1840 and 1850, as well as a major furniture importing center where showrooms were set up with furniture from New York and sold to wealthy customers in San Antonio, Gonzales, and Austin. Leading Galveston cabinetmakers, and the approximate dates during which they worked, were Daniel Lochied, 1848–52; Helmut Conrad Kroll, 1848–58; Johann Friedrich Ahrens, 1845–70; and Ernest Beck, 1868–72. Because of the availability of imported furniture, cabinetmaking in Galveston declined in the mid-1850s.
In Austin there was a small cabinet making industry from its founding in 1839, and by 1860 there were ten cabinet shops. By 1870 there were two large shops in Austin, still using hand tools but making $9,000 worth of furniture a year. The railroad arrived in 1871, and by 1880 there was no one in Austin who described himself as a cabinet maker. Austin's leading cabinetmakers, and the approximate dates during which they worked, were Thomas Bostick, 1854–58; J. W. England, 1858–68; W. W. Evans, 1866–72; and Joseph Hannig, 1865–72. Hannig was the husband of Susanna W. Dickinson, one of the survivors of the Alamo.
Aesthetically the finest of Texas furniture was made by the German born cabinet makers of the Hill Country. They usually employed only one person and did not use power machinery. They had been trained, for the most part, in the guild system of Europe and held master cabinetmaker’s papers. For example, Johann Michael Jahn, who had a shop in New Braunfels from 1844 until his death in 1883, served as an apprentice in Prague and received his Tischlermeister's (master tablemaker's) papers in Switzerland. Franz Stautzenberger, who made furniture at Clear Spring in Guadalupe County, was employed as a cabinetmaker at the court of the Duke of Nassau before coming to Texas in 1845. The Hill Country cabinetmakers often made highly sophisticated furniture, working largely in walnut and pine. They developed a distinct regional style, and their furniture is easily recognizable. The leading Fredericksburg cabinetmakers and the approximate dates during which they worked were Frederick Winkel, 1845–52; Friedrich Gentmann, 1860–70; Johann Adam Kunz, 1845–61; William Leilich, 1845–70; Johann Martin Loeffler, 1859–92; John Petri, 1858–62; Christof Shaeper, 1845–72; Jacob Schneider, 1853–72; Christian Staats, 1845–85; John Peter Tatsch, 1852–85; and Carl Wendler, 1858–62. Other leading Hill Country cabinetmakers outside of Fredericksburg, in addition to Jahn and Stautzenberger, were Eugen Ebensberger, New Braunfels, 1860–70, and Heinrich Scholl, New Braunfels, 1846–80.
By 1930 there was a nation-wide interest in the collection of Texas furniture. The Winedale Historical Center, San Antonio Museum Association in Fayette County, and the Pioneer Museum in Fredericksburg have excellent collections of Texas furniture making.
Now back to my family’s furniture business. My father, grandfather, and various great grandparents and uncles, sold furniture. However, so far as I can tell, none of them made any of the furniture they sold. However, this continues the furniture business in my family.
1938 City Directory of Brownwood, Texas, shows that M. T. Bowden and his wife Lora, my grandparents, owned a furniture store in Brownwood. Shortly after that, however, they retired to Stephenville where my mother and father lived. Daddy had worked in the Brownwood store before moving to Stephenville to work in the bank.
My grandfather’s building in downtown Brownwood, Texas, is still there, although it certainly doesn’t operate as a furniture store any longer. He built it just west of the jail house where his father-in-law, RD Routh lived as the jailer until he died at age 90 in 1944. And my father’s building is still in Stephenville, and it is now used as a deli.
I’m proud that my family was a part of the history of Texas furniture makers and furniture sellers, and I hope you have enjoyed reading a part of this history.