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Furniture, Fire, and Smokestacks: The Legend and Fervor behind Dixie Furniture

By Antionette Kerr

In the decades following the Civil War, the United States emerged as an industrial giant. Railroads expanded significantly, bringing even remote parts of the country into a national market economy. At the turn of the century, what was described as a U.S. technology revolution revived old industries, seeing them expand and many new ones emerge, including petroleum refining, steel manufacturing, electrical power and, of course, furniture.

Lexington has a rich history. But what was it like before the local manufacturing revolution sparked by a small furniture company organized by Dr. E.J. Buchanan in January 1901? It’s indeed hard to envision. The Dixie Furniture Company commenced operating in its newly-built plant in April. Its first-year output was worth $150,000, give or take. By 1925, the company’s yearly product, which by then consisted exclusively of walnut bedroom furniture, had tripled in value. That $450,000 per year worth of furniture placed it in the median of the ten furniture factories operating in Davidson County in the mid-1920s.

During its first quarter century, the company operated without break, except for four months in 1904. According to Statesville, N.C.’s The Landmark newspaper edition of April 26, 1904, “A fire, which originated in the dry kiln or engine room of the Dixie Furniture Company’s factory to night (sic), destroyed that plant, the electric light plant, four dwelling houses and two cars belonging to the Southern Railway Company. The loss is estimated at $90,000. The Dixie Furniture Company plant was totally destroyed, with about all the valuable lumber on the yard. Close by was the electric light plant, which soon went up in smoke, with four dwelling houses near by (sic), and two cars of the Southern Railway. With nothing to combat the flames, they burned everything in reach.”

The fire of 1904 threatened the future of furniture manufacturing in Lexington. According to The Dispatch, “Fortunately for the town, the wind was favorable. The Lexington Grocery Company’s building caught on fire, but was put out. The losses, as best I can get them, are: Dixie Furniture Company, $75,000, insurance, $30,000; electric light plant, $8,000, insurance not known. Holt Walker, Frank Clodfelter, Frank Osborne and James Adderton each lost a dwelling, worth, all told, about $3,000. Their household effects were saved.”
Growth and sales had stagnated by the early 1930s, which prompted a brief merger with the Elk Furniture Company located opposite Dixie on the south side of the railroad tracks. Dixie corporate secretary Henry Talmadge Link was named vice president of the new Elk-Dixie operation.

In 1936, the Elk-Dixie merger was dissolved. Elk reemerged as the United Furniture Company and Dixie became the Dixie Furniture Company once again with Link as president. Joining Link in the business were J. Smith Young, his nephew, Bruce Hinkle, his son-in-law, and Frank Taylor.

Link got an idea after a trip to Detroit to see the Ford assembly plant in 1940. He revolutionized the furniture industry with the introduction of automatic conveyors and mass production techniques to move furniture from one stage of assembly to the next. Roughly ten years later, four separate companies emerged, each with its own specialty. Moderately-priced bedroom furnishings were produced under the Dixie name, Link-Taylor crafted fine solid-wood bedroom and dining furnishings, Young Hinkle specialized in boys’ bedroom furniture, and Henry Link focused on girls’ bedroom furniture. Beginning in the 1970s, Henry Link was one of the first companies to popularize casual wicker furnishings.

13_18_44_2As sales increased, Dixie expanded throughout downtown Lexington, buying and renovating adjacent factory buildings and constructing new ones until the complex covered nine city blocks and 31 acres. Link greatly expanded the company in the next four-plus decades, at the site under discussion and at new plants elsewhere in Lexington and in Asheboro and Linwood in North Carolina. Link became a prominent figure in the North Carolina and American furniture industry. Under his guidance, Dixie and three other affiliated companies—Link-Taylor (1949-1950), Young Hinkle (1962), and Dixie-Linwood (1972) — made the conglomerate one of the largest furniture manufacturers in the world.

It was a flourishing time for Lexington. “Even as a child, we told time by the bells at Dixie,” said Billy Arnette, whose family of twelve lived in the basement of a nearby church. His parents had left their farm in Washington, GA. for the promise of industry and opportunity in Lexington. Arnette, like other men in his family, quit school as early as eighth grade for the lure of an education in the factory dubbed “Dixie University.”

According to a 1982 Furniture Today Magazine article, the re-formed Dixie Furniture “started with eighty-six people, five salesmen, and three hundred customers.” At the time of the Furniture Today article, the company had “eight plants with five million-square-feet of floor space, 4,000 employees, 100 salesmen and over 10,000 customers at home and abroad.” Link, who was regarded by some in the industry as the Henry Ford of furniture, died in Lexington in 1983. The innovator’s name would be added to the American Furniture Hall of Fame in 1998.

By 1986, the Dixie Furniture Company was part of a group of four companies officially named Lexington Furniture Industries (LFI) — often referred to as “the Dixie Family.” LFI used the Dixie facility in Lexington to produce its Lexington Home Brands line of furniture. In 1986, the Dixie Family had ten plants with an eleventh under construction, and LFI was the largest manufacturer of bedroom furniture across the globe and the tenth largest furniture manufacturer in the U.S. Long one of the most recognized names in wicker, casual, and occasional furnishings, Henry Link’s innovative and high quality casual products continue today as Lexington’s Henry Link Trading Company brand.

According to The Dispatch, “Although Dixie Furniture president Smith Young saw continued growth for the overall company in 1986, the Dixie complex of buildings had reached its apex. The last building added to the complex was Building 20, a finishing and spraying room at just over 37,500 square feet that had been erected in 1983. In 1987, less than a year after Young issued his sunny forecast for the company, LFI sold its Dixie Family, including the Dixie Furniture Company, to Masco Furniture Company of Taylor, Mich.”
Outsourcing resulted in the plant closing in summer 2003.

Production at the nearly one million-square-foot Plant 1, primarily bedroom and occasional pieces, was consolidated in Plant 2, which was about 750,000 square feet. “The plant’s long history and skilled workforce made the decision to close it particularly difficult,” Bob Stec, Lexington chairman and chief executive officer, informed The Dispatch. “The facility’s age and layout, and the company’s increasing use of imports, prompted the shutdown.”

Unfortunately, 75 to 80 percent of the 516 employees in the century-old Plant 1 faced layoffs. Some transferred to other plants. Layoffs began in mid-October [2003] and continued for several months as operations were phased out and production was transferred. It was no surprise to those who knew that the U.S. furniture industry started out in the Northeast (New York, Pennsylvania, New England), then moved to the Midwest, and then the South. Each relocation change was basically to a region with more cost-effective manufacturing and a generous supply of excellent quality hardwood lumber.

Current City Councilman Jim Myers explained in simpler terms: “We were originally making all of the furniture here in the United States. It became apparent it was cheaper to buy furniture overseas and have it shipped back here.” Myers began in product development in 1993 and worked for Lexington Home Brands until his retirement in 2007. His last title was senior vice-president in product development.

He recalls going through several sales with the company. “It changed about three times after I joined,” said Myers, who wanted to correct the notion that Dixie closed. “They never closed. That’s a false assumption. People don’t understand what happened.” He called Lexington Home Brands a “marketing company,” noting that he no longer has a financial ownership in the company. “They buy furniture [from China, Indonesia and Thailand], store it and sell it.”

In the midst of a growing trade deficit, the U.S. faced the dilemma of exporting more raw materials such as “hardwood and lumber” and importing “finished hardwood products such as furniture, flooring and mouldings.” Some took note of the change, according to “The U.S. Furniture Industry: Yesterday and Today … Will There Be a Tomorrow?” (Wood Digest, June 2007). The Dixie, Dixie Family, and LFI model was also touted by industry leaders. The idea of “centers of excellence” or “competitive clusters” was championed by Michael Porter, the management guru and author of the books The Competitive Advantage of Nations, Competitive Advantage: Creating and Sustaining Superior Competitive Performance, and I.

“A cluster is a geographically proximate group of interconnected companies and associated institutions in a particular field, linked by commonalities and complementarities,” said Porter. “Prior to globalization, a strong and large company with lots of resources could conceivably compete and be profitable for a time, even decades; however, today that company is competing with clusters from other countries, not the ‘sawmill in the next valley.’”

Eventually, operations of Lexington Home Brands moved to the Thomasville showroom. The building known as Plant 1 was sold to the city with a lease agreement with LHB that proved to be mutually beneficial. The promise of development in the abandoned footprint of the “Dixie Empire” was left to city and local business leaders. A nine-person Redevelopment Commission was formed to explore the future of the district. But plans for the building that once housed Dixie Furniture Plant 1 went up in flames as a mysterious fire destroyed Plant 1 on December 19, 2017.

As feelings of nostalgia were ignited, the city released the following statement, “The City realizes that it is an emotional time for people who grew up living around and working in the Dixie Furniture plant. The City wants to assure its citizens that something positive will come out of this fire. Mayor Newell Clark points out that Lexington is resilient and says it will bounce back from this.”

13_18_44_1“I was really disappointed. It surprised me that it caught on fire. There shouldn’t have ever been a spark. Nothing was running. They didn’t have any electricity on that particular part,” Myers remarked. “It didn’t surprise me how fast it went up. There was a lot of dust and finished material on the walls. It was a powder keg.”

At the time of the interview, no progress had been made on determining the cause of the fire. “I am not sure we will ever know. The fire safety people are concerned about getting in there and the walls falling down on them. It’s not worth it. What difference would it make if we did know?” Myers continued.

Concern has also been expressed that tampering with the building could jeopardize the iconic Dixie Furniture smokestack that survived the blaze. “It’s still there and maybe it can be propped up somehow,” Myers concluded.

Engineers are working with the city about plans to preserve what is left of a legacy of furniture giants that went up in flames. The future of the building might be a bit hazy, but the legacy of Dixie Furniture shall not be forgotten.

Sources: Furniture Today, The Lexington Dispatch, Wood Digest, City of Lexington MMTS EA, Pathfinders Past and Present: A History of Davidson County North Carolina by M. Jewell Sink and Mary Green Matthews.

 

TIMELINE OF THE DECEMBER 19, 2017 FIRE AT THE OLD LEXINGTON FURNITURE PLANT
Dec. 19
2:00 a.m. An initial fire broke out in a space behind the historic Dixie smokestack.
3:30 a.m. Fire crews brought the initial fire under control. The cause of that fire is undetermined, but suspicious.
Crews continue to monitor the area throughout the day to check for a possible hidden fire or a
spot where the fire could rekindle.
5:15 p.m. Smoke was spotted and Lexington firefighters quickly respond.
5:30 p.m. Salisbury and Thomasville crews arrive at the scene.
Dec. 20
1:00 a.m. The fire is brought under control.
2:00 p.m. City of Lexington officials hold a press conference at Fire Station 1 to discuss details with the media.
Dixie Furniture was known for furniture refinishing and chemicals used in that process had
seeped into the walls over the years, making firefighting difficult. The cause of the fire is still unknown.

 

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