Old frontier favorite suits modern tastes, too Furniture: A hardwood that can be made pliable, hickory has a long history in American homes.

June 14, 1998|By Michael Walsh | Michael Walsh,UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE

To the short list of good things that work - things like the spring-loaded mousetrap, the manual can opener and the fly swatter - add furniture made of hickory.

Hickory is to furniture what blue denim is to slacks: comfortable and comforting, familiar, user-friendly, long-wearing, rugged, versatile, stylish, practical, attractive, all-American, reasonably priced and perpetually dependable.

It is frontier furniture, dating from a time when the frontier was still east of the Mississippi. Westward-bound pioneers and settlers crossing the Smokies and the Appalachians in the early 1800s found straight-growing, small-diameter saplings in groups surrounded by much taller trees throughout the Midwest. Even after 20 to 30 years of growth, their thickness rarely exceeded 2 or 3 inches.

Immature hickory was, they soon learned, perfect for making table legs and chairs, bedsteads, broom handles, barrel hoops, wagons, gun stocks, ax handles and fence posts. One of the hardest of the hardwoods, it could be made pliable when soaked in boiling water and bent to form chair backs. When it dried, it retained its new shape indefinitely.

Besides fattening the wildlife that the settlers depended upon for food - squirrels, opossums and wild turkeys - hickory nuts were used as fodder for domesticated pigs. At a time when fish hooks were in short supply, anglers tossed hickory-nut husks into the water. The husks poisoned the fish, which then floated to the surface.

In the mid-1800s a young man named Billy Richardson began making hoop-backed hickory chairs in southern Indiana and selling them on weekends from the back of his wagon.

Legend has it that he and his father made a set of hoop chairs for President Andrew "Old Hickory" Jackson.

In 1892 Richardson and M.B. Crist founded the Old Hickory Furniture Co., which incorporated in 1899. Operating from Shelbyville, Ind., the company is still going strong, making the chair that put it on the map as well as china cabinets, sideboards, hall trees, grandfather clocks, sofas, porch swings, bar stools, highchairs, fireplace mantels, beds, even entertainment centers.

And the demand for Old Hickory's furniture, old and new, has never been greater. You can see it at the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone, the Anchorage Inn in Alaska, Wyoming's Grand Teton Lodge, Utah's Zion National Park, Harrah's in Reno and EuroDisney in Paris, and bars and restaurants in major cities around the country.

The Old Hickory Furniture Co. (800-232-BARK) now markets its goods through 205 retail stores in 41 states, through catalogs and, naturally, through a Web site (www.oldhickory.com).

Hickory furniture is as humble as it gets, but it does have followers among the rich and famous. Celebrity collectors include Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand, Tom Brokaw, Dolly Parton, Jimmy Buffet, Gene Hackman, Dan Ackroyd, Leonard Nimoy, Clint Eastwood and Oprah Winfrey, to name a few.

Antiques dealers nationwide can't keep up with the demand, and prices have skyrocketed, particularly since the advent of countrified decorating styles. Rugged hickory is at home in farmhouse, lakeside cottage, mountain lodge, Southwestern hacienda, suburban ranch and urban condo.

For those who like folk art, hickory furniture has that just-whittled, primitive, home-made look. It also finds favor among those who admire Arts and Crafts styling. It was a strong influence on Gustav Stickley and Charles Limbert, two of that movement's leaders.

People who like antiques like hickory, even new hickory, because it looks as if it has been in the house for years. And for those who emerged from the '80s in a more frugal frame of mind, hickory furniture is ideal: organic, well-crafted, woodsy, all natural, unpretentious, straightforward and honest-looking. It is inside-out furniture, furniture that wears its skeleton on the outside and looks as earthy, rugged and sturdy as the tree from which it was made.

Pub Date: 6/14/98

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