Memories of the Southern Furniture Market

Apr. 06, 2014 @ 02:13 PM

Furniture companies from near and far trooped off to High Point last week to get ready for this weekend’s opening of the International Home Furnishings Market, where manufacturers show their latest and greatest to potential buyers.

People with local companies used to be able to stay at home.

It’s been 30 years since the Southern Furniture Market filled the streets of Lenoir with people, flooding local restaurants and other businesses with furniture buyers and salesmen from across the country. Alvin Daughtridge, vice president of Fairfield Chair, is among the many local residents who remember those temporary urban spurts.

“In a way, we were a metropolitan area for a while — during the days of market the streets looked like New York,” he said.

With a shortage of hotels and restaurants to handle the short-lived influx, the burden of hospitality fell on the residents of Lenoir, who took businessmen into their homes for the duration of the market.

That’s what most people remember, a time of lavish parties and building intimate relationships — a personal approach no longer seen in the furniture industry, those who remember the Lenoir market say.

Bernhardt Furniture, Kent-Coffey, Fairfield Chair, Broyhill Furniture and more hosted salesmen, customers and buyers at showrooms that dotted the city, showrooms that grew and evolved from warehouses to elaborate set-ups with complete home-style rooms featuring the latest furniture Lenoir had to offer.

Larry Freiman started with Broyhill Furniture in the early 1950s and said the first showroom the company set up had a slanted floor, so shims had to be put under furniture to level it.

But it wasn’t long until Broyhill started showing furniture at what is now the J.E. Broyhill Civic Center, and soon the company built a whole new headquarters on U.S. 321, with the entire top floor dedicated as a showroom.

Showrooms were adorned with lavish decorations, often sold in yard sales after the market was finished, said Barbara Freiman, daughter of G. Fred Foard, a former president of Fairfield Chair. She and her husband, Larry, still have a ficus tree bought from one such sale.

Buyers would come to the showrooms, sign in and be greeted by salesmen, who would lead them around, showcasing the new furniture lines, sometimes for hours, Larry Freiman said.

In the spring and fall markets of 1970, Fairfield Chair had a telescope set up in its showroom, pointing out a window so buyers could see the under-construction Plant 2, Daughtridge said.

Broyhill Furniture was known for hosting its guests at the Green Park Inn in Blowing Rock, which the company owned at the time, said Paul Broyhill, a former president of the company.

“We just had a myriad of wonderful relationships,” he said.

At the Green Park Inn, a chef would cook a lavish buffet with shrimp fresh from the coast, roast beef and an open bar, Larry Freiman said. From the inn, Broyhill’s buyers and salesmen had a short drive down to Lenoir for market.

Other companies had their places too, like the Kenham Lodge, what is now The Caldwell House on Kenham Place in Lenoir, where Hammary Furniture entertained its market guest,s and the Lenoir Country Club, now the Broyhill Family Foundation offices, built by a group of manufacturers.

Visitors who came to Lenoir for market also stayed in the Carlheim Hotel, a beautiful building of timbers and stucco, one of the two hotels in the city, the other being Smiths Crossroads Motel, both of which are gone now.

The only place to grab a bite to eat: Johnny’s Steakhouse, alongside the railroad tracks just past Lenoir High School.

But the answer for most people on where to stay was in the homes of Lenoir’s residents, creating for a week a special atmosphere of hospitality, with famous parties.

The rumor mill was always active during market, especially with hostesses trying to outdo each other, Barbara Freiman said, remembering one rumor of a woman using her hair dryer to try to make her azaleas bloom in time for a party.

Alex Bernhardt Sr., chairman and former CEO of Bernhardt Furniture Co., said, “There was a heavy emphasis on entertaining, hospitality and building one-on-one relationships.”

“Home entertaining was what my father, John Christian Bernhardt, and his wife, Jean, were sort of famous for,” he said, mentioning a party held at his parents’ summer home five miles out of town, featuring a quartet of musicians from St. Paul’s AME Church in Lenoir. About 300 people attended.

That personal touch and those relationships stay with the salesmen and buyers throughout their careers, Larry Freiman said, mentioning how one person would end up working in San Francisco, and then 10 years later be somewhere else, but he could always relate personally because of the Lenoir market.

But the market’s impact wasn’t only felt in Lenoir.

Ed Schell, a former employee of Kent-Coffey furniture, was sitting at a New York City bar, when the bartender asked him where he was from.

“You’ve never heard of it — Lenoir, North Carolina,” he said. “The guy next to me says, ‘What do you mean I’ve never heard of it, I’ve stayed at Smiths Crossroads Motel.”

The market hit its heyday in the late ‘70s, but by the early ‘80s, buyers were migrating to High Point, only spending a day or two in Lenoir.

A combination of factors led to the market’s demise, including the lack of hotels, restaurants and liquor by the drink, but pressure from buyers to have the market consolidated in one place helped push the big Lenoir manufacturers, starting with Bernhardt, to show in High Point, and by 1985 the market in Lenoir was finished.

This year’s market in High Point started Saturday. The Lenoir furniture companies are there, showcasing their latest products throughout the week, but more than one will be reminiscing about the days when the show was at home.