Sleeping in sawdust
Harkins takes art of furniture building to the days of old
The old man was desperate.
Tommy Bell had learned carpentry from German immigrants and had built his first rocking chair at the age of 11. By the time he reached his late 70’s, he knew that the Old World trade of furniture-making was fading away and he was eager to find a new apprentice. The country was changing — very little was still being “made in the U.S.A.”
“He worked like a sewing machine,” Greg Harkins said. The Jackson native began training under Bell in the 1970s while studying psychology at Mississippi State. “He taught me that the quality of work that you produce dictates who you are,” he said.
Today, Harkins continues that tradition of creating quality handmade furniture from his shop in Vaughan, a rustic shack made from cypress trees and surrounded by corn and soybean fields and a forest full of turkeys, deer and the occasional black bear. Harkins voice is soft and gentle, nearly drowned out by the sound of the nearby interstate and the giant industrial fan that is parked near his work table.
While Harkins quickly mentions his line of beds, swings, two-seaters and other furniture, it is his exquisite made-to-order rocking chairs that have made the Yazoo County business world famous. Every U.S. president since Jimmy Carter owns at least one Harkins rocking chair, as do a host of governors, senators and congressmen. Chairs have also been made for comedian Bob Hope, radio host Paul Harvey and TV personality Oprah Winfrey. Former Mississippi agriculture commissioner Jim Buck Ross ordered a special Paul Bunyan-sized version for the lobby of the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum in Jackson.
Despite his astronomic acclaim, Harkins, like his workshop, is humble. With a bushy beard and snappy blue eyes, he stares like an eagle at a log of oak as his table saw transforms it into a chair arm. “This is where we came from,” he said. “What I do is as much a part of America as anything else. Back then, people didn’t have a lot and (beyond farming) they didn’t have another way to make a living.”
Harkins said he fell in love with woodworking in the fourth grade after a forester brought tree samples to his school, everything from regional favorites like bodark, pecan and pine to exotic samples of teak and mahogany. “I was fascinated with it — all the colors, weights, and textures,” Harkins said while sanding a chair runner. “People used to go to the woods like we go to the grocery store.”
Comparing his internship with Tommy Bell to a computer programmer working for IBM, Harkins finally decided to strike out on his own. “Tommy repeatedly told me that you can’t make a living making homemade furniture.” he said. “He wanted me to get a good job that had insurance and do my woodworking in the evenings when I got home.”
Determined that he could be a success and build a business out of his love affair with wood, Harkins said he “laid his ears back,” building scores of chairs in his shop while managing a packed travel itinerary of between 30 and 40 arts and crafts shows a year in places like Baton Rouge and Memphis. He met his first Mississippi customer in Dallas, Texas. International exposure came after he agreed to build more than 100 chairs for a Japanese home shopping network.
Harkins said he had trouble convincing his land-owning Irish-Catholic family that sleeping in sawdust was a worthy ambition. “They thought I was daft,” he said. “My father was livid.”
In the end, the academic connections that the young carpenter made through MSU and the Ole Miss Center for the Study of Southern Culture became one of the many lifelines that continue to keep his business thriving.
“I’m good at promotion,” Harkins said. “I have a thing called a pedigree. The one thing I’ve never sold is my reputation. It was not as important to sell chairs as to get your name out there.” At the end of my first five years, I’d been to the White House and been written up in Esquire and Southern Living.”
His family is not as skeptical after more than thirty years in the business. Harkins’ 84-year-old mother Mimi manages all of his company operations and has saved every newspaper and magazine article written about him.
While sales have slowed due to the economic downturn, Harkins said his clients remain active whether they are just ordering by phone or actually visiting his shop with wood from their own property for him to use.
“There’s nothing more personal than that,” he said. “It gives them something they can’t buy. People are reaching back to a kinder, gentler time.”
Harkins’ biggest fear is the same one his mentor nurtured a generation ago. “From time to time you need to reassess,” Harkins said. “I’m too young to know where I’m going and too old to go back again.”
I’m looking for my own apprentice,” he said. “I don’t want this to die. I don’t want everything to be forgotten. There’s been a dozen times where I think that I can’t keep doing this. After mulling things over I always go back to the shop.”
The sound of hammers and saws and the smell of cedar soon banish all thoughts of retirement. “I’ll build chairs until I die,” Harkins said.