Tennessee’s highest honor in the arts will be awarded April 14th to eight recipients that exemplify the state’s finest cultural traditions including Macon County’s own Newberry & Sons Chairs.
Established in 1971, the Governor’s Arts Awards will be presented by Governor Phil Bredesen and First Lady Andrea Conte in a special ceremony produced by the Tennessee Arts Commission.
Recipients were selected from 56 nominees to receive awards in three different categories including Arts Leadership, Distinguished Artist and Folklife Heritage.Newberry & Sons Chairs, whose Macon County family tradition preserves much of the 19th century approach to chairmaking, has been chosen to receive the Folklife Heritage Award.
Located in the community of Willette, Newberry & Sons Chairs has been accredited as one of the state’s finest craft treasures, with few other woodworking shops in the country claiming as strong a family legacy.
With five generations of craftsmanship invested in their business, Louie C. Newberry and his two sons Mark and Terry have kept the shop, and the tradition, alive.
Their earliest chairmaking ancestor in Tennessee was William Newberry. He was born in Georgia, but by 1840, the census noted him as engaged in manufacture in Jackson County, Tennessee, near his descendants’ present day shop.
While other generational chair shops in Tennessee deserted old-style designs long ago in favor of bulkier posts and straight, high ladderbacks, the Newberrys preserve finer proportions in their work, sacrificing nothing of sturdiness or durability.
One characteristic of the Newberry style is their distinctive twill-weave hickory bottoms, a feature given up long ago by many Tennessee shops in favor of seats made from purchased fibers or slats.
The Newberrys fell their own hickories and painstakingly shave out long strips of inner bark for the bottoms. In this and many other steps, time and patience account in large part for what makes their chairs unique.
Aside from their creations, the Newberrys also construct some of their own tools designed for efficiency in their trade.
“Our customers are people who still enjoy the old fashioned way,” said Terry. “We create chairs that you can’t buy at Wal-Mart, furniture that’s not made in China. Today, a lot of people are losing out on the way things were. It may not mean much to some people nowadays, but it’s something we want to keep alive.”
Creating all types of hand-crafted chairs including corner chairs, swinging chairs, high-chairs and ‘chairs for two,’ the Newberrys also welcome custom orders and the opportunity to bring life back into chairs that simply need a little TLC.
Louie, who still has a set of four chairs made by his father before he was born, remarked that quality has always been part of the tradition honored by his family.
“One thing with our chairs, is that they’re not something you use for a little while and then throw away,” he said. “These chairs are something to pass down in your family, something to share with future generations.”
Over the years, the memories that have been made through the family business are ones the Newberrys say they feel grateful to have been a part of.
“My father could make something out of anything,” Louie remembers with a smile. “I remember once he made a turning lathe out of a washing machine motor and the starter from a car.”
Terry and Mark, who recall admiring their own father’s craftsmanship when they were just young boys, were given their first task of “scratching the rough off of the bark” when they were 9 years old.
Working in a shop just behind the house they grew up in, it brings Louie, Terry and Mark great pleasure to watch Terry’s three young daughters, Sarah, Elizabeth and Rachel, “make mud pies and play in the sawdust” during the summers when school is out.
Hoping to share their knowledge with others, Terry and Mark also work together in instructing Hickory Bark Seat Weaving classes at Volunteer State Community College in Gallatin, holding three classes a semester.
Included in the family business as well is Louie’s wife of 44 years, Ruby, who takes all of their business calls and orders.
Working side by side each day with his sons, Louie could not imagine a job he would enjoy more.
“It means a lot to me,” he said. “I enjoy working with my sons, and we have a lot of fun together. I don’t see how it could get any better.”
While the Newberrys have won several awards at various craft fairs where their chairs have been featured, the Governor’s Arts Folklife Heritage Award, marks the first time their work has received state recognition.
“We are very happy to be receiving this award,” Mark said. “We are very thankful for all of the help we’ve received from Robert “Roby” Cogswell (Tennessee Arts Commission Director of Folklife).”
Standing in their workshop surrounded by furniture created by their own hands, it becomes apparent that there is more to the Newberrys’ rich family tradition than just the artform they have mastered.
“Come on in and sit down,” Louie says with a laugh. “We have plenty of chairs.”
The recipients of the Governor’s Arts Awards will be honored at an invitation-only reception on Tuesday, April 14 at the War Memorial Building in downtown Nashville. The awards will be presented by Governor Phil Bredesen during a special ceremony later that evening.
For more information about Newberry & Sons Chairs, call 699-3755.