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Changing times threaten to retire famous rocking chairs : Unreliable supplies and aging machinery could shut the doors of the Brumby factory and close the book on a piece of American history.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like soldiers at attention, dozens of rocking chairs stand still and quiet in a dimly lit room at the tiny factory.

Freshly covered with various shades of stain or white paint, they all await pickup by customers at The Rocker Shop. They are Brumby rockers, and they may be the last brigade of the famous chairs.

The large, comfortable rockers were first made here around 1875, and they have rocked countless babies, mothers and fathers on front porches and in parlors. The Jimmy Carter White House had five of the high-backed Brumbys.

But the materials and machines that make them have become too difficult to find and fix.

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Carole Melson, president of The Rocker Shop, which produces the handmade oak chairs with woven cane backs and bottoms, said that work at the little country factory will begin shutting down when current orders are filled around mid-December, unless someone decides to buy the factory.

Closing the shop that produces Brumbys will be like losing “part of America,” Melson said.

Indeed, the factory, about 25 miles north of Atlanta, recalls a part of America of long ago. Snuggled in a building that resembles a garage, the shop is a museum of old industry, with gargantuan cast-iron machinery and saws, sawdust-covered floors and chair parts stacked in every crevice. No computerized robots, no precisely timed assembly lines here. No haste.

The scene is fitting for the product: chairs that take you back to an era when there was time to sit and rock and think . . . of nothing and everything.

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Melson, rocking gently in one of the finished chairs, said it is “like a shoe. What’s important is not just the way it looks, but the way it feels.”

Like craftsmen in most trades, many who make the chairs seem to take their skill for granted. D.E. Nickelson, the shop foreman who has made Brumbys for 16 years, said laconically: “It ain’t that difficult.”

So many people associate the chairs with lavish living that many “don’t believe me” when he tells them he makes the chairs, said Nickelson, who is fond of driving an inelegant 1970 Chevy pickup truck.

Known throughout the nation, the chairs provide a touch of the South to hotels and homes from Connecticut to California.

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Their road to endangerment is a well-traveled one, having been trod over the years by other Southern institutions like lye soap, handmade grass baskets and home-churned buttermilk.

In the case of the Brumby rockers, increasing exports of U.S. oak, unreliable supplies of imported cane and a continuing inability to replace and repair old production equipment are dooming the chairs.

Each chair requires a 12-foot slab of Appalachian red oak, weighing 300 pounds. The wood is aged outside for two years, and it takes about eight weeks to make a chair. Each costs $745 if stained, $100 more painted white.

Because Brumby rockers so represent this region, one is displayed at the Atlanta High Museum as an example of Georgia’s decorative arts.

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Donald Peirce, the museum’s decorative arts curator, said that each of the exhibit’s 3,500 pieces “can be identified with a particular, prominent maker,” adding that stopping production of the Brumby “represents the end of an era.”

The Brumby family of Marietta began crafting the oversized chairs about 10 years after the Civil War. At its peak of chair production just before the Great Depression, the factory employed about 400 people. World War II forced a halt in production in 1942 because the cane that lines the chairs’ seats and backs came from the Orient and was no longer available.

During the war, the factory converted to production of file cabinets, chairs, desks and other furniture that the government could use. After the war, the Brumby family retired and sold off the factory equipment.

In the early 1960s, Melson was lent a Brumby to rock her children. That sold her and her husband, Frank, on resuming production of the chairs under license of the Brumby Chair Co. The Melsons hunted through several states to find the massive old manufacturing equipment, a task Melson said was “like Scotland Yard.”

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Before they could bring back the rockers, Melson’s husband died of a heart attack. Melson said she carried on “because I couldn’t see his work go to waste.”

Now, she says, she would rather close the factory than continue fighting the losing battle for supplies and machinery.

She knows the Brumbys will be missed. “A lot of our rockers have gone to expectant mothers,” Melson said. “A rocker is one of the few things besides a cradle that is so strongly associated with the family unit.”


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