Chances are you have seen Harden Furniture in your local furniture store. If you have toured the White House, you may have seen a few of their pieces adorning the executive mansion. But, chances are equally high that you have never heard of this 180-plus-year-old company. While Harden Furniture’s history is interwoven into the history of the United States, this American made company has often flown under the radar of all but the most discriminating furniture buyers. This is a shame, because it is the company’s commitment to quality, to the environment, to its employees and to its community that makes Harden Furniture one of the most respected companies in the industry.
Over 180 years ago Charles S. Harden Sr. gave up on his search for gold in Colorado and returned home to New York. He settled in McConnelsville, a small town about 40 miles northeast of Syracuse. There he bought a sawmill situated on the banks of Fish Creek. That sawmill was the beginning of what would become, after a few detours and diversions, Harden Furniture Company.
In the beginning Harden sold lumber to local craftsmen and companies, but America was expanding. Canals were built along the Great Lakes, railroads were growing like vines across the countryside, connecting the east and west. Frank S. Harden, Charles’ son, saw an opportunity for growth. Together Charles and Frank used their supply of lumber to begin building bridges across New York. Unfortunately, the cold Upstate New York winters put their bridge building business on hold for months at a time.
To keep the business going through the winter, Harden began to produce kitchen chairs. Its early designs were exceedingly popular, and soon the company expanded into parlor chairs and upholstered pieces.
Today Greg Harden, the fifth generation of the Harden family, runs the company. Many of his employees have been with the company for decades. Several of these employees come from long lines of Harden craftsmen, their skills being passed down from parent to child over the generations.
Choice to Stay or Go
Harden has always been committed to quality. When faced with the choice of whether to move production overseas or remain in the United States during the greatest economic recession since the Great Depression, Harden chose to stay in New York. Part of the reason was the family’s commitment to the community and to its employees. McConnelsville is a small town, and many of the residents work for Harden Furniture and the Harden Lumber Company. If Harden had moved its production overseas, the result would have been catastrophic for the community.
The other reason Harden chose to stay was to maintain quality. Exporting their production overseas would have meant Harden losing the generations of hard-won knowledge and expertise of its employees. The Harden name has been associated with quality furniture that could be handed down from parent to child; by importing its furniture, the company would be trading down on quality. While it might have lowered the furniture price, the product would not have been the same.
Harden is one of the few furniture companies that controls almost every aspect of their production. Harden still owns the lumber company Charles bought in the 1840s, as well as the surrounding forest. It grows, harvests, and mills the lumber used in its furniture.
When most people think of today’s manufacturing plants, they think of long assembly lines, with the product moving from one hand to another as each person puts their small touch on the piece. Harden, however, still does things the old-fashioned way; most of its furniture is still bench-made, with one craftsman building the piece from scratch at a woodworking bench. Once the piece has been made, it moves onto the multi-step finishing process, which takes a full week.
To complete the order Harden uses its own trucks to deliver the furniture to the retailer’s store. By controlling every part of production, from the harvesting of the lumber to the delivery to the store, Harden ensures quality materials and pieces crafted with the care and attention they deserve.
Looking to the Future
Moving forward Harden is not only concerned with the state of its future business, but with the state of the environment. The company joined the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, a group dedicated to preserving “water quality, biodiversity, wildlife habitat, species at risk, and Forests with Exceptional Conservation Value.” This ensures that the 10,000 acres of forest Harden currently manages will be around for the next generation.
For more information check out Harden’s website www.hardenfurniture.com where you can find interactive maps of the plant as well as videos showing the actual construction of a Harden piece.