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Old whistle gives people time of day

POSTED: May 2, 2010 1:00 a.m.

If you've lived around Gainesville a while, you know where that whistle comes from that blows at 8 a.m., noon, 12:30 and 4:30 p.m., Georgia Chair Co. on Industrial Boulevard.

It has been a familiar sound Monday through Friday since 1941, when new steam boilers were installed to cure the wood and heat the buildings in the company's furniture-making complex. The whistle signals employees to start work, break for lunch and end the day. But many Hall Countians listen for it, too, and depending on weather conditions, the whistle can be heard for miles.

Only a few times have the trusty boilers failed to produce enough steam to blow the whistle. An atomic clock in the boiler building tells the whistleblower when it's time. Georgia Chair vice president Harry Bagwell II knows of only one other working steam whistle in the state: Georgia Tech, where he heard it signal class changes when he was a student.

Georgia Chair is one of Gainesville's oldest industries, having operated in the same location since 1925. It actually was founded in 1914 in Flowery Branch by J.B. and H.L. Edmondson. But when fire destroyed the plant, they reopened in Gainesville in 1925 to be close to the fire department.

It's always been a family operation. J.B. Edmondson's son, Charles, was a partner until his death, and Charles's son Austin succeeded him, retiring just a few years ago. Harry Bagwell was a star baseball player in high school at Flowery Branch and won a scholarship to Oglethorpe University. But his father wouldn't let him go to college, so he signed on with Georgia Chair. He became the superintendent a few months later, and he and Charles Edmondson eventually bought the business.

Harry's son, Jimmy, and grandson, Harry II, now are president and vice president. Jimmy started working at the plant on weekends at age 11 and summers during high school and college, so he has been there for 63 years and at age 74 has no plans to retire. Harry II started working there about age 15 and joined his father after graduation from Georgia Tech.

Employee longevity is common at the company. Most have worked at Georgia Chair 12 years or longer. The late Roy Bray worked until he was 90. Ed Wilson, who with his brother was hired in the mid-1950s, is still working three days a week. Harry Bagwell, Jimmy's father, worked until the day his son had to carry him to the hospital. Charles Edmondson retired, but returned after a week off the job.

The basic products — chairs, tables, stools and rockers — have changed only in design over the years. Georgia Chair still provides its sturdy quality oak furniture to schools and libraries. It sells all over the United States, Caribbean countries and even some South Pacific islands.

Georgia Plastic, a part of the chair company, makes laminated tops for its tables. It employs five people, and the chair operation works 75 to 90 depending on business conditions. Right now, just like everybody else, business is down because school and other institutional budgets have been cut, building is off, and there is less demand for furniture.

Nevertheless, the various buildings in the complex keep humming with workers nursing lumber through a process that results in more than 60,000 chairs, 10,000 tables and countless other pieces a year.
Georgia Chair runs through a million board feet of lumber annually.

Its rockers are always in demand. Once, movie and television star Claude Akins, who was filming nearby, visited the plant and gushed over the chairs. He told Jimmy he would come back and get one.

Jimmy figured he'd never see him again. But a few days later, his wife showed up and ordered 10 of the rockers.

Oak is the primary wood used at Georgia Chair. A lone oak tree has stood at the entrance of the offices since the company moved to Gainesville and is used in the logo stamped on the bottom of its products.

The company was "green" before green was cool. It uses every inch of a board that comes into the plant. What isn't made into furniture, scraps feed the boilers that produce the steam that heats the buildings and, yes, blows the whistle.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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