The Willette community in Macon County is home to a family of folk artists, for whom the crafting of chairs is something a father teaches a son. Five documented generations of Newberry men have been chair makers, beginning with William Newberry in the mid-1800s.
Today the chairs are sold under the company name Newberry & Sons, and they’re sold the same way most products are nowadays: online. This tech-savvy marketing is courtesy of the fifth generation of chair makers—sons Mark and Terry Newberry. They understand that even if you’re making chairs the same way your great-great-grandfather made them 160 years ago, nobody will buy them if they don’t know about them.
That’s why Mark, especially, has started taking the craft on the road whenever possible, entering chairs into craft shows and generally getting the word out. Next month he’s headed down to “cracker country,” to make chairs in a historical community on the Florida state fairgrounds.
The farm is not entirely run on chair sales. “You can’t make a living selling chairs,” said Mark. “Wish you could, but you can’t.” Both Mark and Terry work at the local post office station, and father Louie produced tobacco on the farm until recent years.
The family still farms as a major source of income, but their 230 acres of land also produces all the wood used for chairmaking—oak, walnut, maple, cherry, and hickory. The Newberrys harvest poplar, elm, and hickory bark off the land as well, which they cut and sell in rolls to be used for “caning,” or weaving baskets, chair seats, etc. The bark sales are much more constant than chair sales, according to Terry.
As for the chairs, they are sold with the frequency of any long-lasting, handmade item: slow and steady. “They stay in a family for generations,” said Louie. “They’re built to last.”
Mark says that he’s noticed sales actually fluctuate with election seasons, as well as with the economy as a whole. This makes sense, since chairs of this quality are a luxury item, and luxury is the first thing to go in tough times.
But with the advent of internet, Newberry products have been finding their way far out of their county of origin. “We sell bark in all of the United States and three other countries now,” said Mark. “I really enjoy that—the fact that our product’s traveling that far.”
They’ve certainly gotten critical recognition. In addition to winning multiple craft and county fair ribbons, they were the recipients of a 2009 Governor’s Arts Award. This high honor for Tennessee artists was bestowed on only eight individuals that year. The category they won in was called the “Folklife Heritage Award.”
Then this year they were featured on a PBS segment called Creative License, in short documentary style. In it, Dr. Robert Cogswell of Tennessee Arts Commission said: “Idealist that I am, I can’t believe everyone isn’t beating a path to their shop, because I do think they’re incredible…the Newberrys are really a classic example of the survival of the traditional craft in the south, from the 19th century. And there are fewer and fewer examples of that kind of cultural treasure left in America.”
He means that they’re real good.
For ordering and product information, visit the Newberry & Sons website at www.newberryandsonschairs.com