200 YEARS OF CHAIRS—WOODY’S
Step back to the late 18th century when Wyatt Woody first set foot in the county and begun a tradition that endures to this day.
Wyatt started from the local hardwoods and ended with handcrafted “mule-ear” chairs (so-called because of the way the back posts of the chairs stick up–like ears on a mule) that he bartered for his family’s needs. These were greenwood chairs with no metal fasteners or glue used on the weight bearing structural parts. Chair posts air-dried, then parts driven together tightly, rounds interlocking. As the posts dried they shrunk onto the rounds clamping them tight. And at Woody’s Chair Shop today, that technique is still used.
The business passed from family to family, first to Martin who continued supporting his family by turning out hand-made chairs, and then to Arthur Woody, the third generation of Woody chair-makers and among some of the first instructors at Penland School of Crafts. He and his daughter, Miss Decie, taught the art of seating chairs with hickory bark at Penland’s newly established “Related Crafts” department. They were Lucy Morgan’s neighbors and friends. In her book, Gift from the Hills, Lucy wrote of Arthur and his three grandsons, concluding, “We have craftsmen in our mountains!”
Wyatt’s great-great grandson Arval and his brothers, Walter, Paul, Frank, and Floyd, picked up the chair business after the war. Although Arval had been hanging around his grandfather’s wood shop since the age of 6, he didn’t decide to carry on the tradition until he returned from World War II and discovered that jobs were hard to come by. From his knowledge gathered from early years of watching and learning, wood from his father’s sawmill, and a desire to make the best chairs available from the pride innate in the legacy of his family, Arval and Walter kept the chairs coming as his brothers followed other paths.
From the wooden, waterwheel-powered barn workshop to the concrete block building Arval and his brothers built in Grassy Creek in 1946, Woody’s Chair Shop still operates, still makes chairs. Today, Scott Woody stands before the lathe—a seventh generation Woody.
When Wyatt began producing chairs, the cost was perhaps a bolt of cloth or a couple of cans of coffee. Arval’s grandfather sold them for 3 for $1 when an acre of land went for $3. When Arval and his brother began making the Betsy Ross chair (modeled after the one she likely sat in while sewing the American flag), the price tag was $7. Now a Woody’s chair is displayed at the Smithsonian Institute’s Museum of Art and Design and in some of the finest homes around the world. In 1952 through a connection with Terry Sanford, then Governor of North Carolina, three of Woody’s chairs went to the White House—one for President Kennedy, the other two for his children, Caroline and John, Jr. But that White House commission wasn’t Woody’s proudest accomplishment. That was reserved for being named a North Carolina Living Treasure by the UNC Wilmington Institute for Human Potential.
Arval Woody summed up the fine tradition of chair making that Woody’s has come to represent in one short sentence, “We get the tree in the forest, and when we finish it up, it’s in the living room.”