By: Andrew Pelletier
When the Hitchcock Chair Company closed its doors back in 2006, many feared it was the end of an era for this quintessential New England village. However, according to co-owners Rick Swenson and Gary Hath, the Hitchcock Chair factory is “back and very much alive.” A grand re-opening scheduled for this Labor Day weekend commenced on Friday night with a party for guests, family and loyal customers. Saturday began a three-day, traditional Hitchcock barn sale on the Riverton Fairgrounds. “The response has been better than expected,” said Gary Hath. Some Hitchcock furniture enthusiasts were literally moved to tears at the news of their triumphant return. The Hitchcock Chair Company traditionally had three barn sales a year and Gary explained they felt that a traditional barn sale would lend an air of nostalgia for delighted returning customers. “The Hitchcock name carries a certain cachet that sets it apart from other furniture retailers.” Gary stated, pointing out that the Hitchcock name is synonymous with family heirloom-quality furniture.
In March of 2010, Rick Swenson and Gary Hath purchased the rights to use the Hitchcock Chair Company name and they are currently manufacturing chairs and providing restoration services in a shop in the back of Still River Antiques on Route 20 in Riverton. They are also utilizing 5,000 square feet of space at the Whiting Mills in Winsted to produce their larger pieces such as hutches, dining tables and benches. They currently employ six furniture craftspeople, five of whom were Hitchcock employees before the company closed its doors five years ago; some were employees as far back as 45 years ago.
Rick Swenson said it took a while to develop a business strategy and they set up their first public display booth at the Riverton Fair in October last year. He was encouraged to see the good number of customers who came out on Saturday and there were quite a few sales, which gave them a feel for what pieces, styles and finishes are popular. They also took special orders for their sought-after seasonal collectors’ pieces for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Reconnections are also being made with the very same distributors that once proudly carried the Hitchcock name and new connections are being forged with potential furniture retailers. Rick stated that November is the target month to have enough inventory to begin wholesale business with these distributors.
Rick and Gary’s vision is to keep the production strictly American-made and as local as possible, utilizing some of the same people who have worked for and provided the Hitchcock Chair Company with expert craftsmanship and a standard of excellence that is not often found in modern furniture making. Rick has been quoted as saying, “So many furniture makers are closing or going overseas, we feel like we’re stepping up and investing in our heritage.” When asked where they see themselves in 10 years, Rick and Gary said they certainly hope to hire more craftspeople and salespeople. As the business thrives and grows, they hope that new generations, as well as those who already know the Hitchcock name, will make the scenic drive through the beautiful countryside and along the river, to become a part of the Hitchcock tradition in Riverton.
Special Grand Re-Opening Events
On Sunday and Monday there will be a chair rushing demonstration by Philomena Calabrese, who rushed chairs with the Hitchcock chair company for 40 years and has now worked for the Swensons for five years. The Hitchcock Chair Company’s rushes are the female leaves of cattail plants that are farm-raised in upstate New York by the same supplier since 1948.
Also on Sunday and Monday, there will be stenciling demonstrations by Lorraine Lacasse, who is a well-known local artist. Lorraine stenciled the ornate designs for the Hitchcock Chair Company for 45 years and has worked with the Swensons for the past five years. Some of the stencils, especially the holiday designs, are quite intricate and utilize over a dozen different stencils before it is complete.
The Hitchcock Chair factory store is located at 13 Riverton Road in Riverton, CT. Hours are Monday through Friday from 12:00 noon to 5:00 p.m., Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and Sunday from 12:00 noon to 4:00 p.m. For more information, please call the factory store at 860-738-9958, or visit the following websites: stillriverantiques.com and hitchcockchair.com.
A brief history of the Hitchcock Chair Factory
Lambert Hitchcock built his water-powered mill and began making Sheraton-style chairs and cabinet furniture in 1825, in what was known then as Hitchcocksville. Employing 100 persons, manufacturing persisted until the Civil War when the name of the town was changed to Riverton. With the bulk of raw materials going to the war effort, the Hitchcock Chair Company went out of business for the next 80 years. It wasn’t until early 1940 that John Kenney became interested in the building while he fished for trout in the river that once powered the mill. He reopened the mill using modern industrial tools and manufacturing continued all the way up to 2006. Competition with inferior overseas product forced the Hitchcock factory to close its doors once again. Enter Rick Swenson and Gary Hath. Rick was a Hitchcock factory-trained restoration technician and 5 months after the Hitchcock Chair Company shut their doors in April, 2006, Rick opened Still River Antiques with his wife Nancy, and continued restoring and selling vintage Hitchcock furniture. Business was good and profit was made each year they were open. Then, In March of 2010, Rick Swenson, and co-owner Gary Hath purchased the rights to the Hitchcock name to revive the historic furniture manufacturer once again.