Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Abandonment Issues: Gibbard Furniture

Gibbard Furniture

In 2001, our family suffered a great loss when Ninja's great Aunt Eileen passed away. She was a lovely woman that was worldly and well traveled. She bestowed many gifts upon us over the years, from all over the world. But the greatest material gift that she gave us came as an inheritance: A beautiful antique Gibbard bedroom furniture set.

On our way home from Quebec City earlier this month, we decided to pay a visit to the old Gibbard Furniture building in Napanee, Ontario. We had spotted the building a few months earlier, and noted that it had shut down, but the sun had set on that day. On this day though, we had our fingers crossed that we could find our way inside, and were shocked when we pulled up on the building to see the front door wide open, and a sign reading OPEN TO THE PUBLIC.

Of course, only the showroom was open to the public, as the company hopes to sell off it's last few remaining pieces of furniture. When they didn't see us enter the showroom though, we sauntered quickly into another room and made our way upstairs. We began photographing the machinery and tiptoeing from room to room. But the floorboards in the 137 year old building would not accept our footsteps in silence, and within minutes we heard someone approaching. I stepped back around a corner to let Ninja make the introductions and play dumb. We had already discussed our strategy: Pretend that we thought OPEN TO THE PUBLIC meant come on in and look around at your leisure. Our strategy on first impressions never changes: When possible, I (the long haired, bearded, tattoo covered dude) step out of the way and let Ninja (the adorable, polite, and innocent looking blonde woman) set the tone. Once a positive rapport has been established, I make my presence known with a happy jubilant excitement about the building. I fire off tidbits of history that I have accumulated prior to the visit, and ask questions in rapid succession so as to get the person engaged in a conversation and excited about my excitement. At the same time, this tends to make them more comfortable with our presence and their instinct to tell us to leave begins to fade, and is replaced with a desire to share in our excitement.

While this may seem manipulative, it is an effective strategy that is executed with good intentions, respect and manners, and flows in a natural progression.

We told him that we inherited the Gibbard furniture set, which we love. We asked when the plant closed. We apologized for our faux misinterpretation of the sign out front. We asked what his role was at the plant. And so on. We also answered his questions quickly, and finished each answer with another question to keep the conversation moving forward. Once that desired level of comfort was reached, I asked if he minds if I take a few more photos. Of course, he obliged, albeit somewhat reluctantly, as Ninja kept the conversation going. I wandered into the next room with oohs and ahhs and returned to ask questions about the machines I'd encountered. He accompanied us into that room to answer my questions. As he answered, I progressed deeper into the room, snapping photos and asking more questions. He didn't know it yet, but this was the beginning of our guided tour. While it was a methodical strategy, my excitement wasn't just for show, it was genuine. My energy tends to rub off on people, and within another minute, he made the offer that I already knew was coming.

He showed us every nook and cranny of the building, and shared the process of furniture making from beginning to end. He took us from floor to floor on what he claimed to be the oldest elevator in Canada still in operation. He also stated that the elevator would be shut down in two weeks time, to save costs. He took us into the receiving department, where the wood entered the building and was placed into large kilns for drying. He took us into the dark dungeon like basement, and showed us the original boiler, which was the size of a train car. He guided us through room after room on every floor, explaining the processes that each machine was used for, flicking the lights on and off in each area as we passed through. He spoke of past memories as a cabinet maker, and the demographics of the work force. He explained that he was kept on as the caretaker because his wife was very close with the Gibbards, and she was chosen to write the biography of the Gibbard factory and family, which is currently in the works. He told us about the company's early days, beginning at this site in 1835, and the subsequent fires that destroyed the plant twice before this building was erected in 1875, followed by 19 additions to the building. And he said that an environmental assessment is in the works, with hopes to convert the building into condominiums. At its peak of operation, there were 200 employees, but that number had dwindled to 90 by the time Gibbard closed down in 2009, he said, adding that operations were ceased due to lack of demand for high end quality furniture. He begrudgingly noted that people don't buy quality furniture anymore, they buy crap from WalMart and IKEA.

A History In Gibbard Furniture.








































Extra special thanks to our tour guide and host. He was a very pleasant man, and we were very grateful for his generosity and kindness.

click here to check out all of jerm & ninja IX's ABANDONMENT ISSUES


Doris Jensen said...

I would like to Thank you for telling your story. My Grandmother was Lillian Blanche Gibbard, daughter of William Gibbard. I am planning to come to Napanee within two years and see the buildings. My biggest dream would be to have a tour just like yours, but it probably won't happen. I will print this story and have it in my family archives. Thank You for writting it. Doris Jensen

Unknown said...

Wow. Thank you for your comment Doris. That is awesome.

Unknown said...

Having recently stumbled onto this blog whist doing some personal searching on alcan history i was glad to see Gibbards in your list of travels. I thought it was rather ingenius how you obtained entrance. Gibbards history is huge in Napanee and almost anyone who lives there knows someone who worked there at one time or another. Thank you for your positive and unique shots , I am enjoying this blog bigtime. I am personally connected to a few of your travels through out my journey of life and find it really incredible to see these abandoned relics as they are now.

Sue Killen said...

I was raised in Napanee and married a man who worked at Gibbards. I then lived with another man who worked at Gibbards for 15 years as the furniture stain applier. He bought me a Gibbard Armour and coffee table both in a cherry stain. I myself worked in the office for a year with Bruce McFerson who owned Gibbard's at the time. This story brought back many memories of the factory, it's sights and the smell of the varnish which swept through the town on a windy day when the windows were open. Thanks for printing this story, I will share it with my Napanee friends.

pat g. said...

My eldest sister worked at the factory during the 2nd world war, part of the war effort was the mfg. of wooden ammunition boxes.

Chris said...

we inherited beautiful Gibbard dining and living room furniture a decade and a half ago and bought is indeed formal, and it was expensive, but beautifully made. It is such a shame that there is not enough appreciation in a country of 33 million people to keep one factory alive and says a lot I believe for the state of our well-being. I also spotted that storage area full of kiln drilled mahogany....unused...... and started to salivate.... such a beautiful wood.

akansha said...

Thanks for sharing your story and i like it to much and i am waiting of your next blog.thanks for sharing.
Hospital Furniture India

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your story, its beautiful! Your photos captured allot of history. That was so nice to view!

I as well just inherited a beautiful Bed Room set from my Mother, she always loved the quailty of the gibbard furniture, she would be so joyed when she made a purchase and care for that piece like she cared for her own children.

I was very fortunate to be able to have this beautiful set, all my sibblings placed it in my hands out of love as they knew I would appreicate it as much as my Mother did.

I am glad I found your you seem to be another fortunate person to have a beautiful set.

I was seaching for how to care for this beauty. If you have any suggestions please can you share it with me.

Thank you!

Shelley Tocher

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your story and pictures! I worked there from 1998 until they closed. I was one of the guys that spray finished the furniture. I have been told that since you have taken these pics, all the spray booths, drying kiln and line are now gone from the finishing floor. I have such great memories of my time there. Thanks again.
Shawn Kitts

Anonymous said...

I bought (rescued) a gorgeous bedroom suite from a craiglist add. I wasn't the first person to respond to the ad but I was the first person
to see through the thick dust and unsightly setting of an empty garage with a smelly rumpled up dog blanket in the corner. I paid $450 for a highboy, long dresser with mirror, night table and double headboard. I've also found a clawfoot coffee table and a modern style buffet (which I had to paint due to the condition) and they beat out ikea cr.?p to boot!

Anonymous said...

What was the name of the meditteranean style set? Also the midcentury modern style set with the long wood set in handle with a bullet shaped brass metal bit at each end of the long handle. Thanks

Anonymous said...

Great article....just a few things missing. The company would have never had to close if the owner had worked with the economy and lowered the prices to a fair and reasonable rate, as he never paid the employees what they deserved so I have to believe it was all for profit. A sincere shame that something beautiful is destroyed by greed. Also if he had of given back to the employees in the manner of benefits and compensation packages, I'm sure most of them would have stayed's all they ever knew and finding a job this day and age in such a tiny town with limited skills is not easy. Unfortunately he closed the plant because he refused to drop any prices, took away the beautiful hand crafted pieces, laid off most of the employees with no severance, even if they were there over thirty years and created a hole in a community that had supported him for generations. As much as I love the furniture, it will always be tainted by a man who got greedy.

Anonymous said...

Awesome! I have shared your article.
Very interesting read and love the pics.

Unknown said...

It's sad to know that after all the years of hard work, commitment, camaraderie and laughter that toke place there has stood empty and quiet. The chair reminds me of the chair that my husband's grandfather sat in with his new wife standing by his side for their wedding photo (c. 1920's I think). Why hasn't anyone done something with it? Keep the Gibbard sign but do something with the building. Convert it into a hotel, condominium, restaurant ...something.

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous stating a few things are missing. Well... there are still facts missing. I believe I can safely say it wasn't about greed. Yes the wages were low for many years, but I know men who worked their entire life there. Had to have been a reason they stayed, that kind of loyalty you don't see today. The factory wasn't making money for quite a while (years), and the owner kept people working long after any of today's businesses would have.
Maybe not being agreeable to decrease the quality of furniture produced did lead to the closure, but it is true, people today will not pay for quality furniture. I have a few pieces and will treasure them. I have heard the building has been sold and will be restored into a retail/condominium structure. Still waiting for the biography to be published???

Anonymous said...

Oh this is a beautiful post I have seen that building my whole life it was the center of the town. It is a shame to see it empty. This place had a lot of very talented workers employed forever. I own many pieces of this furniture it makes me proud to know where it came from. Your photos are incredible. Great post. I have shared also. Thank you. B

Anonymous said...

My dad worked at Gibbard's for more than 25 years. There are many fond memories within those walls. In the summer months the plant was closed and my dad would do a watchman shift. My mom and I would bring my dad his dinner and I would get to "do the rounds with him". It was great!! I loved looking for all the punch keys and we would always make a stop at my dads "desk" where he would hide candy bars for me to find. Although times were not always happy for my dad there, this is one memory that I will cherish always.

Anonymous said...

An elderly couple who lived down the hall moved to nursing homes and their son was disposing of their remaining furniture. Among the items was a set of three living room tables. They asked $125 for all three. At first I hesitated. On my pension income, I don't have much in the way of discretionary funds, but I liked the tables and decided to buy them.

I knew they were better than anything available at Walmart, but when a friend encouraged me to look for a makers mark and I discovered the plaque saying "Gibbard Solid Cherry" I was excited. I've been on the low end of the income scale all my life so owning "solid cherry" furniture was a real step up for me.

Then I found the history of the Gibbard company and I'm even more pleased! I will cherish them. And not let anyone set a coffee cup on them lol

Ancestral Roofs said...

Outstanding blog, great post. Let's hear it for urban explorers and their moxie. You created a unique photo record of an important part of local history.
I'm linking to it from my post about our Gibbard's visit yesterday, on my blog 'ancestralroofs.'

cocoa3c said...

Today, we took apart a bed frame that was given to me in my single days about thirty years ago and I happened to notice the Gibbard Furniture stamp on it. Being intrigued by what I was sure was fairly ancient furniture, I had to go check out it's origins. And very interesting it is! My husband and I live in Thunder Bay and the bed frame says it was sold at Gary's Hardware and Electric in Fort William which of course we haven't been the two cities of Fort William and Port Arthur in forty five years. It's not high end furniture, but obviously sturdy and well made.

Thanks for fulfilling my curiosity with this cool historical moment.
God Bless,