Tom Eblen: Campbellsville cherry furniture company rebuilding with styles including mid-century modern, Shaker reproduction

Herald-Leader columnist,Tom EblenMarch 31, 2014 

CAMPBELLSVILLE — It was a Friday afternoon and Patrick McMahan had just sprayed lacquer on a few pieces of furniture before heading out for a weekend camping trip. He switched on a fan to clear the fumes, "and the whole room blew up around me."

"When I ran out, the guys in the back could see fire shooting over my head," he said. "I could feel it on the back of my neck."

The fan sucked flames into the attic, where they ignited years of accumulated sawdust. Before the burning ceiling collapsed, McMahan, his father, Eugene, and their employees waded through knee-deep water from firefighters' hoses to rescue as much as they could of the top-quality furniture their family has been making for four generations.

Eugene McMahan & Son Furniture Co. burned to the ground within 45 minutes on Oct. 15, 2010. But a week and a half later, reconstruction began. Within four months, the largest of Campbellsville's cherry furniture-makers was back in business.

Recovery has been tough because of the sluggish economy and furniture-buying trends. But the McMahans are exploring new products and sales venues, determined to continue the business Eugene's grandfather and his eight sons started in the early 1940s.

Prized Kentucky antiques were becoming scarce in the 1930s, creating a market for reproduction furniture made of native cherry and walnut. Campbellsville became the center of that industry. At one point, McMahan Furniture had 38 workers. There were six other furniture-makers in town, too, a couple of them from branches of the McMahan family.

"Campbellsville cherry" became popular throughout the region. As textile factories came to small Kentucky towns in the 1960s, many women worked outside the home for the first time.

"They would save up enough money to buy a piece," said Eugene's wife, Linda McMahan. "And then they would come back and keep coming back until they got their whole home furnished. That's mostly how it sold."

But styles and circumstances change, and the number of Campbellsville cherry furniture shops has dwindled since the 1990s. McMahan Furniture is down to four full-time workers, including Patrick, who does the finishing, and Eugene, who selects the wood and does all of the turning. In addition, Linda keeps the books and Patrick's wife, Leah, manages the website (Cvillecherry.com) and social media.

"Some people think we closed," Eugene said. "They say, 'I heard you all burned down.'"

One effort to rebuild the business is a new line of Shaker reproduction furniture and wooden gift items for Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill. The company also is making furniture to refurbish rooms in some of the village's early 1800s buildings.

The McMahans also hope to cash in on the popularity of mid-century modern furniture from the 1940s-60s. Patrick, 34, understands the trend. His house in Louisville is furnished with mid-century modern, and he and his wife have a business, The Retro Metro, that deals in the originals (Retrometro502.com).

Patrick recently designed several mid-century modern pieces for McMahan Furniture to produce. They look like originals, but the quality is better: solid walnut rather than veneer.

But he knows styles inevitably go in and out of fashion.

"When every TV commercial has mid-century furniture in it, you kind of know it's on its way out," he said. "It's going to reach its peak and something else will turn around. But there's always going to be a need for traditional."

The McMahans make a lot of traditional cannonball and four-poster beds, chests of drawers, bookcase desks, drop-leaf tables, corner cupboards, sideboards and sugar chests. Their most popular pieces range in price from $1,100 to $3,500.

But about half their work is custom. People bring in pictures of something they have seen, or they want to copy a family piece they remember from childhood.

"We don't charge any extra just to make it different," Patrick said. "We charge you based on what it costs us to make it. If you're a good furniture-maker, you should be able to sit down in a few minutes and figure out measurements."

McMahan Furniture's selling point has always been quality. Every piece is hand-crafted from solid Kentucky cherry and walnut using traditional joinery — mortise and tenon and dovetail joints. Modern lacquers make the wood virtually waterproof.

Linda said a New Orleans customer sent in a picture of her house after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.

"It destroyed the house," she said. "But there was our cannonball bed sitting in the middle of everything. It made it through."

McMahan Furniture doesn't take credit cards and doesn't require deposits for custom work.

"We want to know they're satisfied before they pay us," Linda said. "We have never had a cold check in all those years. That says something for the type of people we deal with."

Eugene just turned 73, but isn't putting down his wood-turning chisels anytime soon. Patrick wants a career in the company, and for it to be around in case his 5-year-old son, Walt, wants to take over someday. "I'm not going to push him," he said.

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com

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