Video by Angela Manese-Lee
John White, Pulaski's director of economic development, talks about the town's future.
PULASKI -- Covering almost two downtown blocks, the hodgepodge of brick and metal buildings that make up Pulaski Furniture Corp. rises above the Pulaski skyline from the heart of town.
It has sat here -- puffing steam and humming with activity -- for decades.
At one time, the location and sheer size of the facility were comforting symbols of a massive and growing industry, one that raised generations of Pulaski residents, fueled growth along Main Street and "was one of the most important things that kept our town alive," said lifelong resident Betty Ratcliffe Kirkner.
Now, however, the plant is a picture of decline.
Within walls discolored by age and industry, production has slowed and employment fallen. In mere weeks, the plant will close.
When it does, and the humming stops, Pulaski will face the end of an institution, and with it, the end of an era.
Gene Dalton | The Roanoke Times
Pulaski resident Betty Kirkner perches on a Coleman Furniture chest that was made in Pulaski in the 1930s. The family heirloom is now in the fourth generation of her family; Kirkner recently passed it on to her granddaughter.
"The furniture plant has been a part of all our lives here," explained Kirkner, who maintains the Raymond F. Ratcliffe Memorial Museum, which is named for her father, a former Pulaski mayor.
"I never, ever thought we wouldn't have a furniture plant."
'Leaders of everything'
When Kirkner talks of the Pulaski she grew up in, the 76-year-old remembers a community in bloom.
Throughout the '30s, '40s and '50s, "everything -- everything -- on Main Street was full," she said.
There was the women's clothing store, which sold "the most gorgeous hats," the jewelry store "where my husband bought my diamond and wedding ring," and dozens of others.
Come Saturday evening, residents would pile into their cars, drive to town and park along Main Street to "visit."
About Pulaski Furniture Corp.
- Pulaski Furniture, one of the last manufacturing facilities in downtown Pulaski, celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2005. It started as a manufacturer of bedroom and dining room furniture, branched out into curio cabinets and other pieces and, in 1985, acquired the Ridgeway Clock Co. and added grandfather, wall and mantel clocks to its line.
- In 1997, it restructured its product lines, closed its upholstery division and, in 2004, sold off the Ridgeway Clock division to concentrate on its core products. The company began importing unfinished furniture parts in 1988 and finished products in the late 1990s.
- Last year, Pulaski Furniture merged with SLF (Samuel Lawrence Furniture), under a new holding company named Home Meridian International.
- The company has announced two plant closings in Pulaski in the past six months, laying off 379 workers. Following the closure of its last plant in late April, all Pulaski Furniture’s products will be imported.
- Executives have said Pulaski Furniture will keep some warehouse and administration operations in Pulaski, but when asked how many people these operations would employ and what would become of Pulaski Furniture’s former manufacturing facilities, executives said through a representative that they did not want to comment until after the plant closes.
Gene Dalton | The Roanoke Times
This old rail bridge carried tons of new furniture from Pulaski Furniture to the main railroad line.
Early Pulaski industry
- 1880: The community’s first large manufacturer begins operation. Lured by the availability of coal and zinc, Bertha Zinc Works’ two furnaces ushered in what historian Conway Smith called the "age of iron, zinc and coal."
- 1910-early 1930s: After helping coax Pulaski into a manufacturing center, the town’s three large iron companies shut down. "Their loss," Smith wrote in "The Land That is Pulaski County," "struck the town’s economy a blow from which it took years to recover."
- 1916: Paul Knitting Mills establishes the town’s first textile mill.
- 1923: Coleman-Vaughan Furniture Corp. builds a three-story brick furniture plant.
- 1920s-1930s: Paul Knitting Mills and Coleman-Vaughan are joined by several other textile and furniture companies, including Dobson Hosiery Mills, Viginia Maid Hosiery Mills, Wallner Silk Hosiery Mills, Pulaski Mirror Co. and the Pulaski Veneer Corp.
- 1955: Pulaski Furniture Corp. is established
- Source: "The Land That is Pulaski County" by Conway Smith
By the numbers
- 1 million: Square feet Pulaski Furniture currently has under roof in downtown Pulaski
- 379: Number of workers who will have been laid off due to two plant closures since October
- 1,500: Number of employees, company-wide in the late 1990s
- 52: Years Pulaski Furniture has operated manufacturing facilities in Pulaski
- $270 million: Estimated combined sales of Pulaski Furniture and SLF (Samuel Lawrence Furniture) when they merged in 2006 to form Home Meridian International, according to Furniture Today
"You'd walk up and down the street and get an ice cream cone and talk to the people who passed by and that's how you kept in touch," Kirkner recalled. There were so many people "you could hardly find a place to park and some people would bring their cars early."
Supported in large part by the furniture and textile industries, it was a town to boast about even before Pulaski Furniture came into existence.
"Pulaski 50 years ago, or 60 years ago even, was the thriving part of Southwest" Virginia, 81-year-old Pulaski native H.W. Huff Jr. said proudly. "We were the leaders of everything."
Walk around downtown Pulaski today and little of that hustle and bustle remains.
Like many small towns, the corridor has suffered the effects of shopping centers and rerouted traffic.
Streets once filled with people now often struggle to attract visitors. Those that do come are greeted by a number of empty storefronts.
To those who remember downtown in its heyday, the quiet can be hard to stomach.
"People come here and say, 'Do you think Pulaski is coming back?' And I say, 'Well, probably not to the way it was, but it will' -- we just haven't found the right thing," Kirkner said.
Rise of furniture
When Kirkner was young, residents didn't have to worry about finding the right thing -- industry was already here and it was booming.
Lured by access to materials, a relatively inexpensive labor force and the opportunity to buy downtown land cheap, furniture and textile manufacturers landed in Pulaski in the 1920s. The industries thrived.
"After World War II, we were basically a furniture manufacturing town and a textiles town," remembered 79-year-old resident James D. Miller.
Pulaski Furniture Corp. was founded in 1955, when a group of investors decided to open a new factory at the site of what was once the Pulaski Veneer Corp.
It came to life with 25 employees and almost no equipment. Yet over the years, the company grew steadily, buying up nearby manufacturers until it was the dominant furniture maker in town.
By 1967, Pulaski Furniture showed $4.1 million in total assets and had expanded into Martinsville.
"It was such a place that if you were a high school student or were just graduating from high school in the '50s and '60s, it was pretty well certain that you could get your first job at Pulaski Furniture -- you could get your start there," said John White, Pulaski's economic development director and a town native.
The company continued to expand in the '70s and '80s, opening a plant in Dublin and buying facilities in Ridgeway and Pulaski.
Thanks in part to the purchase of the Coleman Furniture buildings in 1983, Pulaski Furniture's downtown Pulaski plants grew to roughly 1 million square feet. Five years later, the company was the town's top taxpayer and its biggest employer.
Illustrative of its importance, the facility dwarfed nearby buildings and spanned a block on either side of Madison Avenue.
"It raised a lot of families over the past 50 or so years here," said Steve Swecker, who owns OK Barbershop. "Really, the furniture plant has always been the backbone of the town because so many people worked there and the economy really depended on it out around Pulaski."
At its peak in the late 1990s, 1,500 people worked companywide to make Pulaski Furniture's bedroom and dining room furniture, curio cabinets and grandfather clocks. Sold throughout the country and given away on "The Price Is Right," handcrafted pieces bearing the Pulaski name found their way into thousands of American homes.
The decline begins
Although Pulaski Furniture grew, in the 1980s and '90s other town manufacturers began to downsize and close as a result of competition from furniture and textile facilities overseas.
Data from the U.S. Department of Commerce show American imports of wood household furniture rose from $3.1 billion in 1996 to $8.1 billion between January and September 2006.
While it survived the pressure longer than many of its neighbors, Pulaski Furniture was also feeling the squeeze.
In 1988, company executives began traveling to Asia to purchase unfinished dining room parts, said John Wampler, who served as company president and chief executive officer from 1993 until 2003.
A year later, Pulaski Furniture began importing black lacquer chests and other accent pieces.
"It was an opportunity to grow," Wampler explained. "At that time, we were able to continue to make the products we made but import the products we weren't making to add to the product line and help accelerate our growth."
It didn't stay that way for long.
In the late 1990s, Pulaski Furniture began importing bedroom and dining room furniture, and by 2000 so much work had been moved overseas the company decided to sell its plants in Dublin and Martinsville and focus its remaining domestic factories on specialty products.
Six months ago, the last of the closures hit home.
Pulaski Furniture announced in October it would close one of its downtown Pulaski plants, laying off 119 workers. In February, the company followed up with news it would shutter its last American plant, also downtown, leaving 260 people out of work.
Gene Dalton | The Roanoke Times
The Pulaski County courthouse bell tower stands out in front of the large, blue-gray manufacturing building that has been owned by the Coleman and Pulaski Furniture companies. Pulaski Furniture Corp. bought the building from Coleman in 1983, when the town’s and company’s future still looked bright.
Executives have said they plan to keep some warehouse and administration operations in town, but all of the brand's furniture will be made overseas.
"It's like the town's standing on one leg already and someone just kicked it in the knee," said Jeff Jones, a Pulaski native and president of the Greater Pulaski Alliance.
But the announcement had long been expected.
"I don't think it was a big surprise," Miller said. "You look at Martinsville and the other communities in this general area that had the significant furniture operations, and you've got the same thing."
Looking to the future
Like many of those communities, Pulaski is now tasked with finding a replacement industry. It won't be easy.
While two years ago Pulaski was able to land a $115 million, 230-job James Hardie Building Products facility, the town's identity remains tightly tied to furniture.
"Furniture is such a part of our psyche," White said. "And unlike in Galax and Martinsville, here you have Pulaski Furniture, so it's eponymous -- it takes its name from us ... and that sort of doubly underscores the town's longtime connection to consumer manufacturing."
In looking for more stable and higher-paying employers, town leaders have a few targets in mind, including distribution and data and office operations.
"We're going to have to get beyond thinking that manufacturing is the sole service here," White said. "We need to be innovative and creative and we need to use our minds and take advantage of the technology that's out there."
To do that, White said he hopes to work more cooperatively with the county and the region to market Pulaski's assets -- and find new occupants for the massive site once home to Pulaski Furniture.
"We don't want it to become a static brownfield that becomes a sort of visible symbol of our industrial past [and] that is a reminder of the death of what was such a vital time in the community," White said. "I think its transformation is an important symbol of hope for us."