By Pete Prunkl
For Salisbury Post
In May 1973, when President Richard Nixon signed a Congressional decision proclaiming America’s first National Preservation Week, he urged Americans to respect the previous: “As the pace of change accelerates around us, Americans more than ever before need a lively awareness of our roots and origins.” In May 2021, Historic Salisbury Foundation celebrates what’s now National Preservation Month by highlighting early Rowan County cabinetmakers. Their work was an essential a part of Salisbury and Rowan County’s “roots and origins.”
In the late 18th and early 19th century, Rowan County was dwelling to over 30 important trades. Most produced “necessities” resembling clothes, textiles, sneakers and harnesses. A smaller quantity made chairs, wheels, wheeled autos, bowls, plates, coffins, spinning wheels and constructed homes. At the highest of the woodworking hierarchy have been the cabinetmakers, the expert craftsmen who produced “luxury items” resembling desks, tables, secretary bookcases, chests of drawers, sideboards, cabinets, washstands and bedsteads.
In 1770, Rowan County was virtually bereft of luxurious objects. There have been solely two cabinetmakers and one chairmaker in what was then North Carolina’s largest county. In pre-Revolutionary War Rowan County, pioneers have been accustomed to creating their very own rudimentary furnishings, farm implements, looms, spinning wheels and cabins. Because of the low demand for luxurious items within the North Carolina backcountry, Rowan’s cabinetmakers labored half time at their commerce and half time as farmers.
Toward the top of the 1770s, Rowan County’s most notable cupboard maker arrived right here from Pennsylvania. “James Gheen (circa 1740-1796) was undoubtedly the most influential cabinetmaker in Piedmont, North Carolina,” stated antiques seller Robert Pearl. Gheen constructed furnishings at his farm on Second Creek, in northwest Rowan County, and offered it in Salisbury. Especially common have been Gheen’s fall entrance desks with bookcase tops. The Rowan Museum has two Gheen desks — one with a mismatched high donated by Dan Nicholas in 1954 and the opposite bought at public sale in 2008 for $10,000. Both assist furnish the museum’s Utzman-Chambers House on South Jackson Street.
Gheen most popular to work with native lumber, particularly black walnut for the case and yellow pine for backboards, drawer bases and different hidden areas. He additionally labored in cherry with oak secondary. The two Rowan Museum desks share just a few Gheen traits: ogee bracket toes, brass bale handles, formed pigeonhole dividers and wonderful fluted columns. The Dan Nicolas-donated desk is a extra refined instance of Gheen’s work. Its inside has eight broad and stylish serpentine doc drawers with elaborately framed slots or pigeonholes.
In October 2020, an much more elegant Gheen desk with an accurate bookcase high offered at Brunk Auctions in Asheville for $44,280. This Gheen piece was extensively inlaid with traces, bellflowers and a stylized tree. The heart prospect door was topped with a New England-style scallop shell carving. Interior drawers have been serpentine just like the Nicholas-donated desk. The bookcase was topped with a scrolled pediment and carved rosettes. Rowan Museum was an underbidder on the uncommon Gheen desk bookcase.
James Gheen might have been essentially the most influential 18th century Rowan County cabinetmaker, however he was not alone in creating properly-designed German-influenced cabinetwork. Johannes Stirewalt (1732-1796), who lived in southern Rowan County, was Gheen’s modern. Historians know that he constructed the pipe organ at Organ Lutheran Church and Rowan Museum attributes their 7½-foot by 4½- foot nook cabinet to him. The Stirewalt cabinet escaped extinction a number of occasions in its lengthy life and miraculously survives. It was rescued from a home that was demolished solely to be left outside for years. Its backside half was bleached both by the solar or lye.
From 1800 to 1850, the inhabitants of Rowan cupboard makers and the variety of their luxurious items dramatically elevated. Elegant furnishings was now in vogue and Salisbury had the wealth to afford it. Filling the wants of a extra city clientele have been David Woodson, Mordechai Cottit, John Claver, Waine Evans, Sandy Boyd, Alexander Boyd, John Cooper, Horatio Woodson, William Hughes, John H. Smith, A. W. Buis, George Fraley, David Watson, Joseph Conrad, Munford Bean, William Rowzee, J. Cook, J. Brian and Warren Gheen. Perhaps essentially the most properly-recognized member was Lewis (or Louis) Utzman (1785-1850), whose home on South Jackson Street, Salisbury, is owned by the Rowan Museum.
“Lewis Utzman was from the Bringle Ferry Road German settlement near Union Lutheran Church,” stated Rowan Museum Executive Director Aaron Kepley. “Unfortunately, we do not own any of his pieces and I have not found any online.” In 1814, Utzman purchased the land the place the Utzman-Chambers House was constructed circa 1815. The Panic of 1819 was particularly onerous on cabinetmakers and by the top of the 1820s, Utzman needed to promote his instruments and milk cows to fulfill collectors. He moved to Tennessee for a contemporary begin.
Lewis Utzman and different Rowan County cabinetmakers marketed their merchandise in native and space newspapers saying that they might promote their wares for money, produce, planks, timber and scantling (lower-items of lumber). They additionally used the newspapers to solicit or announce the hiring of apprentices, some as younger as 7 years previous.
Gheen, Stierwalt and Utzman have been German immigrants who have been influenced by the kinds of their homeland in addition to by interval Pennsylvania, British and Southern designs. They have been a few of our earliest celebrities and benefit a glass of beer hoisted of their honor each National Preservation Month.
Pete Prunkl lives in Salisbury and is the writer of “Beyond the Hedges: Historic Salisbury Foundation and the Preservation Movement.” He additionally serves on the Historic Salisbury Foundation Board of Trustees. For extra data on Historic Salisbury Foundation and the Rowan History Class, name 704-636-0103.