Charles Sligh was a driven and creative salesperson.
Sligh was born in Grand Rapids in 1850. At age 12, his father died while serving in the Civil War. Charles quit school to support himself and his family. First, he worked in the county clerk’s office. Then, he became an apprentice to a tinsmith for W.D. Foster.
Then he sought work as a journeyman tinsmith in Michigan and Illinois — but instead found work in Grand Rapids as a clerk for W. D. Foster. Then, in 1874, he got a job at Berkey and Gay as a finisher and salesperson.
As a salesperson, he brought furniture to Texas. He earned enough money in the role that, in 1880, with his brother-in-law, Louis Hawkins, he formed the Sligh Furniture Company.
At that time, furniture companies each produced one line of furniture. Thus, from the customer’s perspective, creating a matching suite of furniture was difficult to do. Sligh solved that problem. It was his idea to produce multiple lines of matching furniture in the same factory.
In 1883, Sligh became his own supplier by establishing the Honduras Mahogany Company. From Honduras, he shipped timber to New Orleans for processing, then transported it to Grand Rapids.
Sligh Furniture became famous. U.S presidents Rutherford B. Hayes and Benjamin Harrison owned Sligh bedroom suites. But the business was also economically sensitive. After the stock market crash in 1893 and ensuing recession, Sligh diversified by launching a bicycle manufacturing business. In 1896, he merged that business with a manufacturer in Ohio to create the Hamilton-Kenwood Cycle Company.
By 1900, the Sligh Furniture Company employed 325 men. Sligh also gained the respect of his peers. He served as president of the National Furniture Manufacturers Association and the Grand Rapids Furniture Manufacturers Association.
He was also a founding member of the Grand Rapids Board of Trade and a director of the Citizens Telephone Company. To feed his furniture business, Sligh formed the Charles Sligh Timber Company, the Clark-Sligh Timber Company and the Grand Rapids Timber Company, and bought land in the Pacific Northwest.
In 1903, his wife, Mary Conger Sligh, died. Charles then married Edith Clark. In 1905, they bought a cottage at Ottawa Beach. Their son — Charles Sligh, Jr. — was born in 1906.
In the 1910s, Sligh Furniture employed the French designer Rene Guenaux and continued to grow and prosper. But it was still subject to economic contractions and global events. During World War I, to keep operating, the company made walnut gun stocks.
After the war, the business resumed growing. In the 1920s, the company billed itself as the largest manufacturer of bedroom furniture in the world. Its factory near the present-day S-curve in downtown Grand Rapids produced over 80 lines of bedroom suites and 11 lines of dining room suites. In 1924, Sligh employed 1,500 workers.
Charles Sligh Jr. started working full-time at Sligh Furniture in 1926, progressing from laborer to traveling salesman to company treasurer. William Lowry served as plant manager. In 1927, Charles Sligh Sr. died. His son-in-law, Charles McClave, who had been with the company since 1907, became president.
By then, the furniture industry had started to migrate to the southern states to take advantage of lower wages and less expensive lumber. The company, like so many others, closed during the Great Depression.
But, in 1933, Charles Sligh Jr. and William “Bill” Lowry purchased the original company name, machinery and tools from the defunct company’s creditors, and hired 45 of its skilled workers to start over. They did so at the empty Thompson Manufacturing Company, present-day home of DePree Art Gallery on the campus of Hope College.
They chose Holland, in part, due to the salesmanship of the chamber of commerce secretary, William Connelly, and mayor, Nicodemus Bosch, who promised that for every $7 of payroll, they would receive from the city $1 toward paying off their mortgage on the building.
Bosch and Connelly also introduced Sligh to banker Don Mattheson, who invested $6,000 in the business — which represented one-third of the firm’s startup capital. Sligh paid workers, happy to get a job, 35 cents per hour. Sligh, whose responsibility was sales, and Lowry, whose responsibility was operations, paid themselves $35 per week.
In its first year, sales of the new Sligh Furniture Company reached $140,000. By 1936, the principals had paid off the mortgage on the building.
We'll continue the story next week.
— Community Columnist Steve VanderVeen is a resident of Holland. Contact him through start-upacademeinc.com.
This article originally appeared on The Holland Sentinel: Holland History: The impressive resilience of Sligh Furniture Company