Upland Chronicles: Craftsman Don Ward made fine furniture

Apr. 29, 2013 @ 03:38 PM

BY CARROLL MCMAHAN

The Arts and Crafts movement emerged during the late Victorian period in England. By the turn of the 20th century, the movement spread to the United States. Anxieties about industrial life fueled a positive revaluation of handcraftsmanship. In America, companies such as Roycroft, Stickley and other designers soon began creating woodwork in harmony with the Arts and Crafts movement.

Meanwhile, craftsmen in the isolated Southern Appalachian Mountains continued to make high-quality furniture as they had for generations. Out of necessity, various family members crafted what they needed using skills passed down from their ancestors.

After the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the end of World War II, tourists discovered craftsmanship of the mountaineers, thereby creating a market for their hand-crafted furniture.

In 1925, a Yale-educated attorney named A.J. Ely purchased property on Roaring Fork adjacent to land that would become part of the new national park. Ely planned to build a craft-oriented enterprise for the coming tourist trade, to be called Ely’s Mill.

After World War ll, Ely decided to add handcrafted furniture to the selection of items sold in his showroom, called the Water Wheel Craft Shop. Somehow Ely contacted O. G. Ward from Watauga County, N.C., to ask him to come to Gatlinburg and make furniture on the premises of Ely’s Mill.

In 1947, Otis George “O.G.” Ward was joined at Ely’s Mill by his younger brother Alfred Don Ward. Together they established a reputation as fine furniture makers. They formed their own business called Ward’s Furniture on Cartertown Road.

In addition to furniture, Ward’s Furniture made the wooden shutters for the Mountain View Hotel. Ward’s Furniture soon grew to the point where O.G. and Don each formed his own business.

Alfred Don, who was known as Don, opened his business on Circle Drive in Gatlinburg. He purchased the property, which included a shop and log cabin, from J.C. Cole.

Don Ward was born March 12, 1921, in Watauga County N.C. As a young man he worked for the CCC building bridges on the North Carolina side of the park. During World War II, Don served in the U.S. Army, where he was involved in active combat in the Battle of the Bulge.

When the war ended, Don returned home to his wife, Juanita Ruth Ward (1925-2007) and their daughter Sylvia and son Larry. Another son, Dale, was born before they moved to Gatlinburg, where their youngest son, Jerry, was born.

In the 1950s, demand for handcrafted furniture was such that Don Ward Furniture Company flourished, as did several other reputable woodcrafters in Gatlinburg. Chairs built in Don Ward’s shop became nationally known.

Over the years, several local men who possessed skills as woodcrafters worked for Don Ward. Isaac Ogle and his son Wade, Granville Ownby and Gene Marine, who stood almost 7 feet tall, were among the craftsmen who worked there.

Using corn shucks, Garfield Carr wove bottoms for chairs, and Jack Watson was an accomplished finisher who applied a lacquer finish to chairs once they were built. Charles Compton, an excellent wood-carver, worked for his father-in-law as well.

Juanita Ward helped out her husband at the business, and so did the children when they became old enough. Juanita’s duties included stringing together wood grapes, which were sold along with other pieces of carved fruit.

Examples of Don Ward’s hand-crafted furniture could be found in homes and business throughout the nation – particularly in Gatlinburg, where the Mountain View Hotel’s guest-room bedsteads and dining-room captain’s chairs were from his shop. Another example of the fine furniture made in Don Ward’s shop was the Windsor chairs in the Pancake Pantry.

Always interested in promoting mountain crafts, Don was an active member of the Southern Highlands Craft Guild and once served as president of the organization.

His renown in the woodcrafting business became such that he was asked to teach wood-crafting for the Office of Economic Opportunity. He instructed students in various centers throughout the region. While teaching in Pleasant Hill, Tenn., Don discovered a woodcraft shop in decline, which he managed to help rebuild by instructing local families the skill of woodcrafting. Through his own business, Don helped distribute furniture made there.

In 1969, Don moved to Pigeon Forge and relocated his business to Butler Street, behind Pigeon Forge Pottery (now Pigeon River Pottery). While residing in Pigeon Forge, he served as mayor and city councilman and served as director of the Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism.

Shortly after the 1962 opening of Eastgate Center (now Eastgate Mall) in Chattanooga, Don opened a store there. A few years later he coordinated one of the first craft shows in the nation there.

Don Ward continued promoting the wood crafting industry that he so dearly loved until his he passed away on May 30, 1982, at age 61. His brother O.G. remained active as a wood craftsman until his death in 1984.

The impact the Ward brothers made on the arts and crafts community is immeasurable, and the legacy they left behind will be witnessed by generations to come in the long-lasting furniture of the highest quality they produced.

Carroll McMahan is the special projects facilitator for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce. The Upland Chronicles series celebrates the heritage of Sevier County. If you have suggestions for future topics contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or email to cmcmahan@scoc.org; or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or email to ron@ronraderproperties.com.