Greg Harkins’ Mission: Passing on Chairmaking to the Next Generation

Greg Harkins’ Mission: Passing on Chairmaking to the Next Generation

"I couldn’t understand what the big deal was at 21 years of age, but at 67 I know exactly what it is. I hate to see all that I learn and all I was taught just vanish, and there’s no one learning this. Chairmaking to Mr. Bell was like a religion. It’s a way you live your life."

 

Greg Harkins stands tall against the winds of change. Harkins hand makes chairs for presidents, chairs for common folks and chairs for anyone who can afford to wait for old world quality and workmanship. The Mississippi State alumnus never thought he’d enter a world of using his hands, wits and his own land to make a living. That is until the psychology major met the late Tom Bell, a chairmaker extraordinaire who took the young Harkins into his shop as an apprentice. With information passed down from master craftsmen dating back generations, Bell set the pace for the path that lay before Harkins.

Decades ago, the Canton native picked up a Psychology degree in Starkville with plans for graduate school. But the summer after graduating he moved into his great-grandparents’ place that was originally his great-great-great-great-grandparents’ house. Living there opened his eyes to a new way of life that was actually an “old way of life.” He soon would embark on the path of an apprentice chairmaker. 

Harkins creating a masterpiece from trees on his land. Photo by Sam King Photography.

“I’d always wanted to live there [Greg’s grandparents’ house] and I thought if I ever was going to, this was the time to do it,” Harkins said. “I also met some chairmakers and every one of them kept talking about Mr. Tommy Bell.” 1

That summer changed his life.  He began learning the chairmaking craft. After working for seven different chairmakers, Harkins knew what he needed to do.

“It’s a miracle, that’s what it is. I’ve been doing this 46 years. I apprenticed under a man [Tommy Bell] who had been doing it 63 years,” Harkins said. “It was an old-world apprenticeship. I worked for him for a year and half and he paid me virtually nothing which is so far from the truth – he gave me a life.” 2

Harkins knows the only way to repay his mentor is to find an apprentice. 

"Tommy Bell’s attitude was if you were a good chairmaker, you made chairs all your life."

“He and his wife both were very instrumental in me doing what I’m doing. He wanted me to learn this. He was desperate for it. I couldn’t understand what the big deal was at 21 years of age, but at 67 I know exactly what it is. I hate to see all that I learn and all I was taught just vanish, and there’s no one learning this. Chairmaking to Mr. Bell was like a religion. It’s a way you live your life.” 3

During his apprenticeship, Harkins actually was paid “a little money and two meals and they always sent me home with supper. Miss Mabel was a wonderful cook and a real pleasure.” 4

Working for Bell, Harkins began to understand the world of chairmaking. He also noted the rivalries and the intricacies of the new life he had chosen. He paid attention to those in the business and how they treated his “boss.”

“They either loved him or hated him because he was his own man. They said if he liked you there wasn’t enough he could do for you. And if he didn’t like you, it was best to walk on the other side of the street. He was a priceless individual who chewed Juicy Fruit gum,” Harkins said. “It didn’t matter what time of the day you pulled up to his house, he’d stick his head out the shop door and yell up to the house, ‘Mabel, we got company for dinnah!’ You never left his house without something,” Harkins said. 5

The college classroom had seen the last of Harkins. He stepped into a new one that would continue to mold him as a man and as a chairmaker. It was his own heaven on earth. 

“It was where I wanted to live. It was the old log house built by my ancestors in 1835 and I have that behind my house now. If you wanted to go hunting you just got up in the morning and went hunting,” Harkins said. “If you wanted to hunt squirrels you went down by the creek. If you wanted to hunt quail you went up by the meadows,” he said. “People today, try to inject the fact that they live on a tiny postage stamp piece of land in town, and then they buy 500 acres in the country and try to inject that control over the big piece of land. Back then, you just walked to where there was game. And if you ran across someone they just asked if you had birds or if you needed water. It was a whole lot nicer place and time to live.” 6

Harkin's log cabin dates back several generations within his family. Photo by Sam King Photography.

In the workshop, Harkins’ apprenticeship had no laid-out plan. The men just built the furniture that was needed.

“We spent a day building a prototype cedar box. At the end of the day of frustration, he thumbed his ax and busted it all to pieces. Then he said, ‘Tomorrow we will build cedar boxes.’ I thought, ‘What passion.’ The next day went flawless. Another time we built tables. Whatever he sold is what we built but predominantly he made chairs,” he said. 7

The chairmaker made certain he knew and understood the techniques that were laid out in front of him. But you don’t copy anyone’s style. You impart your own signature in the creation. 

“Chairmakers – there were people shot and killed over chair patterns in the last century. You didn’t make my chair and I didn’t make yours. Tommy Bell’s attitude was if you were a good chairmaker, you made chairs all your life.” 8

 In the beginning, he gave himself a few goals to shoot for. Then added a few more until he created a viable career.

Harkins briefly left his apprenticeship to try his hand at one of his other in-demand skills – that as a cook. His life in the restaurant business was short lived and he headed back to the woods, back to Bell, back to heaven. 

“When I came back after a few months he told me, ‘I was fixing to send somebody down there to get you. I want you to apprentice under me.’ I said, ‘I thought I was.’ And he said, ‘Naw, you were working. But I’m going to tell you how to do it.’” 9

The apprenticeship ended when Bell told him “I’m through. I’ve been doing this for 64 years and you’re welcome to stay here as long as you want to and as long as you need to and I’ll help you with anything you don’t understand. He was a great teacher.” 10

Harkins admiring his handcrafted rocker. Photo by Sam King Photography.

More than four decades later, Greg is still at it, making a living, having a life and making life better for others with quality furniture. In the beginning, he gave himself a few goals to shoot for. Then added a few more until he created a viable career. He compared his “career” and achievements to those around him to measure his success.

“I said to myself, I’ll do this for five years and see where I’m at. I did it for five years and at the end of five years, you had a house and I had a house. You had a car and I had a truck and you had a job and I had a job and you made money and I made money. So, I figured, well let’s do five more.” 11

Over the next five years, Harkins was written up in major magazines and built chairs for two United States presidents. 

“Reagan got five chairs in all. One at the Neshoba County Fair and he got another chair sent to California and he asked me if I wanted to go to California and I told him I didn’t have time to go. I had never had so much business. But how stupid can you get?” 12

Harkins’ mother, June, talked to Mrs. Regan on the phone before they made it to the White House.

“Mama thought it was her friend, Gertrude Poole, playing a joke on her,” Harkins said. “After telling her, ‘now, Gertrude, quit that,’ three or four times, she realized it was Nancy Reagan. Mama said, ‘I know she thought I was crazy but I don’t get a call from the soon to be First Lady every day.’ My mama is such a sweetheart. She’s 94 and really received little attention about her help. She was always there for me.” 13

He gives credit to his parents (Glen and June) for his success and understands they didn’t get near the recognition deserved for their sacrifices and discipline in raising five children. 

“She never got any mention and never would accept any,” Harkins said of his mother. “That’s not why she was doing it. She was doing it for her baby boy. My parents were so completely instrumental in what I did and there’s no way I could have done it without them. When he [Greg’s father] retired, he came up and started weaving chair bottoms. He was there at every turn. He probably sold more chairs for me than anyone other than my mother.” 14

Harkins got “tons and tons of publicity” with the presidential chair pictures that went around the world, and he had the opportunity to make chairs for other U. S. presidents and vice-presidents. 

“Shortly thereafter, George Bush got a chair as Vice President. George Bush got a chair as President (three total). Dan Quayle got two chairs and invited me to the Executive Office a second time. After that Bill Clinton got a chair at the governors’ convention. That one is now in his office in Harlem (New York). Then George Bush Jr. got two chairs. Jimmy Carter got a chair. I’ve made chairs for all kinds of those people – congressman, senators, actors – George Burns, Bob Hope.” 15  

These days, Harkins is edging towards Bell’s shoes in that he needs an apprentice, so the craftsmanship and talent passed down to him doesn’t come to an end.  “Tommy Bell was 79 when I started working for him and he was frantic to find somebody to teach. I didn’t understand the problem that he had, but one day he told me that he learned a way of life before electricity that died. And then he had to learn another way of life – making chairs faster using electric tools and all. He did not want everything that he had learned to die when he did.” 16  

Prior to his retirement, Greg produced between 1,500 and 1,800 chairs a year from a studio in Vaughn, Mississippi just off of I-55. 

He wants to pass down “a life” to another worthy generation.  “A lot of people have approached me about it,” Harkins said. “And a lot of people have come to work under the guise that they were going to do it. I had one guy work for four days and didn’t come back on the fifth.” 17  

Harkins was later confronted by the former student who let Harkins know he was owed four days wages. The former student told him, “Mr. Harkins, that’s way more work than I plan to do in my life.” 18

He’s had others last more than six months but none have stayed along the path to learn it all and acquire the knowledge necessary to make a life of it. But it’s a life Harkins wants to give to someone. 

Harkins crafting the legs for one of his chairs. Photo by Sam King Photography.

Prior to his retirement, Greg produced between 1,500 and 1,800 chairs a year from a studio in Vaughn, Mississippi just off of I-55.  Post-retirement, he creates about eight to twelve chairs a month.  Harkins fells trees and breaks down the wood in a sawmill behind his home. He works with red oak, walnut, and bodock trees to produce foot stools, double rockers, straight back chairs, bar stools, end tables, dining room tables, coffee tables and five different types of rockers. 

His favorite wood to work with is Walnut though he uses Oak and Bodock wood as well. Every chair is handmade with no mass production techniques. 

“I do natural chairs, turn chairs, coffee tables – I do a dozen different types of chairs but they all have my trademark – a cap ball and collar on the top post of the chair,” he said. 19

He also teaches chairmaking, as well as other traditional crafts like hog butchering, cooking biscuits and several other southern dishes. For Harkins, it’s just the way of life of how he was raised and he’s happy to pass it along and keep each skill sharp. When he’s not making chairs, Harkins likes to hunt, fish and cook. 

“I like to cook dinners at St. Ann’s and make tamales. I won the tamale fest in Greenville one year. I’ve also got my great-grandparents old church that I’ve refurbished that is used for weddings. It’s a wonderful place to get married.” 20

St. Ann's Church sits on Harkins’ property where he has rehabbed it back to life for social gatherings as well as church services. Photo by Sam King Photography.

In addition, Harkins has created a log cabin kit replete with instructions and everything “but the tin and windows” to create a 20-foot by 20-foot log cabin that is patterned after his ancestor’s house. 

The chairmaker has lived a blessed life and knows that his home state and the people surrounding him are a big reason why. “I feel very, very blessed being from Mississippi.” 21

Old world craftsmanship, chairmaker and Magnolia State native, Greg Harkins – still searching for an apprentice to keep the generations’ old ways alive and thriving. 

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Footnotes

  1. ^  Harkins, Greg. (1) Interviewed by author via phone, June 25, 2020.
  2. ^  Harkins, Greg. (2) Interviewed by author via phone, June 25, 2020.
  3. ^  Harkins, Greg. (3) Interviewed by author via phone, September 20, 2017.
  4. ^  Harkins, Greg. (4) Interviewed by author via phone, June 25, 2020.
  5. ^  Harkins, Greg. (5) Interviewed by author via phone, June 25, 2020.
  6. ^  Harkins, Greg. (6) Interviewed by author via phone, September 20, 2017.
  7. ^  Harkins, Greg. (7) Interviewed by author via phone, June 25, 2020.
  8. ^  Harkins, Greg. (8) Interviewed by author via phone, September 20, 2017.
  9. ^  Harkins, Greg. (9) Interviewed by author via phone, September 20, 2017.
  10. ^  Harkins, Greg. (10) Interviewed by author via phone, September 20, 2017.
  11. ^  Harkins, Greg. (11) Interviewed by author via phone, June 25, 2020.
  12. ^  Harkins, Greg. (12) Interviewed by author via phone, June 25, 2020.
  13. ^  Harkins, Greg. (13) Interviewed by author via phone, June 25, 2020.
  14. ^  Harkins, Greg. (14) Interviewed by author via phone, June 25, 2020.
  15. ^ Harkins, Greg. (15) Interviewed by author via phone, September 20, 2017.
  16. ^  Harkins, Greg. (16) Interviewed by author via phone, September 20, 2017.
  17. ^  Harkins, Greg. (17) Interviewed by author via phone, September 20, 2017.
  18. ^  Harkins, Greg. (18) Interviewed by author via phone, June 25, 2020.
  19. ^  Harkins, Greg. (19) Interviewed by author via phone, June 25, 2020.
  20. ^  Harkins, Greg. (20) Interviewed by author via phone, June 25, 2020.
  21. ^  Harkins, Greg. (21) Interviewed by author via phone, June 25, 2020.

Mark H. Stowers

Mark H. Stowers

Mark H. Stowers is an award-winning freelance writer and journalist tackling projects of all sizes and scope. News, sports, entertainment, feature, advertorial and marketing pieces as well as training materials and various web content projects come across his desk. Recent work includes nanotechnology video interviews, recreational real estate features, hard news, weekly columns and human-interest features.