Comforting. Reliable. Strong.
Northern Michigan is where the summer cottage, cabin or shanty has always been the place to call home for as long as weather allows. Since the turn of the last century, cottages were built by local carpenters and then furnished with locally crafted furniture that could withstand a family's hard use during the warm seasons, then survive sub-zero, snowy winters with the subsequent damp, humid thaws in spring. For months at a time, rustic furniture was abandoned in harsh conditions, and it did not warp, blister, splinter or fade. Owners knew that upon their return, their furnishings would be just as good as new.
When roads improved during the early 1920s, automobile travel provided great adventure. Families and friends, hunters, fishermen all trooped northward in search of fresh air, scenic views, and time to renew. Cottages, cabins, lodges and resorts started to emerge wherever there was a lake or even a river with a good road leading to it.
Owners did not have to travel far to furnish their north country homes. They merely followed any of those ubiquitous wooden signs, either tacked onto a tree or staked into the ground, painted with the words "wooden furniture" next to an arrow pointing the way to a rustic maker. As decades passed, some local craftsmen eventually grew their furniture making businesses into large companies that produced thousands of pieces each year while small Michigan cottage industries thrived through local craftspeople…artists in every sense of the word.
"John C. Rittenhouse wants a car load of eggs; he is giving a good price for them."
Cheboygan Democrat, July 15, 1899
When this want ad was published, John Rittenhouse was twenty years old and stocking inventory for his small grocery store at Mullett Lake, near Cheboygan. Three years later, Rittenhouse made the news again when he took over his father's successful cedar railroad ties and telephone pole lumbering business. By 1905, Rittenhouse had purchased two more lumberyards that produced cedar shingles and siding. His holdings grew rapidly until he experienced a tragic setback in 1908 after one of the lumberyards near Metz burned in what is still considered the worst forest fire in Michigan history. Not only was Rittenhouse's lumberyard destroyed, but 42 people lost their lives when the town, as well as a passing passenger train, were fully engulfed in fire, and burned to the ground.
But John Rittenhouse remained undeterred as a businessman. He soon owned a Cheboygan drug store, as well as a successful Studebaker car dealership. Finally, shortly after his 50th birthday, John Rittenhouse realized that the increase of Michigan summer cottagers was growing exponentially, and so he turned some of those white cedar telephone poles into home furnishings. Rittenhouse Rustic Furniture would become his legacy.
Large, sturdy, substantial but not clunky, Rittenhouse rustic furniture had sleek lines with a consistent, honey colored finish. His earliest examples were bark-covered red cedar manufactured by local craftsmen, many of Native American descent. Rittenhouse furniture became especially popular in the late 1930s after Americans learned that famous movie and stage songstress, Kate Smith, had completely decorated her beloved Lake Placid Cottage, called Camp Sunshine, with Rittenhouse furnishings. Later, the furniture was made from stripped white cedar logs, especially as sales rapidly moved well beyond Michigan.
At peak production throughout the 1940s, Rittenhouse released catalogs advertising "Indian Maid" designs by the Rittenhouse Manufacturing Company. This new line offered outdoor furniture and even golf course tee markers at 50 cents each. When John Rittenhouse died in 1951, his company eventually sold to Donald Deinzer, who carried on with the Rittenhouse name, until the doors closed for the last time in 1964.
"Twelve years ago for the pleasure and accommodation of vacationers, I constructed a summer resort, known as Presque Isle Lodge on beautiful Grand Lake, twenty miles deep in the woods north of Alpena, Michigan. Instead of building my lodge on the stereotype plan of the conventional summer resort, I built it along Colonial lines followed by the American woodsman who constructed his home as a fortress against frontier perils." Newell A. Eddy, Jr. - 1932
Newell Eddy was a Yale graduate and came from a well to do family with a long history in the lumber industry. However, Eddy's focused interest was in the potential for tourist trade along Grand Lake when he built Presque Isle Lodge in 1920. As the new resort neared completion, and after carefully considering his options for furnishings, Eddy found nothing would match the American rustic colonial style that he had so carefully designed into his building. So, Newell Eddy Jr. decided to make his own furniture:
"With several of the same patient, expert craftsmen who had helped me build the Lodge, I began the construction of early American furniture. We kept reference books constantly before us in our workshop to ensure close adherence to authentic styles. We worked hard, and we worked long. We built tables, chairs, dressers, beds, settees- we even built mirrors, lamps, bookshelves and numerous other accessory pieces to complete the entire Lodge furnishings…."
Soon after opening, a rustic furniture company grew out of the popularity of these designs that decorated Presque Isle Lodge. Eddy initially filled guests' orders from a small workshop at the resort, but soon trademarked the name Habitant in 1924 with bigger goals in mind. By 1930, Eddy advertised that they would create custom furniture from any imaginative sketch that interested customers could provide and one of Habitant's earliest designs was a solid knotty pine wingback that looked almost exactly like the classical 18th century Early American fireside chair.
Newell Eddy ended hand production at the resort during the early 1930s and moved the business moved into his Bay City, Michigan factory. For the next 30 years, his catalogs offered just about every type of furniture and accessory imaginable while continuing to advertise the American colonial design concept that he first envisioned. When the company ended production during the 1960s, Habitant Furniture had been widely distributed throughout the United States and Canada, especially at commercial resorts, country clubs, hotels and restaurants where furnishings may still be found today.
•Shrine of the Pines and Raymond Overholzer•
At the opposite extreme of rustic furniture production is Raymond W. Overholzer, who made over 200 pieces during his lifetime, but never sold a thing.
Today, Overholzer is unarguably considered one of the great masters of rustic furniture design. His entire collection is still on display today near Baldwin, Michigan at the hunting lodge that he built and filled with furnishings throughout the last three decades of his life, beginning in the early 1920s. He called the Lodge, Shrine of the Pines, in commemoration of the monumental white pine trees long considered Michigan's greatest resource. These were old growth trees, over 400 years old, and by that time, they had been logged to the point of near extinction.
The Pere Marquette River is nearby, flowing into Lake Michigan. Even today, this is considered a pristine river, fed by underground springs, with a natural flow unimpeded by manmade dams. Overholzer found the river filled with ancient sun and water washed white pine roots and stumps, leftovers from early logging days. So he hauled these out of the river and began to design furniture.
Overholzer's furniture was put together entirely by hand and without nails. The backs of his chairs were slowly, carefully and perfectly shaped to fit the human form as comfortably as if cushioned. He fitted pieces together with a secret glue concoction made from the entrails of fish, deer hair, sawdust and pine pitch. To create that glistening finish, he hand rubbed and polished every inch of his furniture using bits of glass and pine oil, deer hides and maple sticks.
Overholzer's life work was intended only for his Shrine and was never for sale. Yet, his art did not go unnoticed. When Henry Ford asked to purchase just one piece, Raymond W. Overholzer said no.
Another small town rustic furniture artisan was Orr M. Greenlees, of Ojibwa descent. Orr built cottages and cabins by trade. He was also a skilled painter and paperer who often worked on the walls at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, but Orr became famous in 1920 when he started making artsy, applied birch bark rustic furniture.
For about ten years, Greenlees sold chairs, tables and even children's furnishings to tourists as well as the local townspeople, but Orr's largest work order came in 1925, when one local businessman, Ellsworth "Frenchie" Vallier requested a fully furnished and decorated new restaurant and dance hall. The establishment was scheduled to open during spring 1926 and the huge commission also included covering the walls with original oil-painted murals depicting famous scenes from local histories between backgrounds of either natural white birch bark or matching faux bois painted finish. Nearly 6 months went into the work. That winter, Orr and his wife Eve built and painted 150 rustic chairs for the dining room alone.
The Birch Wood Arbor dance hall, restaurant and gift shop opened right on time in 1926 and the building was entirely covered, both inside and out, with real birch bark. Even Vallier's automobile was painted to resemble birch bark as a promotion gimmick for his club. The Birch Wood became a favorite tourist destination and was famous not only for the big bands that played there but also for the quirky, birchbark furniture, decor and wall treatments. When the Birch Wood's popularity faded by 1931, Vallier sold the business and Orr's work all but disappeared when the building was torn down about 1938.
Greenlees created rustic furniture that skittered across and between the defining conceptual lines of rustic craft and American folk art. His work was perhaps some of the most unusual of all Michigan rustic furniture makers. The furniture itself was a kind of unique frame around his original oil paintings and collage work, found on each and every piece, and no two were alike.
As an artist, Orr Greenlees' painting style was influenced by local Northern Michigan history, the outdoors and Ojibwa culture and design…even though he rarely spoke of his Native American heritage. Greenlees chairs have an immediately recognizable silhouette because they are skirted with applied natural birch bark panels that surround the legs on at least two sides. The sharply angled backs are painted with scenes of cozy teepees and cabins nestled into forest and lakeside landscapes. There are also portraits of songbirds, raptors, raccoons, deer, bear and moose painted in peaceful, idyllic settings.
His matching tables are also recognizable with the shadow box styled top that frames folk art collages made from dried Michigan flora and fauna, then covered with glass. Most collages were designed with pebbles, feathers, tiny shells and mosses inserted into simple twig mosaics. Some featured layers of natural white birch bark beneath an assemblage made from peacock feathers, dried Luna moths, butterflies, mosses, lichens, and leaves.
During his lifetime, Orr Greenlees built many cottages and cabins in and around St. Ignace including his small enterprise called The Balsam's Resort. There, Orr and Eve lived and raised a family alongside their beloved pets: peacocks, deer, raccoons as well as their cherished pet bear.
Today, as one explores the backroads of Northern Michigan, those once ubiquitous signs pointing to rustic furniture makers are gone. Nearly a century has passed since the earliest Michigan artisans began their craft, but this rare and wonderful rustic furniture may be found in antique shops, auctions and flea markets throughout the United States. Unusual and earthy, the style has a rich heritage that includes so many more rustic craftsmen with names such as master Stanley Smolak or Campbell Griggs, Hart Hill and Lyle Clark. Then, there are all the others…artisans whose names have all but disappeared…while their rustic creations continue to be comforting, reliable and strong.