A master sculptor was once asked how he could create such a realistic statue of an elephant. He is said to have replied, “First, get a huge block of marble. Then chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.”
Such might be said for Stanley Briggs and his way with wood. Briggs, an 85-year old woodworking legend, still works every day creating masterpieces. His shop is a nondescript white cinder block building on Sweeten Creek Road filled with generations of tools, carvings and memorabilia. But mainly, it is the palette of a life’s work.
He has worked for the rich, the famous, and the average guy who comes to him with a chair with a broken leg. All are treated equally, and well.
“Billy Graham got in touch with me one day,” Briggs recalls, “about doing some work in the chapel at the Cove. He asked me if I could create all the furniture for the chapel. I was honored to get the call. He asked for a pulpit and chairs, and said they’d need 26 pews. It was a big order.”
Except that Briggs talked himself out of building the pews and the pulpit.
“Mr. Graham had found a pulpit in England that he wanted me to see. I believe it had gone through World War II,” Briggs said. “It was perfect for the chapel, and I told him so. I also told him it would be a waste of money for me to build the pews. There are a dozen companies that make really nice pews already. He looked into it, found some he liked, and said they would have them out there today.”
What Briggs did build was six chairs to line the platform behind the pulpit. Basing the design on the pulpit Graham had found, Briggs created four chairs with five foot backs, and two that measured six feet.
“Mrs. Ruth Graham helped with that decision,” Briggs recalls. “I really enjoyed working for them.”And so it goes with Briggs’ memories. Clients come in two flavors, good and bad. Except he never mentions the bad ones. All were good. All were nice. They are the kinds of memories everyone would like to have.
Briggs got his start in woodworking at the former Morgan Manufacturing Company in Asheville. It was there that he met one of his favorite characters in life, Colonel Robert K. Morgan. Morgan’s father, David, had started the company after moving here from Evanston, Ill. and one of his sons, Colonel Bob, was a B-17 bomber pilot in World War II. The airplane he flew was called “The Memphis Belle,” after Morgan’s girlfriend in Memphis. Flying from bases in England, Morgan and his crew flew daylight bombing missions in the most dangerous early days of American participation in the war. They were the first crew to complete 25 missions over Germany and earn their eligibility to be sent back to the states.
Morgan’s piloting skill and courage were proudly put on display with a nationwide tour to sell War Bonds. Upon their return, Morgan and his crew embarked on a 31-city War Bond tour. With his dashing good looks and incredible wartime feats, Morgan quickly became the most famous American aviator since Charles Lindbergh.
After completing his war bond tour and not wanting a ‘desk job’, Morgan returned to war in the Pacific, flying a B-29 called “Dauntless Dottie” in missions over Japan. On November 24, 1944, he flew the lead aircraft in the first bombing mission over Tokyo since Jimmy Doolittle’s famous raid in 1942. In 1945 he flew the lead bomber in the first night time incendiary fire bombing raid over Tokyo. A few months later, after 26 B-29 missions over Japan, he was sent home. He had done his duty in the early days of the war over Europe, as a much needed national celebrity, and again in the dangerous early days of the final air assault on Japan.
Briggs remembers him for his war time service and courage but has a different perspective. His memories of Colonel Morgan, as he still refers to him, were as a brilliant young sales manager for his employer, the Morgan Manufacturing Company.
“That was one of the finest men I ever met,” Briggs recalls. “He would do anything for you and he was sharp as a tack. He flew his own twin-engine Beechcraft all over the country working on sales for the company.”
Briggs worked 12 years for Morgan Manufacturing, eventually heading their engineering and design departments. In his early years with the firm, just after WWII, he helped Morgan’s older brother, David, Jr., pioneer the use of particle board. “During the war you couldn’t get wood for furniture,” Briggs says. “They needed all they could get for the war effort. At Morgan we made truck bodies, boats and lots of other things that were needed. After the war we still had a shortage of wood. We adopted a German process to create sheets of wood by cutting small, previously unusable limbs into wood particles, then using a special kind of glue, heat and pressure to make a board. We had the 3rd factory in the United States to make particle board. The Morgans sold it to American Glue Company, and they moved it away.”
Briggs goes through his photo file with a glint in his eye. Antique china cabinets and corner pieces, handmade bed frames, and chairs. Lots and lots of chairs. Some are faithfully recreated from old magazine photos. Others are built from scratch by hand with the only guide being Briggs’ expert eye.
“We used to do a lot of work for Drexel, Ethan Allen and the other big furniture companies,” Briggs says. “We’d get real busy making one of a kind stuff right before the High Point furniture shows. If people liked the prototypes we’d made, Drexel or Ethan Allen would gear up their manufacturing and turn them out by the thousands.
Briggs says there is no substitute in the prototype process for a good eye and an experienced, dedicated craftsman. “I asked them why they didn’t do that stuff themselves? They had all the people and machinery they could ever use, so why did they need me? They said they couldn’t afford to put people onto the job, or shut down a machine to turn out the prototype parts. “We did that work for years and I’d have 10 or 12 guys working here 12 hours a day, seven days a week for as long as they could stand it. Now all of that work, the prototypes and the production, has gone to China. We never see the big companies anymore.”
In 1996, Briggs sat for interviews by the Oral History project of UNCA’s D.H. Ramsey Library. Summaries are online.
Briggs is one of the few people you’ll meet that graduated from Woodfin High School, which graduated its last class in 1955. Briggs remembers that there were about 40 kids in his graduating class.
“We had some fine boys that graduated and went straight off to the Army or Marine Corps, Briggs recalls. “We had Jack Robinson, who later owned the Ford tractor dealership on Riverside Drive, J.T. Rice who was part of the Anders-Rice Funeral Home, and his brother, Harold Rice, who was part of the Rice & White Furniture Store on Biltmore Ave.” The Rice White building still stands at 21 Biltmore Ave.
One of Briggs’ most interesting memories is making furniture for Frank Lloyd Wright. When contacted by the world famous architect in 1959, Briggs thought it was a joke. “The voice on the other end said, “Mr. Briggs, this is Frank Lloyd Wright.” I started to say something smart back to him, but I didn’t. He said he had been told I was pretty good with furniture, and he had some work for me. It turned out that Drexel had given him my name.”
Wright’s call was for the purpose of getting special furniture built for the Norman Lykes summer cottage in Tuxedo, in Henderson County. After discussions of the terms, a Wright associate came to his shop with the drawings. The furniture would be an integral part of the summer home Wright and his associate/protégé, John Rattenbury, had designed. At that time, Lykes was head of the Lykes Brothers Steamship Company, the largest ocean shipping company sailing American-flagged ships. Rattenbury is credited with finishing the design of the Lykes cottage as well as that of the family home in Phoenix. The Phoenix home was the last project Wright undertook prior to his death on April 9, 1959.
As a condition of receiving his final payment, Briggs was required to return all blueprints, photos and other information.
Briggs recalls the home was built in a heavily wooded area on the side of the mountain. He thought the house “reminded me of a ship. The walls tilted out at the lower level and in slightly at the top. It was anchored by two columns in the ground, with beams in between.”
Woodworking is hard work. A craftsman spends hours “noodling” a design in his head, figuring out just how the final piece will be formed, then working to make each piece as perfectly as possible. Once the work is done, there are often pieces left over. Briggs still has parts for chairs made by his father.
“My Dad made this by drilling three holes in a piece of wood,” Briggs explains as he holds a piece of a chair back. “He cut out part of it on a saw, then carved the rest with his pocket knife. You can see where each chip was cut. It’s like the brush strokes of a painter.”
Artwork thus created is not easily lost or forgotten. In that regard, Stanley Briggs’ entire shop is a genuine work of art.