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Volume 26, Number 7 — July 2018

Backcountry Makers: The Malone Family chair makers

The Malone Family's corner chair is brightly painted. (Photograph by James H. Price)
The Malone Family's corner chair is brightly painted. (Photograph by James H. Price)
Additional photos below »

By Betsy White | A! Magazine For the Arts | August 28, 2013

Check your chairs...the old ones, that is. Chances are you just might have a local treasure. Most handmade chairs lack a maker's mark, but those made by the Malone family of chair makers announce their origins with a large MALONE emblazoned on one of the back slats. Their brand is not the only way to spot Malone chairs, however. There are stylistic details that are common to these chairs. The back slats are wide and graduated top down, and the top slat is often double-pegged. Serviceable chairs, their sturdy construction at one point won them a contract with schools as far away as Texas.

The brightly painted corner chair shown here is a form seldom seen. Most Malone chairs are side or rocking chairs. Not too many years ago, Malone rockers lined the porch of the Martha Washington Hotel in Abingdon, Va.

The Malone's shop was on Reedy Creek, just outside Bristol. It was in operation until the 1970s, but their family business started long before that. Its roots go back to 1870, when Dulaney Malone was making furniture in Bristol. Chair making was usually a distinct trade, slightly different from making other furniture. It is not known if Dulaney made chairs, since he told the census taker that year that he was a "cabinetmaker" not a chair maker, and listed his son, George, as an "apprentice to cabinetmaker."

George never listed his occupation as cabinetmaker again or as a chair maker, always referring to himself instead as a "farmer." Many artisans, however, often listed their primary occupation as "farmer" in census records, so this was not unusual and may not have signaled his discontinuation of his father's trade at all. Family history, in fact, maintains that it was George who made the Malone chairs and then taught the skill to his two sons, Houston Ramey and William Dulaney.

From 1920 through the early 1940s, the Malone brothers made their distinctive chairs, taking their 1918 Nash truck into the woods around Reedy Creek to cut the timber they needed and hauling it back to their shop where they had their own sawmill. They worked together as partners, William, or "Doc" as he was known, turning the lathe, with Ramey assembling the chairs, and both working together on the seats. These were split oak, first soaked in a big vat, before being woven and put into place. A niece remembers being allowed to watch their operation and even help hammer in the pegs that held them together.

The Great Depression put a stop to the Malone's operation, as it did to so many others. The brothers, however, had taught Ramey's son, Wallace, born in 1927, to make their chairs. Wallace revived the family business during the late 1960s and continued it until his own death in 1977 signaled the close of the Malone shop permanently.

There are quite a few Malone chairs still around that create a lasting legacy for these talented makers. So check your chairs. Perhaps you have one.

The Malone Family, Chairmakers is taken from "Backcountry Makers: An Artisan History of Southwest Virginia & Northeast Tennessee." This is the 13th in a series of articles related to this new book by Betsy K. White. Featuring more than 200 color images, it is newly published by the University of Tennessee Press. "Backcountry Makers" is White's second book on the history of the region's material culture. The first, "Great Road Style: the Decorative Arts Legacy of Southwest Virginia & Northeast Tennessee" was published in 2006 by the University of Virginia Press. "Backcountry Makers" is now available locally in Abingdon at Zazzy'Z Coffee House & Bookstore and at Heartwood: Southwest Virginia's Artisan Gateway or online from the University of Tennessee Press or
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Photo is of the maker's mark.