Monday, September 3, 2007

Willow Chairs

Fulton Folk Art: Willow Chairs

Travelers along the Lincoln Highway coming or going to the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair bought children’s willow chairs made by men in Fulton who peddled them near the Lincoln Highway bridge where travelers stopped to pay toll. It was the depression and paychecks were slim for most Fultonians. Abundant were the willow trees that grew on the riverbanks and islands. An interview with Henry Musk revealed that willow chair income for local inhabitants increased because of a man named Carl Senkel.
Carl Senkel and his twin sons, Bob and Rollie came to Fulton in 1931 and taught local people how to make children’s willow chairs. Carl had a shop in an old boat factory. Rollie Senkel said that the willows grew tall and straight along the river. The willows were cut into pieces with an old tobacco cutter and nailed together. Archie Cowan had a small willow chair factory in the 300 block of 9th Avenue and his factory operated until 1933. At the age of 18, Henry Musk began copying the technique of willow chair making from the people assembling these chairs. Musk said he improved the quality of the chair by letting the willow dry two weeks before construction and by making a tighter chair.
The chairs sold from $.35 to $.75 depending on whether they were rustic, varnished, or painted. Some chairs were rockers. Musk made them and sold them for two years near the tollbooth at the Fulton Lyons bridge. Musk continued to make chairs until 1987 and he estimated that he made 3000 of them in his lifetime. The cost of the chair when he finished his career was $10.
Henry Musk shared detailed instructions for his chairmaking. He said that he preferred river willow three years old or 8 to 10 feet tall. Three trees are needed to make one chair. Willows cut from the first week in May until the first week in September have bark that will strip easily. During the other months, the willow needs to be soaked to remove the bark. Soaking weakens the willow. Bark needs to be removed immediately. A husking pen works well for stripping. The tree needs to dry in the sun for one day before it is put in the shade to dry for one week. Then the chair maker can cut the wood into the desired lengths and let it dry another week.
In the 1930’s, Fulton flourished with folk art. The willows still grow by the river…