One of the Best Rocking Chair Makers Lives in Mississippi
He is part artist, part folk philosopher, and a storyteller through and through.
"My chairs are guaranteed for life," says Mississippi craftsman Greg Harkins. "And by that I mean my life."
As long as he lives, he will repair or replace any chair he has ever made—and given that he started over 25 years ago, even he can't guess what that number might be. What he does remember, with tremendous gratitude, is a line of chair makers stretching back to the 1800s, revered predecessors whose technique he has worked hard to master and to make his own.
It's an arduous process that begins with selecting a good "chair tree," then cutting it down, milling the boards, making each part of the chair by hand, assembling and finishing it, selling it, and repairing it if needed. (Harkins says he is just now receiving requests for repairs on some chairs that he built 40 years ago.)
Also impressive is his client list, which includes celebrities and five U.S. Presidents: Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush.
So focused and meticulous is Harkins that it's hard to believe he was once earning "roller coaster grades" at Mississippi State, where he says he "stayed for seven football seasons and somehow missed every winning game." After earning a degree in psychology, he was planning to go on to graduate school. "I guess I thought I'd be a brain surgeon or something," he laughs.
In between, he moved out to some family property—originally owned by his great-great-great-grandparents—in the Big Black River Basin near Jackson. That's where he connected with a master chair maker who took him under wing. The next thing Harkins knew, three years had gone by, and he had forgotten all about college.
When he needed a loan to buy some used shop tools, he went to a family friend who was also a banker. "He asked me how much I wanted to borrow, and I said asked for $3,836. That's all I could afford to pay back. He pulled a checkbook out of his vest pocket and gave me the money. I didn't realize, at the time, that the 90-day, renewable note he had me sign was on money from his personal account."
For a while, Harkins was making upwards of 1,700 chairs a year, but they were selling for only $75-100. Now he makes about 150 chairs a year—putting about 20 hours into each one—but they sell for $750 and up, and each chair is hand-turned, signed, and dated.
"In the early 1980s, Southern Living ran one small column with a picture of me working," he remembers. "And it brought me $150,000 worth of business. But I was selling my chairs back then for only $90 or so—can you imagine how many chairs I had to make that year? It was astronomical."
Have a conversation with Harkins, and one word will come up again and again: passion. He says he believes in living his life with passion, earning a living doing something he loves in a place that he loves.
"I was taught to work," he says. "I was taught that it's always better to serve than to be served." You can hear the mischief in his voice when he adds, "And I have tried all my life to hang around the best people—not necessarily the most savory—but people with good hearts."
For more information about this artist, visit harkinschairs.com