March 2005 Issue
Take a tour of Ohio's Amish country to discover the perfect handcrafted piece, whether you're looking for a cedar chest, bedroom set or computer desk.
Springtime visits to Ohio's Amish country often feature a loose itinerary of drives along scenic country roads, a visit to a cheese or quilt shop and a stop at a family-style dining spot. Some visitors, however, have a specific purpose for their trip to Amish country: They're searching for a special piece of handcrafted wood furniture.
Just as North Carolina is known for its high-volume furniture making, Ohio has gained a reputation as a place to find some of the finest custom-made furniture in the world. In Holmes, Geauga, Wayne, Tuscarawas, Trumbull, Knox and Adams counties, the furniture is often museum quality. In fact, just as artists such as Van Gogh and Picasso signed their creations, the Amish craftsmen who build tables, chairs and bedroom sets also sign their works in wood.
For generations, the Amish have crafted and sold furniture, but it is only in recent years that the cottage industry of furniture making has exploded â€” especially in Holmes County, where Amish artisans living on county and township roads sell everything from cedar chests to porch swings. And visitors need not drive far along one of the primary roads of the county to find a large retail establishment selling Amish-made furniture.
"Our conservative estimate is that furniture making generates $200 million in sales for Holmes County businesses each year," says Tanya Miller, marketing coordinator for the Millersburg-based Holmes County Chamber of Commerce & Tourism Bureau. "In 2000, farming generated only about $100 million."
What is unique about the type of furniture made by Amish craftsmen is its durability, finish and ability to withstand generations of wear and tear. Drawers, for example, are made with time-tested, interlocking dovetail design. Furniture is constructed of solid wood, and each piece is often made by one craftsman. All of the businesses that sell Amish-made furniture tout their ability to customize any piece to meet a customer's requests.
Emphasis on craftsmanship
<>Where to Eat
If you're making a day trip to Amish country to buy furniture, you can satisfy hunger pangs at any one of a number of restaurants featuring Amish specialties, including the following:
Der Dutchman of Walnut Creek, 4967 Walnut St. (St. Rte. 515), 330/893-2981. What's cooking: Family-style dinners of ham, turkey, pan-fried chicken or roast beef. Dinners include real mashed potatoes, gravy, corn, old-fashioned dressing, an extensive salad bar, homemade bread and a large selection of pies.
The Barn Restaurant, adjacent to the Amish Furniture Workshop, Smithville, 877 W. Main St. (St. Rte. 585), 330/669-2555. What's cooking: Favorite menu items include Swiss steak, chicken, barbecued ribs, soups, chili and homemade pies. The salad bar sits in an old hay wagon.
The Amish Door Restaurant & Village, Wilmot, 1210 Winesburg St. (U.S. Rte. 62), 330/359-5464. What's cooking: Broasted chicken, country ham, homemade bread and dinner rolls, and desserts such as date pudding and apple dumplings highlight the menu. Also featured: heart-healthy meal selections.
One company that has built a reputation for providing quality, custom-made furniture is Homestead Furniture in the Holmes County community of Mt. Hope. The business is co-owned by Ernie and Andrew Hershberger, Amish brothers who tell their customers, "If you can dream it and we can find a tree, we can do it." Homestead's custom pieces, sometimes hatched from an idea scribbled on a napkin, have been shipped all over the United States.
The craftsmen at Homestead build items such as bedroom sets, dining room tables and chairs, business and computer desks, and entertainment centers. One of the company's newest bedroom sets features a contemporary design with frosted glass on the dresser top and also in the headboard. Another has arch designs similar to those used in the roof of Australia's Sydney Opera House.
"When you think of Amish-made furniture, you don't think of a modern design but that is what makes Homestead Furniture unique," says Bruce Stambaugh, a marketing consultant for the company.
The company was launched in 1990 in a 4,000-square-foot space that had been a chicken house. It was Ernie Hershberger's wife and mother-in-law who convinced him and his brother to start the business.
"I got started in woodworking as a young teenager and grew up in the business," Ernie says. "My family originally was in the business of making custom cabinetry."
Today, Homestead Furniture occupies a 27,000-square-foot building that includes several levels of showroom space, a warehouse and workshop. The company employs 24 and has plans to expand its workshop.
Furniture makers at Homestead sign and date each piece they make. "That tells the customer that it was not a machine that built this," Stambaugh says. "It is a very personal process so the customers get what they want."
Two customers who have fallen in love with Homestead's furniture are Bainbridge, Ohio, residents Robert Porco and Diana Martin. The married couple furnished most of their new home with furniture made at Homestead. "The first time we were there, Ernie spent two hours with us," Porco says.
Months after their first visit, the couple now has three fireplace mantels, bookshelves, a bedroom set, dining room set and more items that were custom built by Homestead's craftsmen. The couple contributed their own ideas to the design of each piece.
"Ernie and his staff are very accommodating," Porco says. "I love the way the furniture is put together. It is clear that they take pride in what they are doing."
Made to last
Walnut Creek Furniture in Walnut Creek, Holmes County, is another destination for those in search of locally handcrafted furniture. Owned by Dale and Regina Miller since 1989, the business has grown from just one 1,000-square-foot building to a showroom with approximately 22,000 square feet and a 30,000-square-foot warehouse that houses the store's finishing operations.
The majority of the furniture for sale at Walnut Creek Furniture is made by local Amish craftsmen. Customers can customize their own pieces and select stain or paint colors, fabrics and styles.
"We have about 90 Amish craftsmen we buy from," says Rod Neuenschwander, president of Walnut Creek Furniture. "Most of them are in Holmes County but some are in Tuscarawas, Wayne and Knox counties."
Walnut Creek Furniture sells bedroom, office, dining and living room furniture in traditional and contemporary designs. Children's furniture, including a dresser that converts into a changing table, also is available. Walnut Creek Furniture's Signature Series includes pieces with unique finishes, hardware and accents.
Neuenschwander says the part of his job he most enjoys is interacting with customers and helping them to feel at home in the store. During this past Christmas season, he helped make deliveries, which allowed him to see first-hand how his customers were enjoying the furniture.
Building in a barn
In Smithville in Wayne County, the barn building in which Amish Furniture Workshop resides is itself worth a visit. The structure originally was a dairy barn built in the 1820s. Duane Ours, Amish Furniture Workshop president, says he rescued the barn from demolition, had it moved from another site and then reconstructed it at its current location. Inside the barn, the old beams are a striking backdrop for a wide selection of Amish-built furniture.
"My wife and I started the business six years ago," says Ours, who previously worked hauling Amish-made furniture for a company in Columbus.
The building includes 8,000 square feet of retail space and an area where fabric cushions are made by several of the store's 15 employees. Furniture in the store is displayed in room-like settings.
Ours takes pride in the store's selection, including 260 different types of dining room chairs and 100 different beds. "We get customers from all over Ohio. With our new web site, we also have been getting business from other states."
Amish Furniture Workshop sells items for the bedroom, kitchen, dining room, living room, den and office. Like Homestead and Walnut Creek, sales staff encourage customers to select their own style, wood and stain type, and hardware.
"The main difference between our product and what you might find in a mainstream furniture store is that when we say solid wood, we mean it," Ours says. "We work with 65 different craftsmen in three states. Some of them have small shops. A few have shops up to 15,000 to 20,000 square feet in size."
Ours says the majority of his craftsmen are in Ohio, primarily in Holmes County.
"I enjoy dealing with the Amish," Ours says. "We go hunting and fishing together. You don't develop that kind of relationship with a guy in California who sells you lamps. The favorite part of my job is knowing that what I am selling is of the highest quality."
Ron Blazak, who lives in North Royalton, first heard about Amish Furniture Workshop from his wife Grace, who visited the company's booth at the Cleveland Home & Garden Show. The couple, who wanted to buy an entertainment center for their big-screen TV, made the hour trip to Smithville and met with Ours, who ensured that the furniture was built to the Blazaks' specifications and also promised to modify the center when the couple bought another TV.
"The quality of the entertainment center is unbelievable," Blazak says. "The price was very reasonable and the delivery people spent a good half hour just making sure it was level in our basement."
The skills of furniture making are passed from generation to generation in Amish families. Amish children also learn some woodworking skills in school.
"The local school curriculum, which includes wood shop, was created knowing that students would be on their own after the eighth grade," Homestead's Stambaugh says.
An increasing number of Amish men are becoming furniture makers because farmland is limited. Usually only one son in an Amish family will go on to manage the farm. Women become housewives, work in a cottage industry or play a supporting role in their husband's business.
"My wife is a tremendous role model and support person for our operation," says Homestead's Ernie Hershberger.
Spring is the perfect time to visit the Buckeye State's Amish communities. Amish farmers take to their fields to plant their crops, the landscape turns from shades of brown to green, and flowers begin to bloom. With the busy summer tourist season still months away, traffic is light but most shops are open â€” Sunday excluded. Furniture shoppers may have to wait a little longer for their custom pieces because many of the Amish craftsmen also have farming duties.
Visitors should be mindful of slow-moving Amish buggies, and should not photograph the Amish out of respect for their religious beliefs.