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The Legacy of the Adirondack Chair and the Rebirth in Local Family Business

April 26, 2017

The Adirondack region is a vast unique wilderness that people visit to experience the centuries-old tradition of outdoor exploration and adventure. Whether you come to hike and breathe the clean mountain air, explore the lakes region or take in the many small villages each with their own unique flare you may notice a common distinctly identifiable item… Distinct Adirondack Furniture.

The story of how this iconic centuries old design came about is true Americana.

The history of the iconic Adirondack chair began with the first design by Thomas Lee in 1903 at the large summer retreat he and his family frequented each summer, a large camp located in Westport, New York, on the banks of Lake Champlain. Lee was a tinkerer. He sought to create outdoor furniture for him and his family for their retreat that was rugged yet comfortable.

All summer long he worked on the design, adjusting the angles, using his family members as his test until he was satisfied. Lee arrived at a design known as the “Westport plank chair”. It doesn’t appear that he had any intention to manufacture the design. At this point they were nothing more than homemade family chairs.

Enter Harry Bunnell a carpenter friend and hunting companion to Lee. As the legend goes, while hunting together in the Autumn of 1903 Bunnell mention that he was in need of winter income. Lee’s (condensed) reply – “Why don’t you make and sell some of those big chairs?” So Lee offered up his design to Bunnell probably thinking he had helped solve his friends’ winter income dilemma. Bunnell began building his version of Lee’s chairs out of hemlock or basswood and staining them in green or medium dark brown. The residents and visitors of Westport fell in love with the design so much that Bunnell was challenged to keep pace with the demand.  In early 1904 (minus Lee’s permission) Bunnell filed for a patent (No. 794,777) on “his” chair design naming it the Westport Plank Chair.

Cliff Pierce - Manchester Wood

Cliff Pierce poses at his wrought iron factory in the 80’s in Upstate New York.

Flash forward sixty years to another tinkerer, a fast-rising businessman Cliff Pierce from Walden, New York.

Pierce had made his way into the Lake George area, through a unique opportunity to purchase a portion of an unkempt lakefront neighborhood for a bargain price.

“There was a few summers where we’d go to the bathroom in one, cook in another, and relax in a third,” he’d quip. And after fixing a few up and selling them, Pierce laid more permanent roots in Lake George; a weekend gathering place of family and friends for the next forty years.

Cliff found success building a metalworking business from the basement of his home eventually growing into a fledgling enterprise with 300 employees. A decorated veteran as well as an entrepreneur – after his success in wrought iron, he founded his woodworking company, Manchester Wood: American Made Furniture.

As “the boys,” comprised of Cliff Jr. and his two son-in-laws, took boat rides on the lake, Cliff would pass by various old family estates. Adirondack chairs were on nearly every property. Some arranged around campfire pits, others on sprawling front yards and the iconic placement of these chairs on the lakes many boat docks. There were many styles and most appeared aged and worn, falling apart over just a couple seasons. Cliff reckoned it was because they were made out of pine and scrap crates, which were the common material used for Adirondack chairs at the time.

After learning of Cliff’s interest in the chairs, a friend and neighbor at the lake happily gave Cliff one of his Adirondack chairs to study and reference dimensions. Thus began his company’s development of the folding Adirondack chair.

The initial design by Cliff, much like Thomas Lee’s, took several iterations. The slats at first were all the same width, including the seat legs. The chair featured narrower arms in an effort to keep the price competitive with similar wood furniture pieces imported by foreign manufacturers. When all was said and done, Cliff had reviewed over 10 different styles of Adirondack Chairs from the Lake George area. He wanted to see the Adirondack chair flourish across America. He felt that the piece manifests the simple yet artistic style of the region.

1984 Folding Adirondack Chair

Adirondack chair from the 1984 Chicago Housewares Trade Show.

Cliff’s version of the Adirondack Chair produced in his Manchester Wood facility, was introduced at the Chicago Housewares Trade Show in 1984. Company Reps from L.L.Bean became interested in the new Adirondack Chair. They asked for the design to be made a bit more traditional, with wider arms and seat legs, and a tapered back. “But,” they told Cliff, “Keep the folding idea!”

From this collaboration, L.L.Bean’s Folding Wooden Adirondack Chair was born, debuting in their catalog during the spring of 1985.

Over the years Manchester Wood has become famous for its quality solid wood construction, durability and ease of storage. It remains the perfect finishing touch for beach and lake houses, porches, decks, patios and many other outdoor spaces. Cliff’s company has continued to design and manufacture the wood version of the chairs in the USA exclusively for L.L.Bean to this day.

Shop L.L. Bean’s Wooden Adirondack Furniture from Manchester Wood. Featuring an assortment of Folding and Reclining Wooden Adirondack Chairs, End Tables, and Foot Rests.

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  • Reply Ann Shamess May 1, 2017 at 10:29 am

    What a great story about the birth of the Adirondack Chair! I’m so thankful for having found Manchester Wood and now owning several pieces of your Adirondack furniture. My latest purchase last month was a Adirondack Rocking Chair for my front porch! Great quality wood and workmanship! Thank You Manchester Wood!!

  • Reply Mary Ann May 1, 2017 at 2:37 pm

    My aunt on Lake Winni in New Hampshire had a pair of Adirondack Chairs right at the shoreline. I have so many happy memories of sitting there and enjoying my morning cup of coffee and listening to the laps of the water. I miss her so much. RIP Aunt Kay.

  • Reply Cheryl Brown May 1, 2017 at 3:19 pm

    I love my Mancher Wood adirondack chairs! They are in the front courtyard and everyone says how comfortable they are.

  • Reply Rita Sheppard May 1, 2017 at 5:32 pm

    What a great story! I’ve always loved the Adirondack chairs.

  • Reply Sharon Abreu May 4, 2017 at 10:15 am

    I enjoyed your story on Adirondack chairs. I’ve owned a set for many years now. It’s so peaceful sitting in them in front of a fire at night watching the stars.

  • Reply Lisa May 10, 2017 at 1:06 pm

    It was interesting reading about how the Adirondack Chair came into being. The story of this iconic chair is part American ingenuity, entrepreneurship, and love of the outdoors. All very American themes. I see these chairs everywhere, but never knew exactly when or how they came into being. It was fun reading about their history.

  • Reply wen budro May 27, 2017 at 1:12 am

    It’s so interesting to discover the history of a chair that you have seen your whole life. I’ve always thought that they had a classic beauty to them. And, of course, they always remind me of growing up in New England.

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