Their Descendants...Their Stories...Their Achievements

Lifting the Mists of History on Their Way of Life

By: Ethelene Dyer Jones

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Reid chairs bring Christmas memories

Sarah Souther Dyer is shown at age 100. Her favorite chair (not this one in which she sat for her 100th birthday picture in 1957) was a Jason Reid-made straight chair which she sat in by the window of her living room and looked out toward New Liberty Baptist Church. From the Reid-made straight chair, she also entertained children, grandchildren and great grandchildren with stories of "the old times" which she remembered so well.

The old Reid-made chairs were utilitarian pieces, bought from Jason Reid or his sons who were the chair makers of "Upper" Choestoe region of North Georgia.

My grandmother, Sarah Evaline Souther Dyer (1857-1959) had her favorite chair. It was always beside the fireplace, positioned so that she could be warmed by the fire and at the same time look out the small window to the right of her fireplace in the 1850 house built by her father and occupied by Sarah herself and her husband, Bluford Elisha Dyer (1855-1926), the house where they reared their fifteen children—that is, those thirteen who made it to adulthood.

But back to the Reid-made chairs and how people came to own them and how the chairs bring back Christmas memories.

Jason Reid (20 Sept. 1851 - 27 April 1934) knew the chair-making trade from the inside out. He had a workshop at his farm in the vicinity of Union Baptist Church in the Choestoe District of Union County. He would select the best of the wood from the forest from which to make the chairs, have it sawed and let it cure. He fashioned the posts and framework of the chairs by hand, deftly making the parts in his workshop.

He made the seats of the chairs by weaving them from white oak strips soaked in tubs of water to make them pliable. He taught his sons how to make chairs. Later, the boys had the advantage of a lathe and other more modern tools as they continued the work of chair-making. Helping Jason by taking care of the house and children was his loving wife, Martha J. Reid (24 March 1857 - 14 March 1919).

The Reid family made chairs long before their products were considered craft items. Sales of the chairs did not bring in lucrative money to the Reid business. The straight chairs, and maybe sometimes rocking chairs, made to order, were produced in the Reid wood-working shop. People came to the Reid house from nearby homesteads to buy chairs as they had the money to do so. Later on, the word about Reid-made chairs spread beyond Choestoe. The products were hauled by covered wagon over the Logan Turnpike to the market in Gainesville to be sold and distributed from there.

My Grandmother Sarah Souther Dyer had her favorite chair. We all knew it as "Grandma's Chair." My grandmother would have been 75 from my earliest memory of her, and from then on until her death at 101+ years, she held court from her Reid-made chair in her special corner as my family and her many other family members and friends visited her. She had been a Choestoe mid-wife and a woman who kept up with national and world affairs by reading the newspaper. Her impaired hearing prevented her from listening to radio broadcasts (after she got his modern convenience in her home), although I can remember her straining to hear President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his "fireside chats" during World War II. Reading, trying to listen to radio, or entertaining family and friends were all done by Grandma as she sat in her straight-back Reid-made chair.

She was definitely the matriarch of the family. When she spoke, we listened. I can't remember that she made much "to-do" over the Christmas holidays, for I never remember seeing a Christmas tree in her little room, nor any holiday decorations on her plain wooden mantel. It's not that she didn't believe in Christmas. She definitely did. But always practical, she never sought frills and excesses in anything she did. From her, seated as I remember her in that straightbacked chair, we learned many stories of "how things used to be," and we listened with wide-eyed awe.

In addition to the woven seat of her Reid-made chair, Grandma had some wooden baskets that fascinated me as a child. The structure of the baskets looked much like that of the seat of Grandma's chair, woven from white oak strips. "These baskets my mother Nancy Collins Souther (1829- 1888) and my father, John Combs Hayes Souther (1827- 1891) bought from the Indians that peddled them by our house. Those Indians had hidden out in the caves in the mountains to avoid being taken on the Trail of Tears." We would touch gingerly the egg basket and the larger basket used for laundry that Grandma told us about.

"And this chair I'm sitting in," she would continue with her story of old-fashioned items in her house, "was made by Jason Reid who lives up on the river and has his chair-making shop there. If you buy a Reid chair, you'll have one that sits well, and one that will last" Grandma affirmed. I wondered if somehow chair-maker Jason Reid had learned to weave his white oak strips into chair seats from some of those Indians or their descendants. I'm sorry now I didn't ask her about that.

I don't know who got Grandma Dyer's chair in the distribution of her property following her death. But in my mind's eye, I still see our family matriarch enjoying her "throne chair," the simple though elegant product of one Jason Reid who took pride in his products and taught his sons how to carry on the trade of chair-making.

Fortunately, although I don't have Grandma's chair, I am the happy owner of two later Reid-made chairs. One is a rocking chair which my parents used to rock me when I was a baby. I was able, in recent years, to have the seat replaced by an authentic craftsman who knows how to weave nearly the same pattern the Reid brothers wove long ago into the seat of the chair. I also have one of the Reid straight chairs, with the seat restored.

Neither of these chairs would rate very high as luxury items or fine furniture. But the memories they evoke are priceless. Sitting and rocking at family gatherings bring many recollections of humble families and how we "made-do" during the Great Depression. We were taught the values of family solidarity, responsible citizenship, and Puritan work ethic. Sitting in these chairs, our parents taught us by both word and example at simple Christmas celebrations and all year long.

I will take a little time during Christmas season, 2008, to sit in the old family rocking chair and read the Christmas story from Luke 2. That action will connect me to the Reid chair makers of Union County and to parents and grandparents who made all the difference in who I am today.

c 2008 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published December 18, 2008 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

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