The city that chairs built
Every city has a story, and in Gardner, that story is the legacy of Nichols & Stone, one of the oldest wood furniture factories in the United States until it shut down in 2008 after 151 years as a producer of heirloom-quality furniture.
It was an end of an era in Gardner when Nichols & Stone closed; workers who had been there for decades lost their jobs and Gardner lost its industry. The city was also in danger of losing a part of its history. Then, along came Tracie Pouliot.
“I knew there was a story that would disappear if no one told it,” said Pouliot, a Gardner native who worked at Nichols & Stone as a seasonal employee for six years when she was a teenager. Neither she nor her father, a 25-year factory employee, was on staff at the time it closed. “It was the last big factory in the area to shut down, and there was a lot of history, a lot of important things happened during that time. I thought about what I could do to capture the value of what happened there, so it could be shared and honored.”
Pouliot, who studied community art at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y., has a unique plan to make that story heard: She is opening the Chair City Community Art Center and launching a participatory art and history project about the experience of local people who worked in Gardner furniture plants. The project will produce a series of hand-crafted books that will be letterpress printed in the center – at 306 Central St. in downtown Gardner.
“I have always loved the place where art and people come together,” said Pouliot, who imagines the space as one where history and craftsmanship collide. “I hope this place can fill the void that was left when the factories closed – not for a job, but to fill the need to make something with your hands and work collaboratively.”
The Chair City Community Art Center is open to the public and will rely on volunteers to help print and assemble the books. “We will print and bind everything here, as well as have a space where people can sit and read the books,” she said.
Now that money has been raised and the printing press has been purchased and delivered (thanks to a crowdfunding campaign that raised nearly $8,500), Pouliot is looking forward to officially opening the center. “I want to create a little unit of factory work again,” she said, adding that one person can lay type, while others crank the press or bind a freshly printed book. “It’s neat to imagine.”
One may wonder why Pouliot spent $8,000 on a rare printing press and is investing the time in moveable lead type, in which each letter must be manually placed on the press before it is printed, a meticulous and time-consuming process. “You never spend that much time with people’s words when you are typing at a computer,” she said. “It forces you to really think about what someone is saying. It’s a way to get deeper into the stories.”
Pouliot added that she has always loved the printmaking aspect of art, a style in which craftsmanship matters. “There is an heirloom quality to it,” she said. “In a way, this process is in the spirit of Nichols & Stone. It’s a different quality of work, knowing you made this book by hand.”
Between 2008 and 2009, Pouliot interviewed 13 former Nichols & Stone employees about their experiences working in the factory. At the time, she was living in North Carolina and had no plans or financial means to print the stories. Once she found herself in a situation where she could afford to pursue her dream of creating a community art center, she took action. Fast forward to today: Pouliot has one book printed, the story of Dale Lucier, a Winchendon native who worked at Nichols & Stone for 33 years before it closed.
“She crammed my whole story into that little book and did a really good job of it,” said Lucier, who began working at Nichols & Stone in 1975 at 19. Luicer, now 59, has fond memories of her time and the friends she made at Nichols & Stone. “I think the people that worked there have a story to tell. And I believe people would be interested to hear about what it was like in the factory from a worker’s point of view.”
Pouliot said that whether or not one worked in a factory, the center is a place for all to participate. “The center will be a gathering space where people can reflect on Chair City’s past and imagine its future.”
For more information, visit traciepouliot.com.
By Kimberly Dunbar